How Billy Gibbons Got His Groove Back

The strange story behind ZZ Top’s best new song in decades.
How Billy Gibbons Got His Groove Back
Illustration by Dale Stephanos

Put yourself in Billy Gibbons’ shoes. Back in the eighties, you fronted one of the biggest bands in the world. You sold tens of millions of albums, toured the globe incessantly, and became the weird, bearded face of Texas cool. But that was a generation ago, and now you and your bandmates are in your sixties and want to prove that you’re still relevant. What could you possibly do?

Well, you could take a fourteen-year-old hip-hop song about using cheap plastic lighters to sell crack, and you could cover it. Which is exactly what ZZ Top did. And “I Gotsta Get Paid,” released in June on a four-song EP called Texicali , is the band’s best song in decades. It opens with a nasty, distorted guitar riff, one of those simple hooks that Gibbons has been creating forever, the kind that sounds as if it was cribbed from Lightnin’ Hopkins or John Lee Hooker but also feels thoroughly postmodern, summoned by a guy obsessed with hot rods, leggy blondes, and cheap sunglasses. Then Frank Beard’s drums and Dusty Hill’s bass kick in, and Gibbons gets to the point: “Twenty-five lighters on my dresser, yessir, you know I gotsta get paid.” In the verses he reads a litany of mystery. “I got twenty-five lighters for my twenty-five folks,” Gibbons sings. “Gonna break the bank with twenty-five more.” His guitar growls like a lawn mower. “Twenty-five fly diamonds in my ring, twenty-five twelves in the trunk to bang.”

Remember the first time you heard “La Grange” and knew something was going on—something secret and dirty—and you had no idea what it was, but you really wanted to know? It’s the same with “I Gotsta Get Paid.” What are those lighters doing on the dresser? What’s a fly diamond? A twelve? “I Gotsta Get Paid” has got that thing that the great ZZ Top songs have: a combination of playfulness (“I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide”), gnarl (“La Grange”), and inscrutability (“Master of Sparks”).

It’s that thing that once made the group so huge, with MTV megahits like “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’.” But that was a long time ago. ZZ Top hasn’t had a platinum album since 1994 or a song in the Billboard Hot 100 since 1991. The group’s last three albums, all for RCA, were largely murky and dull. The band hasn’t even released an album since Mescalero, in 2003. Three years later the group severed its contract with RCA and ended its longtime relationship with manager Bill Ham, who is often credited with being the architect of its sound and image.

Something had to change. In 2008 ZZ Top announced it was doing an album with Rick Rubin, the Grammy-winning producer who had a hand in reviving the careers of Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. Rubin’s specialty is artists who have lost their way—or just their mojo. He helps them get back in touch with what they do best.

Sitting at a table

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