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Music Review: Moving Sidewalks – The Complete Collection

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The Moving Sidewalks were a band I had heard a great deal about over the years, but one I had never actually heard prior to the new two-CD Complete Collection. Their lone LP was titled Flash (1968) and is mentioned in just about every cool garage band retrospective book I have come across. Somehow though, I had never been able to locate a copy of it. In contrast, their fellow Texans the 13th Floor Elevators’ material has always been relatively easy to find. The upshot of all this is that when I did finally get a chance to listen to Flash, my expectations were very high. And it still knocked me out. All of the accolades it has received over the years were actualy justified, because it is a killer.

The first thing people usually mention about the Moving Sidewalks is that they were Billy Gibbons‘s band prior to ZZ Top. As the vocalist, guitar and harmonica player, and writer or co-writer of seven of the 10 songs on Flash, Gibbons was obviously the leader. Although he was young, his guitar playing was already well defined. Check out the 7:39 of “Joe Blues” (credited to the whole band) for some great electric Texas blues. The song is a smoker. Just to be clear though, the Moving Sidewalks were not a “one man show.” In addition to Gibbons, the group included Dan Mitchell (drums), Tom Moore (piano and organ), and Don Summers (bass).

The new two-CD Complete Collection is the definitive Moving Sidewalks set. Disc one contains the 10-song Flash album, while the second features 16 non-LP singles and unreleased tracks. Five of these are by The Coachmen, Gibbons’ band prior to the Sidewalks. The Complete Collection is one of those rare compilations that really gets it right.

First of all there is the Flash album, which should be even more acclaimed as the “lost classic” than it is. When I bought the reissued version of Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets collection back in 1978 or so, I finally got the whole garage rock thing. The double-LP set highlighted such great one-hit wonders as “Psychotic Reaction” by the Count Five and “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” by The Electric Prunes. “99th Floor” by the Moving Sidewalks would have fit right in.

Anyway, the 1972 Elektra Records set was re-released on Sire in 1976. Sire Records would become the home to The Ramones, Talking Heads, and others, and head honcho Seymour Stein correctly predicted that the world was finally really ready to embrace Nuggets. I certainly dug it, and began searching for the full albums by some of the artists. I sure do miss the days of the cut-out bins where I found a number of them. As I discovered though, most of these one-hit wonders were that way for a reason. The albums were usually pretty bad, with the exception being the single.

This was not the case with the Moving Sidewalks. They had a regional hit of sorts with “99th Floor,” but it was not even on Flash, although it appears on the bonus CD. Was it a sign of the times that the lead track on Flash was titled “Flashback?” Probably, but contrary to what one might think, this is not some heavy acid-drenched tune, just a very cool rock song. I like the nod Gibbons makes to Hendrix by briefly quoting “Third Stone From the Sun” during his solo.

Flash is definitely an album of its time, as the segue from “Flashback” into “Scoun Da Be” shows. Thanks to George Harrison’s interest in Indian music, a musical hybrid known as “raga-rock” briefly emerged. “Scoun Da Be” is most definitely raga-rock, and although extremely dated, it is still kind of fun to hear.

The psychedelia really emerges on “Pluto – Sept. 31st,” co-written by Gibbons and producer Steve Ames. The 5:12 track is sort of a two-part affair. The first section reminds me a bit of “Stone Free,” while the second, organ dominated segment is fairly trippy. But the serious psychedelia comes in the final two tracks, “Eclipse” (3:37) and “Reclipse” (2:31). These amount to basically one six-minute freak out. They are as wild as anything released that year. One thing is certain, anyone hearing this stuff would certainly know that there was as much “mind-expansion” going on in the Lone Star state as there was the Haight.

All too often, the reason that a band’s leftover material remained in the vault for decades was because it wasn’t very good. In the case of the Moving Sidewalks though, the reason was much more prosaic: record company greed. Until now, the way to hear the first two Moving Sidewalks singles was to get the extremely rare original 45s. Wand Records held on to the rights to them with an iron fist.

The Sidewalks’ first single was the previously mentioned “99th Floor.” It was released in February 1967 on the Tantara label, then re-released by Sceptor/Wand later that year. The B-side was “What Are You Going To Do?” another radio-friendly Billy Gibbons tune. The second Moving Sidewalks single was “Need Me” b/w “Every Night a New Surprise,” also released in ‘67 by Wand.

The bonus CD includes those singles, plus alternate, unreleased versions of them. There are numerous other oddities here as well, including the excellent previously unreleased instrumental “Headin’ Out,” which like Flash’s “Joe Blues” is credited to all four members of the band. It is another bloozy wonder, quite possibly the result of an in-studio jam.

The weirdest of the weird has to be  “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Three versions of it are probably two too many, but what the hell, it is pretty wild. Imagine Blue Cheer cranking their amps up not to 11, but to 12, and tackling the mop-tops’ first American hit and you’ll get some idea of what this crazed track is all about.

The final five tunes are from The Coachmen, who were Gibbons’ band prior to the Moving Sidewalks. The Coachmen songs break down to three takes of “Stay Away” and two of “99th Floor.” All five were recorded during sessions in 1966.

There is a lot of material here, and this whole set was obviously a labor of love. It is great, on many levels, and really brings the phenomenon that ZZ Top later became into perspective. One can see exactly where Billy Gibbons began, and how he progressed as a musician, beginning all the way back in 1966.

This Moving Sidewalks collection educated me in a completely unexpected way. I thought I was “just” going to hear a record I had long wanted to hear. But it very effectively presents the career of Billy Gibbons as a musician who I have much more respect for now than I did before.

Almost as significant as the music is the 56-page booklet. Bill Bentley takes the long look, with a highly inclusive look at the music scene of Texas. He goes all the way back to bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson in the 1920s, and traces the music up to the Moving Sidewalks and beyond. The Complete Collection really is as good as it gets when it comes to definitive compilations of obscure bands.

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