It’s well-established by now that rock snobs love to talk about bands that you’ve never heard of, and it’s almost as widely known that this practice is done in the interest of making said snob look superior vis-à-vis people who are too wrapped up in their girlfriends, good jobs, physical beauty, and self-esteem to have discovered who Lydia Lunch is. While I’ve engaged in this on more occasions than I dare admit in public, certain bands just draw the nastiness out of me while others elicit a certain sad tenderness for whatever poor soul I’m talking to. The calculus of the underlying system behind these varying reactions baffles even me, so in lieu of a thesis, here are a few examples. Don’t know who Tom Waits is? Talk to the hand, hoochie mama! Never listened to the Velvet Underground? Time for some unilateral regime change on your ass! Haven’t heard of the dB’s? Well, now, that’s understandable. Please sit down while I tell you the tale of the greatest band that you’ve never heard of.
This quartet of North Carolina exports made their way to New York City to make it in the rock and roll business, and like countless others, they didn’t. The lack of interest stateside led them to sign with the British label Albion, which put out the record discussed here, Stands for deciBels. In a better world, this debut would’ve put them on a level with the Sex Pistols, the Band, and Brian Eno. In this world, it made them just another fetish for the rock cultists, but if they came out today and were given the attention they always deserved, the dB’s would sound just as startling, fresh, and innovative as they must have to the lucky few that heard them the first time around.
That’s not mere idle praise. The dB’s were pushing in a direction that pop music should’ve followed in the wake of punk but didn’t. When everyone else was infatuated with tinny synthesizers and flattened emotions, the dB’s dared to keep the focus squarely on their guitars and their wildly emotional vocals. About a decade after the album’s release, Kurt Cobain made distorted sludge the requisite sound for the next few generations of rock music, and today, the clean, frantic sound of Stands for deciBels still sounds like the greatest cure for post-Nirvana malaise. And best of all, at a time when we expect art with a capital “A” to be serious as cancer (i.e., Radiohead [and no, that isn’t supposed to be “e.g.”]), principle songwriters Peter Holsapple and especially Chris Stamey sound like lost revolutionaries for suggesting through the mists of time that creativity might actually be fun.
Stamey’s much-vaunted experimental side grabs a lot of the attention with its odd twists and textures, but both he and Holsapple studied their Big Star records and knew how much credit they could earn with solid craft. As commentators have noted elsewhere, Stands for deciBels blends experimentation with pure catchiness in a way that few other records have been able to do, managing to deepen the legacy of Big Star and the Beach Boys rather than simply rehashing it like the Gin Blossoms. “We realized that what we were doing was in no way totally original”, remarked Holsapple. “But it didn’t seem like anyone else was writing or arranging stuff the way we were”. That no one was accounts for their relative obscurity but also makes a strong case for the brilliance of their vision.
I know what you’re thinking. “Mr. Critic, this sounds good in theory and all, but do they have the songs?” Boy howdy, did these guys have the songs! I won’t do a song-by-song rundown of all the tracks since that’s time you could spend better by buying the album, but a few honorable mentions should sufficiently whet your appetite. “Black and White” has some of the most breathless guitar playing this reviewer has ever heard, sounding frenzied rather than aggressive, which is good. “Cycles Per Second” could’ve been a lost track from Eno’s Before and After Science, which is also good. “Moving in Your Sleep” would’ve done Big Star proud. And my personal favorite, “Bad Reputation”, is the best encapsulation of being attracted to a slut because she’s a slut while trying to convince yourself that she’s not a slut that I’m aware of. What could be better? In all honesty, not much.