During the 1980s the American power-pop group the dB’s contributed greatly to the alternative rock scene in the Southeast, providing an essential link between the legendary cult band Big Star and forth-coming guitar bands such as R.E.M. Led by the talented songwriting duo of Chris Stamey, a vocalist, guitarist, keyboardist, and sometimes trumpeter, and Peter Holsapple, a guitarist, vocalist, and keyboardist, and featuring an inspired rhythm section comprised of drummer Will Rigby and bassist Gene Holder, the dB’s combined the disparate styles of conventional pop, classic rock, and 1960s psychedelia with New Wave and traces of country. Throughout their ten-year existence, the dB’s won the favor of critics, but Stamey’s solo aspirations and Holsapple’s developing singing/songwriting abilities (and reported perfectionism) allowed the band to record only a handful of albums. Nevertheless, their songs inspired musicians for years to come, among them Bob Mould and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.
The members of the dB’s grew up in the small but rich musical environment of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Their sound was also strongly influenced by the Kinks, the Beatles, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Bad-finger, and Big Star. Stamey, who first began experimenting with reel-to-reel recording in 1963, played bass, cello, and guitar in various high school bands and operated a basement four-track studio with friend and future producer/Let’s Active leader Mitch Easter. After high school, Stamey attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied composition and music theory. Outside the classroom, he often assisted producer Don Dixon with live and studio recording projects.
One of his projects at this time was a group called the Sneakers, which Stamey and Easter cofounded, along with Winston-Salem friends Holder and Rigby. In 1976 they released a self-titled EP, now regarded as one of the first American independent recordings. The following year Stamey left North Carolina to study at New York University. Once there, he accepted an offer to play bass with singer-songwriter and guitarist Alex Chilton, formerly of Big Star. The job lasted through the end of 1977, when Chilton moved back to his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Stamey stayed in New York, and in the spring of 1978, invited Rigby and Holder to join him for some gigs. Naming themselves the dB’s as both a reference to “drum and bass” and to decibels, the scientific measure of loudness, the trio soon decided to continue on as a more formal project. They made their first public appearance as the dB’s in June of that same year at New York’s Max’s Kansas City club.
Around this time, Holsapple retired his Chapel Hill group the H-Bombs, of which Easter was a member, and following a brief period in Memphis moved to New York to audition on organ and guitar with the dB’s. Although initially unsure if he would stay, Holsapple quickly proved himself an integral member of the group. They played their first gig as a foursome at Irving Plaza in New York, then played their first show in North Carolina at the Philosopher’s Club in their common hometown of Winston-Salem. The dB’s also released two singles in 1978, “I Thought (You Wanted to Know)” and “Black and White.”
Unfortunately, American record labels, in a rush to sign “New Wave” power-pop bands that played short, fast songs, passed over the dB’s, who failed to fit in with the emerging musical trend—the dB’s had created their own musical niche. Fortunately, the British label Albion was impressed, and agreed to fund the dB’s first two albums: Stands for deciBels, released in 1981, and Repercussion, released in 1982. Both albums, produced by R.E.M. mainstay Scott Litt, are considered essential for fans of 1980s alternative rock.
Like Lennon and McCartney, Holsapple and Stamey seemed to counterbalance one another perfectly. Holsapple tended to write classic rock tunes with catchy choruses and jangling guitars. Stamey, by comparison, reveled in quirkiness and sonic experimentation. Holder and Rigby, the dB’s rhythm section, also actively influenced the group’s songwriting. Combined, the dB’s created pop-inspired songs blended with a sense of cynicism and wry humor. Musically, Stands for deciBels and Repercussion offered intricately woven guitars, nimble drumming, and sophisticated arrangements and harmonies.
But despite the critics’ kind words, neither record generated much commercial heat. While still a member of
Members include Gene Holder, bass, guitar; Peter Holsapple, guitar, vocals, keyboards; Will
Rigby, drums, keyboards, backing vocals; Chris Stamey (left group, 1984), guitar, vocals, keyboards.
Group formed in New York, played first show in North Carolina at the Philosopher’s Club in Winston-Salem, issued the singles “I Thought (You Wanted to Know)” and “Black and White,” 1978; released debut album Stands for deciBels, 1981; released Repercussion, 1982; Like This, 1984; released The Sound of Music, opened for R.E.M., 1987; disbanded, 1988.
Addresses: Website —dB’s Official Website: http://www.thedbsonline.net.
the dB’s, Stamey opted to launch a solo career with the 1983 release of It’s a Wonderful Life, and left the group shortly thereafter. He went on to record a string of solo albums, including 1987’s It’s Alright, and opened his own studio, Modern Recording, in Chapel Hill in 1996, working with Yo La Tengo, Whiskeytown, Freedy Johnston, and Peter Blegvad, among others. In the meantime, the dB’s, now a trio, continued to record a third album entitled Like This with producer Chris Butler. Released in 1984 on the Bearsville label, it lacked Stamey’s wit but impressed reviewers nonetheless. However, due to internal struggles at Bearsville, their record label, Like This failed to reach record buyers in significant numbers.
The dB’s eventually left the company, signing with IRS Records to release The Sound of Music in 1987. For this album, Holder moved to guitar, the band hired bassist Jeff Beninato, and teamed with guests Syd Straw and Van Dyke Parks. Although not as strong as their prior releases, the album broke into the top 200 and received play on college radio. The group opened for R.E.M. on that band’s Document tour toward the end of 1987, but despite their recent success, the band decided to disband at the beginning of 1988. A compilation of demos by the original lineup, The dB’s Ride the Wild Tom Tom, as well as a selection of later demos, surfaced in 1993 and 1994, respectively.
After the dB’s parted, Holder joined the Wygals, while Holsapple played with the Golden Palominos, guested on R.E.M.’s 1991 album Out of Time, joined the Continental Drifters (a New Orleans band featuring former Cowsills singer Susan Cowsill, who later married Holsapple) in 1992, and released the solo album Out of My Way in 1995. In 1991, Holsapple and Stamey reunited for the well-received acoustic album Mavericks.
Stands for deciBels, Albion, 1981; reissued, IRS, 1989.
Repercussion, Albion, 1982; reissued, IRS, 1989.
Like This, Bearsville, 1984; reissued, Rhino, 1988.
The Sound of Music, IRS, 1987.
The dB’s Ride the Wild Tom Tom, Rhino, 1993; reissued, 1995.
Paris Avenue, Monkey Hill, 1994.
Stands for deciBels/Repercussion, Collector’s Choice, 2002.
Buckley, Jonathan, and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Robbins, Ira A., The Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock: The All-New Fifth Edition of The Trouser Press Record Guide, Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Amplifier, December 1997.
Chris Stamey Official Website, http://www.chrisstamey.com (February 22, 2002).
dB’s Official Website, http://www.thedbsonline.net (February 22, 2002).
“The DB’s,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 15, 2002).
“The dB’s,” LAUNCH, http://launch.yahoo.com (February 6, 2002).
“The dB’s,” Wilson & Alroy’s Record Reviews, http://www.warr.org (February 22, 2002).
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