BLACK VINYL SHOES – SHOES (1977)
If history is written by – or at least about – the winners, it doesn’t mean the ones who are edited out have lost. In music, the small-scale, local but for decades unacknowledged release has been there at every stage, from muffled blues and country 78s stretching either side of the second world war to dimestore rock ‘n’ roll, from ’60s 45s that later became the stuff of Nuggets, Pebbles and Northern Soul, from post-punk DIY by The Night The Goldfish Died and Prevent Forest Fires to the countless, sometimes anonymous, dance 12″s of the ’90s and the upstart start-ups now lurking in the infinite corners of Soundcloud and Bandcamp.
Quality has varied considerably, of course, and for decades this music was seldom heard outside the town/county/state where it was made but it’s always been the sum and substance of the iceberg, underpinning more visible events, and, at its best, has been fit to take its place alongside more celebrated songs and names, with the added advantage of not having been bludgeoned by repetition.
A case in point: Shoes (distinguishable from French dance act The Shoes through their admirably principled stance on the definite article), a bunch of Hardy Boys doppelgangers who came from Zion, a dot on the Illinois map, and stayed there, opting to keep away from Chicago and any other city to progress, for the most part, at their own pace and on their own terms.
In the pre-punk/new wave ’70s, the sound Shoes were cultivating – drawing on early Beatles, The Byrds and Big Star, was far from obvious and, even allowing for some elements of glam, had few adherents and the proliferation of hyper-proficient, hysterically pompous technoflash bands – Styx, Kansas, Journey – was swallowing airtime and theatre space once reserved for music that wasn’t unintentionally ludicrous.
But Shoes did whatever it took to push their music out. Private press releases were commonplace but their first release, One In Versailles (so named as a nod to guitarist and architecture student Gary Klebe during his year abroad in France) was neither vanity project nor bizarre affectation. Despite being out of step with tastes defined more by chops than ideas, it had genuine potential to find an audience who may not have realised it was what they wanted, through strong and – on at least one song, Do I Get So Shy – complex songwriting.
They took things a stage further with Black Vinyl Shoes but resources were tight and the album’s sleevenotes make its six-month recording seem an arduous even harrowing, process, telling of “strenuous conditions” and extreme limitations” as it itemises the equipment used.
The notes assert that it’s a “unique” record – having worked in and around media for more than 20 years, it’s my firm belief that this most precisely-defined of words should never be used lightly or loosely but the finished results of Black Vinyl Shoes dispose me to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Superficially, it’s as straightforward as these things get – fifteen melodic, uncomplicated songs, mainly on the eternal theme of girl baffles boy. Some of the lyrics would be viewed differently now to the way they might have been then, (eg “Ride you in my car/Make you feel some older”) but they had a penchant for an unexpected turn of phrase (“Better toughen up your middle ground/Get it hard for senseless casualties” or “The fastest way I can find you/Is my justified means to the end”).
And while, to the casual observer, US politics of the ’70s may have been dominated by two areas – foreign policy and the office of President – it always comes back to The Economy, Stupid and on Capital Gain, Shoes have their own Taxman, a slightly gauche but acerbic sketch of a grasping businessman on the make (“Let the the buyer beware if they’re buying their wares from him/And when he’s doin’ a favour, watch out or he’ll do you in.”)
Further hidden depths and textures emerge on closer scrutiny; the unequivocally basic equipment makes the songs swim, swoop and hiss and at times Shoes’ drummer, the late Skip Meyer, sounds like he’s playing on suitcases, but while he’s actually using a full kit, there’s a noble tradition here – the Crickets’ Jerry Allison used a cardboard box on Not Fade Away and his own very knees on Everyday, so the important thing is not what’s used but how it sounds.
Other sounds range from sparing but subtle slide guitar (Running Start, Fire For Awhile), acoustic 12-string stabs (Someone Finer, Okay) and, on Fatal, the synthesised guitar sound that would later become the trademark of The Cars (and there were deliberate constraints – third album Tongue Twister would proclaim ‘no keyboards’ as defiantly as Queen’s ‘no synthesisers’). Meanwhile, breathless opener Boys Don’t Lie, which lends its title to the band’s biography by Mary E Donnelly, could fit neatly over the five-a-side scene in the opening credits of Trainspotting.
Shoes would righly look askance at the unseemly term ‘powerpop’ and here show an ability to smuggle in unexpected genres – melodically, the aforementioned Running Start is practically a country song and there’s a definite groove/swing to Not Me, which has a cowbell intro to match Honky Tonk Women or Low Rider. Then the fuzz bass and staccato rhythms of If You’d Stay echo what Bowie was doing at the time in Berlin and Devo two statelines away in Ohio. It’s also not unlike the radical Eurodisco revamp the Undertones would perform on True Confessions for their first album and Shoes did strike a match to light the Derry gang’s way. Their smilingly lugubrious demeanour and tunes of condensed milk sweetness, together with the equal division of labour (five songs each by Gary Klebe and brothers John and Jeff Murphy) also foreshadowed Teenage Fanclub – Shoes themselves have noted the similarity but, with characteristic modesty, didn’t presume to have been a direct influence.
A spell with Elektra produced three albums, including the magnificent Present Tense, but they then returned to self-sufficiency, at their own Short Order Recorder studio in Zion. For 40 years, they’ve pursued their muse as single-mindedly as the Ramones and are cherished as much by those who are aware of them; they’re there in a rich seam for anyone who cares to look (PG).