In an era where YouTube sensations come and go, it’s refreshing to hear new music from Shoes, the rock band that has withstood the test of time. With the release of Shoes' Ignition album, band members Jeff Murphy, Gary Klebe and John Murphy, along with drummer John Richardson, showcase their musical talents in Shoes' 15th album of brand new songs. But to truly understand the remarkable journey of the Shoes band, you need to start at the beginning…
In the early 1970’s, the small Midwestern town of Zion, Illinois still bore many of the markings of its founding as a religious enclave for a faith-healing evangelist and his followers: no liquor, no lottery tickets, no bikinis at the park on Lake Michigan. In this environment, if you wanted fun, you made it yourself. That included music.
And so Shoes was born. At first it was just a name: high school friends John Murphy and Gary Klebe decided that having a band would be cool, despite their complete lack of musical training or any instruments. They spent two years buying garage-sale guitars, learning whatever chords people would show them, and listening, listening, listening to the music they loved—the Beatles, Big Star, Bowie, the Move, Todd Rundgren, Nils Lofgren—trying to find their own voices.
In the summer of 1973, Jeff Murphy, John’s brother, borrowed the money and bought a four-track tape machine. As they recorded with Jeff, they realized that he was the third member of Shoes. The next summer, they made their first DIY record without ever having played in public.
The result was the entirely homemade Heads or Tails (1974). For the next several years, Jeff, John and Gary painstakingly taught themselves to play and write and sing and produce, all without external guidance, in basements and bedrooms and a converted garage. When Gary studied abroad for a year, John and Jeff made a record for him, One in Versailles (1975), adding to their ranks drummer Barry Shumaker; when Gary returned the four punched out another full album in a matter of weeks, the scorching Bazooka (1975).
At the end of 1975, John and Gary returned from college permanently. Shumaker left, and they tapped local drummer Skip Meyer to replace him. Shoes pushed forward, beginning the power pop classic Black Vinyl Shoes that fall, a record which showcased their signature sound: fuzzy electric and bright acoustic guitars, jangly melodies, melancholy lyrics, and shimmering harmonies.
When it was self-released in 1977, it received excellent press, including a glowing review in The Village Voice, and was eventually picked up for re-release by JEM/PVC Records. With increased distribution, Black Vinyl Shoes drew the attention of major labels, and Shoes signed with Elektra/Asylum in early 1979.
Their three Elektra records—Present Tense (1979), Tongue Twister (1981), and Boomerang (1982)—won Shoes an international following and solid critical respect. They worked with Mike Stone, who had produced Queen, and Richard Dashut, who had helmed both Fleetwood Mac’s massive best-seller Rumors and its experimental follow-up, Tusk. Shoes’ videos—“Too Late” and “Tomorrow Night” in particular—were prominently featured on early MTV. But Shoes had signed during the devastating Crash of ’79, and they struggled to break out during these years against the backdrop of an industry in free-fall. They were released from their Elektra contract in late 1982.
Determined to go on, Shoes built a small studio—Short Order Recorder—in a strip mall in nearby Winthrop Harbor, IL, producing not only their own music—Silhouette (1984)—but also the work of other bands, including Chicago’s Material Issue. In 1986, they moved back to Zion, rebuilding Short Order Recorder into a small, respectable working studio with a national reputation. Shoes also expanded their label, Black Vinyl Records, releasing not only their own music, but that of like-minded artists and Short Order Recorder clients. It was a self-contained DIY operation gone professional.
Along the way, they released a collection of their finest songs—Shoes Best (1987)—and re-released their back catalog on CD. At the same time, they recorded the zestful alternative pop masterpiece Stolen Wishes (1990), which garnered a four-star review in Rolling Stone and had one track—John’s “Feel the Way That I Do”—picked up for inclusion in a Hollywood film, Mannequin 2. The record fit right in with the alt-pop revival of the early 1990’s: David Wild called it “a great, unpretentious pop record.” Shoes toured the east and west coasts for the first time ever to support Stolen Wishes.
The business of the studio and label delayed 1994’s Propeller, but when it was released, Shoes received the usual critical accolades—“spine-tingling pop of the first rank,” wrote Parke Puterbaugh in Stereo Review, “more aggressive than Shoes’ norm”—and delivered some scorching live performances, captured on 1995’s Fret Buzz.
1997 saw the release of the limited-edition As Is: a two-disc collection of outtakes, alternate mixes, rarities and, for the first time on CD, the much-discussed but rarely heard 1975 releases One in Versailles and Bazooka.
By the end of the millennium, digital musical production had rendered independent studios all but obsolete; file-sharing had the same effect on many independent labels. Shoes sold Short Order Recorder in 2004 and returned to their roots, recording at home.
In 2007, Jeff released the solo record Cantilever, a collection of eleven shimmering pop songs NPR’s Ken Tucker called “pretty glorious.” That summer, Shoes appeared at the Great Performers of Illinois concert series at Millennium Park in Chicago, as well as on WGN and WLS-TV. 2009 saw the band’s first overseas shows, as they traveled to Japan to celebrate the release of a CD box set on Air Mail Records. Shoes’ 2008 recording of Cheap Trick’s “If You Want My Love,” originally intended for a charity tribute album, was pressed and released in Japan.
Through 2010, the band was busy with periodic reissues, movie soundtracks, and work on an in-depth band biography, Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, a behind-the-scenes look at Shoes' musical career juxtaposed against the backdrop of the changing music industry (expected in early 2012).
At the end of 2010, work began on a new Shoes record, titled Ignition, their first in 17 years. Working with John Richardson, who has been their live drummer since 1994, Shoes have found a new drive and purpose in these sessions. “I think that we're playing with a renewed sense of purpose,” Jeff says. “It's really been a joy to work on these songs and reminds us that, despite the fact that it takes a ton of work and worry, there really is no greater satisfaction for us than completing a new Shoes song. It has also helped to strengthen and reaffirm our friendships.” Gary notes, “We’re doing this for the joy of it, not to further our careers,” and expresses optimism over the direction of the new record.
With fifteen tracks completed, John characterizes Ignition as “somewhere between Stolen Wishes and Propeller.” And all the Shoes credit Richardson with adding new muscle to their songs. "Johnny’s our secret weapon,” John says; Jeff calls his drumming “inspired”: “with the inclusion of Richardson's drumming from the earliest stages of the songs, it gives us a rock-solid foundation to build on.”