The dB's: At the forefront of an early '80s East Coast pop and garage-rock renaissance.
The dB's: At the forefront of an early '80s East Coast pop and garage-rock renaissance.

Southern Knights

The dB's defined the Southern power-pop/jangle pop movement of the early-to-mid-'80s . . . a quirky blend of smart pop and psychedelia crossed with the more experimental side of new wave [that] provided a key link between Big Star and alternative guitar acts such as R.E.M.

-- All Music Guide

Stands for DeciBels and Repercussion . . . [treat] the three-minute format the same way Picasso used Velasquez's "Las Meninas": as a skeletal model to drape with carefully skewed visions.

-- Spin Alternative Record Guide

So quoth the experts. (Picasso, huh?) Even after two decades, the first two dB's albums remain classics of their oeuvre, influential upon contemporary pop mavens much like the Velvet Underground's seminal offerings influenced hipsters years earlier. The 1981 release Stands for DeciBels and its '82 follow-up Repercussion are now primed for rediscovery thanks to a new pairing of the two LPs onto one CD, courtesy the Collectors' Choice Music label. And the reissue is made all the timelier with the recent unveiling of an official dB's Web site.

North Carolina expats in the Big Apple, the dB's -- singer/guitarists Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey (to many fans, an inspired merging of the McCartney/Lennon and Alex Chilton/Chris Bell songwriting axes) plus a sublimely tight-but-loose rhythm section in drummer Will Rigby and bassist Gene Holder -- made a memorable, if ultimately unsuccessful, grab for the brass ring. Despite some bad breaks, the quartet clearly had the tunes, from "Bad Reputation" (Creedence Clearwater Revival relocated to Carnaby Street) to "Living a Lie" (power-pop redux turns Stax/Volt baroque) to the complex "From a Window to a Screen" (Bacharach, Beatles, Elvis Costello, jazz/Caribbean nuances, and even Charles Ives all collide in an alarmingly compact two-and-a-half-minute symphony).

Of the group chemistry that sparked the dB's in New York in 1978, Rigby now observes, "I think we were fortunate to have a common background, not so much being from the South -- although that set us apart in NYC, for sure! -- as having heard the same things. We were old enough that we weren't all that influenced by the punk explosion, although we liked it. So our tastes tended to be more developed than those [bands] that came after and were more influenced by, say, the Ramones or the Clash. And while the initial burst of energy had, by the time the dB's formed, already dissipated, there was definitely still the feeling of something new going on in New York."

The dB's were by all accounts at the forefront of an early '80s East Coast pop and garage renaissance that included such disparate outfits as NYC's Fleshtones, Hoboken's Feelies, North Carolina's Let's Active and Georgia's R.E.M. (with whom Holsapple has gone on to be a supplemental member). Signing with British label Albion, the group at first seemed destined to break out, but, with Albion ultimately unable to find a U.S. licensee for the two albums, the band had to settle for the club circuit, critical kudos and some college-radio play for import copies of the LPs. A frustrated Stamey eventually split to go solo in '84. The Holsapple-helmed dB's subsequently recorded a pair of excellent albums and toured nationally with R.E.M., but recurring financial and record-label woes ultimately led to the band throwing in the towel by 1988. (These days Stamey and Holder are both successful producers, while Holsapple and Rigby are, respectively, in the Continental Drifters and Steve Earle's Dukes.)

Much of the dB's saga is unraveled in the booklet accompanying the new Stands for DeciBels/Repercussion CD, veteran journalist Scott Shinder's liner notes offering a fresh critical appraisal of the two albums and the group's legacy. Interestingly, the CCM reissue is only the latest twist in what's been a circuitous path in getting the dB's music to the marketplace. As noted, the Albion LPs maintained pricey import-only status; later, Line Records of Germany oversaw shoddy-quality vinyl and CD reissues for Europe; in '89, I.R.S. finally stepped in to issue remastered versions of the two CDs stateside; and a confusing array of import compilations of dB's material has surfaced over the years as well.

Explains Rigby, "The band probably wouldn't even have found out the CCM rerelease was in the works had they not hired Scott Schinder, a friend of ours, to write liner notes. Thanks to him we learned in time to have some input, adding a bonus track [the non-LP "Soul Kiss"] and overseeing the cover design. Still, it's a good question where ownership actually resides at this point!

"The last we knew, Line owned all Albion masters; Line had licensed the albums to I.R.S. But all [those] labels are out of business. CCM licensed the masters from EMI, which owns the I.R.S. catalogue, I believe. I'm not completely convinced that EMI really has the rights to sublicense the recordings, but it's good that they're available again. It would take a phalanx of lawyers working in U.S., U.K. and Germany to figure out where all the rights are. If recording contracts weren't so inherently one-sided in favor of record companies -- in other words, in any fair world -- ownership of these recordings would have reverted to the band years ago. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way."

Rigby's perspective is acute, and in fact a massive, nearly 10,000-word history of the band penned by Rigby can be viewed at the new Web site: Must-reading for any dB's fan, his essay also provides illuminating snapshots from the Amerindie underground of the era. Speaking of snapshots, the site features an impressive scrapbook section (photos, gig posters, etc.) along with a detailed discography, merchandise (dB's boxer shorts, anyone?), unreleased MP3s, video clips and a message board.

"The dB's Online was constructed by Jake Gorst of Exploded View with my input," says Rigby. "It's actually fun to work on, and I'm kind of an online junkie, although it was strange spending so much time thinking about such a distant past. There's a potential cache of unusual items we hope to get our hands on one of these days. New audio files, some live recordings, are our next project. And we're hoping to get a top-quality digital file of Walter Williams' [of Mr. Bill fame] video for Repercussion's 'Amplifier,' too."

Getting back to the two albums for a moment, Rigby remains justifiably proud and has fond memories of the making of them. "Recording Stands for DeciBels was exciting, if not exactly glamorous -- although at one of the mixing sessions at [NYC's] Power Plant, Springsteen was in the other room. I remember him sitting in the lounge once when I walked out!

"Repercussion [recorded in England with future R.E.M. producer Scott Litt] sounded better thanks to Scott, who had a lot of ideas. Although I can't help but wonder what that record would sound like with less reverb -- 'The Sound of the '80s!' I guess it still goes on in Top 40, Britney records and the like. But most bands that are any good have wised up."

Everyone loves a rock 'n' roll underdog tale, and to a large degree the party line has always been that the dB's suffered unjustly at the cruel hand of fate. Both Stamey and Holsapple, however, as quoted in the CD's liner notes, appear more circumspect.

Notes Stamey, "Many aspects of the dB's career were very typical of bands. Almost all bands find no financial/commercial success, merited or not. We made several records with reasonable budgets, had several big tours, sold out clubs . . . radio play was the main hole in the picture. I think our share of bad luck was not actually excessive; in a lot of ways, we had a better time of it than most."

"Not every great band has a hit," Holsapple summarizes. "And I consider us lucky in having gone from up-and-coming to also-rans to posthumously wonderful in a comparatively short period of time."

Rigby agrees, adding that while "our weakness was the business side -- we were right in there with all those [other bands] that made mistakes and had setbacks -- we did persevere through it for quite a while, and it wasn't all bleak. I remember a lot of good times."

Of course, no dB's feature would be complete without one inevitable query.

"It's hard to imagine that [a reunion] could be the same," says Rigby. "We were twentysomethings then and we're fortysomethings now. Getting everyone in one place would be the hardest part -- we live in four states. But it has been discussed from time to time. There's always a chance, I suppose."

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