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Meanwhile, Peter Holsapple had disbanded his Chapel Hill group The H-Bombs, which included future Lets Active leader Mitch Easter. (His 45 "Big Black Truck" b/w "Death Garage"/"96-Second Blowout" was released on Car in early 1978.) Peter moved to Memphis around the same time that The dBs started. He didnt find much of a music scene there, although he did record a version of "Bad Reputation" at Sam Phillips Studios, engineered and with drums by Richard Rosebrough (whod played on the second and third Big Star albums). In his short time in Memphis Peter managed to survive simultaneous strikes by the police and fire departments.
He moved to New York in October after receiving an invitation to audition on organ (the model being Elvis Costellos Attractions) and guitar with Chris Stamey and the dBs. The first show with the four-man lineup was at Irving Plaza on the last weekend of October, on a bill with the Fleshtones and others.
At first it was unclear whether Peter would remain with the band or start his own. A deal between Ork Records and Warner Brothers UK subsidiary included an offer to record a Peter Holsapple single and a Chris Stamey and the dBs 45. Recording began in late 78 at Blue Rock studio in Soho. Alan Betrock was to co-produce with Chris. By the time a few tracks had been put down the record deal had evaporated. Betrock lined up financing to continue recording as an album project, but the money (and studio time) came sporadically over the next year and a half.
That left plenty of time to work up new songs and play gigs. Rehearsal space was loaned to the band in the back of the Fifth Avenue office of New York Rocker, the local music monthly. Peter quickly became an integral member of the band. A series of demos were recorded on four-track there; these recordings appeared fifteen years later on Ride the Wild TomTom. Gigs in those days were at Maxs, Irving Plaza, CBGB, Maxwells, Squat Theatre, Tier 3, Mudd Club, parties, anywhere even a show at Studio 10, which was the Yippies fire-trap loft at 10 Bleecker.
There was quite a bit of experimentation. Chris in particular was committed to continuing the idea of expanding the boundaries of rock music, and with the members collective talent songs were variously arranged and rearranged to incorporate ideas from formal training, jazz, disco (to the extent of four-on-the-floor bass drum, then becoming ubiquitous across the musical landscape), lots of covers, and garage rock. Also employed were short pastiche (such as the one-minute version of Pink Floyds "Interstellar Overdrive" or the one-time-only attempt to have each member simultaneously play a different Television song), whispered parts, complicated time-signature shifts and unusual stops, a determination to use improvisation and chance in ways unlike typical guitar-solo rock, and a sense of humor that was perhaps too subtle at times and too obvious at others.
The dBs played their first North Carolina show at the end of 1978, at the Philosophers Club in their collective hometown of Winston-Salem. This was their first gig outside the New York/Philadelphia region.
In 1979 the success of the Knack was followed by a rush to sign bands with short, fast pop-rock songs and skinny ties. The dBs cant claim never to have worn any skinny ties, but didnt fit in musically or imagewise with the narrow-minded search for the next Knack. No doubt some worthwhile bands benefited long enough from this extremely short-lived fad to make at least one album; The dBs were passed over by record companies. In the long run this was for the best, because the "new wave"/"power pop" hype quickly fell flat before an unimpressed public, without diverting The dBs from their less easily pigeonholed path.
The dBs almost certainly played Hurrah more than any other band. This "rock disco" on W. 62nd Street had a short life as a trendy place to see and be seen. The New York debuts of The Cure and The Psychedelic Furs were at Hurrah; The dBs opened there for the Only Ones, the Records, and Wreckless Eric. For reasons unknown to the band, the late Ruth Polsky, who booked the club, took a shine to The dBs and they played there frequently, even reluctantly filling in at the last minute for Joy Division, whose Ian Curtis committed suicide days before their scheduled show (not that their fans came expecting to see them; it was a rather joyless occasion, no pun intended).
Another club at the time, on West Broadway below Canal, Tier 3 was the scene of some spirited dBs shows. This tiny bar had a rather egalitarian management with ties to the London rock community, enabling them to book bands that could have played larger places, including the Slits and the Soft Boys. Amy McMahon, who years later became Wills wife and now records as Amy Rigby (although they are no longer married), worked at Tier 3. Georgia Hubley, later of Yo La Tengo, and her sister Emily, who made the first dBs video and has become an animator of renown, first met members of the band there at a dBs gig. Management difficulties led to the early departure from the scene of one of the most fun rock clubs of the time.
Maxwells, across the Hudson River in Hoboken, started booking bands in 1978. The dBs were among the very first, even playing there before the music room in the back was opened, and continued to through 1987. Many memorable dBs shows took place there. Chris and Peter eventually lived in Hoboken (and much later so did Gene, who still does), and that, along with the frequency with which the band played there, led to the band sometimes being lumped in with the "Hoboken Sound," a rather ill-defined term that included bands as diverse as the Feelies and the Bongos and was in some quarters a pejorative description.
(The fact that The dBs all hailed originally from North Carolina was another longtime source of confusion among both fans and music writers; occasionally they were even billed by unknowledgeable promoters as being a North Carolina band.)
Memorable guest appearances with The dBs in 1979 included Richard Lloyd joining in on a one-time-only performance of Les McCann and Eddie Harris "Compared to What" at CBGB, in the process melting beyond repair the circuit board of Genes vintage Rickenbacker amp; and not one but two performances, at Maxs and CBGB, backing Bobby "Boris" Pickett on "Monster Mash."
Some of the first out-of-town shows were in Allentown, PA at two different clubs in the same building. The names have been lost to time, but one was up two or three flights of (outdoor) stairs, up and down which the gear had to be hauled. Philadelphia, Boston and Mt. Vernon (just north of NYC) were also played in this early period.
Another memorable show in 1979 was M-80, a festival (perhaps the first, at least on US soil, to concentrate on the new rock) in Minneapolis that also featured Devo (under the pseudonym Dove), the Fleshtones, the Contortions, Richard Lloyd, Gary Valentine and the Know, the Suicide Commandos, and a host of others, many of them local Minnesota bands. Due to wet weather, what had been intended to be an outdoor show was moved into a huge indoor ROTC exercise building roughly resembling an airplane hangar with a dirt floor. M-80 would probably have attracted substantial national notice but for the unhappy and unplanned coincidence of being on the same weekend as the MUSE concerts in New York City, which had major stars about whom the mainstream media were more comfortable reporting.