Take 5: Pre-ZZ Top Songs You Should Know

ZZ Top’s blockbuster Eliminator was released more than 40 years ago on March 23, 1983. But the drum machines and synthesizers that characterize that album weren’t part of the trio’s original recipe: In their early days, they were a hard-charging rock band.

Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill formed ZZ Top in Texas in 1969 (drummer Frank Beard joined soon thereafter). All three were already well-known and accomplished musicians on the Texas scene. Coming up in a musical community that included fabled psych-rock pioneer Roky Erickson (of the 13th Floor Elevators), the three musicians who would gain worldwide fame as ZZ Top drew from hard rock, r&b, blues and psychedelia with their own music.

Some of the roots of the original ZZ Top sound can be found in recordings made before that trio came together. Here are five track you should know, all recorded before ZZ Top made its debut as “that little ol’ band from Texas.”

The Moving Sidewalks – “99th Floor” (1967)
Moving Sidewalks were a Texas-based band featuring guitarist Billy F. Gibbons and drummer Frank Beard. Greatly influenced by local heroes the 13th Floor Elevators, the band gave itself a name that nodded toward Erickson’s group. And this song was a pointed ode to the Elevators. All that said, the sound of the tune owes at least as much to the tight-synchronization garage rock of Paul Revere and the Raiders, especially their hit “Just Like Me.”

The Moving Sidewalks – “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1968)
Its all but impossible to find a band of the mid- or late sixties (or beyond) that doesn’t draw influence or inspiration from The Beatles. But Moving Sidewalks performed a radical reinvention of this early hit by the Fab Four, treating it in a manner not unlike what might have happened if Vanilla Fudge and Blue Cheer got together in the studio.

The Moving Sidewalks – “Flashback” (1969)
The Moving Sidewalks never found substantial chart success outside their native Texas, but the band left behind a number of worthy tracks. This late-period number may be the group at its best, fusing a snappy arrangement, expert playing and just the right amount of heaviness. (Note: a 2012 boxed set, The Complete Collection brings together all known recordings from the band, along with additional demos that predate them.

American Blues – “If I Were a Carpenter” (1967)
Drummer Frank Beard was in another late sixties band, American Blues. That group’s lineup also included Dusty Hill. Their blues-rock approach to material successful recast songs by others into the idiom. And perhaps the best example of this is the group’s reading of Tim Hardin’s folk classic, reimagined here as a jamming and hypnotic rocker with two leads guitars crisscrossing.

American Blues – “Fugue for Lady Cheriff” (1967)
With its wordless chant that opens the arrangement, this track is clearly inspired by the Yardbirds’ “Still I’m Sad.” The psychedelic character of the song – and others like it on the band’s American Blues Is Here LP – led guitarist Rocky Hill (Dusty’s brother) to leave the band, preferring blues. One at a time, the other two members hooked up with Gibbons, and the rest is history.