Present Tense is better than many a three-figure collectible, and it shouldn’t cost you more than five bucks.
In the late ‘70s, the population of Zion, Illinois, a planned city that sits on the Western edge of Lake Michigan, hovered just under 18,000 people. The odds that three of this small town’s residents would form one of the great power pop bands seems like a statistical impossibility. Yet that is exactly what brothers John and Jeff Murphy and their friend Gary Klebe did. In the process, they overcame an even more unlikely obstacle: When they first decided to form a band after graduating from high school, none of them could play an instrument.
You’d never know that from Present Tense, the 1979 album that, after a series of private press releases that go back to 1974, was their major label debut. With 12 songs in 42 minutes, they created what may be the Platonic ideal of the late ‘70s power pop album.
A simple drum fill launches opener “Tomorrow Night,” which quickly bursts into chiming guitars that turn these soft-spoken Midwestern boys into something like rock star angels. Written by Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, its earnest innocence doesn’t waste any time declaring its lovesickness: “Don’t say goodbye/ ‘Cause you’re the one that I need.”
They probably had the young women of northeastern Illinois eating out of their hands, but there isn’t a trace of braggadocio here; they sound so nice, even when they’re trying to get into your pants. Still, these nice boys don’t skimp on the no-good woman trope so common then. “Too Late,” for instance, is a bitter address: “Every time I see you/ I wish I could believe you/ Do you ever mean a thing you say?”
Shoes built their songs on a predictable formula informed by the Fab Four of course, but the Byrds fueled their heavenly chimes, and on “I Don’t Wanna Hear It” they almost seem to be channeling the Ramones. What is pop music after all but using the simplest and most direct form of musical communication to spin variations on love and hormones? Shoes made this simple template work with consistently catchy melodies and gorgeous guitars. On “Now and Then,” the group broke out of its template for a mildly psychedelic chorus, though naturally one that took its mind-expanding cues from the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” They even get heavy, the thudding beats of “I Don’t Miss You” (do you really believe them?) suggesting Gary Glitter, albeit with a tune.
A performance video of “Too Late” gave Shoes the honor of being one of the first bands to ever appear on MTV, with three additional videos, all from Present Tense, broadcast on August 1, 1981, the network’s very first day. That exposure may have helped the album make it to 50 on the Billboard charts, and “Too Late” reached 75 on the singles charts. But that was as far as they ever got.
The title Present Tense was perhaps a matter-of-fact assertion that Shoes was interested in right now, not the past or future. Its minor chart success never materialized into anything more. Although they never lost their gift for what sounded like instant hit singles, the band only made two more albums for Elektra before ending up back on their own label. In 2012, Shoes released their first record in 18 years. Numero Group has recently reissued the group’s more elusive privately released titles.
While revisit columns such as this often point your way to some lost and expensive obscurity, this particular album could easily be fodder for Bargain Bin Babylon. Sure, you could drool over rare and pricey gems, but to be honest, Present Tense is better than many a three-figure collectible, and it shouldn’t cost you more than five bucks.