However few they may have been at the time (or remain still today), those of a certain age with some degree of rock enlightenment in the 1980s found a moment of pure pop incandescence in The dB’s‘ (however seemingly brief) rise to prominence. It was reason enough to be talking about the new Falling Off The Sky (Bar None) today.
Being none neither punk nor new/no wave nor proto rap nor disco nor Latino, the quartet of Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby, and Gene Holder and its jangly guitar, multi-vocal singer/songwriter-driven rock seemed somewhat incongruous to be emerging from the New York City musical scene of the day. And, in truth, the band’s roots stretch back much more deeply and longer elsewhere.
“We all went to the same schools together, from elementary on,” confirms Holsapple over the phone from his once-again home state of North Carolina. “I’ve known Will since we were 7. And I’ve known Chris since he was maybe 12 and I was 11. And I met Gene shortly thereafter — I think maybe his mom cut my mom’s hair for many years. And Chris’ dad was everybody’s pediatrician — everybody knew Dr. Stamey.”
Fast forward to the mid ’70s, and the tale gets a little convoluted. Easter, Rigby, and Holsapple set off on what he calls “our little apocryphal trip to Memphis in search of Big Star in whatever it was, 1977, ‘78?” At the same time, Stamey moves up to New York City to ostensibly attend NYU only to (ironically) end up playing bass for Big Star’s Alex Chilton throughout 1977. And while Holsapple decided to stay and attempt to put down musical roots in Memphis, by 1978 Stamey went on to record a song with Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, which led to a single whose “B-side” (with the recent arrivals of Rigby and Holder to NYC) would feature a song credited to Chris Stamey & The dB’s.
So while things were happening quickly in NYC for his three childhood friends, Holsapple was hitting a brick wall in Memphis. “It was sort of slow going, and I was, you know, the interloper. I was doing some recording and I was kind of dying to get out of there, honestly,” he recounts. “And I got a call and they said, ‘Do you want to come up to audition and see about being the keyboard player for The dB’s?’ And I’m like, ‘Well yeah. I’d love to do that,’” he chuckles, continuing, “So I came up. Auditioned. And I’m not sure . . . I assume I passed the audition, but I never heard back from them. But 31 years later, I would assume . . . ” he laughs again enjoying his self-deprecatory irony.
“But yeah, it was a great next step for me. Starting in the sort of backup role, it took about three weeks and I was already taking lead on some songs and bringing my songs to the table. So it was fun.”
Fueled by the Stamey/Holsapple songwriting juggernaut and driven by the Rigby/Holder rhythm section, The dB’s quickly became standouts in the musical renaissance sweeping NYC and, while initially attracting attention of various American record labels (which all seemed focused on finding another Knack), found a recording home with British independent label Albion. The band’s 1981 debut, Stands For Decibels, was received with near universal critical acclaim but generated negligible sales. Amassing similar praise, 1982’s follow-up vinyl release, Repercussion, came packaged with a cassette of the LP — which this reviewer at the time remarked made the seemingly higher import price of the album a bargain. But it proved to be a problematic novelty.
“You’ve got to remember, that was that whole ‘Home taping is killing music’ days,” says Stamey, laughing at the memory. “Who knew . . .” he laughs again, “who knew what was coming along?
“But that was Albion Records’ attempt to try to forestall some of that by giving away cassettes. I know there were other bands who did that — they’d have the album on one side and a blank cassette on the other, so you could kill only half as much music,” he laughs again before continuing. “In retrospect, the label was great. I think that they were adventuresome and they really took a lot of chances on us. I think that was really cool. But the hardest thing about that record was with the cassette sticking on the front it was really hard to rack up. And I worked at record stores in New York for years.”
– David C. Eldredge
For the full feature, grab the June issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.
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