How a 1982 merger of Power Pop and New Wave became a cult classic
In 1982, Repercussion proved that the “sophomore jinx” notoriously endangering the follow-ups to great debut albums had no hold on The dB’s.
The previous year, the quartet that left their native North Carolina to become the buzz band of the New York indie/underground scene made a claim on posterity with a blend of ‘70s power-pop influences and cutting-edge new wave flavor on their debut LP, Stands for Decibels. Their second time up at bat, co-frontmen Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple, bassist Gene Holder and drummer Will RIgby had a lot to live up to.
Like its predecessor, Repercussion came out on the British label Albion Records. The irony of the East coast cult heroes having to look to England for a label was lost on no one, but the band took advantage of the opportunity to have the album mixed at George Martin’s renowned Air Studio.
Where NY Rocker editor Alan Betrock gave Stands for Decibels a lovably low-budget feel, Repercussion producer Scott Litt (still years from his work with R.E.M. and Nirvana) gave The dB’s a bit more sonic heft. He also took the band in some new directions, like bringing in a punchy brass section on the album’s opening cut, “Living a Lie.”
The dB’s were seemingly demanding more of themselves too, taking things to a new level on pop micro-operas like “Happenstance” and “Ask for Jill” while remaining hooky as hell throughout. Holsapple’s giddy riff on “Neverland” and the post-Big Star luminosity of “Nothing is Wrong” (to name only a couple of highlights) are power-pop perfection.
Due to inscrutable music-biz machinations, Repercussion is officially (hopefully just temporarily) unavailable in any format at the moment. But in these tech-savvy times, it’s certainly easy enough to trot over the online secondhand shop of your choice and score a copy. Just keep in mind that your next step should be the recent dB’s rarities collection I Thought You Wanted to Know, containing previously unreleased nuggets from the era. Not to mention Holsapple and Stamey’s recent solo and duo output. (This way the artists actually get a piece of your purchase).
Availability issues notwithstanding, Repercussion remains one of the finest batches of tunes to emerge from the early-’80s New York/Hoboken axis. To celebrate the album’s 40th birthday, Peter Holsapple agreed to offer some off-the-cuff memories about each of its tracks.
“Living a Lie”
PH: This song started out with the four-piece band, but Scott Litt, our producer, decided that he thought horns would be good on it. He was a big fan (as we all were) of Graham Parker & the Rumour, and he particularly liked the horn section featuring the late great John “Irish” Earle. When we got back to NYC, some film students at NYU asked if they could make a video for the song, which we did. It never came out during the band’s heyday, but it’s shown up on YouTube many years later. It’s pretty awful.
VIDEO: The dB’s “Living a Lie”
“We Were Happy There”
PH: The demo of this song came out a couple years ago on The Death of Rock: Peter Holsapple vs. Alex Chilton, on Omnivore Recordings. I believe the inspiration for the title came from one of those Decca LP inner sleeves. (This album isn’t a rock record, so far as I can tell.)
PH: Certainly among Chris’ most memorable dB’s songs. We played it live for most of the shows after the record came out, when Chris was in the band. It made the audience have to stop and listen more carefully, I think.
“From a Window to a Screen”
PH: I always liked “From a Window…” from the time when Chris showed it to us. It’s a simple, unadorned song that is a scenic journey of chords, finally getting the listener to the payoff of the tonic chord at the end of the verse. It also has no real chorus (like “Gentle on My Mind”) or bridge. So straightforward and so complex. I have played keyboard or guitar on the song at one point in its performance history, and the parts on both are very rewarding, especially getting to play the electric guitar solo on the Repercussion version.
PH: I do, however, remember recording the guitar solo on this song. Scott had me do it what seemed like a hundred times in a row, and I was growing more and more aggravated. Finally, I recorded the angry licks that appeared on the final version, threw my guitar to the floor and stormed out of the studio to walk back to our apartment in Kensington. These things happen…
“Ask For Jill”
PH: I love my little repetitious guitar figure that Chris gave me to play. This one was recorded at Power Station, as well as [neo-surf instrumental] “pH Factor” which ended up as a b-side of an Albion single by the band. It’s still one of people’s most favorite songs by The dB’s.
“I Feel Good (Today)”
PH: Another song we played a lot live, despite its somewhat stagey vibe. Gene and Will were especially articulate in their performances on this song.
PH: I lived at 21 E. 2nd Street in New York; George Scott III, late bass player for 8 Eyed Spy/Raybeats/Contortions told me a place was opening up in his building, and I was able to get it for my own space for a while. At one point, George was in the Sabotage band of John Cale’s, and I overheard at the CBGB bar Cale railing at him “You’re a loser, George. You’ve been a loser all your life.” So I took that and wrote the song around it. I also lifted a little from Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs: “Hope for the best, expect the worst.”
“Ups and Downs”
PH: I played a fun harmony guitar part with Chris which he came up with. Andy Clark, from Be-Bop Deluxe/Clark-Hutchinson, played keys on this song in the studio. Andy was a lovely fellow, and he also played on “I Feel Good,” I think.
PH: Probably the only song in the band’s repertoire that I played slide guitar on (last chorus).
“Nothing is Wrong”
PH: One of my favorite compositions. The demo of this song is on I Thought You Wanted to Know: 1978-1981 and formerly on Ride the Wild Tom-Tom. Chris recorded a cover of this for Songs for 65 Roses in 2006, and the Repercussion version got used in the movie Margot at the Wedding in 2007. So the tune has had something of an afterlife of its own, as one might hope with songs.
PH: Another favorite of many folks (including Steve Wynn from the Dream Syndicate with whom I’ve played the song live a number of times). I tuned my high E string down to a D, so that the guitar riff could ring against the open string. Surely one of my simplest songs, except for the foreshortened measures!
VIDEO: The dB’s “Neverland”