Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Stands For Decibels’ by The dB’s.
It’s one of the more intriguing and wonderful things in music, that the records that give you the most pleasure are the ones that insinuate themselves into your life before you even know it’s happened. The most perfect pop songs are often, at first, the most innocuous; pristine and ephemeral, eliciting a double-take after the last note has rung out.
Imagine a dystopia where Big Star never existed. The knock-on effect would be cataclysmic, not least for the fact that The dB’s may never have come into our lives, and we would never have had the aural enchantment of ‘Stand For Decibels’.
The band, named for both the measurement and the idea of ‘drums & bass’, were born and raised in North Carolina and heavily influenced by British groups like The Who, The Move and The Kinks, as opposed to the southern rock they grew up with. Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple shared songwriting duties as well as those of guitar and vocals. The latter was formerly of Chapel Hill’s The H-Bombs, a group whose reputation has proven more resilient than any recordings that may, or likely don’t, exist.
Stamey was the first to leave North Carolina for New York, where he played bass with Big Star’s Alex Chilton in ’77 and recorded with Richard Lloyd of Television. Will Rigby and Gene Holder, they of dynamic, eponymous drums and bass respectively, followed him there the following year. Holsapple meanwhile dismantled The H-Bombs and followed suit after a brief stint in Memphis (where he recorded a version of Bad Reputation, one of ‘Stands For Decibels’ standout tracks), initially to play organ but gradually partnering Stamey on guitar and vocals.
With Stamey and Holsapple in fine songwriting fettle, ‘Stand For Decibels’ was released in 1981 on Albion Records in the UK (the album was, criminally, unavailable in the States for years, until a 1989 CD re-issue appeared with Holsapple’s irresistible Judy as a bonus track). Both men had a distinctive, individual songwriting style and it has become an oft-mooted feature of their work that while Holsapple’s songs were relatively straight-ahead and poppy, Stamey leaned towards the more experimental and avant-garde.
Stamey left after the release of a stellar follow-up, ‘Repercussion’, in ’82 (again, released only to a European market); when the original line-up reformed for the ‘Falling Off The Sky’ album in 2012 this distinction in writing style was as evident as ever, with Stamey’s Anglocentric psychedelia standing in cohesive contrast to Holsapple’s power pop and Americana. On ‘Stands For Decibels’ though – and ‘Repercussion’ – they were at their marvellous and mischievous peak (“She said, ‘You never give me loving, think of how I feel’/ I said, ‘You never give me money, you’re so bad to me’”)
Songs deal with sex, love and relationships in wry fashion, like that of The Fight quoted above, where Holsapple put lightbulbs in a plastic bag during recording & smashed them for mid-song effect, or Bad Reputation’s picture-perfect mix of wishful thinking and denial. Think of every crush you’ve ever had, distilled into just over three minutes.
From these sardonic asides then to the punch-drunk emotion of “Every time I look into your big brown eyes/I get paralyzed, paralyzed” the music zips from power chord power pop to the ambling, resigned grandeur of She’s Not Worried, and the eccentricity of Cycles Per Second. That song was, according to the band, recorded aleatorically – without listening, everything left to chance, and Rigby’s raucous rough’n’tumble drumming leads the fray while everyone else tries to keep up.
The original album ends with the heart-wrenching doo-wop lilt of Moving In Your Sleep, with an almost-cracking vocal hitting the high notes and a final “Remember me” entreaty. Its “There may come a day/ When I must go away from here” seems prophetic in hindsight even if penned by Holsapple, with Stamey departing before their third album ‘Like This’. ‘The Sound Of Music’ was their final release in 1987, until the original members regrouped for the aforementioned ‘Falling Of The Sky’ and a return, not to form (that always remained), but to the unique dynamic that came with the writing partnership of Stamey and Holsapple.
Oddly enough, considering the debt they owe to the band, their offer to reform the original dB’s line-up for a Big Star tribute album in the mid-‘90s was turned down by none other than Big Star’s drummer Jody Stephens. Whatever his reasons, they can’t have been acrimonious, with Stamey joining Stephens in 2010 along with members of REM and Let’s Active – as well as a host of willing participants (personnel from Teenage Fanclub, Yo La Tengo, The Posies, The Jayhawks…the list goes on) down through the years – in the touring band that celebrates Big Star’s ‘Third’.
‘Falling Off The Sky’ saw the dB’s re-discovering their initial stride and sense of sonic adventure thirty years after Stamey’s departure. ‘Stands For Decibels’, though, remains one of those near-perfect albums; hook-laden, intelligent and clocking in at just under two and a half minutes shorter than ‘#1 Record’. Near perfect.
Did you enjoy this weeks edition of Golden Vault? Get involved, comment below and join us next week in the Golden Vault where we’ll be discussing Since I Left You’ by sample sleuths The Avalanches.