Did We Suck?

Q: So how come you guys never made it? Did you suck, or what?

Neal: “This is an entirely reasonable question to ask, and I’ve thought about it a lot through the years. I’ve come to two conclusions. First, I’m pretty sure we didn’t suck. Second, I’m absolutely certain that Bad Sneakers was doomed from the start.

“In the beginning, it was Ward and Shane’s band. They had a clear vision of the kind of music they were trying to make and that’s one of the things that impressed Marc, Dale and me. Their recordings were very professional, the musicianship was impeccable and they were serious about running the band like a business.

“We, on the other hand, were musical chameleons. Together in various bands for the previous five years, we had explored rock, country rock and Top 40, as well as rhythm and blues.

“The ultimate expression of our experimental bent was a band called All You Can Eat, which savagely lampooned pop icons from John Denver to Patti Smith. While Ward and Shane were studying at the University of Miami music school, we were getting banned from the University of Delaware’s Mitchell Hall theater for having a vegetable fight on stage while wearing ballerina outfits and women’s underwear. Eventually the act achieved a dubious immortality in a series of low-budget videos.

“We even satirized ourselves on occasion. We were adamant about not having day jobs and you pretty much had to play disco music to make a decent living at that time. Dale and I channeled our frustration by writing two spoofs of the scene, ‘Dance ‘Til You Die’ and the 1979 masterpiece ‘Disco Factory.’

“So, the three of us brought a rough but very creative edge to the highly polished sound that Ward and Shane had been working on. Under Ward’s direction as producer of the first album, all these pieces came together as a cohesive sound. I called it the ‘Bad Sneakers meat grinder’ – you put enough harmony vocals and dual guitar leads on any group of songs and they start to sound like they belong together.

“With ‘Sneak Attack’ starting to get noticed, we were off and running. There’s a certain addictive quality to being in a band with your good friends. Each successful live show makes you hungry for bigger and better audiences, and each disappointment is easily rationalized as ‘paying your dues.’ Like with any drug, you’re having too much fun to seriously question what’s actually happening to you.

“Dictatorship is a much more effective way to run a band.” Neal Tillotson, Bad Sneakers drummer

“But underneath, the tensions were brewing. The band, being a democracy – a wonderfully resilient form of government that’s completely inadequate for making artistic decisions – seemed to endlessly debate even the most trivial of details. I’ve since come to believe that benevolent dictatorship is a much more effective way to run a band.

“Despite this fundamental flaw, there was a brief, shining moment when it seemed like the four of us were on the same wavelength. Somehow, on ‘Beat the Meter’ all the disparate elements in Bad Sneakers came together in a rich collection of songs that made sense despite the wide range of themes. You can’t get farther apart than ‘All I Want to Know’ and ‘Blue Light,’ but they are both beautifully crafted examples of the band at its best.

“And it’s no coincidence that the authors of those two wildly divergent tunes also resided on opposite sides of the stage in our live performances from 1984 on. Dale and Shane were musical opposites and Marc and I often ended up in the middle of the fray.

“It was clear that once the business of the band started to deteriorate in 1986 after several managerial and creative fiascos, including a botched trip to Japan and the idiotic New York video, there simply wasn’t enough of a shared musical vision to keep us together. There were a number of really fine tunes on ‘Big Ducks,’ including my favorite, ‘Love into Logic,’ but the life had gone out of the band. We had ceased to be a cohesive unit and were just a group of individuals occupying the same space, each imagining a life beyond the confines of the band we had all outgrown. Dale’s leaving set the clock ticking on Bad Sneakers’ inevitable demise.

“What were those big ducks doing in that basement, anyway? Looking for a way out, I suppose.”