When I moved to Dallas in 1977, new friends talked fondly about Texas bands from the ’60s that many knew about but few had heard in years. The top three were the 13th Floor Elevators, Mouse and the Traps, and the Moving Sidewalks. When I began working record fairs, I could find vinyl recordings from the first two bands at collector’s prices, but never anything from the Sidewalks.
As a result, for decades I wasn’t alone in believing the Sidewalks were merely an apprentice band for Billy Gibbons before he hooked up with Dusty Hill and Frank Beard to form ZZ Top. While there have been previous reissues of the Sidewalks on CD, The Complete Collection was my first experience with the band. In the main, it still seems to me the Moving Sidewalks were an apprentice band for Gibbons before he became part of that “Little Ol’ Band from Texas.”
Back in 1968, the Houston-based Sidewalks were Gibbons (guitars, harmonica, vocals), Tom Moore (keyboards), Don Summers (bass), and Dan Mitchell (drums). (Along with Lanier Greig on keyboards, Mitchell was in the original 1969 lineup of ZZ Top.) In 1968, the Sidewalks released the 10-song Flash, featuring seven compositions written or co-written by Gibbons. While it has been frequently billed as psychedelic/blues rock, Flash has far more in common with the garage/punk rock of the period, as in the music of the Blues Magoos and Sky Saxon’s Seeds. The main difference is that the Sidewalks’ first album debuted two years after such bands had already crested on the charts.
The first of the two discs in The Complete Collection is Flash, and it’s easy to see one reason the Sidewalks never really broke out. There’s no hit single on it. True enough, there are many bits of psychedelia as with “Pluto – Sept 21st,” which is pure Hendrix with strong borrowings from “Fire.” While Hendrix himself praised Gibbons’ guitar playing and even taught him how to play “Foxy Lady,” the Hendrix cop should be forgiven.
“Eclipse” is a sound collage with Gibbons and producer Steve Ames editing tape bits to create what was called in the day a “freak out.” But you’re going to have to look hard to find the seeds of Gibbon’s ZZ Top work. Only once on Flash do we get a try at the real Texas blues. The seven-minute song “Joe Blues,” credited to all the band members, is played well enough with some good harmonica from Gibbons. However, the vocals showcase a singer a bit young to sound very convincing. It’s amazing to realize in only a few short years, Gibbons would be cranking out raunchy, rough, and growling lyrics like no one else.
Strangely, the real nuggets on The Complete Collection are on the second disc. It’s a compilation of 16 singles, alternate takes, and unreleased tracks including five from The Coachman, the pre-Sidewalks band with Gibbons. There are three versions of the Sidewalks’ closest claim to a hit, “99th Floor,” an acknowledged nod to the other Houston psyc-rock group, the 13th Floor Elevators. When I listened to it and the singles “What Are You Going To Do,” “Need Me,” and “Every Night A New Surprise,” I thought the Sidewalks had progressed into a tighter band than shown on Flash. Then I read the credits and saw these tracks had been released in 1967. Well, “99th Floor” remains the best of the hidden treasures and worthy of renewed interest beyond the Houston fans who might remember it as a short-lived number one hit in their city alone.
I’m not sure what to make of the various versions of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” All are punk rock, straight-up punk. For some, these could be dubbed early takes of what MC5, the New York Dolls and later the Sex Pistols would deliver. Or they can simply be considered what they were, studio jams that were simply raw rock and roll. Very raw. They are the sort of recordings you’d expect to hear only in a collection where each and every bit of accessible tape would be put in one comprehensive package.
All this, from the trippy to the earthy, gets the deluxe treatment in a nice box with a 56-page book, not booklet, in which Bill Bentley places the Moving Sidewalks in a historical perspective of Texas music beginning with blues of the 1920s. It’s a good read for those not familiar with the Texas scene, but I admit feeling that trying to put the Sidewalks into the blues lineage of Blind Lemon Jefferson to Stevie Ray Vaughan is pushing the genre’s boundaries a bit far.
For my ears, The Complete Collection is an attractive package for those who like ’60s rock obscurities and music historians who like to connect the dots between legendary bands such as ZZ Top with their roots. I’d add that those who like what Rhino used to collect on those “Nuggets” anthologies might want to add this box to their libraries. The closer you are to the music of that time and place, the more you’ll be interested in this footnote to Texas music history.