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ZZ Top’s ‘Afterburner’ Stage Was Originally Intended for Loverboy

todayJune 4, 2024 2

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ZZ Top followed up their massively successful 1983 album Eliminator with the space-age-themed 1985 album Afterburner, a surprising turn for a band previously best known for down-to-earth lyrical interests like cars, women, and their home state of Texas.In Christopher McKittrick’s book Gimme All Your Lovin’: The Blues, Boogie, and Beard of ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons, the author explores the ZZ Top’s guitarist’s career from the band’s early work in creating classic rock radio staples like “La Grange” and “Tush” in the 1970s to becoming a global phenomenon with innovative music videos in the early years of MTV. Gibbons has been the guiding hand behind ZZ Top’s evolution from the “Little Ol’ Band from Texas” to pop culture behemoth with Eliminator, which has sold over 20 million copies worldwide.Gimme All Your Lovin’ is available June 4 via Backbeat Books. In the exclusive excerpt below, McKittrick recounts the origins of ZZ Top’s Afterburner album, which yielded the Top 40 hits “Sleeping Bag,” “Stages,” “Rough Boy,” and “Velcro Fly.” The initial inspiration, as the author notes, was Gibbons’s interaction with award-winning illusionist and stage effects designer Ty Reveen, who presented Gibbons with an unused stage design idea that he had originally developed for the Canadian rock band Loverboy. Reveen would later go on to design stage effects for musicians like Madonna, Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Gloria Estevan, and Miley Cyrus.Chapter 10: Blasting OffBilly Gibbons and Bill Ham decided the right move was to lean even more into the digital experimentation that had boosted the popularity of Eliminator with the follow-up album Afterburner. With the opening synthesized sonic blast of the album’s first single and opening track, “Sleeping Bag,” Afterburner signaled that ZZ Top was fully embracing the digital transformation the band had begun with Eliminator. The cover art highlighted this as well, with the Eliminator coupe now depicted as a shuttle circling the Earth with Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard looking on, each as a nebula floating in space on the back of the album. The trio had rocketed quite far from the plains of Texas.For the first time since Tres Hombres, however, engineer Terry Manning was not along for the ride. He recalls, “I had several big projects I was producing, and I had moved to England with a whole year of things booked for me. Bill Ham came in and said, “We got to do this now!” and I said, “Bill, I just can’t. I’m committed. If you can wait, I’ll be happy and would love to do it because I love them.” But Bill was so jumpy, and he went ahead and did things. Now we had some things pre-done that we recorded for Eliminator that we didn’t use, part of “Can’t Stop Rockin’” and maybe another song or two. I think they took some of that and went ahead and redid things or whatever for Afterburner.Stepping into the primary engineering role vacated by Manning was Joe Hardy, a longtime staff member of Ardent Studios. He would later recall working on much of the album without Ham’s involvement or even notice, though, as was typical for ZZ Top’s 1970s and 1980s albums, Ham is credited as the album’s producer. “I wouldn’t say that we defied Bill,” Hardy said. “We just went behind his back and did stuff. When I did Afterburner, we had all of the rhythm tracks and all of the bass tracks done in Houston on a Fairlight. . . . He never said, ‘Who did the drums, where did they come from? Where did you record them? Why wasn’t I there?’ It was just very strange.”Hardy would continue as Gibbons’s engineer of choice on all subsequent ZZ Top albums—except for 1990’s Recycler, which featured the return of Terry Manning—as well as Gibbons’s first two solo albums, up until Hardy died in 2019. Hardy also played piano on ZZ Top’s La Futura, various instruments on Gibbons’s Perfectamundo, and bass on Gibbons’s The Big Bad Blues (he likely performed bass and other instruments on various ZZ Top recordings as well).Once again, the album’s credits gave no indication that synthesizers or keyboards were used in its production, though much of the bass and drum tracks were performed on a Fairlight CMI, according to Hardy.While often thought of as a direct sequel to the Eliminator sound, Afterburner incorporates far more studio technology than its predecessor, including an even heavier reliance on keyboards and synthesizers, producing an overall more pop sound than Eliminator, with all the bells, beeps, and whistles that encapsulated pop hits in 1985. And yet, the album is so much more complex, with songs like “Delirious” utilizing so many studio sonic tricks in the groove that it’s something of an art unto itself.The album’s space-age concept was inspired, in part, by Ty Reveen, an illusionist, hypnotist, and internationally renowned stage and special effects creator for live entertainment who was responsible for designing and creating the innovative stage effects for the Afterburner World Tour. Reveen is the son of groundbreaking Australian-born, Canada-based hypnotist and illusionist Peter Reveen, known as Reveen the Impossiblist, an award-winning and world-renowned performer who, in addition to his own tremendous popularity, helped establish Las Vegas as the premier locale for magicians and illusionists to perform; he managed the career of Lance Burton, a stage magician who became a Vegas institution and was so popular that he signed a thirteen-year contract with the Monte Carlo resort in 1994, the longest contract ever given to a Las Vegas performer up until that point. Ty Reveen and his brothers were introduced to the world of live entertainment at a very young age as part of Reveen the Impossiblist’s stage show.“At the time I met ZZ Top, my father was the number one theater per- former coast to coast in Canada,” says Reveen. “I grew up on the road of his traveling show with my brothers. All four of us traveled with the show for most of our lives, and I was always in the center of the magic community because my father was an illusionist and hypnotist.”Observing the increasing spectacles of rock concerts, the younger Reveen saw an opportunity to utilize his experience in illusions to enhance rock concerts. He explains,After touring with my father professionally since the age of twelve, and at that time he had hypnotized so many tens of thousands of people and played to millions of people across Canada and the United States and about nine different countries that we toured, in 1984 I noticed that all these professional musicians like Earth, Wind & Fire, Alice Cooper, and Michael Jackson were starting to hire magicians to come up with ideas to make their rock shows more spectacular. I told my father I wanted to take some time off and dedicate some time to being involved with the development of rock shows.He initially approached Loverboy, a Canadian rock band with five Top 40 hits in the United States by 1984, at an afterparty following one of their shows. “I was telling the guys that I was retiring from my dad’s show and was going to Vegas to start coming up with ideas for rock shows and that I think I could make their show a lot more exciting,” recalls Reveen, then adding with a laugh, “They were feeling pretty good at the time,” and the band asked him to pitch ideas for their show.Milo Duffin, Concept Created by Ty Reveen, Courtesy Ty ReveenMilo Duffin, Concept Created by Ty Reveen, Courtesy Ty Reveenloading…At the time, Loverboy was working on their fourth album, Lovin’ Every Minute of It, which would be released in August 1985. The title track features lyrics about a rocket in space, which Reveen took inspiration from for his design. “I thought, ‘Okay, rocket ship,’” recalls Reveen. “I went out and bought a dashboard of the space shuttle and I thought that would look pretty cool.” Reveen designed a stage production for Loverboy that involved the dashboard of a rocket ship, but the band’s production team never called him back. When he finally got in touch with representatives of the band, they said that they were working with a team out of Hollywood for Loverboy’s next concert tour. However, Reveen was undeterred.I knew I was sitting on a really hot idea because it was a giant dashboard of a rocket ship that spanned forty feet wide, and the idea was to take the audience on a trip into outer space as they sat in the arena. Then I was making some stuff for Lance Burton, who ended up having a huge show in Las Vegas at the Monte Carlo, and he was having a party at his house. When I came over he said, “Hey, Billy Gibbons is here. Do you want to meet him?” I said, “ZZ Top Billy Gibbons? Are you kidding me, is he here?” So, I walk into this room in a pretty little house, and I said, “Billy, I am your biggest fan, I absolutely love your music, you’re the first concert I ever saw when I moved here from Australia. I’m pleased to meet you, and I want you to know that I’m the greatest designer for magic and special effects for rock shows.”Reveen adds, “It just came out of my mouth.” Noting his connections to the live entertainment scene in Las Vegas, Reveen invited Gibbons to see shows throughout the city the next day to demonstrate possibilities for ZZ Top’s next tour. “I met him at two o’clock the next day, knocked on the door, and the first thing he did was hand me one of those ZZ Top keychains.”After speaking with Gibbons about his family’s background in magic and live entertainment and showing him around Las Vegas, Reveen intrigued Gibbons by sharing his keen understanding of the realities of transporting stage effects from city to city, night after night. “I explained to him that your show has to be put together fast, it’s got to tear down fast, and it’s got to require as few people as possible,” recalls Reveen. “He really had an appreciation for my understanding of logistics.”At that point, Reveen wanted to pitch Gibbons a concept for ZZ Top’s next tour. “I asked him, ‘What is your album about, and what do you have in mind?’ And he said, ‘Well, we don’t have a theme for the album. We’re three guys, we write our music, and we try to make our show seem as spectacular as it can.’” However, Gibbons invited Reveen to come up with a concept for ZZ Top’s next world tour, scheduled to launch in August 1985.Reveen decided to adapt his concept for Loverboy into something suitable for ZZ Top.He developed an idea that the stage show would first resemble the dashboard of the Eliminator coupe (by a stroke of luck, he found a friend with a 1933 Ford that he could use as a design sample), which would turn into a spaceship deck during the concert. He created a scale model demonstrating the design and even incorporated miniature trucks to show how the stage could be transported from arena to arena. Lastly, Reveen developed an astounding effect that would serve as the standout surprise of the concert—a twenty-foot-tall skull of a longhorn bull with laser beam eyes that would be positioned above the drum riser and, seconds before the start of the concert, snort up a white sheet covering the drums as the band launched into the first song.Picture Alliance, Getty ImagesPicture Alliance, Getty Imagesloading…As ZZ Top was recording the follow-up album to Eliminator at Ardent Studios, Gibbons asked Reveen to come to Memphis to pitch his staging idea to himself, Ham, and J. W. Williams, the band’s longtime tour manager. Reveen recalls that he was only allotted fifteen minutes for his initial presentation. Reveen brought his scale models with him and says he spent over three hours presenting his entire concept, from snorting longhorn skull to coupe dashboard to spaceship, to the group, including demonstrating how the entire stage could be transported by truck. After seemingly approving the idea, the group proposed coming back the next day to hear the pitch again with a larger group, including Gibbons and Beard.Reveen recalls, Bill Ham walks in and he seemed kind of agitated and says, “You know, this all looks very colorful, and it looks good on the model. But we’re the little ol’ band from Texas. What does going into outer space have to do with our band?” And I said, “Are you kidding me? Your home base is Houston, the place of the world’s biggest space station. You guys have more territorial rights to outer space than anybody! You could take it so far by putting all kinds of outer space stuff in your videos.” They all kind of jumped up, and I could see they were trying not to high-five and hug each other. So that was another meeting that was supposed to be fifteen minutes that went into three hours. Billy told me later that in the fifteen years of ZZ Top, I presented the most impressive and detailed presentation they’d ever seen.Shortly afterward, the band and management approved the concept, and the stage was built by FM Productions, a San Francisco live concert production company founded by legendary promoter Bill Graham.Picture Alliance, Getty ImagesPicture Alliance, Getty Imagesloading…Ultimately, the snorting longhorn skull evolved into a snorting Tutankhamun head to tie into the Egyptian references in the lyrics of “Sleeping Bag” and the visual presented in that song’s music video (though Reveen noted it might have been viewed as a rip-off of Iron Maiden’s elaborate Egyptian-influenced production on their 1984 World Slavery Tour, and later Kiss would utilize a similar Sphynx head as part of the production of their 1990 Hot in the Shade Tour). Otherwise much of Reveen’s spectacular staging ideas remained intact. His space-themed concepts influenced the artwork of Afterburner, the space-age music videos, and even the lyrics of songs like “Planet of Women.”Because of all the audio and visual effects, the Afterburner World Tour was a heavily choreographed and programmed stage show. The tour won critical acclaim for its immersive production, and the snorting curtain in particular was widely praised. “Rolling Stone called it ‘the greatest cocaine gag in the history of rock and roll,’” remembers Reveen. “Every time I turned on MTV and they were talking about ZZ Top, Mark Goodman said, ‘Do not miss the opening of ZZ Top! It is the greatest opening of anybody in the history of rock and roll!’” Reveen was nominated as one of the top three stage designers of 1986 and 1987 by Performance magazine’s Reader Poll Awards. Reveen also reflects on his close creative relationship with Gibbons during that period.We had so many talks over the months that went into this. He said, “When you first walked up to me and said that you wanted to put some magic in our shows and make them exciting because nothing is more exciting than great magic and rock and roll, I knew that we were on a path where we were going to work together. I didn’t know you were going to be such a great asset.” A year or so later he came to visit me in my shop, and he said, “I really thank my guardian angels that brought us together.” But he was really passionate about making people enjoy his show.BackbeatBackbeatloading…Watch ZZ Top Perform on the Afterburner TourZZ Top Albums Ranked From the first album to ‘La Futura,’ we check out the Little ‘ol Band From Texas’ studio records.Gallery Credit: Nick DeRiso

Written by: Badlands Classic Rock

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