Deep Dive: ZZ Top, DEGÜELLO

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Friday, June 11, 2021
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DEGUELLO

The American musical landscape in 1979 was all over the map. While the charts were dominated by disco and glossy pop, punk and the burgeoning new wave scenes ruled the underground.

Rock and roll, however, was still near the top of the mountain. Cheap Trick broke out with their legendary live At Budokan album, Led Zeppelin was making its last stand with In Through the Out Door, and The Knack charged right out of the gate with "My Sharona," which would go on to the biggest song of the year.

A band like ZZ Top didn't exactly fit into any of the commercial or cool music circles, so the band just shrugged and cranked out one of the weirdest--and best--albums of their career.

Deguello arrived November 1979, preceded on radio in October by lead single, "Cheap Sunglasses." The band was already playing the song live, along with other tracks that landed on the LP. Riding a dark, swampy groove thick with guitarist Billy Gibbons' crunchy riffs played through a blown amplifier, the track became an instant FM staple. While it didn't exactly burn up the charts, peaking at #89 on the Hot 100, the track has stood the test of time and remains among the most popular tracks in the ZZ Top catalog. 

"We wrote that song when we used to tour in cars. And every gas station in the world had a cardboard display of the cheapest and ugliest sunglasses you could imagine," bassist Dusty Hill told SPIN in 1985. "The hip trip for us was to throw them into the audience as an offering," Gibbons added. "We ran out and we couldn't get any more."

As for the song's unique sound, Gibbons revealed that a fried tube and a little classic rock inspiration was the recipe: "The lead track was performed on a fake Fender guitar, which I used for the wiggle stick--there is a little dive bomb in the solo section. I played it through a Marshall Major, a short-lived 200-watt beast, which had one blown tube," Gibbons told Guitar World in 2009. "Hence the rather bulbous, rotund sound. There's also a little bit of digital delay for that Bo Diddley impersonation at the tail out, and a Maestro Ring Modulator, which produces the strange tag to each verse. It appears three times, and it's a pretty funny sound. That is one insane effect put to good use."

Lyrically, Gibbons said that the song came to him all at once: "This song was actually written during a trip from the Gulf Coast up to Austin, Texas. A bright spot of creativity flared as we were passing the hamlet of La Grange, and I recited all three verses of 'Cheap Sunglasses' within the space of 20 miles," he detailed. "And that's the way they stayed. Though that may sound simplistic, the lyrics speak for themselves. 'Simplistic' is indeed a word which may come to the minds of some."

Opening with a cover of Sam and Dave's "I Thank You" as well as one of the most bizarre songs in the ZZ Top repertoire, "Manic Mechanic," Deguello also boasts perennial fan favorite, "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide." Never released as a single, the song was inspired by Texas blues legend, Joey Long. The legend was that while Long never had a driver's license, he always owned a shiny new Cadillac for his wife to drive him to shows.

With Deguello, ZZ Top kicked the 1970s in the ass one last time before going on to MTV superstardom a few years later with the release of Eliminator.