Hang your Sneakers on my Invisible Wires
You Winston, You Lose-Salem by Domenic Maltempi
I invite you to enter below into an imagined pink and blue mottled brick 41 floor structure, through the somewhat squeaky silver scratched rotating doors. If Indie-Rock is any sort of dwelling; it is an apartment building, neither brutalist tenement, and thoughtlessly sprawled, nor over-priced faux shmanzzy gentrified 'stick-em-up' rip-off developer's unit for life-style bohemian dinglers.
Wander in, press the elevator buttons up and down. If you choose, survey the faces for crazy-beautiful-dwellers that look like what Vashti Bunyan sounds like singing "Winter is Blue."
You're on the brink, with a ruby red condition undiagnosed, not fitting into rubrics, so creating your own road, maybe the musical equivalent of I-40 running thru North Carolina, home state of a band with a blink-of-an-eyelet history named Sneakers. There are prettier roads to travel from Winston Salem to Chapel Hill, but it will get you there. Welcome to Winston-Salem, population in 1970, over 133,000 souls. Did you say something about Krispy Kreme, music enthusiast reader? That's right- Winston-Salem makes more than cigarettes of the menthol and regular varieties. It is the home of the very first establishment serving such coffee companioned delights, at times filled with flummery.
While we're on the flummery-tip, I assure you that this band has no truck with it. That is to say, this isn't one of the countless bands that commercially succeeded or not, with little personality, creativity, talent, but became noticed because of better timing, knowing someone, tapping into a consuming appetite that was docile in demand, and sounding generically enough like a success formula sonically massaged and boosted into mass appeal with the resources to supplement what they lacked.
Sneakers did not go the route of squeezing some creamy-sugar shape into dough to bake or fry in the hot brown waters of watery plaudit-fandom to make a quick pie-pile of money. They did court controversy recording this tune for a pie commercial though. Check it: https://soundhound.com/?t=100252617681398988
Sneakers began playing in mid-'70's, and recorded preciously few tunes. Those that exist are that laudable blend of sophisticated musical structure and pleasant pop sound, that challenges with a punk ethos that didn't need to be broadcast with hair-doos or fake British lip-snarling fashion fatuousness, or any other guise. Sneakers, and its members, simply did not care if they rubbed people the wrong way with being too loud on stage, or deviating from some expected conformity with other bands that might seem comparable to them. Many of their songs have the air of being fun old friends that you think you know well quickly, because there is this built in ease in experiencing, and being acted upon musically, but like your favorite wild buddy, unpredictable, gaggy-pranky, and sometimes profound in an enviable simple way.
Here are songs bursting with urgency, but still light with easy warmth. The sound could be described differently as almost catchy power-pop, with weirdness woven into an arm with impressive emotional reach. There is a vulnerability expressed strongly in the phrasing/delivery of vocals, lyrical content, the sometimes purposely adolescent (in a good way) sensitivity/themes/alienation—that are sonically conjured in ways cumbersome to describe, but easy to hear. There is this smartly unkempt, just out of bed, but ready to hang out ease and directness to a song like "Driving" that seems to be one second traveling on solid ground, and the next, lifting off into this spacey reverie that others can listen into.
This is personal music. It lends itself to a particular intimacy, an intimacy that cultivates a certain following that puts me in mind of some Indie Rock bands that are special to me. There is something at the heart of Sneaker's sound that distills an 'indie rock' spirit. I might be just fooling myself with what I want to hear, what might be more subconsciously gratifying to push because of familiarity, rather than labor to make the case, but I feel confident it wasn't just lazy mental organizing or something, animating this little observation.
Did I think about this when I first heard the band, or early on? No.
I understand that lots of music camped under this 'Indie' label do not share some of the characteristics, or any---that I have mentioned thus far here, and I'm not surveying this in any sort of comprehensive historical way.
So, I know for every band like Drag City's Smog (particularly the earlier stuff) swimming with that slacker----lost, lo-fi--seemingly apathetic-nihilistic creakiness to the sound, there are bands that can be filed in 'Indie' bins that are polished, bright, with instruments played well, and so forth.
Sneakers don't necessarily escape sounding somewhat loosely pinned to the hallmarks of certain varieties of '70's rock & roll. With that written, there is this urgency, and youthful punctuation about the full sweep and tactility of the sound, that makes it a 1st cousin to similar bands from widely divergent eras that also made, and recorded music in a homespun way, in various magic attics or damp garages around the world.
As I write, there has been some talk bandied around about the prohibition of menthol cigarettes. A harbinger? Oh Salem!
But let's continue with this soft musical focus, and particularly how I bumbled, and then built-up this need to relate this short-lived Tar-Heeled band to other parts of the musical universe.
So, I don't know Sneakers from shinola till about 2007, when I heard them play on a program put out by Jersey City's WFMU, Jason Sigals's 'Talks Cheap.' Sigal would rotate swatches of Sneaker tunes to kick off the show, but mostly played the 1st song on their great 1976 self-titled half-record, "Ruby" with its refrain of 'talk is cheap,' proudly titling this DJ's program. I loved it instantly, and remember taking note of the band name.
Perhaps because I was exposed to the band as a theme of that DJ's show, it slept in a different part of my musical brain, made me forget to seek it out. I would eventually return to Sneakers, hearing more and more shared musical space, and comradeship with music I was listening to for years, and inching towards a more conscious realization of a kinship with that music.
I started noticing that I would be humming a Sneakers song like the beautifully gut-punching- number "No Wonder," found on a killer Sneakers 2007 collection titled Non-Sequitur of Silence, as I listened to tunes by 90's Indie bands that were dear to me, such as Archers of Loaf or Prisonshake. I would be humming, or half singing songs I didn't really think I knew, like Sneaker's "Condition Red" or "S'iI Vous Plait" while listening to a lot of indie music I started hearing again after a long rest. From it all, this humming business happens after a long halt in my exposure to Sneakers tunes---around a year or so.
But it wasn't just indie rock from the '90's that helps surface Sneakers from the recesses of my music listening mind. I remember peacefully sitting in my swivel chair facing my speakers, listening to the gorgeous, and not-heard enough solo work by Alex Chilton, such as the inimitable "EMI Song" and then, wait-----holy fuck! What am I concomitantly hearing?? Shadow-listening to at the same time in the back of my head, spurred by Chilton?? Fucking Sneakers! It was like Sneakers had insinuated itself in my mind, so I could later find out, so it could be 'revealed' to me in a wider way (oh beware of this metaphysical sledding friends) that Chris Stamey, the leader of this outfit, was a friend of Chilton, and worked with him as a musician, engineer, and general midwife for many recordings.
One such tune is something I've recently discovered, and obsessively listen to: Chris Bell of Big Star's album I am the Cosmos, with Alex Chilton singing the album's title tune. It is downright magical! This is just one example of their musical ties, and with the expanded Big Star galaxy after that band stopped recording. I suppose it should not have been so difficult to align Sneakers with Big Star. They were contemporaneous. Then there's the geographical closeness (Big Star in Memphis) and in some aspects, a shared sound, or aesthetic to their music. It took a while, and some help through reading.
I began thinking of writing something about Sneakers, and was soon brought into contact with Chris Stamey, Sneaker Capo, and extraordinary artist. It was Chris that brought the water of this, and many other fascinating realizations, right to my lips.
I bandied emails with him, which led me to pick up his supremely interesting, and tantalizing (culturally, personally, musically) book Spy in The House of the Loud. These communications, and the reading spured by them) particularly of Spy, ferreted out all sorts of information about Sneakers, and its members, that began laser-beaming irrepressible lines associating the band and its members with groups/people, venues, studios, and more, into the thick of the Indie rock world.
As I write this, my head and heart beat excitedly back to being new to Sneakers, and the beginning of how they popped into my mind with greater weight as I listened to Indie rock music I had not played for a long spell.
One such band is Prisonshake. People familiar with both bands may be baffled, or unable to understand how these two bands could conjure up the other in mind. Of course, this is a personal account, and it's understandable that such quixotic-seeming con-joining is hopelessly subjective to relate.
So, what if Prisonshake's 1st album The Roaring Third came out in 1993, whereas Sneakers hung themselves up on the wires of the late '70's? Listen to both bands, and you might just hear in both, a strong, fuck-off wise-guy smile within the shredding guitar, and the anti-bombast wry swells of the hook and jabs. There is also a bitter-sweet fuck-off cheekiness heard in the vocals of both bands, as well as a ribald and sincere attitudinal charge within many of their songs, bouncing like a handball in a court peopled with denim longhaired types among others, cutting something. They were cross-resonating in a close way for me.
I'm going to jump in a time machine for a sec.
It's 1976 again. It's Winston; it's Salem---it's a cigarette city. The band Sneakers arguably came to life in this fine Tar-Heeled destination; moving to, or also existing in Chapel Hill in its brief adolescence-cum-adulthood. The band's members are encouraged by their elders to write their own music, not just copy the popular stuff of the day for the battle of the bands, or what have you. The members of Sneakers are creators, innovators, seekers of their own sound, and it's evident in their few recordings, that they have a restless and sweet energy that makes for inspiring, and heart hitting off-kilter pop music with verve, punch, and eye-to -eye.
The band is super-good regardless of its potential ties, or ties in my ears with certain Indie rock bands, as sketched thinly hear. With that said, could a band that never played in the '80's (what I surely thought was the earliest of a less fuzzy start date for Indie-Rock) be considered a sort of partial projecting progenitor, a contributing ancestor, an early carrier of a shared rock band mutation, or what have you?
I thought I knew this stuff enough to not be so surprised, or moved to rethink that the late '70's might be a more accurate way of dating the beginning of this sub-genre, or what have you. So yes, Sneaker's share traits with many seminal indie bands in their tense but loose jangly musical behavior, disheveled-partial-nerdiness, and so forth. Have a listen to one of my favorite tracks 'On the Brink,' to get a taste before you move on:
Chris Stamey brings together chums Mitch Easter, and Will Rigby. Rob Slater is playing guitar. The band played seldomly, and when they did --loudly, not interested in just fitting into the mold of commercial success, in thrall to the almost-in formulas.
There are elements of Sneaker's sound that bring one to think about how a band like Television at around this time, was primed to break many of the taboos, or got to-have- sacrosanct(ish) elements of a successful rock band in the era of hot-shot guitar solos, and so forth. Chris Stamey pushes his voice, sometimes with a derelict falsetto- deeply felt, and filled with unease and wonder. It did not occur to me when first listening, that this overall sound, was not without similar qualities to even a certain essential thing about a band like Yo La Tengo, including the vocal delivery.
Then it did occur to me, and then I'm astounded at the level of connection between pivotally important artists in these groups. For starters, both were part of the underground 'rock' scene, and champions, of an important early venue for 'College' or Indie Rock. That venue was Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ.
Bands like The Feelies, and R.E.M would play, rehearse, hang out together here. It was one of those places that cultivated a particular audience looking for those bands that stood outside of the mainstream, that appreciated music in a way that fostered an intimacy. Some of these bands wanted to make sure that even if they could fill big venues (such as R.E.M at a certain point in early '80's) they would also stop by and do a set at Maxwell's for there devoted listeners/fans, for the chance to play with kindred bands, and stay close to a nurturing 'underground' feedback pool of re-genesis, continue to absorb the energies, and playback between everything in play.
I frequented Maxwell's in the '90's, and it continued acting as an important place for listeners and Indie bands to brush with each other more closely, make their ties more sinuous.
Chris's book reveals a connection with the now, more than ever 'indie-famous' band The Feelies. I suggest reading it to explore that. I also strongly suggest checking out the varied work of all the members of Sneakers. I just started listening to Peter Holsapple, including his really fun, and meditatively soothing record Game Day which was released in 2018.
Spy also fleshes out the Yo La Tengo-Sneakers constellation in a most fun way. Chris played bass with the band for a couple of years. Before that, he shacked up with member Ira Kaplan for a time in early 80's New York, hanging in the same circles. So much fun, and interesting material related to the New York down-town music scene, and beyond in this book. Look for it here, or where you will reader.
One of my first musical loves was Indie-Rock. I ordered from the Homestead Records catalog, worshipped at the embryonic alter of Drag City, interned at Bar None Records in a much shittier Jersey City, and listened, or at least knew about the bands that these groups respected, loved, and were inspired by.
I knew as time went on, Chapel Hill, NC was one of the more important epicenters for Indie-Rock. It acted as a nurturing playground for bands that were rabidly independent in their sound, that could not be pushed lazily into this or that bin at the record shop. Not so far away in Durham, NC, an early, and excellent label (Merge Records) would be born in late '80's.
A few hops down south, and your in Athens, GA--- land of R.E.M, a band that I grew up loving, but the fuck if I knew that Mitch Easter who played with Sneakers, also produced some of the earliest and best R.E.M tunes, such as "Radio Free Europe"---right in his own Drive in Studio located in----you bet your ass, mister--- Winston–Salem.
There are many bands considered highly in the pantheon of Indie Rock that recorded in the Drive In: a short list would include: Pavement, and The Velvet Crush. As long as we're talking about the recording, and producing end of music, it must be mentioned that Chris Stamey produced the second Pylon record, yes Pylon, a band that I had always considered one of the earliest and strongest pillars of a particular house of wiry, cutting, powerful Indie Rock.
(FYI, Pylon was one of the more important groups from this area in early 1980's. It's hard to listen to a song like "Cool" or "Crazy" (later recorded, and executed beautifully by R.E.M as an early single,) and not hear a future echo of Sonic Youth, or many other bands of this ilk)
I asked Sneakers drummer Will Rigby a question about the short-lived band (Will, and Chris would go on to play in the much better-known group the dB's).Q: What is the most enduring thrill that you associate with your experience as a part of Sneakers?The band Sneakers might have been an ephemeral phenomenon in their own time, but I hope I have created some enthusiasm for the band itself, and interest in how it, and its members, continued to contribute in many ways to much great music. Their ongoing legacy is a many-legged celestial thing, that continues to cartwheel through the musical heavens.
WR: Without question, the high point of Sneakers' existence was playing in New York at Max's Kansas City, Sep (12, I think) 1976. The year the band was together was pretty much recording and playing this show.
We played a few shows in North Carolina, but we were ahead of the "new wave" curve and nobody cared (or wanted to book us). We rehearsed all summer for the NYC show. Drove up the day before, and that night went to see Ramones at CBGB. One of my greatest rock experiences as an audience member. Our show was sparsely attended, mostly by rock critics (Alan Betrock, Jim Green, Dave Schulps, Lenny Kaye). We opened for a band called Stiletto, the remnant of a band that Debbie Harry had been a harmony singer in.
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