Theologians and numerologists alike will speak to the power of the number three, but for me it always boils down to something a little less lofty: ZZ Top.
ZZ Top has had the same three members—Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard, and Dusty Hill—since 1970. Nothing has been added or allowed to escape. The band has changed over the years, but not by much; even when 1983’s Eliminator leaned on synthesizers and sequencers to update ZZ Top’s bawdy sound for a sterile new decade, things weren’t really different. ZZ Top is unbreakable, its music a stable compound of blues, rock, and raunch.
Gibbons, Beard, and Hill didn’t invent the idea of the rock threesome, but they learned from the best. Inspired heavily by the three-piece Jimi Hendrix Experience—Hendrix befriended Gibbons in the late ’60s, when the latter played in the psychedelic outfit Moving Sidewalks—ZZ Top is one of many contemporaries that became early examples of the power trio. Others include Cream and Blue Cheer, two groups that made up for their skimpier rosters by distorting their guitars to sometimes hideous extremes. Overcompensation? Maybe. But it still sounds like the end of the world’s own marching band.
I’ve been listening to ZZ Top since I was a little kid, when ’70s hits like “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” were de facto anthems in my family. (A new 10-disc box set, The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990, came out in June, and it’s one of my current prized possessions.) Without realizing it, I sensed back then there was something enigmatic about the band. The beards helped. But those hairy façades hid more than just facial expressions. Having only three members, ZZ Top felt more tightly knit than the typical rock ’n’ roll quartets, quintets, and sextets—Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd—that my mom blasted regularly at our house. With fewer moving parts, ZZ Top seemed more secretive. More hermetic. More arcane, even. I didn’t grow up religious, but I knew what the Holy Trinity was. It came from Texas, and it wore cheap sunglasses.
In spite of the relative stability—and economic perks—of having at least one or two fewer members to feed, the power trio has always been in the minority among rock-band lineups. Some of my favorite bands of all time have been trios, though, from Rush to The Jam to Jawbreaker to Sleater-Kinney. Even today I’m drawn to the mystique of bands of threes, to that triangulation of sound and meaning that can only come from a power trio’s equilateral give and take. Granted, some trios seem like little more than a singer-songwriter plus two hired guns. As strong as the rhythm section of Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl was, there was never any doubt about who called the shots in Nirvana. It wasn’t a democracy, nor did it pretend to be. Cobain was older than me, but he was of the right age to have grown up absorbing the musical mini-lessons of Schoolhouse Rock!—and “Three Is A Magic Number” was one of the cartoons’ earworms, driven into my brain every Saturday morning. That De La Soul sampled and reiterated the song on 1989’s “The Magic Number” (from the aptly named 3 Feet High And Rising) didn’t hurt.
As another episode of Schoolhouse Rock!, “Three Ring Government,” taught me when I was far more impressionable, the supposed superiority of the U.S government is based around the three-branch separation of powers. The system of checks and balances was also at play in two of the best groups of the ’80s, Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen, whose sets of tandem singer-songwriters—Bob Mould and Grant Hart in the former, D. Boon and Mike Watt in the latter—butted heads and coexisted in fraternal accord, respectively. The Minutemen’s potent threesome was cut short when Boon died in a van accident in 1985, but recognizing the chemistry of what they’d had, Watt and drummer George Hurley enlisted singer-guitarist Ed Crawford to fill a similar position to Boon’s in their subsequent (and uniquely excellent) trio fIREHOSE.
Hüsker Dü was far less brotherly, but on the group’s classic song “Flip Your Wig,” Mould and Hart—who usually kept to themselves on their respective songs—actually trade verses with each other, a rarity in Hüsker Dü’s catalog in spite of the song’s synergistic power. Hart’s new solo album, The Argument, is one of the best things he’s made since Hüsker Dü, but some of its best moments are the ones that openly draw from Hüsker Dü’s echoes. The magic of the trio doesn’t always last, but in theory it’s a beautiful thing.
And it remains so. Some of my favorite albums so far this year have been the product of three-pronged attacks: Low’s sparse, reliably piercing The Invisible Way; Coliseum’s latest onslaught of brainy belligerence, Sister Faith; and Lemuria’s angular yet hooky The Distance Is So Big (to name, well, three). Looking back at my A.V. Club year-end music picks for 2012, I realize now that four of my top 10 artists who released albums last year—METZ, Screaming Females, Heartless Bastards, and my old standby Rush—are trios. At the same time, I’ve been fronting a three-piece band of my own. I’d dismiss it as a coincidence, but I know when to own up to my biases.
High On Fire, one of metal’s most reliable live acts of any size, recently clocked in with Spitting Fire Live—a pair of concert albums that leave no doubt how thunderous a mere trio can sound. (Another case in point: one of High On Fire’s largest influences, Motörhead, whose grizzled frontman Lemmy gave me and other fans a shock last week with a round of thankfully unsubstantiated death rumors. Motörhead is also a trio that sounds like an orchestra of jet engines in concert.) Volume doesn’t always have to be the goal, but it’s interesting that as indie-rock bands have grown progressively larger in the wake of sprawling ensembles like Arcade Fire, rock bands are just as happy to shrink. It makes a certain amount of sense, though. Trios playing quiet music is fine, but they also defeat the inherent paradox of the power trio—the quality I first latched onto when I listened to ZZ Top as a kid: hearing three people come together, plug in, and make more noise than 300.
Melvins has been doing the same thing for me since I first saw the earthmoving trio in concert 20 years ago. Strangely enough, Melvins was opening for another former trio that had just added a fourth touring member: Nirvana. I got to see Nirvana twice, once with the classic Cobain-Novoselic-Grohl lineup, and then in ’93 with former Germ (and future Foo Fighter) Pat Smear on second guitar. I love the Germs, and I love Smear, and the guy can certainly bash the fuck out of the guitar—but he just didn’t fit onstage with Nirvana. He looked like a fourth wheel up there, grinning and gleefully leaping around in short hair and, if I remember correctly, a dog collar. Cobain loved punk, but plucking a punk vet like Smear out of relative obscurity and plopping him onstage was less an act of charity and more a symptom of how destabilized the band had become five months before Cobain’s suicide.
Melvins, on the other hand, bulldozed through a monumental set of subsonic paleo-metal that night, as assured as Nirvana was confused. Melvins has also tinkered with a four-man lineup in recent years, but as the title of its upcoming album—Tres Cabrones, a clear nod to ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres—indicates, the group has whittled things back down to a formidable trio. Looking at what Melvins has accomplished over the decades via sludgy masterpieces like 1992’s Lysol, I’m hoping frontman King Buzzo and crew tap into that triple-tiered magic again.
With the success of The White Stripes in the early ’00s, the rock duo briefly became a big thing—in essence, the new power trio. And while the duo is still a viable configuration, even The White Stripes’ most successful followers, The Black Keys, tour with extra musicians to fill out the bluesy band’s original two-piece roster. It’s not surprising that The Keys’ Dan Auerbach is buddies with ZZ Top’s Gibbons. Besides the blues itself, “less is more” is something that both bands shoot for. But there’s something about the math of a mere that doesn’t have quite the same geometric elegance—that Musketeers-in-a-practice-space allure—as a trio. Call it the difference between two dimensions and three. Or maybe even something a little more holy.