By Eleni P. Austin

The loathsome phrase “If you know, you know,” consistently irks the shit out of me. It truly should be banned from the lexicon. But in the case of The dB’s, it feels wholly apropos. The Winston-Salem band never dominated the air waves or topped the charts, but their music wound up influencing a plethora of popular and critically acclaimed acts.

The sonic architects of The dB’s, Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey became pals back in the early ‘60s. Peter was born in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1956, but his family relocated to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, just in time elementary school. He picked up the guitar at age eight, but spent his adolescence attending a boarding school back east. Although Chris was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1954, he grew up in Winston Salem. He displayed an affinity for music at an early age, and by 1963, he was making primitive recordings in his basement.

It was around this time that Peter and Chris first crossed paths. Once Peter was away at Phillips-Exeter Academy (forging a lasting friendship with future Tom Petty Heartbreaker, Benmont Tench), Chris was making his bones in a series of high school bands. He was already playing bass, cello and guitar as well as soaking up the rudiments of production from musician/producer Mitch Easter.


Peter and Chris reconnected when then the former returned to North Carolina and joined forces with Mitch under the musical moniker Rittenhouse Square. The trio recorded an exuberant EP before recruiting former schoolmate Will Rigby to play drums. They briefly became Little Diesel and recorded a locally-released 8-Track. Sloppy, shambolic and slightly anarchic, it was a quintessential slab of Garage Rock/Power-Pop. It also opened the door for their most lasting and beloved musical endeavor, The dB’s.

When Chris, Will and bassist Gene Holder pulled up stakes and relocated to New York City to pursue fame and fortune as The dB’s, Peter was still in Winston-Salem fronting a band called The H-Bombs. When that situation imploded, he split for NYC and the final piece of The dB’s’ puzzle fell into place. They quickly signed with the British label Albion and their debut, Stands For deciBels, was released in 1981. The cognoscenti caught on almost immediately, showering the band with praise. Soon enough, the four-piece hit the road, opening for like-minded bands like Bongos, The Fleshtones and Bush Tetras.

A year later, they doubled down on the winning formula of their debut with Repercussion. More critical acclaim followed, and their fan base was increasing incrementally. But at that point, Chris quit the band and embarked on a solo career. The dB’s soldiered on as a three-piece and recorded their third effort, 1984’s Like This. The band floundered a bit, adding and subtracting members and enduring the usual record company tsuris. By the late ‘80s, they signed with respected indie label, I.R.S.

1987 saw the release of their most accessible album to date, Sound Of Music. The band seemed to be firing on all cylinders, even receiving some superstar assists from Benmont Tench, Jane Scarpatoni, Van Dyke Parks, Lisa Germano and sultry chanteuse, Syd Straw. They gained worldwide exposure when newly minted hitmakers R.E.M. invited the band to be the opening act for the Athens Georgia band’s Document tour. But the album never broke through commercially, and The dB’s amicably called it quits the following year.

In the ensuing years, Peter has toggled between working as a touring and session musician, playing with heavy-hitters like R.E.M., Hootie & The Blowfish, N.R.B.Q. and the reunited Bangles. In the ‘90s, he formed the Continental Drifters, a ragged but right super-group that included ex-Dream Syndicate bassist Mark Walton, ex-Bnagles guitarist/vocalist Vicki Peterson, New Orleans natives Carlo Nuccio and Ray Ganucheau and the spiky and sublime Susan Cowsill. He also released a couple of solo albums.

Chris carved out an intriguing solo career and also opened Modern Recording, a studio in Chapel Hill, working with everyone from Marshall Crenshaw and Whiskeytown to Yo La Tengo. Peter and Chris paired up in 1991 as Holsapple & Stamey, recording their debut album, Mavericks and then reconvening in 2009 for a second effort, hERE & nOW. Will Rigby has pivoted between making solo music and pounding the kit for Steve Earle, Murray Attaway, Freedy Johnston and Matthew Sweet. Meanwhile, Gene moved over to the production side, working with artists like Pylon, Luna and Whiskeytown The band even reunited in 2012 to create their glorious fifth long-player, Faling From The Sky. In the midst of the pandemic, Peter and Chris released Our Back Pages, an album that revisited a few of their dB’s favorites giving the songs more of an acoustic flavor. Now, the cool kids at Propeller Sound Recordings have re-released The dB’s long out-of-print debut, Stands For deciBels.

The record opens with the one-two punch of “Black And White” and “Dynamite.” The former careens out of the speakers as stuttery, strumming rhythm riffs, vroom-y bass and jangly lead guitar coalesce around a ticking time bomb beat. High-pitched vocals mirror the song’s adolescent angst. Meanwhile, laconic lyrics dispense with diplomacy, getting right to the point: “Oh, we are finished, as of a long time ago, as of a long time ago, I stopped, I don’t enjoy you anymore/Well, I guess I just don’t enjoy you any more, well, I guess it’s all laid out in black and white you don’t like it al all, you don’t like it at all.” The monochromatic emotions are buoyed by a kaleidoscopic solo that ping-pongs through the break. Spiky and succinct, it straddles the line between passionate and phlegmatic.

The latter is no less querulous. Shivery vocals line up next to boinging bass, coiled guitars, roller-rink keys and a knockabout beat. Cryptic lyrics allude to a carnal conquest: “Dynamite, late last night, jet face white, so polite, dyna-dyna dynamite.” Brisk guitars shimmy and shake on the break before a final Farfisa flourish closes out the song.

Although The dB’s debut arrived just as the primitive cool of Punk was being supplanted by the shinier, happier, synth-ier style of New Wave, their sound defied easy categorization. They took inspiration from disparate sources like The Move, The Kinks The Flamin’ Groovies, Mott The Hoople, The MC-5 and Big Star. Their music was all over the map, but in a good way.

Take the sprightly “Big Brown Eyes” which practically screams “hit single.” Winsome harmonies cocoon infectious guitar licks, concentric bass lines, a thunking beat and a hint of cowbell. Lyrics coyly hedge bets, kinda-sorta confessing an attraction: “Every time I look into your big brown eyes, I get paralyzed, paralyzed, every time you take a step down, every time I think about the thousand guys, who want you, I realize every time I take a step down.” But the swoony, hook-filled chorus throws caution to the wind: “You give me something to think about, I’ll give you something to live without and you give me something to take the day away.” A sparkly guitar solo unfurls on the break, magnifying the lovesick intensity.

They flip the script on “The Fight,” executing a stylistic 180. Squally, fractious guitars are matched by snarly vocals, tensile bass and a see-saw beat. Staccato vocals sketch out a pithy portrait of domestic discord: “Oh well, I woke up in bed it was the middle of the night, and we were still involved in a great big fight, she said I’ll give you five minutes to get out of here, I said I’ll give you five minutes just to change your mind, she said don’t hold your breath, it won’t happen this time.” Oscillating guitars quiver and quake on the break, reflecting the conjugal consternation.

Then there’s the syncopated anarchy of “Cycles Per Second.” The barbed melody is anchored by a locomotive backbeat, search-and-destroy bass lines, skronky keys and scabrous guitars. Lyrics limn the scatterbrain sensation that comes with “gorging a neurotic appetite.” On the break, mad scientist keys dart through the break as guitars rev and retreat.

If The dB’s had ever made it onto Top 40 radio, “Bad Reputation” would sandwich nicely between The Cars’ “Dangerous Type” and Gary Newman’s “Cars.” Slashing guitars collide with swirly keys, serpentine bass lines, a snappy beat and growly vocals. Lyrics offer caustic take on sexual hypocrisy: “She sleeps around so they say, so do they of course, but she’s got a bad reputation/They say you’ve got a bad reputation, but I say it’s their imagination, you’re an angel, they say you get off on frustration, but I know you’ve got an explanation, you’re an angel.” The calibrated chaos of the break is powered by Fuzz-crusted guitars and cacophonous toy piano notes.

The action slows on a couple of tracks. “She’s Not Worried” exudes a gossamer grace that echoes Pet Sounds era Beach Boys and Odessey and Oracle era Zombies. Airy harmonies are tethered to fluttery keys, hypnotic bass runs, squiggly guitars and a rat-a-tat beat. Lyrics pay homage to an uncomplicated girl that makes no demands: “Sometimes I don’t say the silly words she wants to hear, but you know they’re always on my mind and it’s so fine.” The break is a bit of a Baroque hoedown, as thready keys lattice shuddery guitars and a ticklish beat.

Then there’s the gauzy soundscape of “Moving In Your Sleep.” Descending piano notes envelope slinky guitars. corkscrew bass and a tumbling backbeat. The vocals shapeshift between Doo-Wop grandeur and Big Star-style melancholia. Happiness proves elusive: “I tried to call you, but I couldn’t reach you, and I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried and I tried, there may come a day when you’ll remember me, remember me, now I’m leaving tomorrow for parts unknown, there may come a day when I must go away from here, remember me, remember me.” A Sitar-iffic guitar and plaintive piano execute a restless pas de deux on the break.

Other interesting tracks include the caffeinated crunch of “I’m In Love,” and the staticky stealth of “Espionage.” The record’s magnum opus is “Jerkin’ The Tears.” Vibrato keys partner with rumbling bass, percolating percussion, sidewinder guitars and a jittery beat. Bellicose lyrics split the difference between a sideways homage to onanism and combative declaration of love: “Are the boys gonna cry now? Yeah, they’re jerkin’ the tears, and you’ve made up your mind, you’re gonna be yours, lots of things gonna change now… Now they’re moving in circles, are they dancing in spheres? And we’ve made up my mind, we’re gonna be ours, lots of things are deranged now, lots of things looking strange now.”

The album closes with the tender mea culpa, “Judy.” Burnished guitars connect with angular bass lines, and a heartbreak beat. But it’s all too little, too late: “And now I know what I did to you was less than fair, and once hearts are broken they can’t be repaired, Judy, Judy, I didn’t know what I was looking for until I lost you, now all I do here anymore is sit by the phone and listen to the door, and hope it’s you and we can be like we were before, but I blew it and I knew it and I know it, still you’ll always be my Judy, Judy.” A sunshiny guitar solo on the break nearly washes away the ache. It’s a bittersweet finish to a brilliant debut.

Revisiting this revolutionary record 40 years on, it clearly drafts off innovative trailblazers like The Beatles and Big Star. But there are also trace elements of angular aggressors like Television and The Feelies. It even presages the idiosyncrasies of Robyn Hitchcock’s solo career and the assured ascendence of R.E.M.

It’s no surprise that Stands For DeciBels made it into the record collections of future hit-makers like The Smithereens, Matthew Sweet and the Fountains Of Wayne. The dB’s were always ahead of the curve, crafting a crackling set of concise classics that feel ripe for rediscovery.