Back in the late ‘70s a little ol’ band from Zion, Illinois, helped usher the term “power pop” into the rock parlance. (They are pictured above.) In 2015, the group is as active—and relevant—as ever. Our resident Shoes expert talks to cofounder Jeff Murphy about their recent releases, their involvement with a power pop documentary, and the twinned physics/aesthetics of vinyl.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
The Knack may have scored the biggest hit of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s power pop craze, but there were many other bands from that era who were just as talented and probably more well-loved by both critics and pop devotees. Some particularly memorable entries in the skinny tie sweepstakes include 20/20 and The Beat (both, like The Knack, from LA), Sorrows (from New York City), The Producers (from Atlanta), The Romantics (from Detroit), The Records and The Jags (both from England) — and, hailing from the small Chicago suburb of Zion, Illinois, a lovable, low-key but legendary band called Shoes.
I last wrote about Shoes for this magazine in 2012. That summer, they released Ignition, their first studio offering in18 years and one of their best ever. On the heels of that release came a single-disc anthology called 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection, courtesy of Real Gone Music. Then in 2013, Mary Donnelly’s exhaustive biography of the band, Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes, arrived. And the band embarked on a rare series of tour dates (including an appearance at South By Southwest at the annual BLURT/Dogfish Head Beer day party—check a clip from the performance, below).
In the two years or so since then, Shoes — singer-guitarist Gary Klebe, singer-guitarist Jeff Murphy, singer-bassist John Murphy and ‘new’ drummer John Richardson — has remained busy. (Sadly, Skip Meyer — who played drums on all the band’s major label discs — passed away last summer at the age of 64.) Ignition clearly lived up to its title; it served as a creative spark for Shoes and thrust the band back into power pop prominence after many years of flying under the radar. One of the band’s new projects is another compilation, Primal Vinyl, which arrived on Record Store Day (April 18th). The album was released as an LP by BOMP/Alive NaturalSound Records, in a limited edition and on rainbow-colored vinyl. (It is absolutely gorgeous!—Vinyl Ed.)
Primal Vinyl is a great investment not only for longtime Shoes fans but also for folks who are looking to familiarize themselves with one of the great pop bands of the New Wave era. It contains only a dozen songs (six per side) but those songs happen to be extremely well chosen. Pretty much all of Shoes’ albums are represented here with the exception of Ignition. Many of their best known songs — the hits “Tomorrow Night” and “Too Late” from their Elektra debut, Present Tense; the haunting rocker “Boys Don’t Lie” from 1977’s self-released Black Vinyl Shoes; and later favorites like “Don’t Do This to Me” and “Love is Like a Bullet” — all made the cut. The band’s official sophomore set, Tongue Twister, is especially well represented, which is good news for this writer as it’s my favorite Shoes album. But Tongue Twister is represented, appropriately enough, with a twist: “Burned Out Love,” “Girls of Today” and “Hate to Run” — top notch tunes, all — are included here in their earlier, demo versions. And there’s another bonus for collectors: a live version of “I Don’t Wanna Hear It” (the closing song from Present Tense), which Shoes recorded in 2013.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Jeff Murphy who, like the other members of Shoes, is still based in the Midwest. We discussed not only on Primal Vinyl but also the band’s past and future, the advantages and disadvantages of vinyl and power pop in general. Like myself, Murphy is an unabashed Beatles fan who never tires of talking about them. And despite his Midwestern roots and down to Earth demeanor, he’s clearly an artist — if not a particularly tortured one. “Today’s crop of [acts from] The Voice or American Idol [are] out of touch with the source of great art,” says Murphy. “Ugly, outcast or fringe characters stand no chance of winning or even participating in those type of popularity contests. Yet they are the most inspired to create the art that speaks to the angst that they feel — and [that] dwells deep within all of us. I don’t know if it’s true that you have to suffer to create great art but I do think that from suffering, a person feels a deeper sense of emotion that often gives rise to artistic expression.” Amen to that.
BLURT: Tell me a little about Primal Vinyl. What prompted you guys to do this?
JEFF MURPHY: Since we finished Ignition, we’d been talking about getting something out on vinyl. [It’s] just become one of those things that’s had a resurgence. We talked about getting Ignition done [on vinyl] but the length [prevented that]. One of the advantages of CDs — and the disadvantages of vinyl — is that you can make long albums. And we’ve always been into that. To us, it was always ‘let’s get as much music [on there] as we can, let’s [include] a lyric sheet and a poster.’ ‘Cause we’re collectors ourselves.
So I had been talking with someone at a distributor that we use. They recommended that we contact BOMP [who] were friends of ours. Back in the late ’70s, we did a single with them. Greg Shaw, of course, is gone. But [his widow], Suzy [Shaw], still runs the mail order. So we sent an email to Suzy about possibly getting Ignition done on vinyl. And she said, “Well, I don’t really do that end of it. BOMP [now] is really more kind of catalog stuff.” But her [current] husband Patrick runs this label called Alive Natural Sounds. So she passed me over to Patrick. [He] and I exchanged emails a bit and then he said, “What would you think about doing a Shoes primer? There’s a whole new generation of collectors and buyers and music fans — and they missed you guys the first time around. What would you think about that?” So they put together a list of songs and we got together, the guys in the band, and talked about it [and said], “Let’s do something a little odd. Instead of just making a collection of old songs, let’s [include] some demos or something people might not have heard.”
So it’s got some cool stuff [on it]. There’s something from Black Vinyl Shoes, there’s something from Present Tense, there’s something from Tongue Twister and Boomerang — all [our] albums. And then there’s also a couple of demos, there’s this live thing. To us, it was more exciting to have some [previously] unreleased things in there as well.
And there’s 12 songs on the album?
There’s 12 songs and it’s a pretty good sampling [of] our career. We tried to make sure there was something from virtually every record. Not every one but a pretty good cross section… There’s nothing from Ignition. ‘Cause what we’re kind of hoping is that we can do Ignition at some point down the line and maybe even add a song. We could do Ignition on double sided [vinyl]. We’ll see. That’s kind of future speculation [but] that’s what triggered the conversation with Patrick.
There’s three demos [of] songs that were done [for] theTongue Twister album. We had an eight-track studio we’d demo everything at before we’d go in and do the final version for the major label release. And they actually sound pretty good! In some cases, when you do a demo — and this has been something that bands have struggled with forever — there’s something [special] that you capture. Whatever it is that inspires that song, that’s the pure genesis of it. The first time you do it, it’s inspiration; the next time you do it, it’s imitation.
I know that we used the demo version of “Hate to Run” on Primal Vinyl rather than the version we did for Elektra. That is a perfect example of a song that John was never happy with; he always liked the demo version better. There’s a fire [to it].
We still have a whole set of demos for the Boomerang album that we did in the early ‘80s. We demoed the whole thing and we’ve still got those [songs] somewhere. It might be kinda cool to put those out at some point.
I think I read there are 800 copies [of Primal Vinyl].
Yeah, I thought we had done a thousand, but I read 800 as well. I don’t know if that’s because if there was some kind of under-run at the plants, or if they’re releasing 800 on Record Store Day and there’s actually more. I don’t think there [are].
It’s interesting that [vinyl] has experienced a resurgence in the last couple of years.
Yeah, it’s been surprising. And who knows [whether] it will expand or sustain. But we wanted to do it whether it was [popular or not]… I don’t know that this is the Record Store day vibe but [back in the day] there was a cool sense of community and socializing when you went into a record store. We got to know our local record proprietor. We’d go in and he’d pull a record out and say, “Check this out, you guys’ll like this!” It binds you, you know? There’s a sense of camaraderie that people don’t get when they swap CDs or [listen to] iPods! (laughter) So that’s part of what’s fun about it too. (Amen.—Record Store Ed.)
The limits of vinyl are partly simple geometry. All the grooves have to be crammed into that five or six inches of real estate — and the more grooves you try to cut in, the closer together they need to be. Since a loud passage cuts a wider groove, the only way to fit it all on there is to reduce the volume so you can squeeze the grooves closer together. Another factor is that the grooves on the outside are traveling much faster than the grooves near the inside. This creates multiple problems; there is less real estate to write the information as the needle gets closer to the inside of the disc, so there is more compression and less volume. Also, the higher frequencies become more muted and distorted because of the speed reduction… It doesn’t seem that noticeable on other bands’ music but when it’s you’re own music, you become hyper-sensitive to all the little hiccups and changes.
But all that aside, it’s still the format that evokes the most love, devotion and respect. It demands more listener participation than the download and encourages the listener to take the album’s songs together, as a more complete body of work, rather than the cherry-picking of song downloads. It’s like only reading one chapter of a great book; no matter how well it’s written or how engrossing it is, the entire book reads as a complete experience.
Can I ask you about a couple of specific tracks on Primal Vinyl? One of the songs that you did that’s always been one of my favorite Shoes tunes is “The Summer Rain.” I was just curious — any memories of what inspired that song? It’s one that’s aged really nicely.
Oh, thank you. I remember vividly when I wrote that song. I like the D chord; it’s just got a nice chime. It seems like almost every record, I do a song based around the D chord — and that’s one example.
When I wrote it, it was in the pre-drum machine days. So if I was writing at home — or Gary or John was writing at home — we would maybe have a little clicker or something to keep time. What I did was [take] the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper” — not the song that kicks off the album but the song right before “A Day in the Life.” It’s a little faster [and] it’s got a nice feel to it. Paul counts off ‘one-two-three-four’ and then [there’s] the drum thing. So I recorded that and made a loop of it. [And] that was my rhythm track! That’s what I constructed that D chord around — that speed and tempo and drum pattern. And then of course the echo was a direct homage to “Paperback Writer.” [I think] “Paperback Writer” is the moment when pop music became power pop. I love the riff, I love the guitar tone, I love the vocals, I love the technology — it incorporates all these things I love [about] the genre that we have become part of.
I’m leery when someone tries to pigeonhole a band and says, “How do you feel when they call you power pop?” My first response is, “You need to tell me who’s power pop and I’ll tell you if I’m part of that or not.” (laughs) Because the genre is defined so loosely. Some people are very strict: jangle guitar, Beatle thing. That’s part of it. But to me, it’s much more vast than that. I [consider] people like Nirvana power pop. People like Foo Fighters and Fountains of Wayne and even Collective Soul. I mean, that’s all in the genre. But from a strict definition, people kinda weave in and out of it. I think I said something to you [earlier] about how The Beatles, of course, are probably the genesis of the whole power pop thing. But people wouldn’t think to include a song like “Helter Skelter” or “She’s So Heavy” — and yet it’s the same band. That’s why it’s really confining when people say power pop. For the most part, it’s kind of a clever way of saying “wimpy rock.” And I don’t look at it that way.
But “Summer Rain” is definitely one of those songs that would probably be considered — at least by us — pretty squarely in the power pop [genre].
Tell me about “Tomorrow Night,” which kicked off Present Tense and is also the first tune on Primal Vinyl. You sang lead on that one and that’s obviously one of the more popular Shoes songs.
Yeah, it’s kind of come full circle. Gary and I wrote that song together. In the late ’70s, Greg Shaw from BOMP! had approached us and asked us if we would record a single. And he asked us to re-record the song “Okay,” that was on the [independently released] Black Vinyl Shoes album. In our band, we strive very hard to keep everyone happy and to [have] equal representation. John wrote “Okay,” a single only has two sides and there are three writers [in Shoes]. The only way to make it equal was for Gary and I to write a song on the B-side.
I had started something; the working title was “Wonderwax.” It was kind of the picked guitar part that goes through the song. That’s all I had at the time. So Gary and I sat down — we literally sat across [from each other] and we threw lines at each other and threw guitar passages at each other until we came up with that [song]. There’s three versions [of ‘Tomorrow Night”], actually; there’s a demo version, there’s the version that was released on BOMP! and then there’s the version that we did on England, which showed up on Present Tense. And that’s the version they chose [to include Primal Vinyl].
Is there anything else that Shoes has going on that I should know about?
Well, I haven’t read it but I know that the second volume of Ken Sharp’s book [is] coming out, Play On: Power Pop Heroes, Volume 2. I read Volume 1. In Volume 2, I guess there’s a pretty decent section on Shoes.
One of the [other] things is that there’s a filmmaker named Justin Fielding who is working on a power pop movie, sort of a documentary. He’s been flying around the country, interviewing people. And he’s coming to the Midwest [soon] and wants to interview us for that. He said, “How many bands can you incorporate into an hour and a half documentary?” But he said Shoes — because of the ‘do it yourself’ thing [and] because we’ve sort of worn just about every hat [and] experienced so many different facets of the industry — [are] gonna figure pretty prominently in this documentary.
And like I said, we’ve talked about trying to get Ignition out on vinyl. Maybe we can get an additional song on there. I’m pretty sure Gary’s got new songs in the oven. So there’s always something going on.
Go HERE to read Prof. Steinfeld’s earlier interview with the Murphy brothers.