An exclusive chat with The dB’s about their classic debut album
It’s been 40 years since the first album from the dB’s, Stands For Decibels, was released, and if you’ve been paying attention that seems inconceivable.
One at a time, four young men from North Carolina moved to New York City in the wake of the CBGBs punk explosion and formed a seeming blueprint for college rock bands in the 1980s. A mix of power pop, what became known as Southern jangle, and post-punk experimentation, it remains a landmark for those with an appreciation for arty pop and rock-solid songcraft.
It started when Chris Stamey moved from his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to New York City in 1977 with the plan of attending New York University. Almost as soon as he arrived, however, he was hired on as bass player in Alex Chilton’s band and a life in music took over. Chilton managed to produce Stamey’s first single on Ork Records but returned to Memphis at the end of that year.
VIDEO: Chris Stamey “The Summer Sun”
In the spring of ’78, Chris invited a couple of his friends from Winston-Salem, drummer Will Rigby and bass player Gene Holder, to join him in New York for some shows. They were dubbed Chris Stamey and the dB’s which stood for drums and bass, but also decibels, a measure of loudness. June of that year marked their first show, a gig at the renowned Max’s Kansas City.
By the time October rolled around they invited Peter Holsapple, another friend from North Carolina, to join them on organ and guitar. Chris liked the sound of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, who were super hot at the time. Initially, Holsapple thought of doing his own thing. There was a deal with Ork Records for more 45s financed by Warner Brothers’ UK label for both him and Stamey and the dB’s. Alan Betrock– renowned for starting the New York Rocker, a magazine sprouted from the much-buzzed-about scene in Lower New York around CBGBs–was set as co-producer with Stamey. Eventually, the money ran out without much to show for it although Betrock would occasionally obtain financing to continue recording but only in fits and starts.
Holder, now residing in New Jersey, remembers that time in New York as “edgier, and because of that the music was way edgier.”
They all agree it was an exciting time with a second wave of bands coming to the fore. Holsapple, now in North Carolina, says, “We played with bands like the Fleshtones and the Bongos and we were all friends.”
“I think when you’re 22 years old everything is a magical time,” says Rigby, also in North Carolina. “But in a way, the city was falling down, and it was kind of a dump.”
In his memoir A Spy In The House Of Loud: New York Songs and Stories (2018, Texas University Press), Stamey described the process in the following way: “Stands For Decibels had been made guerrilla-style, in dribs and drabs of studio time, by begging favors, saving quarters, and cutting corners.”
They rehearsed in the back of the offices of New York Rocker and even did a little recording there. The process of rehearsing and recording an album never got in the way of gigs at places like Max’s, CBGB, Maxwell’s, Hurrah’s, Irving Plaza, the Mudd Club, even in Philadelphia and Boston. In late 1978, they even return to Winston-Salem for a hometown show. Still, no American record label showed interest in the band. In his book, Stamey speaks of his friendship with Karin Berg, a highly regarded A&R person at Warner Brothers, who worked with acts like Television and its leader Tom Verlaine, the B-52s, Tin Huey, Marshall Crenshaw, the Cars, and Hüsker Dü. But she wasn’t interested in the dB’s.
“There was no interest from U.S. labels,” Holsapple recalls. “NONE. We didn’t have a dynamic stage show. As good as the songs and recording were, we just weren’t very good live. Maybe it was because we just weren’t strong vocalists.”
One label was interested though, Albion Records in the UK, the home of Ian Gomm and 999. A deal was reached and the Stands For Decibels was released in January 1981 in the UK and the rest of Europe, Australia, and Japan. Reviews were glowing and some copies of the record made it to the States where it garnered a modicum of college radio play.
VIDEO: The dB’s perform “Big Brown Eyes” on London TV, March 1981
Holsapple says there was no promotion in this country for the record and the only way it made in anybody’s hands as an import. It’s true, it was an exciting time for music from England, pop, punk, ska, whatever, and imports were a thriving business for independent record stores. But without a solid set of songs, the record would have gone nowhere.
Songwriting credits are evenly split between Stamey and Holsapple, with only “Dynamite,” being a group effort. The Farfisa fueled “Espionage” surely influenced latter-day bands like Let’s Active; Mitch Easter having a long association with the band. The frantic “Cycles Per Second” achieves that Costello/Attractions thing Stamey was looking for, while Holsapple’s “Black And White” and “Bad Reputation” take their power-pop cues from Big Star.
“It’s hard to believe it’s forty years old,” Peter states. “That record was largely due to the shepherding instincts of Mr. Stamey. The records that we made with him in the band were always designed to withstand repeated listenings. I think that’s why the record stands up today. His caring about the production and his interest in the sonics and every detail of it.”