Was 2012 The Year of Shoes? With a new album and several key vinyl reissues in stores, plus a biography en route, the power pop icons were on the minds of fans and critics across the globe. The band also made a series of rare—and ecstatically received—appearances in Austin during SXSW this past March, including a packed set at BLURT’s annual day party at the Ginger Man Pub (pictured above, as photographed by John Boydston).
BY DAVE STEINFELD
Mention the word “Shoes” to any serious power pop fan and you’re likely to get a response that has nothing to do with footwear.
Hailing from the dry town of Zion, Illinois, the band Shoes consists of guitarist Gary Klebe, guitarist Jeff Murphy, bassist John Murphy — all of whom write and sing — and various drummers. The seeds of the band were sown back in the 1960s when John Murphy and Klebe met in high school. John’s younger brother Jeff would join them a bit later. All three shared an obsession with the music of the British Invasion. By the mid-‘70s, influenced by The Beatles and other bands, they were recording their own music. After releasing a lengthy series of home-made demos and albums — culminating in 1977’s low-fi landmark Black Vinyl Shoes — they scored a major label deal. Present Tense, the first of Shoes’ three albums for Elektra, was released in late 1979 at the height of the power pop explosion. Produced in England by Mike Stone, the album featured a dozen songs including the minor hits “Tomorrow Night” and “Too Late.” The band’s sophomore set, 1981’s Tongue Twister, was even better to these ears. The songwriting was top-notch, and more evenly divided among the Murphys and Klebe. From Jeff Murphy’s hyper opening track, “Your Imagination” to John’s closing kiss-off, “Hate to Run,” the quality of the songs didn’t let up. In between you had top-notch tunes like Klebe’s wistful “Yes or No” and his hard-rock blast “She Satisfies,” plus “Girls of Today,” a three-way collaboration between the band members. That song is especially interesting because it contains what sounds like a synth line straight out of the Cars canon — yet the liner notes for Tongue Twister contain two simple words that render that impossible: ‘no keyboards.’
Shoes’ third and final album for Elektra, Boomerang, arrived in 1982. When it failed to produce a hit, the band and the label parted ways. They didn’t sit still for long, however. Having built their own studio (the Short Order Recorder in nearby Winthrop Harbor, Illinois), the band released 1984’s Silhouette on their own. Their next studio effort, 1990’s Stolen Wishes, managed to score a four-star review in Rolling Stone, despite the fact that it too was self-released and went against all the prevalent musical trends of the time. Shoes followed Stolen Wishes four years later with the disc Propeller — not a bad album, certainly, but also not their best work. Propeller proved to be the last studio recording the band would issue for a very long time. Although they did release several collections of demos as well as a live disc, there would not be another album of new material from Shoes — until now.
Ignition, the first new Shoes album in 18 years, arrived in August of last year (reviewed here at BLURT) – and it was well worth the wait. Featuring 15 songs, the album sounds fresher than Propellor did and finds Shoes moving in some interesting new directions while at the same time containing enough familiar-sounding songs to please longtime fans. Jeff Murphy’s lovely “Out of Round,” written for a deceased friend, hearkens back to the more melancholy, orchestrated side of The Beatles. Klebe is in fine form throughout, contributing such instant classics as the catchy “Heaven Help Me” and “Head Vs. Heart,” not to mention the ballad “Nobody to Blame.” But the standout song on the album is probably “Hot Mess.” Written by all three band members and placed right in the center of the disc, it’s like nothing else in the band’s repertoire. “Hot Mess” features a guitar riff nicked from the Rolling Stones via Tom Petty’s “Jammin Me” and raw, off-the-cuff vocals from John. Taken as a whole, it’s not a stretch to say that Ignition is the best Shoes album since the ’80s.
But that’s not all! With a new anthology, 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977 — 2012, due on October 2nd, and a 500+ page biography of the band by Mary Donnelly slated for release early next year, Shoes is suddenly back in a big way. I recently spoke with Jeff and John Murphy and found that in addition to being talented musicians, they’re super nice guys. Here are some excerpts from the two conversations.
[Below: Shoes doing “Hot Mess” at the BLURT SXSW day party.]
BLURT: Tell me about the musical beginnings of Shoes. Was yours a musical family? Were there certain incidents that hooked you on music when you were a kid?
Jeff Murphy: We didn’t have a musical family at all except for the fact that I remember listening to records every day. John and I, being only a year apart — you know, whatever one did the other one [did]. My father used to work for an electronics manufacturer where they made all the Silvertone stuff for Sears. So he would bring home tubes from transistor radios and stuff, which always fascinated me. I remember John and I got a record player for Christmas — probably in ’61. And the first record we got was “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Then in ’64, everything changed. Chicago radio was exploding with the British Invasion. They had a thing in Chicago called “The Silver Dollar Survey” where they played the Top 10 records, and we’d listen to see what Beatles song was gonna be number one that night. You knew it was gonna be a Beatles song, it was just [a question] of which one! It was so exciting.
I loved recording; I was always fascinated with recording tape and what it did. So it was kind of both things happening at the same time: that fascination with electronics and recording and stuff coupled with [everything] that was exploding musically.
In high school, a friend of mine was a bass player. He borrowed some money from my brother to get his car fixed and couldn’t pay him [back] so he gave him his bass. So John sort of became a bass player. John and Gary hooked up with each other in high school, having similar musical tastes. They worked together on a school publication, where they would kind of lampoon the teachers and the underclassmen and that kind of thing. So that’s where the band came from. It was really John and Gary’s idea, in the waning days of high school. John came up with the name. Probably around ’74 was when we started formally trying to write songs.
John Murphy: It was the British Invasion. Beatles stuff, certainly. And just about anything British kinda knocked everything [else] out of the way.
I don’t have a real connection to ’50s rock and roll. I mean, I appreciate it but as a kid, it didn’t mean much to me. Then all of a sudden, all that British stuff — you know, Peter and Gordon, The Hollies. That was what got us riveted to AM radio. Then, of course, when The Beatles broke up, you had to sort of find new music — even though they were still making [solo] records and everyone had a favorite Beatle. It was still more the tuneful rock stuff [that appealed to us]. That’s what we would latch onto, even in the early ’70s.
I talk to so many artists [who] cite The Beatles as the turning point — even musicians that I wouldn’t think would.
Jeff: As a kid, I was on the young side when they were on Ed Sullivan — but I saw them that first night. I mean, everyone [was] so focused on the same thing. How many TV stations did you have at the time? Almost everybody saw it because there was really no one else to watch.
My God, what a ride! Even just the span of ’64 to ’67 — to go from “She Loves You” to “A Day in the Life” — [was] an incredible leap in three years. They were a huge part of my life and they really motivated me to do what I’m doing. And certainly John and Gary too. That’s really our touchstone.
John, what does Jeff bring to Shoes that’s unique? Jeff, reverse question.
John: Boy, that’s a good one. The microphone likes Jeff’s voice. Like the camera likes some people, you know? He’ll just knock it out of the park the first time he’s singing. I mean, I’ll eventually get it [and] I know Gary takes a lot of time with his vocals. But I’ve seen Jeff just walk up there and [nail it]. He has a spontaneity that I think both Gary and I envy. [Another] thing that we’ve discovered when Jeff sings the harmony — when he’s singing with Gary, he sounds like Gary. When he’s singing with me, he sounds like me. Like I’m harmonizing with myself. It’s funny; he’s got almost a chameleon feel to his voice.
Jeff: John is what I would call a true artist. He is the most unconventional in his approach. He’ll do something and I’ll think, “I never would have thought of that!” He’s an artist in that way. It’s so interesting because of that.
Tell me a little about what Gary brings to Shoes that is special… perhaps something that you [two] don’t bring.
John: An attribute I think Gary has in spades is perseverance. Whatever challenges he may face — in any field, not just music — he’ll find a way to overcome it. Gary’s a very focused, determined guy.
Jeff: Being a licensed architect, Gary was very instrumental in designing and building our Short Order Recorder studios [and] also his own home studio, where we recorded Ignition. He’s a bit more reserved and likes to surprise us with new songs. Even the fact that he had built a new studio in his house was a shock to us. Gary tends to make very thought out, measured decisions, where I tend to be more impulsive and John is more tentative.
When you look back, your stuff was always critically acclaimed and [popular] in certain circles — but commercially, you guys didn’t reach the same level as Cheap Trick or The Knack. Does that bother you sometimes or is that water under the bridge at this point?
Jeff: One thing we always strived for — and this was probably because we were self-taught, none of us knows how to read a chart or play a scale — but we always strived to be accepted [by] our peers. We were blessed with great press over the years. My God, the record we did in 1990 in our studio [Stolen Wishes] got a four star review in Rolling Stone! There were people at major labels that were being fired [because of] that! (laughs) It’s that kind of mentality that happens at a record label. But you’re right: we were always the bridesmaid and never the bride.
It’s a double-edged sword. The problem with having a hit, in retrospect — I mean, if you look at a band like The Knack, what are they known for? “My Sharona” was a great song but that becomes a high bar to meet every time you write another [song]. One of the bands that we were very influenced by when we started was Big Star. We would talk about them at the time — this was mid and late ’70s — and people would say, “Big Star? Who’s that?” They never had a hit. But now, they’re respected for having this deep body of work without having that one song to live up to.
Getting to Ignition — amazingly, it’s your first album of new material in 18 years! Why now?
Jeff: We had been doing some things, kind of low-key. I released a solo album in 2007 called Cantilever. It was a private project, sort of like the early Todd Rundgren stuff, where he plays everything. But I still talked to John and Gary about it and played them the tracks. They were still involved [but] in more of an advisory kind of role than hands on. Shortly after I did my solo CD, I was rummaging around looking for photos and artifacts and stuff. I found this picture that caught my attention ’cause it was double exposed. And I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to release a CD called Double Exposure [of] the demos for the Present Tense and Tongue Twister albums?” ‘Cause we recorded everything in our demo studio before we went and did it in a professional studio for Elektra. So we put that out in 2007. So there were things that we did along the way.
We came back from [touring] Japan in 2009. A friend of mine died, tragically, [around] the end of that year. It really shook me up. In the spring, I had [written] this song [“Out of Round”] for him. I eventually made a demo of it and gave it to John and Gary. And Gary said, “Would you like to see my new studio? I just built a studio in my house.” So I went down and this [was] serious business! He really put in a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of great gear. So John and Gary took that song that I’d written about my friend and they kicked it up a notch — and it really changed the feel.
Once we started that song, it went really well. Gary wrote a few, John wrote a few. We had our drummer [John Richardson] come in and lay down tracks. And once we got those drums down for the first four or five songs — we thought, “Okay. We can do this.”
The track “Hot Mess” is definitely a different side [of Shoes]. When I first heard it, I didn’t know which of you was singing. [note: John sings lead]
John: Oh yeah. It was an experiment in the sense of, could we pull it off. It started with those guitars. When I went into the little drum booth, I said, “Let me see what I can do.” And the words I [wrote to] try to make them laugh. So I came out of the booth and they’d be laughing and [asking], “Did you just say this” or “Did you just say that?” When I sang the final verse, I drank a little more than normal, and I asked them, “Can I hold the mic?” Usually, you have mic facing you on a stand and you almost kind of attack it when you’re singing. But in this case, it was like a performance. I remember I’d bend down or back off from it. And I think that helped me be less self-conscious about singing it in that way.
Jeff: It’s really a fun song. It’s not a typical Shoes song but a lot of people are drawn to it. Like I said, that’s part of what we were raised on — that Stones/Beatles/British Invasion stuff. So it comes out like that once in awhile.
And is it just a coincidence that the book’s coming out?
Jeff: The book has been in the works for [over] three years now…. I think the book was a catalyst for us to kind of say, “We’re not dead.” [But writer Mary Donnelly] didn’t know we were recording. We just kinda sprung it on her as “Okay, here’s the ending of [your] book!” So the timing was kind of coincidental.
Below photos, in order: (1) Jeff/John/Skip/Gary early shot; (2) Gary/Jeff/Skip/John during the Elektra era; (3) John/Gary/Jeff circa “Propeller” album in ’94; (4) Shoes now!