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Sole Man: A chat with John Murphy of power pop titans Shoes

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Initially one of the prime movers and shakers behind the DIY power pop movement, Zion, Illinois’ Shoes have amassed quite the tuneful, memorable recorded legacy over the past four-plus decades. Brothers John and Jeff Murphy, along with Gary Klebe, have formed the nucleus of the band since its inception, with late ‘70s tunes such as “Okay,” “Tomorrow Night” and “Too Late” considered classic examples of the power pop genre. But as Gary Klebe told me in 2006, “At that time, we were unaware of belonging to any power pop movement. The only movement we felt part of was our own. In fact, when I first heard the phrase, my first thought was ‘Man, I gotta check out some of this power pop stuff.’ I didn’t make the connection until years later that they were talking about us.”

 Shoes, circa 1997 (L-R): Gary Klebe, John Murphy, Jeff Murphy. Photo: Peter Kuehl

Shoes, circa 1997 (L-R): Gary Klebe, John Murphy, Jeff Murphy. Photo: Peter Kuehl

Shoes’ earliest recordings have been compiled on a new three-disc box set titled Black Vinyl Shoes: Anthology 1973-1978, released in the UK on Cherry Red Records. Containing the full-length Bazooka, One in Versailles, and Black Vinyl Shoes albums along with scads of bonus tracks (a handful previously unreleased), it’s a comprehensive look at a talented band in their formative years.

Goldmine caught up with Shoes bassist/vocalist John Murphy for a brief chat, and he shared his opinions on the new box, the band’s legacy, and Shoes being tabbed as what many consider a dirty word – power pop.

Goldmine: First off, what are your thoughts on the new box set?

John Murphy: We’re thrilled with it! Cherry Red did a phenomenal job pulling it all together and giving the packaging a fresh look. I think it very neatly wraps up that chapter in our ongoing history. We just hope folks put the thing in perspective; it’s not where I would start someone if they’ve never heard anything of ours, but it gives hard-core fans a glimpse into our embryonic start. To us, the pre-Black Vinyl Shoes stuff is like coming across your middle school photo in a box in the attic: you have braces and a cowlick and you’re wearing nerdy glasses, but you can still see traces of what you’ll eventually become.

GM:Are you surprised there is still so much interest in Shoes' music after so many years?

JM:Yeah, it’s a very pleasant surprise! We’ve always felt we could appeal to more folks if they were exposed to it because a lot of our stuff might’ve been missed the first time around. To them it would be a discovery. It’s also very gratifying to know that our music can pop up unexpectedly in any number of streaming sites, exposing it to a much broader audience.

GM: Any plans for any new recording? It’s been nearly seven years since we’ve heard any new music from Shoes (2012’s Ignition).

JM: Sure, we’re not done yet! But we’re faced with the same dilemma of countless groups/artists now: how do you release it? Do you commit to what’s involved in producing a 15-song CD, independently promoting it through your website or relying on word of mouth? Or do you release tracks as singular downloads, skipping packaging and manufacturing altogether? The idea, of course, is to get things out as quickly as you can so it would be a different mindset for us to focus on just one or two tracks at a time rather than a full album project. We’ll figure something out!

GM:John, what are your thoughts on the term "power pop?" So many musicians consider it a dirty word.

JM:Well, it’s a label and labels are always limiting. I think that’s the knee-jerk negative reaction to it from musicians: don’t put us in that small of a box. Frankly, I’ve always been a little suspect of a group calling themselves “power pop” in order to take advantage of a trend. I think the term should be used to describe a specific song that has certain elements. If, in fact, Pete Townsend coined the phrase to describe The Who’s output in 1966, is that how he would describe the band since then? I kind of think not, only because it’s somewhat misleading. I can point to a lot of songs and say that it’s power pop but I wouldn’t say that the group itself is, y’know? In our case, I think Shoes is much more than that, but if we have to be categorized, it’s as accurate a term as any, I suppose.

 John Murphy of Shoes, circa 1997. Photo: Peter Kuehl

John Murphy of Shoes, circa 1997. Photo: Peter Kuehl

GM: Who are some of your favorite power pop acts (past and present) and why?

JM: Cheap Trick [is one]. We first saw them very early on in local clubs. And. They. Were. A. Force. They had a look that made you do a double-take (although we saw it as Sparks times two) and an astonishing stage presence but, more importantly, they had the goods when it came to material. So many great crunchy songs that it took nearly four full albums to get them all out!

Big Star [is another favorite]. Their debut album kinda snuck up on us: I think its rewards are found in repeated listenings, but it’s very seductive. We envied the simplicity of the lyrics and the marriage of both gauzy acoustic and chiming electric guitars. And Radio City was an advanced step even without one of [the band’s] founders.

[I also love the] Dwight Twilley Band. “I’m on Fire” was an oasis on AM radio when it first popped up during the disco craze. Sincerely came out the following year and it bristled with buoyant melodies wrapped around wounded lyrics. The vocals were pure, unpretentious and on point. Coupled with tasteful, Beatlesque guitarwork, it was a huge inspiration for me.

[And more recently], Fountains of Wayne. Addictive melodies and inventive arrangements; lyrics sometimes cynical but always with a clever turn of phrase.

GM: You've had a tribute album and a book written about you. What are your thoughts on those?

 "Shoe Fetish: A Tribute to Shoes" CD

"Shoe Fetish: A Tribute to Shoes" CD

JM: Both very humbling experiences. I remember getting welled up the first time I listened to a cassette of Shoe Fetish [the band’s tribute disc, released in 2001] in my car. Some of the versions were pretty faithful but a few were impressive reinventions. It was like holding our songs up to a mirror; it gave us a new perspective. I wanted more of our songs covered after that!

 "Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes" by Mary Donnelly and Moira McCormick

"Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes" by Mary Donnelly and Moira McCormick

When we were first approached by [author] Mary [Donnelly] about writing a book about Shoes, I thought, “You mean a pamphlet?” [Laughter] But she was so enthusiastic and confident in her storytelling skills, she laid any apprehensions we might have had to rest. She estimated she could knock it out in six months, but it stretched to nearly four years! Bringing in [co-author] Moira [McCormick] was a brilliant move and I think together they shaped it into more than just a bio of a band. [Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes was released in 2013.] It reads like an allegory about monumental shifts in the music business over a certain timespan. From signing to a major record label during the indulgent, decadent period of the late ‘70s to the rise and inevitable disintegration of the indie scene in the mid-‘90s, it looks like we sort of Forrest Gumped our way through it all. I already knew what our side of the story looked like, but I learned a lot about what was happening behind the curtain. Mary did exhaustive research and she pieced it together with third-person anecdotes, journal entries, letter fragments and faded memories.

GM:What’s your personal favorite Shoes track from each band member? And what about your favorite Shoes album?

JM:Wow, it’s so tough to choose between our babies! Well, I’m gonna cheat a little and give two from each Shoe: “Found A Girl” and “Love Is Like A Bullet” from Jeff; “Burned Out Love” and “The Tube” from Gary; and “A Thing of the Past” and ‘Wrong Idea” of mine. As far as an album, each of us will probably have a different answer based on how he feels about his own contributions to that particular album. Today I maybe would say Propeller, but tomorrow I might go with Ignition or Stolen Wishes!

GM: What are you listening to currently?

JM: I always look forward to what Lindsey Buckingham is doing and enjoyed his 2017 collaboration with Christine McVie. I like a guy named Greg Laswell. I don’t really have any newer favorite groups anymore; mostly an individual song will grab me. Here’s a few that have stuck with me from the last few years:

“Default” - Django Django
‘Safe & Sound” - Capital Cities
“The Man” - The Killers
“California” – Delta Spirit
“Stand By My Girl” – Dan Auerbach
“Beg Borrow or Steal” – Ray LaMontagne

GM: 40+ years later, are there any interesting stories you can recall about the recording of the Black Vinyl Shoes album?

JM:The quirkiest thing about how we worked then was that we recorded the entire album using headphones! The first time we heard it through regular speakers was the one Saturday that we mixed it.

GM: Wrapping things up, how would you like Shoes to be remembered?

JM: For me, the best testimonial would be if our songs could be enjoyed by others even a fraction as much as the music we grew up with and loved, which inspired us to want to form a band in the first place.