How ZZ Top’s ‘Eliminator’ became one of the best-selling albums of all time – Released 35 Years Ago Today

By: Craig Hlavaty

Released on March 23, 1983, ZZ Top’s “Eliminator” is the Texas trio’s best-selling album, spawning a series of five hit singles that remain some of the group’s most-popular songs and live concert staples.

The album introduced the Houston-bred outfit to MTV audiences with sexy-yet-playful music videos for those songs. Prior to this “La Grange” and “Tush” had made them stars across the country with rockers, but the ninth album made them worldwide celebs.

Believe it or not there was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to see Adam Ant, Michael Jackson and tawdry ZZ Top videos played back to back.

Selling over 10 million copies since its release, “Eliminator” was among the first albums to be certified “diamond” by the Recording Industry Association of America.

It might not be the favorite album of blues-purist ZZ Top snobs but it for sure worked to indoctrinate a generation of fans.

That cherry 1933 Ford Coupe dubbed “Eliminator” sealed the deal for the teenage boys, along with the bikini girls in the music videos. A full year after its release it was still selling 100,000 copies a week.

Fans might be surprised to learn that the album, laden in synths, was borne of guitarist Billy Gibbons’ admitted fascination with Depeche Mode.

The band was surrounded by the sounds of experimental music and new wave while on a European tour in the early ’80s and the influence seeped into the new material. Recorded at Memphis’ famous Ardent Studios with primitive analog synths, it still retained a sense of the Delta blues under all the technology.

“The heaviness of the synthesizers created a nice platform that allowed the guitar to stand on its own,” Gibbons said in a 2015 interview. “I think it’s because synths could play an octave below a bass guitar; there was a nice full bed of sound that contrasted with any of my guitar parts.”

In 1984 Rolling Stone alluded to a trove of “Eno-like solo-synthesizer doodlings” that Gibbons has socked away somewhere.

Today Gibbons tells Chron.com that there was a spirit of experimentation afoot in the studio.

“All sorts of crazy sound making machines were coming on line,” Gibbons says. “We began following the work that both Depeche Mode and Ministry were creating which started our own ‘lab project’ in the studio and began combining guitar-based blues rock with a modern day feel”

From left: Dusty Hill, Frank Beard and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top perform during their Tonnage Tour at the Smart Financial Centre in Sugarland Sunday Sept. 10, 2017.(Dave Rossman Photo)

The experiment yielded the album and they were off and running.

“The dawn of the MTV video era and the combination of the contemporary sound combined with compelling visuals — much of which starred a little red car and some pretty girls — was along the line of the vapors coalescing and the beginnings of a new universe,” he muses.

The sound was out there ready for the band to pluck from the ether.

“It was out there just waiting for us to bring it home and we’re glad we did,” Gibbons says.

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9 Comments

  • Richard
    March 23, 2018 at 8:52 pm  - Reply

    I was going through a divorce when this album came out and it helped me get through it. I bought it on cassette and wore it out.

  • Lori Fili
    March 24, 2018 at 9:29 am  - Reply

    Great article. Have been a devoted fan since 1973 (13 yrs old.) I’ve got a tee shirt from ZZ Top’s World Wide Texas Tour from 1976 – it’s still in good shape. It only lacks autographs from Billy, Dusty and Frank. It’s 42 years old. Any suggestions as to how I might actually accomplish my goal?

  • Jerry
    March 24, 2018 at 1:31 pm  - Reply

    Funny thing about those synths on Eliminator…I took the record, yes vinyl, back to Tower Records 3X b/c I kept hearing this buzz in the background, and I swore there was something wrong with the pressing! 😀

  • Norma
    March 24, 2018 at 5:40 pm  - Reply

    I Love ❤️ The One Eye Jack Would Love To See Your Photos Printouts!!

  • Ray
    March 24, 2018 at 9:20 pm  - Reply

    Yes, I cranked this album. A lot. Cruising the streets around Univ of Cinci. Listened to TV Dinners and ate a lot of them back then.

  • Brennan Olson
    March 24, 2018 at 11:13 pm  - Reply

    I can’t believe the eliminator album is 35 years old, that’s awesome!! I was born in 1983 when the eliminator album came out. I will also turn 35 years old in November. I sure do love the eliminator album and the famous car. I sure hope to hang out with you guys.

  • Jimmy Mauro
    March 27, 2018 at 3:27 pm  - Reply

    Greatest band of all time. Greatest album of all time. Been a fan since 1971 when I was 10 years old. I’ve seen ZZ in concert over 20 times. Can’t wait to see them again soon in St. Augustine.

  • David
    March 27, 2018 at 7:55 pm  - Reply

    Damn. This album was spinning at every party in those daze. I stil go to that special place when I hear the sweet, slow burning “I Need You Tonight”.

  • Steve Rowloff
    March 28, 2018 at 1:02 am  - Reply

    One day my wife and I took a walk downtown and went into the smalltown drugstore…just for kicks…there was a “bargain bin” of LP’s, which I went to digging through the offerings…I saw this album with a picture of a Ford hot rod on the front…on the back was Billy….Dusty and Frank names….I asked Anne, “Could this be a new album from ZZ Top ?” Well heck at a couple bucks…I bought it and when I got it home….WOW ! That baby played over and over and over and over….even guitar licks played repeatedly…drum riffs…were like, “wow, did you catch that?” and were played over so much I think I drove my friends crazy.
    Eliminator is GREAT ! Some of the fans of Rio Grande Mud (which I love too) said that Eliminator didn’t have the blues quality of the old stuff…to which I thought that they just didn’t get the reality of the progression of the art form. ZZ Top had carried the blues into the future. That, “living, breathing thing” ya know? Rock on ya-all. Lotsa love.

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