Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Putting ZZ Top's Fuzzy Past in Focus

What’s underneath those beards, anyway? Anyone who has ever lent an ear to the legacy of long-lived boogie rock legends ZZ Top can tell you that there’s a fair share of Texas blues in the band’s background. But as an elegantly appointed new boxed set makes clear, the backstory of Billy Gibbons”the Top’s singer and guitarist since their ’69 inception”also boasts a heaping helping of psychedelia.

Moving Sidewalks “ The Complete Collection, just released by reissue specialists Rockbeat Records, chronicles the journey of a young Billy Gibbons through the Houston music scene of the mid-to-late ˜60s on his way to forming the band that would become a rock & roll phenomenon. If you’ve ever yearned to peek beneath the fulsome facial hair of the famous frontman, either literally or figuratively, all you have to do is open up this enticing package. Not only does the photo-laden 54-page booklet offer up images of a clean-shaven, baby-faced Billy in his teens as a member of The Coachmen and then the Moving Sidewalks, the two CDs encompass the entirety of both bands’ output.

It becomes obvious pretty quickly that the common thread between this period of Gibbons’ career and his work with ZZ Top is the blues. There’s a distinct blues influence running through the collection, especially when Gibbons is given a bit of extra room to dig into his axe and explore his passion for the licks of Texas legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie King, and T-Bone Walker, as on Joe Blues. But the twin psychedelic pillars of inspiration that played a part in Gibbons’ musical evolution were The Jimi Hendrix Experience and fellow Texans The 13th Floor Elevators. The influence of both can be easily discerned in the Moving Sidewalks’ short-but-sweet discography, the latter most obviously on Pluto Sept. 31st, a close cousin of Hendrix’s Fire.

Disc 1 of The Complete Collection contains the Sidewalks’ first and only LP, Flash, which was recorded in 1968 but not released until 1969, by which point the band had already broken up. It’s a heady blend of Elevators-esque, fuzztone-soaked, organ-fueled garage rock (Flashback, You Make Me Shake), Hendrix-flavored, bluesy psychedelia (Scoun Da Be, Crimson Witch), and off-the-wall sound collages worthy of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention (album-closing tandem tracks Eclipse and Reclipse). Gibbons’ searing, soaring guitar heroics tie it all together admirably. It’s just a shame that the band wasn’t around to reap the benefits of their efforts at the time of the album’s unveiling.

Even more impressive, though, is the second disc, consisting of non-LP singles and unreleased material by both The Coachmen and the Moving Sidewalks. The star of this CD (and of the entire package) is 99th Floor, the Sidewalks’ 1967 debut single; it’s a stirring, sizzling slice of garage psych that easily stands alongside the likes of the Elevators’ You’re Gonna Miss Me. The song was something of a regional sensation at the time, kicking off the band’s ultimately ill-starred career with a bang and helping them to nab opening slots for Texas shows by everyone from Mitch Ryder to Hendrix himself. But since the Sidewalks’ career ended up so truncated, the track is an underappreciated cult-classic item today. And while the other pre-album recordings may not be quite the equal of the aforementioned tune, but they’re certainly in the same ballpark.

Equally striking in an entirely different way is the band’s deconstruction of The Beatles‘ I Want To Hold Your Hand. The Moving Sidewalks slow the song down and turn it into a stomping, storming, psychedelic monster, quite akin to the early output of pioneering New York outfit Vanilla Fudge. Add in a handful of previously unreleased demos by The Coachmen, including a few early attempts at 99th Floor that show the teen Gibbons and company to have been more than a bit precocious, and you’ve got a pretty damn impressive showing for a band whose entire recording career only encompassed about a year and a half.