I think about the ZZ Top video for Rough Boy more than I should. If I’m being honest with myself I think about the song Rough Boy more than I should. Rough Boy, the synth drenched ballad from the Texas blues band’s 1985 album Afterburner was the first ZZ Top song that I can remember connecting with. Something about it felt welcoming and straight forward (it’s ironic that now I’m confused as to what a “rough boy” actually is) especially compared to overly sexualized like “Pearl Necklace” and “Tubesnake Boogie.”
Afterburner is a wall to wall pop juggernaut. It’s filled with the easy to digest saccharine tracks that the Texas blues band was known for in the 80s. The album’s songs aren’t as recognizable as Legs or Sharp Dressed Man, but it’s a more cohesive piece of art that leans into the junk heap casino sounds and textures of the decade. Listening to the album now it feels like listening to New Order’s Greatest Hits but with more guitar solos and references to Billy Gibbons’ dick.
Back to Rough Boy; The song and its video – which follows the ZZ Top car through a futuristic car wash – feels like the band admitting something to their audience that the aren’t comfortable coming out and saying out loud. By 1985 ZZ Top were at the peak of their mainstream success thanks in no small part to their roles as the guys with the beards and the cool car in a series of videos where women in lingerie cruised into town and strolled around being sexy. It’s not a bad way to make some case but for a band that had been living and dying by the blues since 1969 the phrase “sell out” must have been echoing through their heads.
I replayed the video for Rough Boy on the ZZ Top Greatest Video Hits VHS that I stole from my dad until the images were committed to memory. I was initially drawn to its cyber punk aesthetic but recent I’ve been obsessing about the semiotics and wondering what ZZ Top brought to the table. In the video the band’s car is washed by a set of legs connected to a large black panel. Think of it looking like the punch line to a joke about all a man really needs or something crass like that. The band have been take apart to be washed as well. Their faces hang on large black panels and their hands hang from similar pieces of hardware as they wait to play synthetic snare hits and fire off a guitar solo at will.
I don’t know how much input ZZ Top had over their videos but Rough Boy feels like the band is admitting that mid-career pivot into synth pop tinged blues rock has been a fun experiment, but they’re tired. It’s a rare moment of honestly from a group who made their money being to jokers of blues rock – albeit a moment wrapped in enough science fiction trappings to keep their fans from asking questions. Or maybe they just wanted to make cool video. I honestly hope that I never find out which version is closer to the truth.