By Lee Zimmerman
Despite a resume that originated more than three decades ago, and countless accolades as one of the original founding fathers of America’s power-pop progression, the Zion Ill.-based band — consisting of brothers Jeff and John Murphy and their pal, Gary Klebe and featuring a number of drummers over the years — has never garnered anywhere near the hurrahs accorded nearby neighbors like Chicago, Cheap Trick, Styx or Smashing Pumpkins.
In a way, they’re partly to blame; despite the fact they inked early on with a major label, Elektra Records, they’ve kept a relatively low profile ever since, preferring to self-release their albums on their own Black Vinyl Records imprint, when they’ve opted to release them at all.
It’s been well over a dozen years since the last Shoes salvo, the live Fret Buzz, and no new Shoes album looms on the horizon. It’s enough to make the Shoes faithful think that, indeed, their lingering legacy may be that they’re fated to remain one of rock’s best-kept secrets.
Anyone who heard any of their previous efforts would likely agree that Shoes deserved to shine. When they were making music, there were few bands better at crafting radio-ready hooks and instantly indelible melodies.
Early albums, like 1977’s cleverly-titled independent offering Black Vinyl Shoes — recorded in, of all places, Jeff Murphy’s living room — and the three Elektra albums that followed — Present Tense (1979), Tongue Twister (1981) and Boomerang (1982) — were textbook examples of what true power-pop ought to offer — that being, first and foremost, songs that grabbed hold even on first hearing.
It was as if The Beatles, Badfinger, The Raspberries and all the other like-minded masters of melody had suddenly come to a consensus and ceded their craft to this eager little band from the Chicago suburbs.
When their deal with Elektra dissolved after their failure to become the chart-toppers everyone had hoped for, the Shoes regrouped and retooled. Their original drummer Skip Meyer, with whom they formed the band in 1975, called it quits, and the remaining trio, consisting of Klebe and the Brothers Murphy, opted to go it alone.
“Skip just stopped coming by the studio,” Jeff Murphy recalls. “He was never involved in the writing, business or production end of things, and I think he felt there wasn’t that much for him to do anymore. I don’t think he felt we would continue after the Elektra deal.”
Indeed, the Shoes’ return would be slow in coming. Silhouette, their first post-Elektra album, was self-released in 1984 but issued only in Europe. After setting up shop with their own indie label, they spent most of their time running their recording facility, Short Order Recorder, and producing other artists. It would be a full five years — 1989 to be exact — until the next Shoes album, Stolen Wishes, would appear.
“The time gap between ’84 and ’89 was partly due to us moving and building a new studio,” Murphy insists. “Then we were contacted by Gene Simmons in early 1988 about possibly signing to his label, which ended up delaying our progress and not panning out. We also started up Black Vinyl Records mail order and started to manufacture CDs in 1987, which started to consume more of our time.”
Aside from As Is, a compilation of various outtakes coupled with the band’s limited-edition debut, 1975’s Un Dans Versailles and its heretofore unreleased follow-up, Bazooka, Shoes would only offer two more albums, Propeller in 1994 and Fret Buzz the year after. Individual Shoes would make guest appearances on albums by others, but aside from the Nerk Twins, Jeff Murphy’s one-off duo with fellow Black Vinyl artist Herb Eimerman, there haven’t been any real Shoes sightings since.
Until 2007, that is. Last year, Jeff Murphy delighted Shoes aficionados by announcing the impending release of his own album, Cantilever, the first solo set from any Shoes member to date. The album retains that patented Shoes sound, packed with songs that, as always, leave an instant impression.
“Because the three of us are such good friends and Shoes is such an equal collaboration, it’s been very difficult to think in terms of a solo project for any of us,” he explains. “The Nerk Twins was the first serious step by one of us outside of Shoes, but it was a satellite project, and Shoes remained the focus for us. We just find it increasingly hard to find the time to link up for Shoes to record…
“I started tinkering around at our studio, Short Order Recorder, back in 2003, because I managed the studio and spent a lot of time there,” Murphy continues. “When we sold it in 2004, I bought a home setup and continued working. Because our schedules are difficult to synchronize, it was much faster to do a solo thing… if you can call three years fast! But I was very tempted to involved John and Gary in the recording. It’s just that once I started, I thought it would be interesting to record a project the old way, without using computers, drum machines and sequencers. I wanted an organic record with a human feel. John and Gary lent their support throughout the process. They were very encouraging and empathetic. Gary offered his house as a listening reference, and John came up with the cover concept.”
In lieu of any new band material, the group’s offering fans some additional measure of Shoes satisfaction with the upcoming release of Double Exposure, a collection of some 30 demos the group recorded in their basement studio between 1978 and 1980. Murphy describes the tracks as “the foundation for the first two Elektra albums, Present Tense and Tongue Twister. We used to demo everything. So, demos exist for each complete album up to, and including, Stolen Wishes.”
Despite the inconsistent pace of their releases, the fact remains that 30 years on, Shoes still can claim an impressive imprint. Nevertheless, Murphy’s quick to claim the band never contemplated its legacy, at least not until now.
“We never thought that far in the future,” Murphy muses. “We just wanted to make music as long as possible. In a way, returning to home recording has been rejuvenating. ‘Get back to where you once belonged’… and all that.”
Anyone with even a casual affinity for Shoes shouldn’t be surprised to find Murphy referencing the Beatles. In fact, most fans assumed the group took their name from a passing comment made by Paul McCartney himself. Asked by a reporter how they got their handle, McCartney shrugged it off, saying famously, “We could just as easily called ourselves the Shoes.”
“That was actually just a happy coincidence,” Murphy maintains. “We were shocked the first time we saw that Beatles clip, which for us, was in 1979. We’d been Shoes for six years by then. But The Nerk Twins was a deliberate play on that.”
In fact, Murphy’s more than happy to use the impending release of the new compilation as an excuse to retrace the band’s beginnings.
“John, Gary and I were never in any other bands before Shoes,” he relates. “We just thought it would be fun to be in a band, so we put one together. We were all influenced by The Beatles and wanted to be in a band as kids. But, as we hit our high school years, bands like Big Star, Grin and Badfinger were also a big influence. There was tons of other stuff, too, like Nils Lofgren and Grin, Todd Rundgren and Emitt Rhodes.”
Black Vinyl Shoes created a stir nationally, but Murphy says it had very little impact in their hometown environs.
“Locally, the LP did nothing,” he admits. “The Chicago area was pretty old school back then… a record deal came from slugging it out in the clubs, playing live shows. We just preferred recording and stuck to our guns. Then, the press discovered us and started to write about us and Black Vinyl Shoes. That’s what started things rolling.”
In fact, it was one early supporter in particular, the noted critic and musicologist Greg Shaw, who helped bring the band to the national spotlight when he released its single “Tomorrow Night” B/W “Okay” on his budding Bomp label.
His interest didn’t end there, but as it turned out, it would be the end of his involvement.
“Greg wanted to re-issue Black Vinyl Shoes on his label, and we were gonna do it,” Murphy explains. “Unfortunately, after waiting for six months, Bomp was mired down with distribution and funding issues that prevented it from happening. So, we licensed it to Passport/JEM Imports from New York, and they put it out in the fall of 1978. Greg wasn’t very happy with us, but we had to keep moving and growing as a band.”
What should have been their big breakthrough started out promisingly enough when Elektra came calling soon after.
“Elektra was trolling for new acts in early 1979, and the re-issue of Black Vinyl Shoes was creating a new wave of press and visibility. When they signed us, we didn’t know what to expect. But, we hoped for more exposure and airplay, which we got. They wanted multiplatinum, which we didn’t get.”
Asked why the band opted to remain in Zion and not relocate to a higher-profile place like, say, New York or L.A., Murphy demurs.
“In 1980, we lived and recorded in L.A. for four months while we worked on Tongue Twister, and we seriously thought about staying in L.A. to live and work,” he recalls. “The financial realities of living there would have been a huge burden, so we decided to return to Zion and continue from there as our base.”
Even though the band saw some success with their Black Vinyl Records label, none of the bigger labels ever came calling again.
“They tend to gear themselves for huge sales numbers and don’t really focus on selling in the quantities that boutique labels like BVR tend to sell,” he suggests. “That’s part of why most major labels are in serious trouble now. Small labels fill that middle ground, but the majors tend to have an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach.”
In addition to his new album, Murphy’s also written a book, “Birth of A Band, The Record Deal and The Making of Present Tense” which documents Shoes’ early days up to and including the recording of Present Tense.
“Last summer, I came across some slides I had taken while we were in England that I had never had prints made from,” he explains. “After reviewing the pictures, it dawned on me that it might make for an interesting, ‘behind-the-scenes’ type book about the process of getting signed and what happened along the way.”
Indeed, Murphy isn’t at a loss when it comes to sharing his own insights.
“Each album has it’s own special memories and favorites,” he says. “Present Tense and Tongue Twister was a magic time for us. Some of the songs that stand out from those for me were ‘Too Late,’ ‘Your Very Eyes’ and ‘Tomorrow Night’ from Present Tense and from Tongue Twister, ‘Your Imagination,’ ‘Karen’ and ‘She Satisfies.’ But really, each song becomes important for us in each particular way.
“We always try to please ourselves,” he says. “If we come up with a song that excites us, we feel we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. Hopefully, the listener will like it, too. But you can’t write songs with the aim of pleasing someone else, because that’s different for almost everyone. But, we do still get that personal satisfaction when we listen back to a new song and see what it’s become.”
Appropriately, in 2001, the band’s music received some long-overdue
recognition when the Parasol label issued an excellent tribute album slyly dubbed Shoe Fetish. With nearly two dozen participants, including such notables as Matthew Sweet, The Shazam, Bobby Sutliff, the Spongetones, Doug Powell, Don Dixon and Marti Jones, it served as an apt salute to the band’s ongoing influence.
“The Shoe Fetish CD was a lot of fun for us to listen to,” Murphy agrees. “We thoroughly enjoyed listening to the different interpretations of the songs. There does seem to be a resurgence of the power-pop genre. But in our minds, that’s a very broad category. Fountains of Wayne, Collective Soul and Tom Petty are faves for me.”
For the time being, Murphy says fans can expect little in the way of new material, although there is the possibility that they might contribute a song to a pending Cheap Trick tribute album.
“We’ve been busy trying to get Double Exposure out, and we’ve also been trying to finish up on a DVD project of videos. We haven’t done a
Shoes gig since 2004, but you never know what the future might hold… For the time being, I’m focused on promoting my solo CD. I hope to continue releasing solo material, as well as future Shoes material. Time and scheduling are the biggest problems when you run your own label. We need to wear a lot of hats to get it all done!”
In the meantime, Murphy’s content to reflect on the Shoes sound.
“I would hope that people would remember Shoes as three friends that made good music together. We always try to keep things simple and melodic. That’s the hard part — trying to say the most with the least. But, we’ve always been attracted to that everyman’s honestly of the do-it-yourself, garage-band ethic… Just the magic combination and chemistry that comes from friends with a common goal.”