Music Features

Overlooked Albums #37: Shoes - Tongue Twister

Tongue Twister came out around the time The Clash released Sandinista. The Clash’s vinyl whopper was self-indulgent and bloated, so Tongue Twister spent more time on my turntable. This is not to say that Shoes were less ambitious. Though both groups seemed to be on opposite sides of the musical spectrum, they shared the same drive to explore recording techniques. Furthermore, Shoes were doing music on their own terms long before the punk revolution came to be.

Shoes honed their skills in virtual isolation. Their hometown, Zion, Illinois, had no music scene. Gary Klebe and brothers John and Jeff Murphy were just regular high school kids when they made a pact to form a band. Having no musical training, their first hurdle was to learn their instruments. It could’ve ended right there as a pipe dream, but there was innate talent connected to the vision. All band members could sing, and their songwriting and playing aspired to the heights reached by power pop mavens such as The Beatles, Big Star and Badfinger. Home recording was also part of the equation. Before ever playing live, they made their first do-it-yourself album titled Heads Or Tails, which was privately released in 1974. The amateur status wouldn’t last long, though. Black Vinyl Shoes (1977), picked by PVC Records for wide release, brought the group critical praise and attention from major labels. 

Tongue Twister was the second in a trilogy of albums made for Elektra Records. It opens with Your Imagination, a Latin-flavored hip-shaker that could have easily made the charts at any point in the late ‘60s, yet there’s no attempt to recreate the past. What’s different here is the contemporary gloss achieved by Shoes, who produced the album with Richard Dashut. The sound is warm, the mix is well-balanced, and every percussive nuance is heard. Overall, the vinyl version of the album holds well today compared to the drowned-in-reverb sound that would become prevalent during the ‘80s.

The group’s forward-thinking wasn’t limited to recording. Songs like The Things You Do and Found A Girl fall somewhere between The Beatles and Kraftwerk. What sounds like keyboards are synthesized guitars, which by this point in the band’s career had added a futuristic element to the power-pop chords. The subject matter, however, continued to be heartbreak, which edged close to the joy-in-misery found in Del Shannon’s songs. 

The album bursts with hooks. Burned Out Love, for instance, is pure pop perfection, with a disarming lead vocal by Gary Klebe, majestic harmonies, catchy verses, and nimble band dynamics. The lovelorn lyrics carry some spite, which reaches its apogee at the bridge: “Trouble follows anyone who tries to run away”. It’s a mystery why this track wasn’t promoted as a single. 

An earthier side of the group is found in songs like She Satisfies and Hopin’ She’s The One, proving that carnal urgency still rules over the staunchest romantics. Yet not everything is adolescent crush. There’s some conflicting feelings in Karen, which starts with the lines, "Karen, I have always loved you / Even when your arms were filled with other men." The mixed emotions of this acoustic ballad are expressed by John Murphy with blushing sincerity, resembling a naked confession. When It Hits is a bouncy number, but it’s karma’s-a-bitch lyrics are energized with blunt anger. Jeff Murphy’s Found A Girl tilts from bittersweet acceptance to resentment. All in all, there’s an emotional core sustaining the album’s twelve tracks. Shoes were above other power pop groups in the sense that each album was a cohesive display of their talents. By this time, they had achieved a level of sophistication on a par with their heroes.

Some say that Shoes were screwed over by the business, but the truth is more complex. They were certainly respected by Elektra’s staff, yet the label’s promotion was half-cocked, marred by budget constraints and bad decisions. For instance, the group’s videos were among the first played on MTV, but the label failed to capitalize on it. A corporate shakedown turned things for the worse. While the group recorded Boomerang (1982), the label’s key personnel were being fired in great numbers. No foresight was needed to realize that their days on the label were coming to a close. 

Shoes simply went back to their original DIY business plan, running their own recording studio and label (Black Vinyl Records). Though their output has been sporadic, they have amassed seventeen albums of brilliant, joyful music in forty-plus years. While so many of their contemporaries lost the game in record label shuffles, Shoes achieved total control of their music. They are also an active live band, which gives hope to musicians everywhere that a self-sustained career can be possible.

The last decade has seen the big record labels implode, victims of their own greed and refusal to adapt to the times. If anything, Shoes are adaptable: with dogged determination, they have carved a long career that grew out of their love of music.

Details up upcoming Shoes gigs can be found at