By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's been a banner year for power pop revivals. We've gotten new discs from Winston-Salem, N.C.'s the dB's (first with the original lineup in 30 years), Hawthorne, Calif.'s Redd Kross (first new material in 15 years) and now Zion, Ill.'s acclaimed Shoes — back with "Ignition," out now [★★★1/2], the first new album since 1994.
"When you go over the years and what we've been through, the delay makes sense. It just looks bad on paper," says founding Shoes member John Murphy with a chuckle. "I just saw No Doubt's together again. They haven't had a record in eight or 10 years. We just get used to the fact that these super-successful bands take forever to deliver a follow-up."
Shoes or any power pop band, really, could never be described as "super-successful." But while the core trio — singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, plus brother John Murphy on bass — has never had a mass following, they always seem to be followed.
When home-recording equipment was more available and affordable in the mid-'70s, Shoes were already there — recording three albums in their living room (the limited-release "Un Dans Versailles," 1975, the shelved "Bazooka," 1976, and the official debut, "Black Vinyl Shoes," later in 1976, which was hailed as "one of the finest home-brewed releases ever" by Trouser Press rock critic Ira Robbins).
When major record labels were flush and throwing money at bands, Shoes were there — getting picked up by Elektra for three albums (starting with "Present Tense" in 1979).
When the money ran dry and bands were being cut loose, many starting their own independent labels — Shoes were there, releasing compilations, live and new albums on their own Black Vinyl label through the '90s.
"Shoes were, quite simply, everywhere in the music industry from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s," says Mary Donnelly, a New York professor and blogger (powerpop.blogspot.com), who's about to publish Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes this fall. "They saw all the trends — the decadence and wild parties, money-is-no-object production and promotion, the crash of the industry in the early '80s, MTV (and the skepticism it engendered), the rise of college rock and indie and alternative, the problems wrought by independent distribution and the rise of digital recording. They were everywhere."
Murphy, ever humble and down-home, chuckles again.
"We've been kind of Forrest Gump-ing through time," he says.
Given how they pop up on the crest of each industry trend, you'd be forgiven for expecting their sound to have changed proportionally as well. Now in their late 50s, Shoes, however, have remained astonishingly consistent in their production of tuneful, harmonized, guitar-driven power-pop. The quality songwriting and, to some extent, the production of "Ignition" could fall anywhere within the band's nearly four-decade career.
"It's about how you absorb these things and how you turn them back out," Murphy says, trying to explain the band's through-line. "If you were to write the same song every year of your life, it would somehow be different each year. You'd attack it differently. It would come out of you differently. But it's still you writing the song."
"They tend to downplay their talents, but they're remarkable, instinctive writers," Donnelly says. "They can't even really explain what they do in a language that makes sense to anyone but themselves. And that hard work and authenticity shines through in everything they do."
Explaining the 18-year gap in new music, Murphy ticks off a litany of business woes that kept the band stymied. The shuttering of their recording studio, Short Order Recorder — a downtown Zion storefront where other revered power poppers, such as Material Issue and fellow Zion natives Local H, cut crucial records — was a "traumatic event," Murphy says. Selling the building took years.
The savior of Shoes, though, would be yet another home studio.
"We were at Gary's house one Sunday night, and we'd been there all night — it's midnight and we're getting ready to leave — and Gary says, 'Come here, I want to show you something,' " Murphy says. "Here it was. He surprised us. He'd moved in 2010 and started building this studio in his basement, buying gear along the way, stockpiling mikes and getting good deals.
"And Jeff happened to have a little song."
The song was "Out of Round," a few melancholy chords Jeff Murphy had cooked up, for which the other two dove into Klebe's basement to add a curious piano riff and some swirling sounds. It's an unusual track in the Shoes canon.
"We got into a groove. We kept going and going," Murphy says.
While much of "Ignition" wound up square within the footsteps of traditional Shoes, "Out of Round" isn't the album's only left-turn track. In our conversation, I had to bring up "Hot Mess," one of two songs credited to all three writers — and one with a surprising, almost AC/DC groove.
"Did you like it?" Murphy asks, nervously. "I ask because we knew it would be a polarizing track, that some people wouldn't dig it. Gary laid those guitars out, and Jeff and I said, 'Mmmm, sounds Stones-y!' He said, 'We could change that,' and I said, 'No, I don't think we should. Let's go down that road.' The thought process as we were building it was: What would Mick and Keith do? Plus, I started coming up with lyrics to make them laugh. I'd come out of the room, and they'd say, 'Did you just say...?!' But we really wanted this to sound like real music, not just a parody or a joke, not sarcastic. We wanted this, like anything we've done, to stand as real music."
Therein lies the struggle of every power pop band in America — striking the difficult balance between being influenced and being a thinly veiled cover band, between being a new voice and an echo.
The influences of Shoes are as obvious as they are alliterative: Beatles, Badfinger, Byrds, Big Star, Raspberries. But a 1979 feature in Trouser Press magazine quoted John Murphy describing the band's genesis as "a reaction to the things we hated. All there was at the time was Bowie, T. Rex and the Deep Purple school."
"We're more glass half-full on that now. That was pretty glass half-empty back then," Murphy says today. "Gary [then in Champaign] and I would write letters back and forth, talking early '70s and how things were about to get worse, saying, 'Ah, what happened to the early Beatles,' and 'Now all these horn bands like Chicago are coming along.' As soon as we found our way, here came disco, which absolutely took over. Now we can look back and see disco as this quaint period of time — aw, the cute little 'shake your booty' lyrics — like looking at 1920s music. But it didn't seem like that then. It was a survival thing for those who liked rock."
Donnelly describes growing up in a household full of brothers constantly playing Beatles records. "And just as I was reaching my music-buying stage, 12 or so, there was Shoes — like and not like at the same time," she says. "They were my first band, my declaration of independence, my own soundtrack. Though I never had the kind of gut-wrenching heartbreak they promised me in junior high school, there was always something about the hard-soft dichotomy, the shifting voices of the three principals that just spoke to me about how beauty and pain and power can travel together."
So here's Shoes in 2012, still shifting voices and songwriting duties — just like kindred, talent-stuffed spirits such as Sloan, Teenage Fanclub, the dB's, etc. — for another finely crafted, homemade, indie-rock record.
They're so behind the times, they're current.
Murphy drops things in conversation like "That YouTube is something else" and "I don't even have an iPod," but it's one of his songs on "Ignition" that updates the time-honored romantic lament to include "rambling emails and bitter tweets" ("I Thought You Knew").
"Power pop always fits," he says. "In today's world, it's more indie or alternative, whatever that word means, but it still has the same direction. It's just that now we're trying to do it more adult — I hate to use that word. Maturity, maybe. People say, 'Oh, you're a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl band.' But not really. It's about relationship songs. That's relevant to any age, any era."
In addition to the new album and the publication of Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, Chicago's lauded Numero Group label is releasing this fall four vinyl Shoes LPs in a series ("One in Versailles," "Black Vinyl Shoes," "Bazooka" and "Pre-Tense Demos: 1978-1979," the demos for the "Present Tense" album). Expect the full Shoes vinyl experience, including lyrics sheets, photos and (yes!) T-shirt iron-ons.
An expanded best-of collection is due this fall, too, but Murphy says no live shows are currently in the works.
Shoes and Zion a matched pair
If you've ever read anything about the band Shoes, it's almost always been "Zion, Ill.'s Shoes."
Given the mythical power of the Chicago exurb's name, it's been attached to the band as a descriptor far more often than is the case with the origins of most other musical acts.
"Zion just has this weird mystery to it," bassist-songwriter Jeff Murphy says. "If you ask people in Chicago, they'll say they know it's dry and that the street names are all biblical."
Mary Donnelly's book on the band, Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, includes a mini-history of the town, founded between Chicago and Milwaukee in 1901 by John Alexander Dowie.
"Zion was founded as a religious haven where spitting and bacon and alcohol and doctors were all illegal," Donnelly says. "But it didn't go to well for Dowie, who had pretty extravagant tastes, and the misfortune to get ill — a real problem if you're a faith healer and say that illness is the sign of Satan.
"By the time Shoes were raised there, it was still kind of weirdly religious, but no longer quite so cult-like. Still, they were raised in a town where bikinis and lottery tickets and beer were all banned by law. It's no wonder they were never a bar band: There were no bars!"
For an aspiring pop band, the association wasn't welcome in the beginning.
"At first, we tried to shake it, like we'd stepped in dog s---," Murphy says. "We thought, 'Are they making fun of us [by citing it all the time]?' Then we gave into it. It's part of our story. It sounds funny, I suppose. Everybody's gotta be from somewhere."
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.