The Two Towers: Z Z Top, “La Grange” (1973)

Many’s the pop music track I love where nevertheless, if you told me the world had to lose either this or the Eiffel Tower, I would definitely keep the Eiffel Tower. With “La Grange,” though, I would have to think about the choice seriously, and this is puzzling, since I am deeply appreciative of modern architecture and Paris and there is so little to “La Grange” by many forms of reckoning. Yet there must be something big in it, because otherwise why am I thinking about the Eiffel Tower?

“La Grange” has few words and not much story. It’s about maybe going to the latterly famous “Chicken Ranch” whorehouse in a small Texas town. For the first two minutes of “La Grange” it seems there will be little musical development either, just that John Lee Hooker thing going on. It’s in the pocket, of course, and Billy Gibbons’ lead playing, when it comes, is hot. The playful low-note vocal is rich. The solo drum turnarounds are neat. But none of this challenges the Eiffel Tower.

The 1,000-foot-high thing in “La Grange,” so to speak, is the instrumental bridge that pops out of nowhere at 1:59. All it is is a blues chord progression descending by half-steps to get you back to the key of A (the song had shifted up from A to C, gaining energy).

The middle of “La Grange”

While the notes aren’t unusual at all in a blues context, here their force is astounding—it’s that Z Z Top synergy of blues and rock, like a mountain spire rising up at the collision of two continental plates. (Or, more to the point, a manly spire rising at the Chicken Ranch.) The notes are loud and gritty and they’re in a stiff triplets rhythm of their own that snaps you into standing up straight. The passage towers over and divides the boogie flows of the song before and after. It’s one of the strongest moves an electric guitar player has ever made. What is still more astounding, this great idea isn’t overexploited—we hear the figure twice, just this once.

Where would we be without it? We wouldn’t be able to go boogie-skipping along and also go “Damn!” Tell me you’d give that up for Paris.

The Chicken Ranch, back in the day

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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