Behind the Album: The dB’s’ Peter Holsapple and Will Rigby Look Back at Their Influential Debut ‘Stands for Decibels’

Before there was the jangle pop of R.E.M, The Dream Syndicate, and The Smiths, there were The dB’s. Not only was the New York-based band a strong influence on much of the indie rock of the 1980s, but they were the tissue that connected those bands with the power pop and punk of the ‘70s. The dB’s got their start as a collaboration between founding member Chris Stamey and Richard Lloyd, guitarist for the seminal New York punk band Television. That early version, which went by Chris Stamey and the dB’s, eventually morphed into the quartet of Stamey and three of his childhood friends from Winston-Salem, North Carolina—guitarist/keyboardist Peter Holsapple, drummer Will Rigby, and bassist Gene Holder.

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As influential and lauded as the band’s first album Stands for Decibels has been, it was not initially available in the U.S. as a domestic release. UK label Albion Records released the album in January 1981, and its first U.S. release was as a CD issued by I.R.S. Records in 1989. In light of Stands for Decibels being released on vinyl for the first time by a U.S. label (Propeller Sound Recordings), Holsapple and Rigby shared with American Songwriter some of their observations about the dB’s’ debut, 43 years after its initial release.

While Stands for Decibels is rightfully recognized for its influence on other musicians, it is worth exploring for its songs in their own right. Regarding the album as a whole, Holsapple said, “One of the things that we tried to do—and I think that maybe this reissue will prove to have succeeded at—is to make a record that you could listen to repeatedly and hear new and different things every time you listened.” Holsapple and Rigby highlighted a few of the features that are worth paying attention to, whether you’re new to the album or a longtime fan of it.

“The Fight”

Reviewers have noted the songs on Stands for Decibels reflect the distinct writing styles of Holsapple and Stamey. Holsapple says Stamey is a “serious composer of music,” while referring to himself as “kind of the dumb rock and roll guy that just listens to dumb rock and roll.” Over the course of the dB’s’ six-album discography, Holsapple has shown his ability to write catchy rock songs, but on “The Fight,” he demonstrates that he brings more to his craft than just writing great hooks. He is a fan of Lukas Foss, and in “The Fight,” he made a nod to the avant-garde composer. The song about a couple engaged in a seemingly endless argument sounds like a straight-ahead rock number, but it features a sound effect that Holsapple borrowed from a Foss piece called Phorion. According to Holsapple, “The Fight” incorporates the sound of bottles and lightbulbs being broken in a burlap bag.

“Cycles per Second”

In recently reviewing the lyrics for the songs on Stands for Decibels, Rigby found himself particularly impressed by those for the Side 2 opener, “Cycles per Second.” This was one of five songs on the album for which Stamey was credited as the sole writer. Rigby said he “was struck by the lyrics to ‘Cycles per Second,’ in particular, as being pretty moving to me. I was surprised at how abstract, in a good way, those lyrics are.” Specifically, Rigby appreciated the way that Stamey used technical audio terms to write about depression.

From A to Z in cycles per second
Talk in a riddle, several hertz
Some, hypnagogic, turn for the worse

“Big Brown Eyes”

While songs like “Cycles per Second” impressed Rigby with their lyrics, he also noted strong melodies are “one of [the album’s] more salient points.” Holsapple cites “Big Brown Eyes” as a song that “has always been a favorite” because of its singable melody. He considers the song to be an example of how “you can pack a lot into two minutes if you do it right.” In his book A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories, Stamey recalled that Holsapple originally wrote “Big Brown Eyes” as a one-minute song, and he suggested the song could use another verse and a second chorus. About the song’s ultimate two-minute version, Stamey wrote, “I don’t know whether this made it better art, but it did mean that generations of music lovers could hit the repeat button only half as often.”

“Black and White”

While these three tracks have features that make them stand out, it’s the album opener “Black and White” that may be the best-known song from Stands for Decibels. It was released as a single ahead of the album, and a Don Dixon mix of the song (which appears on the dB’s’ 2021 compilation I Thought You Wanted to Know: 1978-1981) ranks as the dB’s’ second-most streamed song on Spotify, after “That Time Is Gone.” The song apparently made an impression on Kurt Cobain. Rigby says a friend of his saw Cobain play a part of “Black and White” during a soundcheck for a Nirvana show.

From the infectious riffs of “Black and White” to the intriguing lyricism of “Cycles per Second” to the bonus track “Judy,” there is a lot to discover or revisit with the new remastered version of Stands for Decibels, which will be available on June 6. Not only is it a fun and energetic document of alternative rock in the early ‘80s, but as Holsapple points out, it “presages what is to come” from the dB’s. It was also a foreshadowing of the sounds we would hear from beloved ‘80s bands that had yet to shape the cultural consciousness.

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