Graded on a Curve: Shoes, Black Vinyl Shoes

Those with a serious jones for power pop might already be hip to the Numero Group label’s dandy 150-gm repressings of the early work from the killer Illinois group, Shoes. However, interested parties new to the band of John Murphy (vocals and bass), Jeff Murphy (vocals and guitar), Gary Klebe (vocals and guitar), and a whole lot of drummers should begin with their still massive 1977 album Black Vinyl Shoes. It’s quite a stunner, and the fact that it’s freshly available is a surefire antidote for many ills, including creeping cynicism.

Along with pub-rock, power pop gets very frequently lumped in with punk rock as one element in the big 1970s disdain with the overwrought staleness of the norm. And since punk rock, which at the time was largely a dismal commercial failure, has proven to be the most lingeringly influential and historically captivating part of the ‘70s back to basics impulse, that’s unfortunately resulted in pub-rock and power pop getting the short shrift far too often.

It’s probably true that cacophonous youthful anger will always be a more immediately attractive musical avenue than non-photogenic Stones/Yardbirds descended stuff (pub-rock, in an oversimplified nutshell) or the sound of a younger generation discovering the glories of unadulterated pop-rock gusto ala The Beatles, The Byrds, The Hollies, and the early Who (power pop, in a bargain basement distillation).

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t champion the achievements of Dr. Feelgood or 20/20 if given half the opportunity. If their stuff lacks an air of loutish hooliganism, it instead basks in an atmosphere of non-telegraphed classicism that’s as rare these days as a natural born redhead. So it’s no surprise that when people hear the strains of undiluted power pop for the first time, they often react with an uncontrolled outpouring of euphoric emotion; my goodness, this stuff is so simple! And yet so perfect! Why can’t it always be like this?

Some folks of my persuasion had just that sort of encounter with the power pop volumes of Rhino’s DIY CD series back in the early ‘90s. Yes indeed, those were pretty damned great. But even better was the fourth entry in the discography of the incalculably valuable Numero Group label, Yellow Pills: Prefill, a 2CD embarrassment of power pop riches so stupendous that it could entice all but the most stubborn customers to strut right down the boulevard in a hand knitted auburn scarf and powder blue blazer, buttons (or badges, if you prefer) all up and down the lapels.

And that reminds me. What’s even better than all the finery listed in the paragraph above is that in 2012 Numero Group commenced their power pop focused sub label, fittingly called Buttons. The first two entries from the imprint are available on 2LP and look simply fabulous, particularly Starter Kit, which grabs up twenty of the songs from the very much out of print Yellow Pills and reassembles them for the delectation of legions of Jon Brion fans everywhere (for as a fledgling lad that current studio wunderkind was in the Bats, a very Anglo-centric outfit from Connecticut who figure on Starter Kit with two intriguing cuts).

However, what’s easily the best news of all is that last year Numero Group also saw fit to begin reissuing the work from one of the greatest of the ‘70s power pop outfits, Zion, IL’s exquisite Shoes. Some older heads with early cable connections might remember seeing videos from this band during those weird early months of MTV, back when the channel was playing almost anything they could get their hands on, mainly because there simply wasn’t all that much stuff around to play.

But the history of Shoes begins in 1974, placing them right at the end of the first wave of ‘70’s power pop from the likes of Badfinger, Big Star, and the Raspberries. By the following year they’d worked up enough material for an LP One in Versailles, which they self-released in a hand-pasted and assembled edition of 300 copies. As you can imagine, there wasn’t a whole lot of fanfare regarding that one. And there was zilch on the fanfare front regarding Bazooka, which was recorded not long after the first LP but ended up shelved due to lack of finances.

To be clear, the music from both of these really quite magnificent power pop documents has been available for a good while now, specifically through the As Is 2CD, which was released through the band’s own label Black Vinyl Records. Shoes have been very good caretakers of their legacy. Indeed, musicians should look to them as a prime model of how it should be done.

The latest development in their example of lasting relevance is this deal with Numero Group, which makes One in Versailles available in a non-microscopic vinyl edition and puts Bazooka onto the format it’s always deserved for the first time. But for anyone new to Shoes, the first stop in getting acclimated to their substantial qualities should be Numero’s superb reissue of the band’s breakout LP, 1977’s Black Vinyl Shoes.

Yes, breakout. Initially issued on Black Vinyl Records, it was quickly picked up for higher profile distribution by the PVC label in the States and by Sire in the UK. While the band hit its biggest level of popularity after signing with Elektra for a three album run that started with the Present Tense LP in ’79, it’s a safe bet that plenty of the power pop fly-by-nights included on those DIY volumes and Yellow Pills and Starter Kit were nabbing a few of their form moves via quickly worn copies of Black Vinyl Shoes.

One of the aspects of power pop that helps to define it as classicist is how it wasn’t really all that well served by the full-length album. Some might see that as a limitation (actually, many already have), but the first ass-kicking decade of rock ‘n’ roll was dominated by the 45, not the LP. Part of what makes Black Vinyl Shoes such a special ride is how it succeeds so mightily as an actual album without sacrificing any of the essential qualities of pure power pop; never does the album sound like dicey bandwagon jump onto the New Wave or a sliding descent into Arena Rock or an affair with the newfangled bar-rockin’ Dylanisms of the young Tom Petty.

No, Black Vinyl Shoes is just uncut power pop executed with an uncommon level of songwriting ability and sturdy, non-flash musicianship. It doesn’t wear out its welcome with lyrical limitations that when spread across fifteen cuts would result in an aura of the trite. And while the music never lacks punch, it doesn’t consistently reach for the sort of elevated melodicism that’s sometimes resulted in power pop getting often unfairly tagged with the putdown of escapism.

It’s a record that holds more than a handful of classic cuts, and upon inspecting its contents again with fresh ears, a few of the best are “Tragedy,” which combines a sing-songy lightness with a tough backbone and some nifty touches of guitar atmospherics to a very rich result, “Someone Finer,” a tune whose relative brevity and indulgence in a definite wispy, ‘60s-ish manner makes me think Black Vinyl Shoes was an influence on a young Bob Pollard (if that guy was ever actually young), and “Capital Gain,” which as the rawest and nerviest song on the album shows how close they could get to the energy of punk without aping any of its stylistic attributes. And that’s just the first side of the album.

Side two goes down without a hitch. Probably the biggest praise I can think to bestow upon Shoes is that they were indefatigable in the way an upstart stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll unit should be. Having a debut issued in a miniscule edition and a second stifled by a lack of funds didn’t stop them. They kept writing and perfecting songs, and when they did have the scratch to put out a record, they released the new material, not the stuff that was two years old.

The story of great rock bands is almost always about continual and restless movement, of practice and troublesome live gigs and songwriting and bickering and then repeating the elements until things get just right, if only for a moment. Resting on laurels isn’t part of the equation; that sort of thing is what stirred up the whole pub-rock/power pop/punk rock shitstorm in the first place.

So, based on this yardstick alone, Shoes is a truly great band. And I’m sorta inclined to agree that Bazooka might be their best moment, but again I don’t really think that album is the best place for the newbie to start. That honor goes to Black Vinyl Shoes, an under-celebrated classic in the American rock ‘n’ roll canon and the LP that put them on the map. If you want a taste of Shoes, this is where to begin, and then work backwards and forwards courtesy of Numero Group, along the way soaking up the splendor of one of the finest of rock ‘n’ roll forms, top-notch power pop.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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2 comments
Bruce Brodeen
Bruce Brodeen

Extremely well informed and written piece here on a truly seminal, watershed moment for power pop fans when it came out - and it's influence continues to flow into future fans of the genre.  Many Respectful Kudos Joseph Neff!

FredBlurt
FredBlurt

Amen-amen-amen-amen! One night I was at a party when Chris Stamey walked in, plopped Black Vinyl Shoes on the stereo, and to say that the earth tilted on its axis that evening would be an understatement. The album deserves every kudos it has ever received, and hats off to Numero for furthering the Shoes revival.

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