Archive for October, 2012

45rpm Roundup

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

The 45rpm vinyl format isn’t dead. In fact, I see more of those little seven-inchers in my mailbox these days than I did even a couple of years ago. Here I take a look at four recent submissions. None is at all musically like the others, and seven out of the eight songs are highly recommended.

D A W N S – “So Help Me God” b/w “Camouflage”
Reading about this one, I was expecting some sort of Americana-oriented sounds. In fact the press sheet sent along with the disc (actually a 33rpm record) notes that the “touring band is an eclectic six-piece outfit with upright bass, cello, lap steel, bow saw and percussion…” But that’s not the vibe they conjure on ”So Help Me God.” They stomp through the song, sounding like a more melody-oriented Arcade Fire with better songwriting and a singer whose voice doesn’t grate on me. The flip, “Camouflage,” does present a slightly more acoustic-flavored approach; the haunted and breathy vocals, shimmering guitars and sparse, echoey production recall Big Star‘s Third. How can that not be great? And the direction the tune takes in its final minute is an unexpected treat. Plenty of shade and light on this record; if it’s a teaser to a forthcoming long-player, I’m all ears. White vinyl.

Rick Berlin w/the Nickel & Dime Band – Always On Insane (“Summer Roof” b/w “I’m Jes’ Sayin’”)
Ska in 2012? Well, okay. Sounding like some bizarre cross between Warren Zevon and Mental As Anything, “Summer Roof” features peppy horns and a fun, shouted chorus. But the song detours into a lovely midsection that’s as far from bluebeat as one can get – it’s singer/songwriter-ish, even – before launching back into an exuberant yakety-sax solo. Loads of fun, this one. The flip “I’m Jes’ Sayin’” has a relaxed, jazzy vibe with some soulful vocals backed by some lovely, creamy oohs. As the song unfolds, it’s reminiscent of Pete Yorn‘s work circa Nightcrawler. This song could easily be the work of a different band, but since it’s not, I’m left to think that Berlin has an impressively wide stylistic palette.

Smash Fashion – “Blame It On the Brandy” b/w “Marionette”
Calling to mind the fun, sleazy and swaggering era that brought us Sweet, Alice Cooper and Suzi Quatro, “Blame it On the Brandy” makes no concessions to modernity: it’s timeless in its approach. Handclaps, a straightforward earworm riff (albeit one that owes more than a little to “Bony Maronie”) and plenty of power chords all come together to remind you that – Gary Glitter be damned – glam rock was a helluva lot of mindless fun. Some dual lead guitar work on the outro is a not-so-subtle hat-tip to Thin Lizzy. The flip, “Marionette” is every bit as good, sounding as it does like a lost prime-era Elton John track without the piano. Some Queen-like guitar heroics are icing on this glammy cake. Woo-hoo indeed. Full album, please…stat.

Dr. Manhattan – “Hot Sauce” b/w Dormlife – “Weak Sauce”
A lo-fi vibe and a slightly dorky campfire feel provide the basis for Dr. Manhattan’s song that seems to be mostly about smokin’ that shit. With a musical approach that’s a little bit like Violent Femmes, it’s fun in a rickety-jalopy sort of way. I can’t help picturing these guys in vests and fedoras, smirking their way through this barrelhouse romp, but it’s fun enough for what it is, in a modest sort of way. The flip from Dormlife is much stronger: it features tight’n'lovely vocal harmonies, a jittery stop/start melody, taut drum work, some aggressive acoustic guitar strumming and bursts of rubbery bass. Hard to pin down stylistically, it’s a sort of tuneful rethink of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Or something. Something good. Verdict: the “hot” song is relatively weak while the “weak” one is tasty stuff indeed. Clear red vinyl.

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DVD Review: Johnny Winter – Live From Japan

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

There’s no point in tip-toeing around it: blues guitarist Johnny Winter is old and frail. The cumulative effects of decades of drug and alcohol abuse/addiction (happily, he’s clean now) coupled with the medical problems associated with albinism make the odds unlikely that Winter would even still walk this Earth at age 68. But indeed he does, and in addition to getting clean, he’s also now benefiting from sympathetic management (something he lacked for many years as well), and is getting control of his back catalog back, slowly but surely.

In recent years a number of compilation videos have been released, including a pair surveying his TV/video work over the 1970s and 1980s. But the new Johnny Winter Live From Japan is different: it captures Winter and band as they look and sound today. (Well, April 2011.)

The bad news is pretty much what you might expect. Winter has great difficulty getting around. He’s helped onto the stage, though some clumsy video work attempts to hide this fact: an audience member just happens to step in front of the camera, hiding the stagehand who guides Winter out to his seat, front-and-center onstage. (There’s no shame in that: who doesn’t need a little help now and then?) Once there, Johnny remains seated for nearly the entire performance. And it’s also true that Winter’s voice doesn’t have quite the same ferocious presence it once did.

But the good news is that that’s the extent of the bad news. Winter’s playing remains as incendiary as ever. With his Erlewine Lazer (his axe of choice the days, perhaps due to its feather weight), Winter leads the band through a set heavy on covers. But those covers are songs that Winter has truly made his own. Freddie King‘s “Hideaway,” Bob Dylan‘s “Highway 61 Revisited,” and so forth. Winter doesn’t engage the audience visually – hard to do that when you just sit there, and you’re so blind as to be largely unable to see your audience – but he more than makes up for it with his playing. And that, after all, is why people come to see and hear Johnny Winter all these years: it’s not about the songwriting, and it’s often not even really about the songs. It’s about what Winter does with them how he delivers his shredding, bluesy riffage in a seemingly endless array of different ways.

The package’s track listing doesn’t seem to jibe with what’s on the DVD, but don’t let that bother you: just enjoy the boogie. The info on the DVD menu is closer to correct, but the packaging seems to have been done by someone who didn’t have the DVD at hand. There are a couple of “interviews” on the DVD, but these last under thirty seconds each; as I found out on two separate occasions, Johnny’s not much of a talker.

If you’re a Johnny winter fan, watching Live From Japan may make you feel sad for Winter’s health. It may lead you to say, “I’d better go see him soon if I want to ever see him.” Or not. But all that’s beside the point: if you like his guitar playing, and you’re interested in seeing and hearing that’s he’s still got some of the fire that helped him earn his place in history, then Live From Japan is well worth viewing.

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DVD Review: The Move – The Lost Broadcasts

Monday, October 29th, 2012

The Move are one of those sixties groups that got lost in the transatlantic shuffle. They arguably had it all: great songwriting, strong vocalists, an a ready-made visual image. A near-perfect mix of super-catchy pop melodicism, heavier-than-heavy riffage, ambitious art-pop leanings and a penchant for controversy, The Move should have been huge in the USA.

And they were pretty big in their native England. But when the group is mentioned these days, it’s often only in the context of having spawned (or mutated into, depending on how one reads history) Electric Light Orchestra.

Once again we have those wily Germans to thank for capturing a criminally-overlooked band in their audiovisual glory. A new DVD in the ongoing series, The Move: The Lost Broadcasts collects eleven television performances of The Move.

The first clip is a black-and-white Beat Club broadcast of “Blackberry Way,” and dates from the period during which Carl Wayne fronted the group. It’s presented in excellent quality, possibly sourced from the videotape masters. And the third clip is another b&w Beat Club spot, “Curly.” This one prominently features leader Roy Wood on recorder(s) and trading lead vocal licks with Wayne. The song musically points the way toward the band’s future direction. The track’s juxtaposition of medieval/folk textures with thundering bass lines would become a Move trademark. And Wood’s hair is not to be missed.

A Beat Club performance of “Fire Brigade” is a delight, giving Wood one of his earliest up-front showcases. And Ace Kefford‘s thundering bass lines anchor this succinct, memorable pop tune. A short, mimed (pre-recorded instrumental tracks with live vocals) “Wild Tiger Woman” is also presented in good a/v quality.

But it’s the remaining clips that are the real gems here. Documenting the very-late period Move, these tracks feature the lineup that crossed over into becoming ELO. From the earlier lineup came Wood and drummer Bev Bevan, and new members Jeff Lynne (vocals, guitar, piano) and Richard Tandy (not, as ELO fans might guess, on keyboards, but on bass and guitar) helped push the group in a more ambitious direction.

I am still trying to figure out who the second keyboard player on these tracks is; unfortunately, though The Lost Broadcasts includes a nice-if-short liner note essay, there’s no personnel info or airdate information in the package.

On “Brontosaurus” we can see a young, rail-thin Jeff Lynne for once without his omnipresent sunglasses. The shades are in place during “Words of Aaron,” a track which served to blur the lines between late Move and early ELO; it would have sounded completely at home on the latter’s No Answer debut LP.

The color clips are presented in stunning audiovisual quality, and they’re complete: no annoying voiceovers. These clips include the slate checks, and show the band standing still as the final notes of their tunes fade out. And breakdown takes are included as well: “Ella James” falters about a minute in, and the band takes a second (and successful) pass at the number.

Lynne takes the lead (and ditches the shades) for a pair of stomping renditions of “Down on the Bay,” a song that foreshadows ELO’s late-period move toward early rock’n'roll pastiches. The difference is that “Down on the Bay” rocks really hard; it’s easy to hear what the guys in Cheap Trick loved about The Move when listening to this number. The song’s brief rhumba interlude is a pure delight. The second pass at the song shows some album art visuals projected behind the band (the other tracks show them playing in front of a blue screen sans projections).

An important note: these tracks – the color ones, at least – don’t show The Move miming to pre-recorded tracks; they’re actually playing and singing. That reality might explain the band’s use of headphones; they were known as a deafeningly loud band.

By the time of these color tracks, The Move really was just Wood, Lynne and Bevan; the other two players (Tandy and that unidentified guy) were really auxiliary players brought on to round out the sound. The appear and disappear seemingly at random throughout these performances.

Wood’s stinging lap steel playing is the centerpiece of “When Alice Comes Back to the Farm,” a song even less well-known in the USA than these other tracks; it was left off of the Move compilation Split Ends, a collection that served to (belatedly) introduce the band to American audiences who wondered what Jeff Lynne had been doing “before” (sic) ELO.

Fans of sixties British rock and/or ELO simply must see this DVD.

Note: you may also enjoy another DVD from this series (and my review thereof) documenting Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band.

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Moogfest 2012 Preview

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Moogfest kicks off this evening. For me the highlights – -and the acts I’ll be reporting on — will most likely include Morton Subotnick, Primus, Black Moth Super Rainbow, (possibly) Explosions in the Sky, The Magnetic Fields, Thomas Dolby, and perhaps more.

Meanwhile, an old friend contacted me this morning to let me know about this. On today’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross on NPR:

Remembering John Cage and Robert Moog
The show rebroadcasts an interview with the late Robert Moog, creator of the Moog synthesizer. A festival of electronic and visionary music in tribute to him takes place this weekend. Also, the show listens back to an interview with John Cage. International celebrations are taking place this year to mark the centennial of his birth.
Fri, Oct 26, 2012 — 1:00pm
Fri, Oct 26, 2012 — 7:00pm

I expect it will be archived on their site as well.

Finally, If you’re in or near Asheville this weekend, head to the lobby of the Diana Wortham Theatre. Moog Music has set up a roomful of synths (Voyagers, Little Phattys) and theremins, all for you to knob-twiddle and hand-wave to your hearts’ content. And it’s FREE; no Moogfest ticket required.

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Album Review: Shoes – 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012

Friday, October 26th, 2012

As Shoes bassist John Murphy told me in our wide-ranging four-part interview, the new 21-cut compilation on Real Gone Music, 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012 is “is a sort of Part Two to Shoes Best,” the 1987 collection released on Shoes’ own Black Vinyl Records. That’s about right; assuming one doesn’t plan to (or hasn’t yet) picked up all of the albums in Shoes’ catalog, those looking for a solid overview will probably want both.

And I’d take slight issue with the compiler’s user of the word definitive. Any Shoes collection that leaves off “I Don’t Miss You” by definition falls short of that term. But what 35 Years is, is a terrific overview. Drawing from all of the group’s albums except their early effort One in Versailles and their 1995 live set Fret Buzz, 35 Years culls the winningest tracks from their consistently-engaging body of work.

Shoes’ musical vision was established early; there’s not a world of difference in music approach, lyrical subject matter or production style between the big-budget major-label cuts from Present Tense (representing nearly a fourth of the material on 35 Years) and “Say It Like You Mean It” from their 2012 return, Ignition. But that’s not a band thing: the Zion, IL group figured out the best means of getting their powerpop songs across, and when it works – which is most all of the time – it works remarkably well.

The brothers (John and Jeff Murphy) and Gary Klebe each have their own vocal personality, thus imbuing their songs with the personality of the lead singer on each track. But the vocal blend – partly that ineffable brothers thing; see also: the brothers Gallagher, Davies, Everly and so on – adds a special something, a Shoesiness if you will. The timeless quality of their songs is only occasionally betrayed by a dated element (a spot of electric sitar, or gated reverb on the drums, for example), but Shoes have always been far less guilty of trendiness than their contemporaries, so 35 Years can be listened to with unabated pleasure, and not the guilty kind.

I’m not sure if it’s been remarked upon elsewhere, but viewing the song titles in Shoes’ catalog as a whole reveals a subtle penchant for in-jokes. At least that’s what I see when I view titles like “I Miss You” and “I Don’t Miss You,” and “Too Late” and “Too Soon.” But who knows: maybe that’s all coincidence.

There aren’t any rare or unreleased Shoes tracks on this set, nor is including such part of the compilers’ goal here. What that means in practical terms is that the softer Propeller version of “A Thing of the Past” is included rather than the harder-rocking (and, I say, better) version that appeared on the various-artists Yellow Pills Vol. 1. But nay self-respecting powerpop fan will have tracked down that now-rare comp in any event.

Steven “Spazz” Schnee (yeah, I don’t know either) has penned a good overview of the band’s career, and quotes from all three Shoes provide that all-important they-were-there angle.

As far as value-for-money, 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012 can’t be beat. Perfectly balancing the sweet and sour, the rocking and melodic, jangle and crunch, Shoes’ oeuvre is a high point of its genre. And 35 Years is a succinct, hour-plus look at it.

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A Really Big Shoes Interview, Part 4

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: So Ignition is the first new Shoes album in 17 years. It’s an obvious question, but why so long?

John Murphy (bass/vocals): It sounds terrible: eighteen years. And of course there was never any grand plan. I think, when I look back at what was happening in the late 90s, there were a series of things. We were trying to maintain this building. We had to “feed the baby” every month, and the baby wanted two grand. Jeff had been making a living from [producing] sessions, and that was drying up; bands were sinking money into home gear. So that was the beginning of the end for that.

Also, independent distribution was going belly-up. We lost tens of thousands of dollars in the whole effort of trying to be an independent label. We’d have a distributor who’d owe us $2000, send us $600 and then order more CDs. We’d say, “Okay, they made an attempt in paying.” So in the end, they’d owe us five grand. Then they’d shut down, and we’re out that money. The business end was just eating things alive. We were turning on each other. Being in a band is not unlike a marriage: money problems can ruin a marriage.

When we put the building on the market, it sat unsold for almost three years. And in that time, it had become such a bad taste in our mouths that the idea of starting something that we couldn’t finish just didn’t appeal to us.

And once we sold it – 2004 or so – it’s was sort of a relief for awhile. It was bittersweet, and we missed it, but we were continuing with our lives, getting jobs. Maintaining. Gary moved three times during those years. Jeff moved twice. I moved twice. So those other things just took precedence. We hated thinking of Shoes in the past tense, and in fact we didn’t think that way. We just thought, this will work out eventually.

When Gary moved [the most recent time], he built a studio in his basement. And he had been buying gear all along on eBay: top-notch microphones and outboard gear. So the whole approach shifted; before we had a 24-track analog board. Now things have obviously shifted into digital. So Gary was learning Cubase and those programs on the run.

So we said, “Well, now there’s a place. Can we even do this any more? And will it live up to our expectations?” And after trying a few things, we felt good about pulling this off. So we began in fall 2010, through 2011 and into the beginning of this year. We finished recording in April, and we spent May getting artwork and packaging together, and manufacturing took a few weeks in June.

You can sometimes forget just what’s involved. Even though we saved ourselves from having a 30, 40, fifty thousand dollar deficit from recording, we still had costs. So even once you make the decision to do it, it takes time.

BK: It would seem that with all this new material and reissues, and the book, now would be the time to capitalize on the buzz. What’s next for the band?

JM: We knew we wanted to do the Ignition album. So now we’re thinking, “So, here we are again.” What the future holds, in that you can record a song in a week and then put it on your website for people to download, that really does change things. The point is to get new music out in some way, and now we’re able to rethink that. You could sequester yourself for a year and a half, working on twelve to fourteen songs. But you could pop ‘em off one by one. It’s a different way of thinking.

BK: It also, in a curious way, is a sort of return to the singles era. And it also plays up and builds upon the band’s direct relationship with its fan base: no longer do you have to say, “We have these four or five great songs, but you can’t hear any of ‘em until we come up with seven more.”

JM: Right. And if you have an audience, it works to the artists’ benefit, because it’s a helluva lot more immediate. I remember John Lennon bragging about “Instant Karma.” I think you have to consider what are the goals of a group. And if it is about getting material out quickly, [this direct approach] may not have the fanfare of an album release, but it may be a model for how to put things out in the future. You have to consider it; if you turn you backs on it, it’s kind of foolish.


Shoes’ latest album Ignition, was released on the band’s own Black Vinyl Records on August 14. At the time of publication of this feature, Mary Donnelly‘s book Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes is scheduled for publication the last quarter of 2012. Real Gone Music’s 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012 was released August 14 October 2.

UPDATE: The initial salvo of Numero Group’s vinyl Shoes LP reissue program is as listed below. Note that all of the titles below can be pre-ordered right now. So, do. — bk

  • One in Versailles – November 13, 2012
  • Bazooka – November 13, 2012
  • Black Vinyl Shoes – November 27, 2012
  • Present Tense Demos – November 27, 2012

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A Really Big Shoes Interview, Part 3

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: I think Shoes fans – especially ones outside the Midwest – think of you more as a studio band. Why don’t you play out more, or tour?

John Murphy (bass/vocals): Going back to Elektra again, the labels in those days didn’t have much to do with a band’s live thing; that was our trip. In a lot of cases, they didn’t even want us to play live. But we were excited to do it.

The whole thing about playing live is this: it’s one of those things for which there are no short cuts. Once we get cracking, and do show after show – and we were doing that in the early and mid 80s – it’s like second nature. We roll with the punches, with the problems that happen. But later on, what complicates that is when it’s not the only thing you’re doing – when you’re holding down a forty-plus hour a week job, or you’re married, whatever it is – all these things make it tougher.

A few years ago we had a chance to go to Japan. We thought, “How are bands affording to do that?” But we had something put our on Air Mail Records over there, and Hiroshi Kuse approached us and said, “I’ll spring for the flight, the hotel, and most of your food. I won’t pay you for the gigs.” We knew that he was doing more by paying for this other stuff. So we rehearsed for weeks, and got our drummer who lives in Menominee, Michigan – five hours north of us – and we did it.

We did promote Propeller with shows, and we did dates to promote Stolen Wishes (1989). And I understand how when somebody does 200 gigs a year, you get good.

We lost our clubhouse when we sold our studio. We took that for granted; we had our amps set up there, and could rehearse. Now, it’s more complicated; we do a combination of Gary’s house, and Jeff’s place. We did figure it out, and we do play live. But to spend weeks of rehearsal to do one show is difficult. I’d love to go out and do a tour that was put together by some professionals, so that we didn’t have to do the planning. Lately – and by lately, I mean for the last 20 years – if we don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.

So I think people have gotten the wrong impression. We’ve done a fair amount of gigs.

BK: I mean this in the best possible way, but the sound – the songs, the playing, the singing, the arrangement, the production – on Ignition doesn’t differ a whole lot from what Shoes sounded like in 1979. I think it’s a timeless, signature sound. Is that a conscious goal of the band, or is that “just how you sound?”

JM: I think it is conscious. We have the same goals collectively and individually, the same direction. I think we are fairly good self-editors. If one of us brings in an idea that might be a little questionable, there are two other guys there who can say, “Well, maybe if we do it a little more like this…” But it really does help that our [musical] goals are the same: creating a relatively tight, concise and catchy tune.

It might sound simplistic to say that. But working within a traditional palette – though we do often bring in “exotic” instruments like a piano [laughs] – works for us.

This is the first record of ours that John Richardson has played drums on. He’s been our drummer for eighteen years! And so drums are a more important part of this record; we’re not always filling the cracks with more guitar or something. He puts in some cool rolls, things like that.

There are a number of crucial things, I think, that make people when they hear Ignition say, “Yeah, it sounds like Shoes, but it’s different, too.” We learned long ago the value of economy. Like on vocals: we can and often do vocal harmonies, but not on every song. You don’t want every song to have a Queen chorus kind of feel. We’re always aware of hooks, and of only adding things that serve the song. We’re not trying to showcase our guitar playing, or bass playing. Etc. The song is the end result.

BK: “Hot Mess” on the new record reminds me a little bit of T. Rex, of the whole glam sort of thing. It’s a little bit of a departure from your signature style. When you write, do you sort of hear Shoes playing the finished song in your head, or is it a more open-ended process than that?

JM: Well, when I hear a new song of Jeff’s or Gary’s, I hear a demo recording of it; they’re the engineers, so they do that. So there’s a guitar, a rough bass line, maybe a drum machine, and a vocal. So it’s pretty well sketched-out. But when I bring a song, I’ll start – usually with Gary – and tell him how I think I want the song to go. I’m kind of banking on the collaborative effort. Sometimes there’s some minimal drama – confusion over who’s going to do what – but I get my end together, and come in with options for what the other guys can do. In the end, if one of us really wants to take a song a certain place, and it’s his song, that’s where he takes it.

continued

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A Really Big Shoes Interview, Part 2

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I bought the Present Tense LP when it came out; I was 13 (fifteen; Math is hard! — bk). Gary Klebe‘s “I Don’t Miss You” got a decent amount of airplay on the rock FM station in Atlanta. Did you have huge hopes for high-profile mainstream commercial blockbuster success when you were signed with Elektra? And how soon did it begin to dawn on you that that wasn’t in the cards?

John Murphy (bass, vocals): Even before Elektra, we were being courted by Seymour Stein of Sire Records. And remember: he had Talking Heads and Ramones on his label, but neither one of those bands were hugely successful; they were underground.

BK: Critics’ darlings but not shifting units…

JM: Exactly. But Stein was known for sniffing around and finding people first. So sure enough, there he was. He had talked to us several times. So we were being suggested to that world. And then when the Elektra thing came down, they presented it like…one of the questions we were asked by Kenny Batista (VP of Promotion at the time) was, “Are you guys ready for success? I mean, big success?” And we said — well, what are you going to say? – of course.

In our minds, the goal was a major-label contract. So everything after that – even to sell a few thousand units – was just a thrill. But they were grooming us for the big time. Millions. We had a sort of Midwestern believe-it-when-we-see-it mentality. But we knew that enthusiasm of the label was a big part of it. We figured, we give them the best we can give them, and they’re behind it. We’re the teacher’s pet.

As far as [reality] dawning on us, it would have been by the end of ’79. They rush-released Present Tense. We had just finished it in September, and the damn thing was out by the beginning of October. We didn’t know if they were trying to sneak it in for consideration for the ’79 Grammy Awards or something; we didn’t know.

But by December, they’re throwing their hands up and saying, “Well, okay. We’ll get ‘em on the next one.”

BK: They didn’t work it with deejays and record stores?

JM: Well, here’s the thing: they did spend money somewhere. Stroking record promoters…

BK: Buying cocaine for program directors…

JM: [laughs] Totally. Or “dates,” or whatever you want to call them.

Meanwhile, we scurried back to our hole here in the beginning of 1980 to come up with some more material. We recorded that summer, and by fall, we were ready to have Tongue Twister out. But they said, “Let’s hold onto it,” because they had a bunch of records they were working: Queen, Linda Ronstadt.

So it got held until January. And we think they cooled on it by then. And then a lack of decisions is what did it, and before we knew it, they were saying it was another bomb. A stiff. And by this time, we’re thinking, “Oh, boy. This is not working well.” We were giving them what we wanted to; we were brought up on a commercial-minded approach. But they could never decide which song to choose to promote in a given market, that kind of thing. And that frittered away some time that was pretty valuable in building the momentum of a new record. Today, an independent can push a record for two years. Back then, they literally thought in terms of weeks.

Our contract was to record two albums. They did pick up the option for our third album (1982′s Boomerang), but they broke the deal in the middle of that and bought us out. We were glad to be making that record, but by that time we did not think that Elektra was going to put much muscle behind it anyway. We rode it out, because that’s all we could do. They had their way of doing things, and we were caught up in that.

We had a deal before we had management. It was an ass-backward situation. We loved our manager then and now, but he was befuddled too. He saw the mistakes happening; he could see the train wreck coming. We begged them to do some videos for MTV, which had started in fall 1981. We said, “Give us some money; we can breathe some life into this.” But by then it was long-dead in their minds.

BK: Long, as in a couple of months.

With the exception of Silhouette – which I’ll admit I haven’t actually even heard – Shoes have always built their sound around the guitars/bass/drums/vocal lineup. Was that born out of any sort of necessity, or is it down to the fact that when you and Jeff Murphy and Gary write songs, the arrangements you have in your head are just that kind of style?

JM: In the early days, the songs we were drawn to were those traditional guitar/bass/drums arrangements. It’s not that we were ever against keyboards; I suppose it’s partly that to this day none of us is really a keyboard player.

One of the things that had always bugged us, I think, was that if you had a permanent keyboard player in your band, he’s always got to be there. I think of the early Tom Petty records – and I don’t mean to crap on him – but there’s always, on every song, a keyboard just laying the chord down, even when it’s unnecessary. So we looked at keys in our band as an accent. Textures, as opposed to building the songs around it.

One of our loves in pop music is the way that distorted guitar combined with strumming acoustic guitar sounds. David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust, T. Rex had that kind of thing. So that approach both appealed to us and was within our grasp to do as musicians.

 continued

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A Really Big Shoes Interview, Part 1

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Shoes are that curious breed: a powerpop band that’s consistently lauded critically, but that makes only occasional modest commercial inroads. They’ve been plying their trade – catchy, muscular, hook-filled rock with stellar vocal harmonies – since the mid-1970s. The band seemed poised for breakout fame – possibly as the Next Big Thing after The Cars – when they signed with industry heavy-hitters Elektra at the tail end of the 1970s. And while that hoped-for commercial breakthrough didn’t happen the band continued to create (rarely with outside help of any sort, it shroud be noted) an impressive body of work. With a catalog that (depending on how you count) includes more than a dozen albums of original material, Shoes kept the faith well into the mid 90s.

Things went quiet for the trio from Zion, Illinois after that, but the group didn’t disband. Beginning in 2007, Shoes reignited the flame (so to speak), first with a 2CD set of demos from their earliest days (Double Exposure), then with a solo album from guitarist Jeff Murphy (Cantilever). But none of that prepared Shoes fans for the good news that greeted them in 2012: a new album (Ignition) and much more.

I spoke at great, great length with Shoes bassist/vocalist John Murphy some twelve weeks ago about all of this. Owing to the wide-ranging nature of our conversation, it has taken me much longer than I would have liked to edit the transcript down to a manageable length. Here, over the next few days, are the highlights of our talk. – bk


Bill Kopp: So I understand there’s a book by Mary Donnelly coming out (Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes). Some people would say, “Really? a huge 600-page book on a band that’s not really among the most prominent?” But I’d point them to Joe Bonomo‘s excellent book about The Fleshtones or any number of others. That said, what can you tell me about the book?

John Murphy: When Mary first contacted us – and she was a fan of Shoes since she was a kid – we had our doubts, too. But the book – which isn’t fiction, of course – is really an analogy. It’s the story of a group of guys who had this little pipe dream back in the day. Through hard work and persistence and luck (or whatever you want to call it), we managed to accomplish a certain amount of our dreams and goals.

And I really think it’s an analogy for any band. Because it’s not made-up, and Mary puts the Shoes story in the context of what was happening, reflecting the time and the music industry back then. For example, we got signed at the beginning of the ’79 crash in the record industry. By the end of that year, things were going crazy. Records were shipping platinum, but getting platinum returns! In a way, we sort of scuffled our way through things, in some of the positions we found ourselves in.

So Mary’s story is a lot broader, I think, that people might expect. One could ask, “Why isn’t it a book about Coldplay or U2?” But that’s part of its appeal, I think, that’s its about a band that didn’t achieve the success – at that time – that we would have liked to. Or, the success that we were almost promised by Elektra back in the day.

But it’s a book about pursuing your dreams. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. And now we joke that we’ve inadvertently given her an ending, because we have a new album (Ignition, released August 14). And it’s a happy ending.

BK: It seems that this gives her the opportunity to tell some of the history, of what was happening in the music industry, but to do it from the standpoint of a band that still exists, rather than writing it from a point of view that’s far-removed, dispassionate, scholarly.

JM: The interesting thing is, we know our side of it. But in reading it, there were pages and pages where we went, “Oh, really? Is that what happened?” We know how things happened, or how they seemed on our end. But it’s still a little miracle that the Elektra signing ever happened. And there are a whole series of events that she recounts, things leading up to that. She talked to people – the ones she could find, anyway – to get the Elektra point of view, too.

It wasn’t like we bought a raffle ticket: there was a record that we had made (1977′s self-released Black Vinyl Shoes), and it was garnering some kind of attention in independent record shops. Maxanne Sartori, an influential deejay in Boston, had a lot to do with getting The Cars signed. And that right there gave Elektra the courage to say, “Hey, we need to do this again.” They wanted to find the next Cars; that’s what was on their minds.

BK: All of a sudden, there’s a flurry of Shoes related activity. The new Ignition album, the upcoming book, a series of vinyl reissues from Numero, and Real Gone Music has a compilation, 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012. Is there some sort of over-arching answer to the “Why now?” question?

JM: The Real Gone Music collection is a sort of Part Two to Shoes Best (1987). Some songs are on both. [Actually the 21-song 35 Years repeats only four songs from the 22-track Shoes Best tracks. – ed.]

As far as why now, it’s just a series of events that happened to coincide. Mary’s book started the ball rolling in terms of talk on the internet, and word of mouth. So some Shoes fans – or closet Shoes fans – who were in a position to do something, did. For example, Ken Shipley at Numero is a fan.

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Coming Attractions

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Between day-job commitments, (happy) personal matters, and blog-related travel, these are busy days at Musoscribe World Headquarters. My goal is to deliver fresh, new content – usually 500-1000 words – every business day. And for more than three years going, I’ve kept to that goal nearly every day. Every rare so-often, however, I just don’t quite get a piece done in time for my self-imposed deadline schedule. Today’s one of those days. So instead I’ll take a moment to give a preview of upcoming content. Because, you see, I never, ever seem to run out of material.

Upcoming reviews of reissue/archival release include titles from Mitch Ryder, Toots Thielemans, Nektar, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Vince Guaraldi, The Outlaws, Brewer & Shipley, Sanford & Townsend, Clover, Jackie Gleason, Graham Parker & the Rumour, Grateful Dead, The Residents, Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Dion, The Bill Evans Trio, Jerry Lee Lewis, Thin Lizzy, John Coltrane, Tangerine Dream, The Jackson 5 and much, much more.

I’ll be covering new music from Renaissance, Phil Manzanera, Bill Nelson, Brian Lisik, The Coal Porters, The JAC, plus much more.

Upcoming interviews include The Tubes’ Bill Spooner, The Durocs, Shoes, and Jeremy Spencer. And oh-so-much more, including more post-show coverage of the recent Americana Music Association Conference and Festival.

So stay tuned. And thanks — as always — for reading.

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