By Jim Schutze
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Forty-three years after forming ZZ Top, Billy Gibbons is trying to unlearn almost everything he knows about music. Everything except the psychedelic foundation he laid with his former group, the Moving Sidewalks, long before the famous beard sprouted. "We're taking things in reverse. The enticement of unlearning is certainly working its magic with the band and being able to tag the energy that was flying around in 1967 is rewarding," he says from his native Houston in his familiar gravel-eating growl.
Gibbons was still in high school in Houston when the Sidewalks' first single, "99th Floor," made its way up the local charts. Fueled by fuzzed-out guitars, spook-house organ and a heavy dose of caterwauling vocals, the group garnered plenty of acclaim for its originality. While some regional groups turned their backs on their Texas heritage, the Moving Sidewalks embraced these roots, incorporating gritty rhythm and blues influences into kaleidoscopic tunes that struck a chord with the locals and beyond.
One of those listeners was Jimi Hendrix, who asked the group to open for him on tour in 1968, a turn of events that would embolden the fledgling Gibbons to learn exactly what he could do with a guitar and inspire him to push things even further. "I stayed in hotel rooms across the hallway from Hendrix, and he'd invite me over to his room to play," Gibbons says. "It was so sudden, and the impact and the inspiration kind of left us spinning."
One of the more mind-expanding evenings between the two took place while waiting for their equipment truck to arrive after a performance. "Hendrix tied some giant sponges on the headstocks of our guitars," Gibbons says. "We plugged in, turned the amps up, and he had buckets of fluorescent paint. We dipped the sponges down into these buckets of fluorescent paint, and there was this giant blank piece of paper used for highway billboards. Feedback was flying and it was ear-splittingly loud and we were sloshing these psychedelic colored paints with black lights above us — it was just nuts."
The Moving Sidewalks later returned to Houston to lay their psychedelic visions down on tape for what would become their only album, Flash. A cacophonous mixture of screaming guitars, heady drums and backmasking, it saw the band hone its direction to a fine point, including transforming the Wildweeds' soul-filled "No Good to Cry" into an acid-laced ballad.
Unfortunately, the work was marred from the start. Their management pushed back the album release on the homespun Tantara label and left the group to continue woodshedding with evaporating radio play. They were offered a tour with the Doors, but when they opened in Dallas, an overly zealous roadie loaded too much flash powder into the Sidewalks' pyrotechnics, which set the Doors' amplifiers on fire. They watched helplessly as their tour hopes went up in smoke.
The group's snake-bitten luck finally culminated when bassist Don Summers and organist Tom Moore found themselves in the crosshairs of Vietnam. "What can you do when Uncle Sam comes calling but get on board?" Gibbons asks. "We were just on the verge of learning how to do it and getting a taste of success."
With half of the group ripped away by war, Gibbons conscripted players to fill the void, but the attempt was half-hearted and short-lived. Combined with their ill-prepared label's eventual anemic album release in 1969, the group soon splintered.
More than four decades and countless bootlegs later, the Moving Sidewalks' legend is cemented as a bona fide crown jewel of Texas psychedelia next to the 13th Floor Elevators. Yet, the group had never seen a dime from their recordings. That is, until late last year, when RockBeat Records released The Complete Collection, a two-disc box that combines Flash, three singles and a handful of unreleased early demos.
"It's taken an interesting twist with the unexpected popularity of the box set," Gibbons says with a hint of surprise. "It has brought us into contact with the resurgence of that early period of psychedelic music."
No one in the group expected such a positive response. A significant portion of their newfound fandom comes via contemporary polychromatic bands like the Black Angels and Tame Impala, bridging a musical gap between generations of listeners, many of whom weren't even alive when the group began performing.
Cavestomp! concert promoter Jon Weiss, who's put together many a show for garage bands of lore — including the Sonics — had long dreamed of a Sidewalks reunion. Figuring this was his opportunity, he reached out to drummer Dan Mitchell, who in turn reached out to Gibbons. "We've all remained in touch for the last four decades," Gibbons says. "We tossed it around and the invitation was so appealing, we kind of fell into it. What am I supposed to say to something like this besides yes?"
Leading the charge for ZZ Top, Gibbons, of course, has rarely put down a guitar over the decades. Turns out, his former cohorts hadn't stopped playing either. "As soon as Mr. Summers and Mr. Moore fulfilled their term of service with Uncle Sam, they returned to Houston and got back with Mitchell on drums. They did soundtracks for movies and mostly studio stuff. Nobody from the group has stopped playing music; they've stayed sharp as a knife.