The dB’s: Tar Heelers in the Big Apple (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One

At Irving Plaza, The dB’s tore through a dozen songs, including covers of Bobby Lewis’ 1961 hit “Tossin’ and Turnin’,” the Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live for Today,” an old Sneakers cut (“What I Dig”) and Holsapple’s “Bad Reputation.” But even though Peter had one of his songs in the set, he understood from the start that the group was envisioned primarily as a vehicle for Stamey’s songs. “I was always under the impression that I was to be the keyboard player,” he says. “We would be doing Chris’s songs.”

Yet the transition to a more balanced arrangement came about without conflict. “The way I remember it,” says Rigby, “is that Peter was going to start his own band; there would be two bands. But it quickly became, ‘Let’s do Peter’s and Chris’ songs.’” He emphasizes that he was in favor of the one-band arrangement, but he cautioned Stamey: “There’s going to come a time when there are too many songs because there are two songwriters.” That time did come, but not until a few years later.

The group befriended Television manager (and CBGB regular) Terry Ork; he planned to release a series of singles: some by Peter Holsapple, others by The dB’s. “But the project quickly turned into, ‘Let’s just make an album,’” Rigby says. When the band failed to interest any domestic labels, they headed to London and secured a deal with UK-based Albion Records.

Recording with co-producer Alan Betrock, the group cut songs for their debut, Stands for deciBels. Released in January 1981, the record was an immediate hit… with critics. A review in Trouser Press observed, “Few pop records are as consistently aurally interesting as this without resorting to gimmickry.”

Few listeners in the U.S. heard the album at the time. Holsapple believes that the music was right – in other words, commercially viable – for the time. “We didn’t seem too far afield from something accessible,” he observes. “But the fates would have it that we didn’t get it released in the United States. And that was problematic.”

A similar fate would befall The dB’s second album, RePercussion. Released months after the debut, it too earned rapturous reviews, earning a place among the best and most influential releases of the indie-, college- and/or alternative-rock albums of the era.

While the UK-pressed RePercussion did technically receive a U.S. release, today it’s very rare to find a copy in the wild stateside. Stands for deciBels and RePercussion would eventually get domestic release on I.R.S. Records, nearly a decade after their creation. But those releases would be on CD and cassette only; today they too are long out of print.

The dB’s would land a U.S. label deal in 1984, releasing Like This on Bearsville. But by that point in the band’s history, Stamey had left for a solo career. The Holsapple-led group would go on to achieve a bit of commercial success, but by 1988 The dB’s called it a day. Lifelong friends, all four founding members remained on good terms: as a duo, Holsapple and Stamey made a two (again, critically acclaimed and modestly selling) albums, and in 2005 the four reunited for a pair of shows. In 2012 The dB’s came together once again – this time in the studio – recording and releasing Falling Off the Sky. That album and the handful of shows in support of it demonstrated that the defining qualities that made the dB’s exemplars of smart, arty yet accessible pop had not diminished a bit.

In celebration of the long-awaited domestic vinyl release of Stands for deciBels on June 7 (and, later this year, RePercussion) on Chapel Hill-based Propeller Sound Recordings, the four – Holsapple, Stamey, Rigby and Holder – will come together once again to play select concert dates. The mini-tour will kick off with a performance at the Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh; other dates in major markets are to be announced.

At the time of this interview, Chris Stamey was sequestered on another project, but he did offer his thoughts on Stands for deciBels. “Coming back to this record now, I can hear that although I was still several years away from hitting my stride as a songwriter, Peter seems fully realized,” he says. “The musical and lyrical vocabulary is economical and precise, and the band’s performances and sonic detailing (smashed lightbulbs, whispers, backward reverbs) match the intent most closely. And underpinning it all, Will and Gene are agile, lively, and attentive at every turn. I’m proud to have been on board for this.”

The dB’s certainly would have liked wider success to have come their way back in 1981, but Holsapple and his band mates take a long view. “We didn’t plan on being collectors’ items,” he quips. Decades on, he doesn’t seem to have hurt feeling about the low profile of those first two records; people who heard them, loved them. And The dB’s are in good company. “Hey,” he points out, “Our record collections are filled with bands that we love, but that didn’t sell squat.”