ZZ Top - Eliminator
he Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. "The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions," Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists' careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can't Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?
Named for the blood-red 1933 Ford Coupe driven out of the Rio Grande’s primordial mud and into the libidinal unconscious of teenage America, Eliminator was the doggie in the window that barked and whined, preening and strutting and shitting unawares, buried up to the hilt in the whatness of a zeitgeist it was predominantly part and parcel to. Pulled from history, picked over and prodded into an able form of kitsch, the detritus of 1983 mischievously overloads the canvas and sends the spirit of the time spilling out of its four-cornered frame: shoulder-torn sweats; beach reads Collins, Koontz, and King; “Fraggle Rock” and “Friday Night Videos”; The Howling, The Right Stuff, and Trading Places; Kill ��Em All, Shout at the Devil and Show No Mercy; Piece of Mind, Pancho & Lefty, and Pyromania; “Faithfully,” “Fields of Fire,” fuh-fuh-fuh “Foolin”; mall-ratting, cruising with the elders, shoplifting Boone’s Farm and Colt 45 and smokeless tobacco, scoring awkward lip-glossed necking in suburban basements; fully-clothed grinding in musty attics and mold-infested carports; stupidly dazed, horny, and pathetically overcome by the possibilities that lie ahead. A gentleman’s wager is placed that most remember it all too well…
It was a world of big hair and big dumb attitudes, too-much-too-quick types wallowing in urban bogs of excess, their technicolor clothes dusted with thick dandruffs of coke. The Pretenders’ Pete Farndon lost to heroin, Karen Carpenter succumbed to anorexia nervosa, and Dennis Wilson dove in and never came back up. Naiveté cloaked most from the raw horrors beneath New Wave’s synthy veil; Eliminator wrapped its rock excess in the self-same veil, taking Rio Grande Mud’s “Francine” as template and embellishing the pattern with sequencer pulse, locomotive percussion, and guitar that held a sustain nearly as long as the songs their selves with single lines snarling and reluctantly settling into a mix, snapping and popping around vocals cleaned of their coarseness. Eliminator effortlessly refines the Top’s sound into one crystalline throb of sequencers and keys, “Gimme All Your Lovin’” nothing but ass-shaking, breast-heaving rock; ditto for “Sharp Dressed Man,” “If I Could Only Flag Her Down,” and “Dirty Dog”; the transformation at once jarring and a longtime coming.
The Texas trio had its thunder boogie stolen from Warner Bros. momentarily on 1977’s Tejas, a forgettable foray into FM friendly confines, “hospitably” cleaned up by company hands that saw fit to update a few tracks with the aid of a drum machine. El Loco constricts the shuffling groove into a tight train of sound; Frank Beard back on the drum throne keeps campy and ornery songs—“Pearl Necklace” and “Tube Snake Boogie”—from lapsing into pure sonic porn. “Ten Foot Pole” and the aforementioned “Pearl Necklace” set new sleazy standards; two years later Eliminator roars to life. Sharp, slick, and clean, it was not unlike the New Wave schlock that kept the airwaves cluttered and abuzz with synth and studio-sculpted guitar. As if the lyrics weren’t straightforward enough, the videos were the visual paean to a harnessed and predatory sexuality. Via a fledgling MTV, girl and boy next-door types were reconfigured in shiny and sexed-up new ways. A femmy nerd receives a makeover from the Ford Coupe Three; two dirty blondes and one brunette, all leather and fishnets and high-heels; asses undulating like canned hams under tight pleather micro-minis. A winsome teenage mechanic goes from checking the oil to dipping his own stick; a weeded waiter gets the go-ahead from the Top and takes a spin with the three hardbodies, clad in form fitting pastel undershirts, halters, and painted on jeans.
The videos ostensibly helped hammer home the “message.” The songs, however, require little fleshing. “Legs” is a convenient point and fact; its greased piston percussion slapping into stark guitar flourishes set spread-eagle over wonderfully candid lyrics. “Gimme All Your Lovin’” exaggerates “Legs’” tropes, tipping a Stetson to Foghat’s “Slow Ride.” The act is as transparent: three minutes and 59 seconds are well-spent sparsely describing—and simultaneously commenting on—stunningly successful coitus. Boudoir talk exists in breathless commands: “You got to make it hot, like a boomerang I need a repeat,” “You got to move it up and use it like a screwball would,” “You got to whip it up and hit me like a ton of lead.” Of course, there’s always the danger of too much of a good thing and Gibbons and Hill address it without subtlety: “If I blow my top, will you let it go to your head?” Given the song’s length, it’s apparently homage to premature ejaculation, working a needed counterpoint to “Slow Ride’s” sticky boast.
“Sharp Dressed Man”—arguably Eliminator’s finest track—is a crash course for the sexually unfulfilled, laying out a laundry list of hormonal attire: “Clean shirt, new shoes,” “silk suit, black tie,” “gold watch, diamond ring,” “top coat, top hat,” black shades, white gloves.” Alpha male goes in search of mate(s), his quest enunciated by Gibbons’ brilliantly lascivious riff—a stiff and sleazy line engorged with electricity and swelling in the purring hives of tube amplifiers. The hunt isn’t detailed: success is a given if the advice is taken. True to form, “Sharp Dressed Man” doesn’t end abruptly; it fades out in a monotony of guitar tone—a bedside alarm clock waking the twosome from a night of indoor sport. “Sharp Dressed Man” makes no apology for its spider-catching-flies shtick; the downside of weaving such a wide web is delineated hilariously in “Got Me Under Pressure,” a high-speed caveat to touchy-feely types cuffed by femme fatales. “Got Me Under Pressure” details too much of a good thing, whips and chains and cocaine; unbridled fucking in a limousine. An attempt to break it off could end in violence and the instrumentation responds in kind, moving much too fast for the mind to register a foolproof exit averting certain disaster.
Eliminator’s popularity is in its promise; with minor repair anyone can transmogrify a seemingly drab exterior and reconfigure into a lean, mean fucking machine. While hardly a revelation—the Greeks worked double-time to enforce the notion of body-as-temple—the blatant and unforgiving emphasis on shallow, mugging vanity tapped into a vein already shot full of itself was pure manna for any soul not down with the Disney-esque notion of it’s-what’s-on-the-inside-that-matters. Eliminator satisfied on all accounts, providing escape in the form of promises it could never keep, showing that all one every really wants for the ears is the big, bright lie: “She’s so fine; she’s all mine; girl, you got it right.”