When Josh Homme, frontman of Queens of the Stone Age, recorded his band’s 2006 single “Burn the Witch,” he achieved two unrelated goals: working with one of his idols, Billy Gibbons, and silencing his critics.
Homme had been frustrated by the flak he’d received from fans and the media following the dismissal of bassist Nick Oliveri. The rocker, who had previously teamed with Homme in the band Kyuss, had contributed heavily to the two previous Queens of the Stone Age albums: 2000’s Rated R and 2002’s Songs for the Deaf.
Homme later revealed that Oliveri’s firing was largely spurred by a physical altercation between the bassist and his girlfriend. However, the reason behind the decision was initially kept under wraps. This allowed the public to concoct various conspiracy theories regarding the lineup change, an occurrence which irritated the QOSTA frontman.
“They don’t understand what it’s like to just sit there and feel helpless,” Homme would later opine to BBC 1 Radio. “When you have your chance to make your statement, which for me was firing Nick, that’s what I did.”
Homme channeled all of his frustrations regarding the matter into “Burn the Witch,” a bluesy, grinding track which would highlight 2005’s Lullabies to Paralyze. “I felt a little persecuted,” the frontman admitted years later to Spin magazine. “Because I fired my best friend and it was really hard and it wasn’t about music. And I didn’t say anything, thinking that people would respect that decision. But instead, I felt these social rocks hitting me. Instead of saying, ‘I feel persecuted,’ I wrote ‘Burn the Witch.’”
Watch the Music Video for “Burn the Witch”
Lyrical inspiration would come from the Salem Witch Trials, an infamous time in colonial American history when people were executed for alleged involvement in witchcraft. Homme saw parallels between that persecution and the unfounded criticism he had received. “I thought, ‘Well this is clear as day,’” the singer explained of the song’s message. “And it’s more interesting than writing ‘What the fuck is your problem?’ But people didn’t pick up on it.”
While listeners may not have initially comprehended the deeper message behind “Burn the Witch,” one aspect of the song immediately stood out: the involvement of Billy Gibbons.
The ZZ Top frontman provided a double threat on the song, delivering vocals as well as a searing guitar part.
“This was the perfect song to play with (Gibbons) on,” Homme explained in the commentary of Queens of the Stone Age’s DVD Over the Years and Through the Woods. “It didn’t exist the first day we jammed with him, really. And then the next night it was there and ready to go.”
Homme had long admired Gibbons and relished the opportunity to work alongside the bearded icon. In addition to recording “Burn the Witch,” Queens of the Stone Age covered ZZ Top’s “Precious and Grace” (with Gibbons in tow) and released it as a bonus track from the album.
Listen to Queens of the Stone Age’s Cover of “Precious and Grace”
Gibbons would join Queens of the Stone Age for several performances of “Burn the Witch,” including an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in November 2005. The song would later be released as a single on Jan. 10, 2006. Though it only earned minor radio airplay, the track became a fan favorite and appeared in TV shows such as True Blood and Peaky Blinders, as well as the horror film Saw II.
“I love Gibbons, he’s bad ass,” Homme proclaimed to Pitchfork at the time, adding that he adored the ZZ Top albums Tres Hombres, Fandango and Tejas, while describing their music as “amazing.” “It has such great personality, and the playing is so good. And that’s what paved the way for them to be in the spot they’re at — it’s got so much character. The beauty’s in the scars, and it’s got so much of that there.”
“I’d love to produce a ZZ Top record,” Homme continued. “There’s so much character in [Gibbons’] fingers, and Dusty [Hill]‘s fingers, and Frank Beard‘s hands.” Though such a collaboration hasn’t happened (yet) the Queens of the Stone Age frontman has remained close friends with Gibbons.
Watch Queens of the Stone Age Perform “Burn the Witch” on ‘The Tonight Show’
Two years after “Burn the Witch,” the ZZ Top guitarist was set to contribute to Queens of the Stone Age’s 2007 LP, Era Vulgaris, however scheduling conflicts eventually made such a collaboration impossible. Still, Gibbons would later appear on the Desert Sessions, a Homme-led musical collective which released its volumes 11 and 12 in 2019.
“Billy is a piece of art, he is a classic piece of art,” Homme declared of Gibbons at that time, expressing his joy in reconvening with the rocker. The Queens of the Stone Age frontman also appeared in That Little Ol’ Band From Texas, a documentary on ZZ Top which also arrived in 2019.
“When I first met Billy it was to play together in the studio on a Queens record,” Homme recalled in the film, alluding to “Burn the Witch.” “He was playing and he hits this note, and his beard fell and it muted the strings. It made this harmonic. And I sort of sat there, stunned, dumbfounded. And we looked at each other, and it was like, this is the first-ever beard harmonic,” Homme laughingly recalled. “Even his beard is a pretty good guitar player.”