I just might be the worst fair-weather fan the Zion, Illinois band who call themselves Shoes ever had. Their 1979 major label debut Present Tense is a true classic, my very favorite power-pop album. I pretty much lost sight of them after their second Elektra album Tongue Twister (1981) though. It was an oversight I have come to regret very much, because as indicated by the title 35 Years - The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012, Shoes continued to make a lot of great music. This recently released compilation is the first of its kind for Shoes, and these 21 tracks tell quite a story.
Back in the late '70s, a friend of mine talked up an album called Black Vinyl Shoes as if it were the Second Coming. It was self-released, and impossible to find, as I discovered after hearing him rave about it so much. A friend of his actually owned it, and I never did get a chance to listen to it. But one day I was browsing the 45 racks in one of Seattle's coolest record stores, Golden Oldies, and they had a Shoes single, titled "Tomorrow Night," on the Bomp label. It was a marvelous tune, and confirmed everything he had said about them.
Some time later, I happened upon their major-label debut, Present Tense (on Elektra) and snapped it up immediately. "Tomorrow Night" is on Present Tense, but the entire album was incredible. I was hooked, and really thought that Shoes would become the next big thing. I still wonder why it never happened, as the timing was perfect. The airwaves were flooded with great power pop songs during that period. Just off the top of my head I remember "Starry Eyes" by The Records, "Cruel To Be Kind" from Nick Lowe, and "Driver's Seat" from Sniff 'n' the Tears. The biggest album of the year was Get the Knack, and Present Tense was a million times better than that.
Shoes followed up Present Tense with Tongue Twister, and even though it was a pretty good record, I was disappointed. As the liner notes of 35 Years explain, the guys consciously stripped things down, and went for a harder edge. I hate to admit it, but I stopped paying attention after Tongue Twister. The fact is, I thought they had called it quits after that album. As this collection shows however, there was a great deal more to come in the saga of Shoes.
Shoes actually got their start in the early '70s, as a group of high school buddies. Brothers John and Jeff Murphy teamed up with Gary Klebe to form the trio, in the little town of Zion, Illinois. In many ways, they were your classic basement band, and even did some recording. Then in 1977, with the addition of drummer Skip Meyer, they released their debut, Black Vinyl Shoes on their own Black Vinyl Records label. The initial pressing was only 1,000 copies, but word got around that this was a power pop band worth hearing.
I have described my (as it turns out) brief dalliance with Shoes, and I do believe that period was their shot at the brass ring. Why The Knack made it over Shoes is a question I will never be able to answer, but that is the way it went.
I have been accused of a sort of "music geek snobbery" in liking only the most obscure bands. The charge (from a lifelong friend) is that I drop them like a hot potato if they ever do become popular. I don't really believe this to be true, but there is a certain satisfaction in playing great, relatively unknown music for others who have not heard it before. I have turned a number of people on to Present Tense in this fashion over the years. It is a little embarrassing to admit, but this fair-weather fan never realized that they continued to record all the way up to 1994, before taking an 18-year hiatus.
In a textbook case of being screwed by the music industry, Shoes had some tough breaks. Their third and final Elektra release was Boomerang (1982), and due to an internal executive shakeup, the record received no promotion. Meyer left, and they were dropped from the label. Silhouette (1984) was not even released in the U.S., until many years later, when the band released it themselves.
This collection contains two tracks from Boomerang, "Curiosity," and "The Summer Rain," and two from Silhouette "Get My Message," and "Oh, Angeline." Each of these songs are pretty good, but you can tell the band were struggling. It is a little hard to believe that these came after the triumphs of Present Tense and Tongue Twister. It is really the little things that make all the difference. It just seems like the elements of the band that I liked the most were put on the back burner during this period though. Mostly this was their use of keyboards. The early '80s were the heyday of synth-pop, but the sound just did not suit Shoes.
They took six years to release their next album, Stolen Wishes (1990), and based on the four songs included here, it was a triumphant return to form. This is the one I regret missing out on the most, and will be getting it shortly.
Besides grunge, the early '90s were a friendly time for power pop, at least in the underground. Groups such as The Posies were singing the praises of Big Star, and the time again seemed right for recognition of Zion's finest. I guess it happened in some quarters, but Shoes did not take over the airwaves, even though they very much deserved to. Propeller was released in 1994, and the two songs from it on the collection are also quite good.
Then came the longest break of all. Even if a person had followed Shoes through the lean years, they would be hard pressed to believe that the band had not called it quits. There was an 18-year gap between Propeller and Ignition, which came out in October 2012. "Say It Like You Mean It" is the lone song from Ignition, and it is a killer. These guys just seem to have the music in their bones, and with Ignition it seems as if they can just write these gems at will.
The Definitive Shoes Collection presents a band with a fantastic history. When you consider the time they were together before releasing Black Vinyl Shoes, and the fact that it is now 2013, it is more like 40 years in the business. Every cliché applies, call them "survivors," or "the ultimate cult band," whatever. Those terms may be clichés, but they are also true.
On a very positive note, the band actually own their music, which is an extremely rare situation. In practice, this means that when you buy one of their records, they actually get the money. 35 Years - The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977 - 2012 is a marvelous place to start, and may be just the beginning for some. There are nine albums to choose from represented on this set, and the band have a number of rare and live recordings available on their website as well. I cannot think of another American power pop band more worthy of wide recognition than Shoes.