To a legion of power pop fans, Shoes are legendary. To a lot of other people – and especially those in the UK – they remain a largely unknown entity. While some fans will claim that 1977’s ‘Black Vinyl Shoes’ is the Shoes masterpiece, it merely shows a band on the rise. It’s a record with some good songs, a lot of enthusiasm and a certain amount of DIY charm – and it’s likely that DIY “cool factor” that makes it so highly prized by those vocal champions. In terms of consistency, it’s somewhat hit and miss. If you’re looking to discover a band at their peak, look no further than the three Shoes albums recorded for Elektra Records between 1979 and 1982.
This 4CD compilation presents each of those albums in full, alongside a massive vault of bonus tracks – fifty four in all – making ‘Elektrafied’ the ultimate Shoes package for the uninitiated.
In the case of 1979’s ‘Present Tense’, especially, Shoes sound like serious contenders for the late 70s power pop crown, delivering a set of songs that could easily rival the genre’s best loved bands. There are absolutely no weak links within the original album’s twelve cuts, but more impressively, the band also manages to cram a reasonable amount of variety into a pleasingly concise forty minutes.
A strong example of Shoes’ gift for melody within angular sounds can be heard during the moody ‘Hangin’ Around With You’, where a mid-tempo verse is driven by the kind of muted guitar chords The Cars had made a staple. This is something which instantly gives the first time listener a useful reference point, before a chorus unleashes almost everything that’s loveable about the band’s more tuneful side. Here, a broader melody swells to allow a more triumphant vocal to work its magic. Whereas some power pop and new wave acts seemed dominated by an off-kilter vocal style (David Byrne and Ric Ocasek, we’re looking at you especially), Shoes value the sheen and gloss of 60s pop as their stock in trade and on this track, that provides a wonderful contrast to the spikier elements. ‘In My Arms Again’ further explores this contrast as skinny tie power pop with a hefty fuzz bass collides with a bubblegum pop chorus, while ‘Cruel You’ takes a much speedier approach to deliver something more within a post-punk sphere, as punchy basses and overdriven guitars collide in a burst of spiky energy. The sharper edges seem at odds with a smoother multi-tracked vocal at first, but given time to tune in, it becomes clear that this push and pull between energy and sugariness provides so much of Shoes’ power.
‘Present Tense’s classic status is helped no end by a flawless start, where the double whammy of the two biggest Shoes tracks, ‘Tomorrow Night’ and ‘Too Late’, emerge from the speakers, quickly immersing the listener into a world where the then contemporary sounds of The Cars are blended almost seemlessly with the 70s pop of Raspberries and Pilot. ‘Tomorrow Night’ had already been recorded and issued on an independent 7”, but taking advantage of a bigger budget, it kicks off Shoes’ major label career with a huge and shiny intent. Ringing guitars latch upon a simple but catchy riff, as they bounce between the speaker channels instantly setting up an album destined to be a classic of the genre. For lovers of great harmonies, ‘Too Late’ should be a favourite, as the way Gary Klebe’s voice joins those of John and Jeff Murphy represents some of the era’s best sounds and even with a few filters, there’s more than enough evidence of these guys’ pop credentials.
‘Present Tense’ was given a UK vinyl release via Sire Records in 1979, but made little impact. It isn’t really clear why, as the decades have been remarkably kind. Perhaps British audiences were too wrapped up in the smart wordplay of Elvis Costello or the knowing wit of Squeeze to care much about these lovable but fairly retro pop stars? Blondie already had the pop market sewn up and Joe Jackson had won hearts of smarter kids with his mix of singer songwriter’s charm and post-punk anger. Since there seemed to be no room for these Shoes back then, for many ‘Elektrafied’ will provide the perfect opportunity to discover, explore and ultimately love a power pop classic.
Even if the bulk of 1981’s ‘Tongue Twister’ sticks to a familiar formula, it includes more than enough stand-out moments to suggest Shoes hadn’t used up all of their best hooks on one killer LP. Although the production values lend a sound that’s slightly thinner, in tracks like ‘Burned Out Love’ mixing mechanical rhythms, crunchy guitars and filtered vocals, the semi-acoustic jangle of ‘Hopin’ She’s The One’ or the speedy ‘Hate To Lose’ (a track that sounds a little like something from Kim Wilde’s debut LP from the same year), you’ll find a trio of Shoes classics. Those, plus ‘When It Hits’, make ‘Tongue Twister’ worthy of exploring. ‘When It Hits’ – arguably the album’s best number – mixes the retro pop of mid 70s Shoes material with the MTV friendliness of ‘Too Late’, providing another great example of the band’s gift for wrapping smooth pop vocals within choppier rhythms. If you’re already familiar with ‘Present Tense’ it won’t be anything like a musical revelation, but in terms of a tight 80s pop-rocker, it’s particularly fine.
There’s time enough for a couple of obvious deviations on this record too, with the minimalist haze of ‘Found A Girl’ exploring more of a 60s psych pop mood where Shoes display an obvious love of The Beatles, Brian Wilson and The Zombies – albeit dressed in an obvious 80s sheen – and ‘Karen’, a 60s pop pastiche that, on the surface, sounds like something the band had written for the poster boy du jour – but replayed in a way that would make those late 60s power pop pioneers proud. Multi-layered guitars, multi-tracked vocals and an almost butterscotch haze of sound make this another highlight, twee or otherwise. [An early, spooky sounding demo version of this track was recorded as far back as 1977. This can be found on the earlier Shoes anthology.]
‘Tongue Twister’ is good, but in some ways it’s also a pale imitation of ‘Present Tense’. In order to stay vibrant and move forward, Shoes needed to sharpen their sound. This is a move the band pull off with aplomb on 1982’s ‘Boomerang’ – one of the most 80s sounding albums ever. This change was necessary, though, and Shoes sound truly inspired. Opener, ‘In Her Shadow’ wastes no time in abandoning their old style power pop for a few harder-edged new wave quirks – a speedy riff uncovers a track that veers closer to Devo than The Knack – and ‘Mayday’ updates the old Shoes sound with a few ideas that draw more heavily from the Device and Mr. Mister school of arranging – there’s very much a “techy” feel underscoring everything and although this won’t necessarily sit so well with the power pop purist, if you can accept the style, it’s brilliant.
If you always loved Shoes for their pop choruses, these are very much intact, despite being dominated by a few mechanical edges and deafeningly loud snare drum. During ‘What Love Means’, the pop qualities and harmony vocals that provided the heart of so much early Shoes material are heard to fantastic effect, while even ‘Under The Gun’ – a track that sounds like a bizarre hybrid of REO Speedwagon and Berlin – retains a vibrant hookiness that shows how, despite a stylistic shift, the art of the song in Shoes’ world is everything. There’s even a real throwback with ‘Shake It Away’, a track that sounds like something harking back to ‘Present Tense’ with its combination of 60s pop melodies and early 80s toughness. But – as with most of the tracks here – a heavily filtered sound and unnatural drum sound still sets it apart from Shoes’ more familiar material, so it doesn’t sound at odds with the rest of the album. Assuming you’re not closed-minded enough to play ‘Boomerang’ once, decide you hate it and revert back for ‘Present Tense’ for your Shoes fix, you’ll actually discover a number with Andy Sturmer like catchiness.
‘Boomerang’ really didn’t really connect with a large audience anywhere upon release, which is a pity, as it’s fantastic. It’s all very squarely dated somewhere between 1982-84 in terms of production and sound, yes, and it isn’t necessarily power pop as you know it, but it’s fantastic nonetheless. Since it never got released in the UK and achieved no commercial success anywhere else, it’s the very definition of an “overlooked” album. ‘Boomerang’s future as a retrospectively accepted classic starts with the release of this box set!
In terms of those aforementioned bonus materials, with all three albums presented in demo form and a plethora of other home demos showing works in progress at different stages, most of ‘Eletrafied’s surplus material is geared towards an audience that already knows the three albums inside out. However, the inclusion of the ‘Shoes On Ice’ live recording is a major plus. Vinyl copies of this release – on the occasions they appear – will set you back £15-£20, while the only previous CD reissues (included in the prosaically titled ‘4CD Set’ in Japan only and as a two-fer with ‘Boomerang’ in the US) are about as rare as hen’s teeth.
‘Shoes On Ice’ only features six songs, but as a live document it’s very important. If nothing else, it’s proof that the band were as good live as they were in the studio. Captured at the Zion Ice Arena, Illinois in 1981, and with Shoes at their peak, the home-town audience sound like they’re absolutely rabid. The crowd has the same vibe as Cheap Trick’s ‘At Budokan’ and the band seem to really feed off such obvious adoration. The performances of ‘Too Late’ and ‘Hate To Run’ bookending the recording are enough to ensure a great listen and have an especially punchy feel with Skip Meyer’s drums adding more power to the performances compared to their studio equivalents. You won’t find any enormous musical deviations – the age of the rock giants and twenty minute drum solos is over – but with four tracks from ‘Present Tense’ and two from the still wet-behind-the-ears ‘Tongue Twister’, ‘Shoes On Ice’ is a great snapshot, as close to a ‘Shoes Greatest Hits’ as you’ll find.
On the day MTV launched in America back in 1981, four of Shoes’ videos were broadcast, making them synonymous with a new decade and a new era of wall to wall video entertainment. Despite this invaluable exposure, they never truly became MTV darlings or reached the kind of commercial success bestowed upon The Cars and Psychedelic Furs, though…much to the world’s loss.
As for this box set, for a lot of listeners, it won’t just be entertainment – it’ll be an education. Since one of these albums has been unavailable in the UK for decades and the other two have never secured any kind of UK release at all, ‘Elektrafied’ is more than a mere reissue. By giving this material the most attention its ever had outside of the US and Japan, it’s almost providing a public service by offering something that has enough treasure for fans and power pop collectors, while remaining accessible enough to reel in those more casual buyers looking for a great alternative to their beloved Cars, Cheap Trick and Nick Lowe recordings.
If you discovered Shoes via a few power pop anthologies but have never found these albums on your travels, you’ll know how important this release is and chances are it will be considered a priority purchase. Even if you’re old enough to have discovered the band in the late 70s and have some of this material already – whether its a battered vinyl copy of ‘Present Tense’ or the now impossible to find two-fer CD of ‘Present Tense’ and ‘Tongue Twister’ – likewise, you’ll definitely want to pick this up. As a comprehensive overview of Shoes’ finest work, this set really cannot be recommended highly enough.