Chances are, from 1976 to 1978, when the clock radio woke you up, one of three hits was playing: "I Write the Songs" by Barry Manilow, "You Light Up My Life" by Debby Boone or "Whatcha Gonna Do" by Pablo Cruise.
It was from this bad pop dream that Sneakers—a clever, quirky, garage-pop combo from Chapel Hill via Winston-Salem—emerged. They released a self-titled EP in 1976 and one long-player, In the Red, in 1978; both were reissued in January on one Collector's Choice CD, Nonsequitur of Silence.
Although the band released just 18 songs and lasted less than two years, Sneakers' importance to Southern pop music can't be overstated. They influenced a generation and launched, albeit unknowingly, a pivotal movement in indie rock.
While Don Dixon's band, Arrogance, had found success playing original music in Chapel Hill, the city's nascent music scene was at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the band's eccentric pop. But credit the members and their extended family—including Robert Keely, Rob Slater, future Let's Active frontman and R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, dB's-to-be Chris Stamey and Will Rigby—with pioneering such difficult terrain.
"North Carolina was a wasteland," says Rigby, who now drums for Steve Earle. "It wasn't until later that it was fashionable to write your own songs. At the time, we were completely out of place."
And out of synch. Winston-Salem, the band's hometown, was sympathetic to original music bands, but when the band members moved in the mid-'70s to Chapel Hill to attend UNC, the city was not yet a hipster sanctuary. The music scene was then dominated by cover bands churning out overwrought '70s anthems, '60s burnouts culturally rutted back in Woodstock, and, as Easter humorously recalls, "scrubby people driving around in Volvos announcing what kind of vegetarians they were."
Easter and Stamey had been friends since second grade and began recording their songs in high school. They continued to write and record material on four-track tape machines, and with Keely and Slater, formed Sneakers. Easter guested on the Sneakers EP, but didn't formally join until after its release.
Then as now, mainstream pop was dermabrazed of its distinguishing features, but Sneakers' contoured arrangements reveal a rugged topography: Time signatures gently collide like plates on a fault line, percussion (including a car horn, courtesy Don Dixon) juts from a bed of close vocal harmonies, and guitars switch between a jagged crunch and a soft jangle.
The songs' complexity stems in part from Stamey's and Easter's extensive musical training, which included 20th-century composers and 12-tone serial techniques, although you won't find overt Karlheinz Stockhausen or John Cage influences in either Sneakers record. "For me, it was harder to express myself emotionally using sophisticated language," Stamey says, "so I reeled it in and wrote much simpler stuff."
"We used to be accused of being way too convoluted. But I'm not a streamlined hitmaker," says Easter. "We were earnest and dedicated about playing. We were ambitious about doing our own stuff and had been thinking about music for a long time."
Nonsequitur proves that pop can be sophisticated and hummable. "Ruby" is buoyant, while "Nonsequitur of Silence" is brooding. "Love's Like a Cuban Crisis" may be the best use of two minutes since microwaveable popcorn.
Nonsequitur also establishes a complete emotional range, rendering the sort of pop music that feels timeless. Feeling bittersweet? Program your player to "No Wonder" or "Story of a Girl" (which deserves honors for best use of sitar without channeling Ravi Shankar). Anxious and panicky? "On the Brink" ("Heartbreak, heartbreak, heartbreak, here it comes again, now it's closing in"). Reckless? "Stuck on You" or the Ventures-like caprice "Mark Peril Theme." Trying to learn French? "Quelle Folie."
The EP was largely recorded at Cat's Cradle, while the guitar solos were laid down at the producer Don Dixon's house in Carrboro, where his wife was watching Kojak in a nearby room.
"It was recorded in a very humble kind of way," says Easter. "We didn't have modern tools. It was a special accomplishment."
"Putting a record out seemed to mean something. There was no competition then and very few independent records," Stamey adds. "What gave us the idea is that I helped Don Dixon record a Red Clay Ramblers Christmas record. It was a novel idea that you could make the things and sell them."
With few reference points, the band's record wound up filed under New Wave, sharing bins with Patti Smith, Pere Ubu and Television. "But it was a spectacular time in that you could call a record store in New York, and they would take your record," says Easter.
At $1.98 per record, Sneakers sold 3,500 copies, with the band filling the mail orders by hand. But the EP did little for the band's local profile, and Sneakers played publicly just five times. A memorable North Carolina set occurred at Chapel Hill's Apple Chill Festival, where they opened for cloggers. Yes, cloggers. They held their ears while the band played, erecting their plywood dance floor in front of the stage.
Out of local options, Sneakers looked north to New York's burgeoning punk scene. Fueled by a favorable review in Trouser Press—de rigueur reading for underground music fans—Stamey booked Sneakers at New York's famed Max's Kansas City, where they shared the bill with the post-Debbie Harry incarnation of the Stilletos. The show was well received by critics (and perhaps by members of the New York Dolls in attendance), but Max's marked the beginning of the end.
"We were giddy on the way up there," Easter recalls. "On the way back, I was aware of how doomed all this stuff was. It was still really hard."
Indeed, the indie music business of the '70s seems quaint and primitive compared to today's sophisticated network of bands and fans. While one can certainly imagine what Sneakers might have accomplished with a boost from MP3s, a MySpace page and college radio, their work might have just as easily been lost in the 30,000-plus records now released each year.
"The spark comes from the amateur beginnings, and that it doesn't go away is the charm of pop music," Easter says. "But now anybody can form a band and make a record, and that's not good. We're drowning in stuff. In '76, the filter mechanism was the hopelessness of it all."
The Sneakers never penetrated that filter with In the Red: Released posthumously, it was primarily Stamey and Easter's home recording project, providing a vehicle for some of their most adventurous work at the time. Stamey and Easter honed their respective voices that laid the groundwork for their future projects: "Be My Ambulance" and "What I Dig" foreshadow Stamey's compositions in the dB's; Easter's compositions, including "No Wonder" and "Decline and Fall," are consistent with the pop gems on Let's Active's Afoot and Cypress.
"This was in an era when musical evolution was considered a good thing," Stamey says. "Every six months, our heroes would have a new record out and it was a step up."
Sneakers' legacy survives not just as the 21 tracks on Nonsequitur, but also as the forebears of a pop scene that previously would have been possible to launch only from one of the coasts: R.E.M. and Pylon from Athens, Ga.; Tim Lee and the Windbreakers from Jackson, Miss.; and of course, a North Carolina lineage including the Beatlesque sound of the Spongetones, the now-defunct Dolphin label that issued Tommy Keene's brilliant debut, Places That Are Gone, to Superchunk and their talented and prolific Merge Records compatriots.
"So many people think you can't do stuff from places like this," Easter notes. "In the early '80s, that completely flipped around. You could make records from a funny, off-the-beaten-path place."