The story Cinco No. 2 tells is a kind of cautionary tale.
It’s probably a happy accident that Cinco No. 2: The Second Five LPs so perfectly chronicles ZZ Top’s ascension from down-home Texas boogie rockers to multiplatinum-selling MTV stars: it is, after all, simply the second in a series of box sets collecting the group’s studio albums in chronological order. But it so happens that this particular sequence of albums, from 1979’s Degüello to 1990’s Recycler, constitutes an important transitional moment: not just for “Sloppy Toppy” but for rock and roll in general. Listening to Cinco No. 2, one can hear the precise moment when the “classic rock” of the 1970s entered the 1980s—and the moment when the sleek, high-tech ‘80s model became obsolete in its own right.
In this sense, Degüello sets the standard from which ZZ Top would soon be departing. The band’s first album for Warner Bros., it’s the source of many of their most stalwart radio hits: the Sam and Dave cover “I Thank You,” the slinky blues of “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” and of course “Cheap Sunglasses” all remain in rotation to this day. The production by longtime collaborator Bill Ham is glossier than the group’s earlier albums for London Records, but otherwise their sound hasn’t appreciably changed; it’s Top’s Highway to Hell, a more polished, radio-friendly iteration on a tried-and-tested formula.
By 1981’s El Loco, however, that formula is starting to show its age. The highest-charting single, “Tube Snake Boogie,” is little more than the sum of its chugging riff and winking double entendres; the lowest-charting, “Leila,” is a flaccid soft-rock ballad just a hair less incongruous than KISS’ “Shandi.” It’s the one in the middle that finds the Top striking out in a more novel direction: “Pearl Necklace” may be yet another vessel for eye-rolling sexual innuendos, but Billy Gibbons’ wiry, clipped rhythm guitar suggests that he’s been taking notes from New Wave. Album track “Groovy Little Hippie Pad” is even more of a departure, with Gibbons’ guitar overwhelmed by synthesizers while Frank Beard and Dusty Hill do their best imitation of Devo’s rhythm section.
The synthesizers famously get even more prominent on 1983’s Eliminator, still ZZ Top’s most commercially successful album; rather than overwhelming the guitar, however, here they augment and enhance it, adding space-age touches to the group’s vintage muscle car of a sound. The jet-powered riffage of opener and lead single “Gimme All Your Lovin’” is ‘80s hard rock par excellence: all glistening chrome, neon lights and industrial quantities of cocaine. “Got Me Under Pressure,” the second track and second single, resurrects the piston-like rhythms of “Groovy Little Hippie Pad” and gets them to groove. Even the slow songs maintain the momentum: if anything, the throbbing electro-blues of “I Need You Tonight” is a necessary breather between full-throttle rockers “Sharp Dressed Man” and “I Got the Six.” Not every song on Eliminator is perfect—most of the second side after fifth and final single “Legs” has a tendency to bleed together—but few albums create a mood this cohesive from beginning to end.
Eliminator set the blueprint for grizzled rockers adapting to the sonic conventions of the 1980s, putting a lie to the rockist myth that synthesizers necessarily equal “softness.” So it comes as little surprise that ZZ Top used their breakthrough album quite literally as a blueprint for the follow-up, 1985’s Afterburner. Opening track “Sleeping Bag” has the same insistent synthesizer pulse as “Legs,” but dressed up with stuttering drum machine rhythms and orchestra hits straight out of Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” Later singles “Stages” and “Rough Boy” even go full MOR: the former with a big, almost Springsteenian chorus, the latter with a comically earnest power-ballad delivery. Elsewhere, songs like “Can’t Stop Rockin’” and (sigh) “Woke Up with the Wood” blatantly retread the sound of Eliminator—sometimes to the point of self-plagiarism, like when “Planet of Women” ruthlessly nicks the riff from “Got Me Under Pressure.”
By the release of the aptly-named Recycler in 1990, the Eliminator sound has long since run its course; what had sounded like the future seven years earlier now sounds inescapably dated. It doesn’t help that ZZ Top’s well of inspiration is clearly running dry, with the riff from “Concrete and Steel” sounding like a diminished-returns version of “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Decision or Collision” retreading “Got Me Under Pressure” for an astonishing third time. The album isn’t a total drag: “My Head’s in Mississippi,” for example, is a welcome return to the swampy blues of early Top, with only the opening synth drop to remind us that we’re still in the computer age. Overall, however, Recycler is the weakest album of the set—evidence that by the end of the decade they helped define, ZZ Top’s souped-up muscle car was overdue for a remodel.
The story Cinco No. 2 tells is a kind of cautionary tale: veteran band pioneers a new sound and strikes gold, then proceeds to gleefully run it into the ground. For listeners who aren’t interested in that metanarrative, single editions of Degüello, Eliminator, and possibly El Loco are easier to recommend. But there’s also something to be said for hearing the full arc of ZZ Top in the ‘80s, together and in its proper context. It is, if nothing else, one of the stranger chapters of one of pop music’s stranger decades.