Most bands start out bashing out tunes in their garage or basement, and then take the next step to playing in front of people at bars, parties, or some other low-rent venue. Shoes, however, took an entirely different path. Determined to make great pop records, Jeff Murphy, his brother John Murphy, and Gary Klebe put their emphasis on recording, working in a makeshift four-track studio in their hometown of Zion, Illinois while they were still learning to play instruments. Shoes honed their skills as songwriters while mastering the studio production process, and their unorthodox approach paid off. Black Vinyl Shoes, a 15-song demo the group self-released in 1977, became a touchstone of '70s and '80s power pop, winning them rave reviews and a major record deal. Black Vinyl Shoes was also one of the first major salvos in D.I.Y. record-making at the dawn of the punk/new wave era, proving that some guys with a four-track tape machine and the right amount of time and talent could make a brilliant album without a big-shot producer or nosey A&R man looking over their shoulders. Released in 2018, Black Vinyl Shoes: Anthology 1973-1978 is a three-disc box set that chronicles the early days of Shoes and the creative growth that led to their breakthrough LP. The Black Vinyl Shoes album appears in full, but the set also includes two little-heard albums Shoes recorded before that, 1975's Un Dans Versailles (first released in an edition of 300 LPs) and 1976's Bazooka (which the band couldn't afford to press at the time). Black Vinyl Shoes was and remains a triumph of home-brewed production, with the band making the most of their semi-pro recording gear, using the fuzzy and compressed sounds to an unusual advantage. Just as important, it also demonstrated the Murphy brothers and Klebe were masterful pop songwriters, with a knack for melodies that would have done the Raspberries or Big Star proud while spinning tales about girls (not women, girls) that mixed breathy sweetness with sardonic, understated wit. By comparison, Un Dans Versailles and Bazooka are full of charm and good tunes, but they're also are the work of bandmembers still figuring out how to generate the sounds inside their heads, and neither are as impressive or engaging, though plenty of guys with four-track cassette machines in the '80s would have killed to have sounded as good just starting out. The anthology also includes a smattering of rare tracks (including the superb 1978 single "Tomorrow Night" b/w "Okay"), as well as richly detailed liner notes on how Shoes grew from a collective in-joke to celebrated recording artists. No fan of classic power pop should be without a copy of Black Vinyl Shoes, and Black Vinyl Shoes: Anthology 1973-1978 is the definitive document of how that game-changing classic came to be.
Black Vinyl Shoes: Anthology 1973-1978 Review
by Mark Deming
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2
Track Listing - Disc 3