Shoes circa 1981.
(A fun game: guess which one floated NYMary's adolescent boat?)
By Don McLeese
On a gut level, truly inspired pop is pure instinct—no music is more perfectly simple or deceptively difficult. A hook-and-harmony classic seems to go heart-to-heart, beyond technique, establishing an almost mystical bond between artist and fan. While a certain amount of musical facility may be essential, it's beside the point as well. Anyone who's ever really felt a pop song knows that—given half a chance—he's got whatever it takes deep down to make great pop himself. It's a music for amateurs in the strictest sense of the word—those who do it out of sheer joy, out of pure love.
In most ways, there's little to distinguish these four pop fans from Zion, Illinois from any of the rest of us. "We're listeners," explains Gary Klebe. "We had a real clear vision before we started this thing. If you started a band, you know exactly what you'd do." He's right—I would, and you probably would too.
The difference is that we didn't. Shoes did. And because these four guys had the vision or the determination or whatever it takes to pursue a fantasy that remains a fantasy for so many others, they have willed themselves into a pop fan's dream come true.
Although the saga of Shoes has been oft-told in recent years, it's the kind of fairy-tale that bears repeating, Back in the early '70s, there seemed to be little market for pure pop amid the cheap thrills of glitter and the skull-bashing of heavy metal. While a few committed souls—Todd Rundgren, Nils Lofgren, the Raspberries, Big Star—were trying their best to keep the tradition alive, they seemed to be fighting a losing battle. It was around this time that long-time friends John Murphy and Gary Klebe decided to start a band devoted to pop in the classic tradition.
An exercise in futility, if there ever was one. First, because there was little interest in this sort of music, and little reason to assume that there ever would be again. Second, because Murphy and Klebe had no musical training whatsoever—couldn't play a chord to save their souls. No matter. Klebe's parents gave him a guitar, Murphy bought a bottom-dollar bass, and the first pair of Shoes were in business. Before long, it looked like so much fun that John's younger brother Jeff wanted in as well. Eventually, drummer Skip Meyer was added to complete the lineup.
From the start, Shoes was conceived as a recording rather than a performing unit. While this was central to the fantasy—a hit record, not a life in the clubs, was the dream—it had its practical aspects as well: Mistakes are a lot easier to cover up on tape than in live performance. Fooling around with a tape machine, these would-be popsters could build a song step by-step—building, subtracting, erasing until they'd gotten things close to right. Through trial-and-error, the sounds on the tape began to approximate the sounds in their heads.
While the band members themselves may have always known they had it in them, their progress since has been simply amazing. Their first homegrown release was 1974's One In Versailles, recorded by John and Jeff, dedicated to Gary, who was studying architecture for a year in France. Although the sound was thin and the playing tentative, it was filled with the sort of disarmingly concise and melodic material that continues to distinguish their craft today. When Gary returned, they plunged into Bazooka,a harder-rocking giant step, never pressed into disc form. (ED: Both OIV and Bazooka are available, in their entirties, on As Is.)
With 1977's Black Vinyl Shoes, the band truly went all out. Recorded in Jeff's equipment-strewn living room, the album consumed most of the band's time and almost all of their money. For a period of six months, it was total obsession, a labor of love. It was worth it. Not only did the album boast fifteen state-of-the-art pop jewels (at a time when pop bands were still few and far between), it also featured a package that put most major label releases to shame—an iron-on transfer, a photo montage, a flashy cover designed by John, putting his art-student background to work. As the thousand or so copies began circulating among the music press and pop fanatics (the album has since been re-released for national distribution), Shoes found themselves something of a cult sensation.
Of course, it's a long way from such homegrown success to major record deal. Everybody knows that a long apprenticeship on the bar circuit is mandatory, that you have to whip your performance into shape and show the big boys you know how to devastate an audience—Shoes had yet to play more than a handful of live dates. Everybody knows that a high-pressure manager is essential—the low-key Shoes handled their own business. Everybody knows that you've got to woo the record companies constantly, hit the Coasts if you can—Shoes made a few phone calls and sent out some tapes, but pretty much waited for the world to come to Zion. Most of all, everybody knows that to make a living playing music, you've gotta be a musician—while Shoes developed enough dexterity to do their material justice, they'd still be hard-pressed to fake a passable bar-band jam on “Sunshine of Your Love." Virtuosos they ain't.
Somehow, Shoes broke every rule and succeeded despite it all. Signed by Elektra/Asylum in the wake of the Black Vinyl groundswell—after some heavy bidding from other labels—the band established itself as one of the most successful "new" acts of 1979, when Present Tense made it into the national Top 50. There's every reason to believe that the new Tongue Twister will do even better.
The band certainly hopes so. While most new groups would have been overjoyed at Present Tense's reception, Shoes was actually a little disappointed. It seems that before the release, the self-hyped Elektra promised the moon and the stars, and then delivered only the moon.
"Going from Black Vinyl to Present Tense saleswise—what more could you ask?" admits Jeff. "But from a level of what they were filling us full of, what this was going to do, well then of course yo go—it didn't do what they said, so you try to figure out what happened."
Corporate rock is always a learning experience. While few bands have had as much recording experience before entering the fray as Shoes, the band learned in a hurry that the music business is a lot more than making music.
Explains Gary, "We never really appreciated what it takes to make it. It's an understanding of not just your material, your art, but everything around it—the people that make it happen, especially. Of course you're always concerned about developing as an artist, but if you ignore the other end of it, you're pretty much helpless. I think this happened to most people. It's not like a kiss-ass situation; it's knowing how to manipulate people if nothing else, how to get what you want, just getting a better understanding of how these people think."
If Shoes had to adjust to the industry, the industry has been forced to do some adjusting as well. Not often does a band come along with such a clear idea of where they want to go, with every note plotted out through home recording before even entering the studio.
As Jeff says, "We are probably the exception, which is why it's difficult for producers, because they haven’t really come up with a situation like this. I mean this is a really strange band, where you record the whole album in advance in demo form, and then you go in and pretty much try to emulate it. And. sometimes you have a really hard time matching those demos.”
While Present Tense producer Mike Stone had some trouble understanding the band's approach—"He never wanted to hear the demo," says Jeff—they found a kindred spirit in Richard Dashut, who co-produced Tongue Twister with the band. Renowned for his work with Fleetwood Mac, Dashut had a lot of empathy with Shoes because of his experience with Lindsey Buckingham's four-track home recordings for Tusk. Says Jeff. "Richard was perfect for us." Echoes John, "We became high school buddies overnight."
In comparison with Present Tense, John feels that the new album is “like shorthand. Just get the prime, really cut it down as far as we can; each song is a unit." While the material should continue to please lovers of melody and harmony, the production is crisper, punchier, and rockier than ever—a sound for the '80s combined with a timeless pop sensibility.
Gary sees the album as a logical progression: "There are refinements from one album to the next—things we always wanted to do but couldn't, either from lack of knowledge or not being with the right people. It's something you kind of build on. I think there's a gradual evolution, but nothing really obvious where you can say, well this is the direction we're taking now. It just happens, and I think we probably know more about that from what people say about it. It's hard to see the changes as you're doing it.”
For John, it's all a matter of following your instincts and standing up for what you know is right. "We have to fight stigmas that were set a long time ago," he says. "You know, maybe a group had total control, and they had their 3-year-old do the album cover. Those kind of things started to ruin it. So right away we walk in and we pretty much know—we may not be able to voice it, we might confuse the company—and their reaction is, 'Oh boy, here they are. They're telling us they want this, they don't like that. They don't think this is good enough. They want to change this.' But chances are, and we've proved it to ourselves, that nine times out of ten our instincts are right. Whenever we regret things, it's usually because we gave in."
Gary chimes in, "it goes back to the old saying that you should look before you leap. And we looked for a long time before we leaped. We had a good understanding before we were faced with, the problems that we face today. Most bands that go into the studio for the first time are pretty much shocked to see what there is there. We were ready for everything we've faced so far. We've been thinking about album covers before album covers even came up. I mean, John was working on album covers before he could play bass, probably,"
Hungry for success—fame, glory, riches, whatever—the band is even hungrier for the freedom that comes along with it. Says John, "One thing we want to achieve is getting the respect of the audience so they'll take the time to listen to the album. For example, Led Zeppelin's album came out last year, and I've talked to people who've said; 'Yeah, I listened to it twenty times, and I started to get into it.' Unfortunately, a new band has to fit a much harsher set of guidelines…. If you came up with something as varied as (the Beatles') White Album right at the start, noone's going to know what you are."
So, explains Jeff, "You kinda run in place a little waiting for the people to latch on to you, so that you can take them with you."
As for all the pre-fab power-pop bands that have faded with the changing trends, Jeff says, "For the most part, I couldn't help but think that some of those guys were in it for a quick buck," Shoes will persevere, he thinks, because "good music is always fashionable."
Spoken like a true amateur. In the best sense of the word.
(As always, if anyone has a problem with the copyright here, let me know and I'll pull the post.)