Shoes – Black Vinyl Shoes Anthology 1973-1978
Released 31st August 2018
Expanded reissue of the 1977 Power Pop classic, plus two self-released albums that predated it and oodles of extras….LTW’s Ian Canty hears a band that developed in isolation, but were in tune with the changes of the late 70s well before they actually happened…….
Shoes (not the Shoes, like it wasn’t the Buzzcocks, a band they occasionally resembled) developed in the early 70s out of the long-standing friendship between John Murphy and Gary Klebe, who met at an early age in the small town of Zion, Illinois. John’s younger brother and boffin Jeff would soon become an integral part of the scheme, but for the moment the band only really existed in the heads of the two pals. They did not at this point in time even possess any instruments, Shoes was just an idea. They gradually developed musical skills and honed their vision, taking in such influences as concise, tuneful 60s Pop, Bowie, Todd Rundgren and above all Big Star. For the time being though Shoes only really existed in the correspondence between Gary (now at Illinois University) and John, in the form of jokey cartoons where they took over the music world.
However a big step forward came in 1973, where the friends acquired guitars and Jeff managed to cop a 4 track tape machine. By 74 he also had got his hands on a disc cutting machine, so Shoes could now manufacture their own records. He had made himself indispensable to the band and though never officially being asked to join, was now the third Shoe. I’m tempted to think of them at this point in time being like a more tune-based US version of the Swell Maps, labouring away in the middle of nowhere pretty much for their own amusement. Then suddenly having the light cast on their endeavours during the coming of Punk, but not quite actually being that exactly. What is clear is that Shoes were one of many working in isolation, with a musical vision that would pre-empt the sounds of later on in the 70s.
Their first attempt at a record was the mini LP Heads Or Tails, limited to a mere four copies, one for each Shoes (a friend called Andy Joseph provided percussion on the disc). This record is closely guarded by the band’s members to this day as they don’t think it captured them at their best, but there are a couple of tracks included as bonus tracks on disc 1 here for us to judge, Nothing Means More and I’d Like To Take You Out Again. They’re gently, slightly eerie Pop/Rock, not totally in step with the Glam era, having a pronounced 60s influence which wasn’t widely heard at the time.
They were already different, but things would take a further step forward when they were temporarily deprived of the services of Gary Klebe, who went on his travels to Paris. The Murphy brothers enlisted a drummer in Barry Shumaker and dedicated the album they completed together to their absent friend by giving it the title One In Versailles (John’s parts had to be recorded when he returned from uni, so all in all it was a bitty recording process). Beginning work on this LP in the last months of 1974, even without Klebe this was a huge advance for Shoes and this album makes up the bulk of disc three presented here.
Dance In Your Sleep convinces from the off – gritty Proto-New Wave with heavenly soaring vocals, it is a good three years ahead of the crowd. The sad self-analysis of Do I Get So Shy is wedded to a beautiful tune with some great jangly guitar and Shoes’ 60s influences show through on the Byrds/Kinks love song Kristine. Eggroll Rock may be one of the “lightweight” tracks according to the sleeve-note, but there is a hint of Devo about it which makes it interesting and The Sun benefits from some rough and fuzzy 60s-style Garage Punk guitar.
The bonus tracks on this disc include Rock ‘N’ Roll Freak which seems like an aural version of what I imagine the Shoes cartoon might have been like before the band existed. Crowd noise and tuning up giving it a fake “live” feel, this comes across as a cutting pastiche of empty-headed stadium Rock.
With Klebe back from his travels Shoes reconvened later in 1975 for their third opus, one which would eventually be released as the album Bazooka. Gary was taken aback at the progress that his friends had made during his sabbatical, even going as far as to not singing lead on any of the tracks because of the fine job the Murphy boys had done on Versailles. The band relentlessly honed their sound and sought to make a more “Rock” sounding record. This time round the LP commenced with Pinheads – in the sleeve-note interview the band admit to being Ramones fans, but even so 1975 is pretty early and the song itself sits somewhere between Eddie and the Hot Rods and da Brudders – a pretty cool place to dwell.
Along With Love is a Skiffle-flavoured Power Pop delight and Alone But Satisfied combines breathy vocals and changes of pace with Folk Rock tones. Jeff Murphy’s electrical experiments enhance the Garage sound of Snap! and the riffy My Anisette works very well too. Bazooka is a record three years ahead of its time. The only bonus track on this one is a demo version of I Can Make It, an oddity in Shoes’ canon in having a flute part, a gentle tune with some strangely watery sounding guitar.
In April 1976 Shoes made their belated live debut and were finally more than a secret between the band members, Skip Meyer joining on drums being the final piece in the jigsaw. They set about recording what would be their fourth album, which also would be put into use as a demo to hawk around labels in hope of a recording contract. A wholly different sound was achieve by plugging the guitars into Jeff’s new recording console, which he fiddled about with until he got the kind of buzzy sound he was after. The recording would eventually be known as Black Vinyl Shoes, the first entry into the world of Shoes for most.
Black Vinyl Shoes suddenly and unexpectedly landed in the small South Coast town I was domiciled in around 1981, as an item in the post-Christmas sale in the local Woolies. For some reason odd stuff from major labels used to end up there (BVS was eventually licenced to Sire), probably as a result of unsold items being cleared out of Woolworths’ storage nationally. I can remember getting the Only Ones debut, Germ Free Adolescents and the Jam’s This Is The Modern World as key two pound bargains in other years. Black Vinyl Shoes was there this time round, among hoards of unsold Ohio Players and Grease LPs. At first I had no idea what it was, but I took a chance as it seemed from the cover a bit, cough, New Wave.
I’m very glad I did because it is a unique and inspiring piece of work and shows Shoes at their best, dancing very much to their own beat. Part of this is due to being one of those rare recordings where the limitations of the methods used to set the songs down on tape work in favour of the band in question. The vocals come across like a ghostly near whisper, the guitars alternate between fuzz and scuttling away in the background with the drums the most prominent instrument in the mix. It all adds up to a one-of-a-kind sound that is completely spellbinding. Don’t get me wrong, the songs Shoes played on this record would have still been great if recorded in a big studio, but the home-made sound gives them an extra layer of charm and air of mystery.
If you compare the album’s sound to the single tracks issues by Bomp a year later Tomorrow Night and a re-recording of Okay (both included as bonus tracks on this disc), the difference is plain to see. The more professionally recorded tracks are still very good examples of Power Pop, but perhaps lack a little of the enigma of Black Vinyl Shoes that helped make it so appealling. Even so the single is a smashing piece of powerful Pop, eminently tuneful and bright. Back to the album itself, Black Vinyl Shoes is such a complete and self-contained piece of work that picking out highlights seems irrelevant, but I suppose is necessary to give an idea of the sounds contained therein.
Capital Gain sneaks in a neat Psych intro before emerging as a fully formed piece of Punk Pop, tension is allowed to build so the release feels like a golden moment of pure musical beauty (there is an offcut of the intro/studio chat as a bonus entitled Capital Offence). Euphoric harmony vocals on Fire For A While contrast nicely with sparse music, it all works wonderfully well and Running Start could even be termed Proto-Indie if you like. The spooky, whispered/hoarse vocals are in their element on Boys Lie, fuzz and maracas also present in a superior Pop shuffle and Fatal shares something with the best Undertones/Buzzcocks singles, the near-ghostly voice that floats over the top of a delicious tune taking it far away from most Power Pop contenders.
There’s a raft of bonuses with this one and apart from the ones I have mentioned above I Wanna Hide builds up to a smooth and pleasing crescendo and Ever Again is a masterclass in restrained power. I’ll Take You Away has a real drive to it and benefits from a dreamy middle section and Baby’s Gone revels in a slightly surreal atmosphere. They were far from the kind of one dimensional load of blokes in skinny ties, that is one thing this collection makes abundantly clear.
Black Vinyl Shoes Anthology 1973 – 1978 is as complete a story as we are likely to see of Shoes’ progress from imaginary band to band that fired many an imagination. Developing in near obscurity the Murphys and Klebe built a legend through their ingenuity and originality, veiled in secrecy so deep sometimes members of the band did not even know if they were in the band or even if Shoes existed. This collection is stuffed full of wonderful pop that often takes an unexpected route, but never loses sight of the need for a cracking and memorable tune. Power Pop can often fall into cliché, but that is never an option for Shoes – they stood out in the crowd, always looked to innovate and with Jeff Murphy’s technological tinkering they always set their own individualistic stamp. A delightful mystery you will gain no end of pleasure if you can open your heart to it.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here