Essen, Germany, 1980: Their faces haven't yet been overtaken by hair.
Billy Gibbons hops and bobs like a Civil War-era pugilist in a rounders hat, and with Dusty Hill in his Che Guevara beret, the now-lifetime musical partners assume a comic Southern Gothic, the guitarist tall and skinny in a black (linen?) leisure suit, and the bassist shorter and stouter in a white shirt and black vest. Frank Beard, glimpsed from the back of the drum riser, wears a silky black shirt. When the trio fries the Gulf Coast humidity off "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide," its bad becomes global.
"Heard It on the X" is all barbed wire. On the nuclear boogie of "Nasty Dogs & Funky Kings," Gibbons wields his Les Paul like a backhoe. "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers" gets in a Coup de Ville and lets fly, the two guitarists trading raw-throated blues verses like hand claps. "La Grange" next, which scorches the Houston triumvirate's 60-minute main set, prompts your peeing yourself. First encores: Elmore James' "Dust My Broom" (ornery), "Jailhouse Rock" (King size), "Tush" (Dusty @#$%^& Hill). Billy Gibbons, scarecrow of the guitar. Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" tunnels the three backstage, and the DVD credits roll.
"I made ZZ Top known in Europe," declares Peter Rüchel almost immediately and without prompting one afternoon (his evening) last week from Cologne, Germany. "They played Rockpalast in April of 1980, which was their first appearance in Europe and their first appearance on television also, I think. After that they were known all over Europe."
Rüchel put on 17 Rockpalast Rocknights between 1977 and 1986, typically one in March or April, and the other one in October. Three acts per bill began late night Saturday and bled into the early hours of the Sabbath. All were broadcast live on German television and beyond, "until the last note was played."
"During the night that ZZ Top appeared on Rockpalast, the other groups appearing were the Blues Band, Joan Armatrading, Ian Hunter & Mick Ronson, and then ZZ Top, which was at 4 in the morning," recalls Rüchel. "When I first proposed this to their manager, Bill Ham, when we met in Chicago – where ZZ Top were playing two nights at the Aragon Ballroom – he said, 'Well, 4am, that means everyone in Europe is fast asleep.' I threw my heart over the hurdle and said, 'Not with this band.' And I was right, because at 5:30 in the morning, they gave five encores."
Not only were the semiannual Rockpalast concerts recorded for later rebroadcast, Rüchel and his crew filmed hundreds of shows throughout German clubs year round.
"In these, we also were able to make discoveries," reveals Rüchel. "The programming was not following the charts. It was totally left to our judgment. That means mine as the producer and the consulting director's. So in one club concert in '81, we recorded U2 in front of 350 paying guests, and it was these 350 – plus the director and myself – who knew this was a good and promising band while not knowing how far they would get."
That particular Rockpalast brand DVD won't make its way into commercial release any time soon, but ZZ Top's Double Down Live, 1980-2008 (Eagle) scuttled onto the digital highway last year with all the fanfare of a nearsighted armadillo but the reel-life buried-treasure cache of the Alamo.
Hall of Fame rock & roll dots late-night 1970s TV from the U.S. to Denmark, but copyright and licensing keep archival music crucibles such as Don Kirshner's Rock Concert mostly out of the public domain. Time Life is segmenting The Midnight Special, periodic Soul Train spin-offs continue dribbling out (last week's The Best Of), and greatest-hits selections from the UK's Old Grey Whistle Test tease unseen ice masses below the surface, but only Rockpalast continues seeping live music history onto Amazon.com in fits and spurts.
"I had been called to [German public-broadcasting company] WDR in 1974," explains Rüchel. "My task was to rebuild the young people's programs. That included drama, discussion, documentaries, and also music.
"Of course, it was a totally different media situation than the one we have now, because at that time there were only three channels in Germany: Channel 1, which I worked for; Channel 2; and the search channels, which were regional – all of them being public TV. There was no commercial TV, which in Germany appeared only in the mid-Eighties. This also marks the end of Rockpalast nights."
The program returned in 1990 for another five years, becoming periodic thereafter, with its founder's last active years at the beginning of the new millennium. Rockpalast still airs new and vintage shows in Germany on Sunday nights.
"I don't know," laughs Rüchel when asked how many performances are in Rockpalast's completist vaults. "Hundreds."
He estimates 40 titles circulating Europe, while domestic availability counts half that, everything from a vaunted Little Feat performance featuring the late Lowell George and classic lineup Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1976 to Harry Chapin, Mitch Ryder, and Rick James. The overall online index is staggering (www.rockpalastarchiv.de). Stateside go-to licensee Eagle announced just last week a new Nils Lofgren double-disc release.
"It is not easy; put it that way," sighs Rüchel. "At the time, we acquired only television rights, nothing else. Sometimes contracts definitely excluded other use, so in each individual case we have to regain the relevant rights for DVD publication. It's become easier since top acts like ZZ Top and the Who have agreed. I have been talking to the Who management about the release of the Who concert since March 2008.
"And a holy grail?" repeats Rüchel, thinking. "I would like to have the concert of Peter Gabriel from 1978, but he doesn't think that this is up to his present standards. It was a very simple presentation compared to what he's doing onstage now, so he doesn't like it anymore. We are very friendly with one another, but I can't overcome. I would like to have the Grateful Dead's [3½-hour set from 1981]; this is closer to happening.
"And of course there's one who has never played Rockpalast, whom had he ever appeared on Rockpalast would have been my primary concern: Bruce Springsteen."
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