Before ZZ Top, there was The Moving Sidewalks. The dust has been blown off a lost chapter of Texas rock history with RockBeat Records’ release of The Complete Collection (ROC-CD-3018) from Billy Gibbons’ early band. This 2-CD set chronicles, in deluxe style, the four-piece psychedelic blues-rock outfit that emerged from the ashes of The Coachmen and eventually morphed into the first iteration of ZZ Top.
Vocalist and guitarist Gibbons, a native of Houston, founded the psychedelic blues-rock band as a young man in the mid-1960s with Don Summers joining him on bass, Dan Mitchell on drums and Tom Moore on keyboards. The Moving Sidewalks developed a strong local following and found themselves opening for the likes of Austin, Texas’ psych pioneers 13th Floor Elevators, and were signed to the Tantara label for an original album, Flash (1968). You’ll find the album in its entirety on Disc One of the new set. Its ten nuggets combine chunky electric guitar runs and wails of feedback with mesmerizing Hammond organ, anchored by thumping bass and pungent drums. Inspired by the Elevators, the Moving Sidewalks rode the success of the non-LP track “99th Floor” to earn opening slots with the likes of the Young Rascals, The Jeff Beck Group, The Electric Prunes, The Doors, and most notably, The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Though the Moving Sidewalks didn’t survive long enough to develop their sound, Flash reveals a group poised for success. It may not have been remarkable enough to propel the Sidewalks beyond the regional level, but it already shows a band drawing on rhythm and blues, pop, rock and the burgeoning psychedelic movement. The album-opening “Flashback,” written by producer Steve Ames, is two songs melded into one. It begins as a standard-issue rocker (“Remember the days when you loved me? Remember the good times and how it used to be?”) rendered aggressively, with enthusiastic vocal echoes (“Just for a second, I’ll check your memory!” “Memory!” or “You’re so far gone, you don’t even know my name!” “Know my name!”) in pop fashion, and prominent, blazing guitar work taking it to the next level. But then the song veers in an entirely different direction, responding to the earlier lyrics (“I remember the days when I loved you/I remember the good times when I had you…”) in a slow, Eastern-inspired mirror image of the earlier verses. The Moving Sidewalks were already practicing their craft as record-makers.
There’s plenty more after the jump!
The moody ballad “You Don’t Know the Life” from organist Tom Moore’s pen showed maturity, and Gibbons was also honing his skills as a songwriter with credits on six of the album’s ten tracks. “You Make Me Shake,” if lyrically prosaic, might have been a good choice for a single, three minutes of the band firing on all cylinders highlighted by a particularly animalistic guitar part. “Pluto – Sept. 31” by Gibbons and Ames betrays the group’s Hendrix influence not only musically but in the vocal delivery, as well. Still, as the liner notes to the new set explain, it was a mutual admiration society between Hendrix and Gibbons. Mid-song, “Pluto” turns into an unsettling psych freak-out, with whispered voices bouncing between speakers, before returning to its blues-rock roots. Though Flash is largely in a heavy if trippy bag, the Sidewalks were, indeed, always moving. Gibbons growls his way through “Crimson Witch,” with Moore’s piano adding unexpected color to the track while “No Good to Cry” is another not-so-quiet storm. Not many of the tracks look forward to Gibbons’ sound in ZZ Top, though “Joe Blues” does emphasize that genre which served as a springboard for some of ZZ Top’s most memorable music. The lengthiest track on Flash, it also allows for some improvisatory, indulgent band interplay, with Gibbons adding blues harmonica to the mix, of course. The throw-everything-at-the-wall approach to the LP is characterized by the fractured sound collages of music, spoken word and effects, “Eclipse” and “Reclipse.” Both, perhaps naturally, have aged least well of all of the album’s tracks.
Flash is joined by a second disc of the Moving Sidewalks’ non-LP singles plus previously unreleased alternate takes and versions from both the Sidewalks and The Coachmen. “99th Floor” topped the regional chart in Houston for six weeks, and it’s easy to see why; the track is all proto-punk energy, a true nugget. Billy Gibbons also recorded the song with The Coachmen in a less aggressive version, and the Coachmen’s Kelly Parker played keyboards on the Sidewalks’ version, too. You can compare for yourself, as both versions are included here plus a Coachmen demo. Another hit materialized with the groovy “Need Me,” another two-and-a-quarter minutes straight out of the garage. Its flipside, “Every Night a New Surprise” is presented in both the released version and an alternate recording which is even better and a little less polished than the final 45. The group’s final single, a cover of Lennon and McCartney’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” is heard in three separate recordings including the final single on the Tantara label from August 1968. The band’s arrangement is very much a heavy one which takes liberties with the original melody, though it’s not quite as dirge-like as some of the extravagant pop-rock reinventions of, say, Vanilla Fudge. The rarities are rounded out by three recordings by the Coachmen of Dan Mitchell’s song “Stay Away” including a demo, an instrumental and the unreleased finished version.
When Tom Moore and Don Summers were drafted, however, it was over for The Moving Sidewalks. Gibbons and Mitchell pressed on and added Lanier Greig to the line-up, creating the earliest incarnation of ZZ Top. Thankfully, the band’s music can now be enjoyed both on its own merits and as the building blocks for ZZ Top. The Moving Sidewalks’ Complete Collection is wonderfully packaged in a sturdy mini-box with a removable lid. Both discs are housed in mini-LP sleeves, and the 52-page booklet tells the entire story of the band via an essay from Bill Bentley and James Austin, co-producer of the reissue with Billy Gibbons. There’s great attention to detail even on the CD labels, replicating the Tantara Records design on Disc One and Wand on Disc Two. Joe Hardy has remastered, and the sound of these vintage singles and previously unreleased recordings is clean and crisp throughout.
The Moving Sidewalks might have been relegated to a footnote in ZZ Top lore if not for the fine efforts of Billy Gibbons, James Austin and RockBeat Records. Here’s one “flashback” that was worth the wait!
You can order The Moving Sidewalks’ Complete Collection here!