The American power pop scene from the mid-70s to the early 80s provided a goldmine of great music. Over the years various compilations have provided a great insight into the burgeoning scene’s classics, self-released gems and genuine obscurities. Delving far deeper than Cheap Trick and the Raspberries, recordings by The Flashcubes, Fotomaker and Earth Quake have become much loved favourites for music fans looking for the melodic charms of Badfinger, but also for the flair and sparkle of the soon-to-be in vogue new wave scene. …And then there were Shoes. In a land where band names didn’t need to be easy to find with search engines Shoes were potential kings, but so much of their early work proved elusive to find. For the many power pop geeks who’ve fallen in love with a couple of their later records – 1979’s ‘Present Tense’ and 1981’s ‘Tongue Twister’, specifically – this finely put together 3CD anthology throws a lot of light upon music that led the band to that career pinnacle.
Formed in Illinois in 1974, Shoes self-released their debut album ‘Heads & Tales’ that same year. Maybe “self-released” is a bit of a stretch. Four acetates were pressed…and that’s it. It’s a record that no-one other than the band and their friends really heard. Over the years, the recording has gained a mythical status – probably rivalled only by The Bread & Beer Band LP and Mark Oliver Everett’s 1985 release ‘Bad Dude In Love’. Even the band doesn’t consider it to be a proper Shoes record… To hear it in full would surely be an experience, good or bad, but for whatever reason, it remains largely locked away. Choosing to bypass that demo disc (aside from one track), this anthology brings together almost everything else of importance prior to the major label signing: three albums worth of material, a selection of demos and one very important 7” single. The question is, for those people who’ve long loved ‘Present Tense’ and tunes like ‘Tomorrow Night’, is it any good?
Well, nothing’s perfect. At least half of Shoes’ pre-major label experiments are hampered by a budget that’s negligible, but rather sensibly, this boxed anthology is presented backwards with the best stuff front leaded and the cult classic ‘Black Vinyl Shoes’ LP filling most of the first disc. In terms of keeping listener interest, this is a very sensible move.
BLACK VINYL SHOES (1977)
It’ll be no surprise to anyone with at least half an interest in power pop that this album is the best of Shoes’ pre-major recordings. It is, after all, the album that put them on the map. Released in 1977 in the wake of the Cheap Trick debut and before Elvis Costello’s talent took the world by storm, Shoes were ready to shake up the scene. Taking the pop of the Raspberries and a Big Star obsession into new places inspired by the soon to be dominant new wave, ‘BVS’ is a genre classic. Decades after it first hit the shelves, it has remained an album that power pop crate diggers still hold close to their hearts.
About four bars of opener ‘Boys Don’t Lie’ is all that needed for you to work out why. Taking a Flaming Groovies inspired blueprint, fuzzy guitars blend garage rock with a pop sensibility, while a natural vocal with a slight husk shows a style that would be influential to a billion bands throughout the 80s and 90s. The recording has layers, too: a great mix means there’s a good separation of sound and a loud maraca in the right speaker really reinforces their love of well made retro pop. What there isn’t is much of a chorus, but Shoes will more than make up for that in time.
With an echoing production that really pushes forth a love of all things 60s, ‘Do You Wanna Get Lucky’ at first teases with a Phil Spector rhythm. Combined with vocals that look ahead to the bands from the 78/79 scenes, it’s about a perfect a juxtaposition as you’ll find – a great snapshot of the Shoes sound of the era, while a loud and fuzzy guitar solo boosts a garage rock edge. The title is repeated throughout, though never necessarily in the chorus-like way you’re expecting, but the arrangement is great. ‘Tragedy’ finally allows some bass to cut through and with a bit more warmth and a decent punch, it’s easy to hear how Shoes were at the forefront of the red trousered and skinny tied brigade. Although the vocals could use being brought forward a little, the core of a great song is here – harmony vocals used on a simple chorus, jagged new wave riffs and a rhythm section that refuse to leave their British Invasion influences too far behind.
Between the perfect ringing guitar pop ‘Writing You A Postcard’ and the Rolling Stones-ish throwback of ‘Not Me’, this album really finds its feet. With ‘Postcard’ especially, the DIY tones of crisp guitars chime in a way that Let’s Active and Robyn Hitchcock would make their signatures in a few years which is a real thrill, while ‘Not Me’ channels an unavoidable 60s sound, but as with the best parts of this LP, it recycles everything with love and comes across such a way that Shoes are able to make 1964 sound so relevant to 1977.
Adopting a sound that seems like a warped cassette, ‘Fire For A While’ offers a thin guitar, but makes up for that with a world of unavoidably 70s inspired harmonies – like Raspberries looking into psych-pop for inspiration – and although a product of its time, it’s lovely, while the melodic ‘Running Start’ very much looks to their own future, at least in terms of vocal ease, the use of percussion to sound like handclaps and an easy gift for a melody. Probably the best track on the album, though, ‘Okay’ is an early Shoes classic. With three parts power pop and one part drawn from something a little more twee, it’s easy to imagine its breezy vocal line filling any amount of bubblegum inflected sounds up to this point. With the use of percussion to sound like handclaps and an easy gift for melody, it already has a strong footing, but the combination of a melodic and breathy voice plus some solid guitar work ensures power pop gold throughout.
Hearing ‘Black Vinyl Shoes’ decades after the event, you could pick holes in its slightly thin production, but pretty much all of its fifteen tunes helped to form the backbone of everything which followed from countless other bands within the next two or three years. It’s as important as Cheap Trick ‘In Color’ or ‘Shake Some Action’ by Flamin’ Groovies, but on a more grassroots level, it opened the door for the likes of 20/20 and Off Broadway. It’s great that this anthology makes it available to everyone, but just as important are the various appendages to the first CD, which includes almost an album’s worth of rare material, making this new issue of ‘Black Vinyl Shoes’ the definitive release for fans.
Both sides of a single recorded for Bomp! Records in 1978 are almost worth the asking price alone. A re-recorded ‘Okay’ takes the guts of the previous recording and really shakes them up. John Murphy’s bass is more prominent; Gary Klebe’s lead guitar counterpoint is mixed well enough to have an impact (an unnecessary harmonica is mixed much lower!) and in terms of sounding like a professional recording, it’s a massive leap up from its album equivalent. It’s no match for the flipside, however – a song named ‘Tomorrow Night’, soon to become a Shoes signature piece. With a grumbling bass, a chiming guitar lurching back and forth on the simplest of riffs and a great vocal, the ghosts of Big Star loom large, while the overall sound is very in keeping with the new wave of the era. Those who’ve never heard the band before should seek out this track and specifically this version, as in lots of ways it’s superior to the more famous “album version” recorded for Elektra Records the following year.
Other highlights from the “leftovers” include a gruff retro rocker ‘Full Bite’ (again, drawing heavily upon Big Star’s ‘Radio City’ for influnce) and a second version of a song called ‘Like I Told You’ which, despite a demo quality, shows all the traits that made ‘Black Vinyl Shoes’ so enjoyable. Their sixties obsessions have a much bigger punch by this point and the vocals are very assured; you can really hear the influences that would carry through to a lot of indie bands in the 90s and especially the more melodic stars of Creation Records. The real gem for big fans is a demo named ‘Karen’ which casts aside all power pop aspirations and instead just offers voice and guitar. The results are cold but somehow alluring; they are the uneasy sounds of an emotive turmoil, much like Chris Bell’s ‘I Am The Cosmos’.
There are other treasures to discover along the way and since the main album itself is ready for re-discovery by many, that makes the first disc in this set a genuine jewel.
Disc two features the whole of the independently released ‘Bazooka’ LP and a solitary demo. Recorded a short time before ‘Black Vinyl Shoes’, there isn’t quite the same level of focus applied to the material. That’s not to say that power pop fans won’t find enjoyment here, of course, especially those keen to view the record in historical context.
Worth the price of admission, ‘The Atlantic’ is a swoonsome jangle-pop tune, delivering a whole world of 60s strums and Big Star nods. Despite being hampered by a very weak drum sound, the potential in this retro tune is clear from the off, especially in the way the dreamy music meets with a deep and almost detached vocal. There isn’t a chorus, but you get the feeling that there didn’t need to be – this is more about conjuring something other worldly and in that respect, it works. By the time a fuzzy guitar solo rolls in, it’s clear that just before striking power pop gold, Shoes could’ve happily settled for neo-psychedelia…and probably still would have been a cult sensation somewhere.
‘Rock Your Own’ finds a similar jangly mood and you can hear Shoes experimenting with three part harmonies that don’t necessary match up. Hearing the voices weave in and out is potentially interesting, but would’ve worked better if actually in tune… This track is a genuine oddity: it sounds like a sketch for something unfinished – there’s no notable chorus and a rather abrupt end – but, on the other hand, the echoing lead guitar has something about it that pulls you in. Yhe 70s rock vibes of ‘Snap’ allow Gary’s guitar to cut loose with some deep fuzz, which contrasted with a punchy chorus arrangement very much looks into Shoes’ immediate future. It’s one of the only times on the album, too, where the drums have a genuine presence. With stabbed rock and roll piano and choppy guitars that rarely hold back, this track is also great fun.
For the experience of hearing Shoes experimenting with filters and phasers, ‘My Anisette’ proves another highlight, as the band dive head first into a 60s jangle that, once again, owes as much to the past as to their immediate future. There’s something about the feel and the structure of the chopping chords that has a proto-new wave quality. Factor in a reasonable chorus, a good stab at unfussy harmonies and a couple of massive key changes and this is a cut above most of ‘Bazooka’, whilst ‘Educated’ opts for a straighter garage rock vibe. It’s the kind of thing you’ll have heard played better on a Flamin’ Groovies or Modern Lovers LP and should definitely be a reasonable amount faster but, credit where it’s due, it’s got some solid bones if nothing else.
Elsewhere, the material doesn’t always work out quite as well, but it’s important to view things in context. At this point, Shoes seem light years and several practice spaces away from the sheer joy of ‘Tomorrow Night’, but there are definitely a few glimmers of what’s over the horizon. ‘Like I Told You’, especially, sounds like a loose garage band’s homage to The Who and ‘Love Took A Turn’ has a great intro that’s not a million miles away from Rick Derringer’s 70s work, before being derailed by a few difficult vocals. Overall, while it’s great that ‘Bazooka’ has been reissued on CD [the previous issue being vinyl only from Numero Group], it’s almost certainly a fan-only affair.
ONE IN VERSAILLE (1975)
Disc three presents the ‘One In Versaille’ album and a small selection of related treasures. The first thing you need to understand is that ‘One In Versaille’ is raw. Very raw. The homespun origins of the recording are obvious from the outset – so much so, you’d have to wonder how ragged most of the previous acetate for ‘Heads & Tails’ actually is. That said, attempting to look past the production and some really out of tune vocals, the sound of the band’s later work is actually already in place on the two best tunes. Opener ‘Dance In Your Sleep’, especially, pushes forth the ringing guitar stolen from The Byrds, the John Entwistle inspired lead bass and a chorus that really suggests at least two people in the band know what they’re doing in terms of great melodies…even if the vocals can’t always stretch that far! Tapping into some fine 60s pop, ‘Kristine’ finally unveils Shoes’ gift for harmonies with a multi-layered tune that takes three voices and weaves a neo-psychedelic goodness. The psych-pop vibes are amped up by a slightly fuzzy guitar solo, while some of the instrumentation is derived from the Hollies circa 1967 and Buffalo Springfield. Somewhere in the back of the arrangement, the bass work sounds great, so it’s a pity that such potential couldn’t have been given more than a demo quality send off.
Beyond that, this album – and third disc, in general – isn’t so easy to love. The de facto title track, ‘Un Dans Versailles’ is, bizarrely, most un-Shoes-like: casting aside any aspirations to recreate Big Star’s ‘Radio City’ for the next generation, this tune is slow, waltzing, haunting and almost broken. It could be argued that its wanton lack of melody is inspired by the compelling car crashes from Big Star’s ‘Third’, but there’s no denying its the sort of track you’ll skip before too long. On the plus side, the bass is solid, the tinging cymbals are thoughtfully used and a guitar talk box evokes the mid 1970s like very little else.
A bizarre inclusion, ‘Eggroll Rock’ is a concoction of wibbly keyboard noises, rattling percussion and finger cymbals, rather more like an interlude from a Gong LP than something from a band who’d eventially become power pop stars, before ‘Song For Her’ draws influence from a 1970s Hollies – albeit played in a plodding arrangement that fails to bring out anything like the best from a reasonable idea. ‘No, I Don’t’ falls almost as flat, despite a solid acoustic guitar arrangement and a distinctly hippie vibe. It’s at this point of ‘Versailles’ it becomes clear that in 1975 Shoes were a bunch of guys with half-formed ideas and money to burn at the pressing plant. If it weren’t for familiarity with albums like ‘Present Tense’, chances are most of ‘Versaille’ wouldn’t have much appeal at all, sadly.
This CD issue of ‘One In Versailles’ features four bonus tracks, two of which are little more than sketches. ‘My Husband’s Home!’ is a fuzz bass interlude, a fun and cartoonish experiement with noises and screams; ‘Nothing Means More’ is a semi-acoustic country rock number that unwittingly borrows occasional melodies from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Thank You’ and bizarrely features some finer vocals than some of the finished tracks and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Freak’ is an odd, noisy piece of 70s rock that gives no idea of the band Shoes would be just two years later. In an odd way, it sounds like Bobby “Boris” Pickett & The Crypt Kickers trying their hand at (heavy handed) glam rock. It’s not something you’ll listen to more than once. The remaining bonus track represents a holy grail for Shoes fans, though – the first ever CD issue of a ‘Heads & Tails’ track! ‘I’d Like To Take You Out Again’ is a simple tune, all strumming guitars and wistful vocal. There are traces of Big Star within, but as with most of the pre-‘Black Vinyl’ offerings, it’s an idea that very much needed some work in the vocal department. Despite the flaws, it’s a welcome addition and sets the tone for what would become the ‘Bazooka’ LP – it’s wobbly, low budget and almost not entirely ready to be shared with the world, and yet somehow still enough to pique interest in the rest of that very elusive 10” record.
At their 1981 peak, Shoes’ music was as vital as the best bits of the Raspberries or those first four Cheap Trick albums. On the basis of their 1977 breakthrough recording and what came immediately after, Shoes’ contributions to the US power pop scene should never be understated. As a document that shows how Shoes came to the attentions of a major label, this box set an interesting curio, but, as well curated as this anthology may be, it’s certainly not an item for the merely curious. It knows what it is: it’s an invaluable document for the Shoes obsessive, but a tricky listen for others.
The care that’s been applied to this box set is obvious. The vaults have been raided; the material presented in the best possible transfers and the booklet is very informative. These are all good things you’d want from a box set of this kind, but the flaws are evident – you’re not necessarily going to reach for the demo quality material regularly.
Unless you’re a massive fan, this box set is best viewed as being a definitive version of the same named 1977 LP with a whole world of extras thrown in for free. If you’re able to do that, ‘Black Vinyl Shoes: The Anthology’ seems a much better proposition.