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Up to mid-1980 the bands performances were limited to the Northeast Corridor and youthful stomping ground of North Carolina. Summer of that year brought what was the first trip that could be called a tour. It was a complicated affair, with gigs scattered all over the US map, dictated by a travel package rather unimaginable today, but these were the wild early years of airline-industry deregulation: fly all you want for a month for a flat fee. The itinerary had to be booked in advance, and most trips required a change of planes in Atlanta.
Not only that, but for the first half of the month the tickets were used by 8-Eyed Spy, so The dBs were flying under the names of members of that band (led by Lydia Lunch and featuring pal George Scott on bass who, while The dBs were flying around using the ticket with his name on it, died in New York of a heroin overdose; Stands for deciBels was dedicated to him). Another restriction was that you couldnt visit the same city twice, so that The dBs could only play the cities the other band hadnt already been to. Nevertheless, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Athens, and Washington saw The dBs for the first time on this trip. And The dBs saw the old Atlanta airport more than they could stand.
"Black and White"/"Soul Kiss" (actually "Soul Kiss parts I and II") appeared early in 1980, the first release on Betrocks new label Shake Records. "Black and White" came from the ongoing album sessions; "Soul Kiss" was recorded separately on eight-track at Zeami Studio. Rave reviews were received in the music press, and the bands following in New York grew steadily.
Albion Records in London had become interested in signing The dBs to a UK recording contract. During the second half of 1980, the first album neared completion as negotiations with Albion Records were wrapped up, new dBs manager Bob Singerman handling the deal. The album was mixed in various locations: a few songs at Power Station in NYC with Scott Litt engineering (and Bruce Springsteen across the hall recording The River), and about half at Mitch Easters still-under-construction Drive-In Studio outside of Winston-Salem.
After the Albion contract was signed, Chris and Gene flew to London that fall to mix the remaining songs at Martin Rushents studio (a few overdubs were done at this time). There was also a pre-release trip by Peter and Chris to London for press purposes.
Stands for deciBels was released to mostly glowing reviews in January 1981. The album came out in the UK, the EEC (now the EU), Japan, and Australia. Plans for a tour of the UK were drawn up to coincide with the release.
Around the same time, first records were appearing by compatriot New York bands including the Fleshtones and RayBeats. Ruth Polsky assembled a show in London to mark the British debuts of several of these bands. That show was dubbed Taking Liberties, and featured The dBs, RayBeats, Fleshtones, Bush Tetras, Bongos, and Polyrock.
Held in Finsbury Parks storied Rainbow Theatre on February 21, the show was something less than an unqualified success: The PA was cobbled together at the last minute, the cavernous theatre was a less than ideal venue (both acoustically and in the size of the crowd), and the management, no doubt due to the unimpressive ticket sales, refused to turn the heat on, so that it was coat weather inside.
However, a good time was had by all, jetlag notwithstanding, and Start Swimming, an album recorded at this show consisting of two tracks each by five of the six bands, was quickly issued on Stiff America. These are the only live tracks by The dBs ever released.
The dBs UK tour, for which the RayBeats were the opening act, played clubs and universities in Guilford, Manchester, Edinburgh, Leeds, Oxford, Liverpool, Birmingham, Brighton, and several venues in London (including the fabled Marquee). This tour had complete sound/lights backline and crew traveling with the bands. Mitch Easter came along on the trip as soundman, adding insect noises and other taped sound effects while at the board mixing shows.
There was also an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, a longtime national live-music show, on which "Big Brown Eyes", "Ph Factor" and "Cycles Per Second" were performed.
A recording session was quickly booked to record a new single, with Roger Bechirian producing. "Judy" was recorded at Nick Lowes studio in a row house in Shepherds Bush. Bechirian had engineered many of the Lowe and Costello recordings at this very studio (at which some of the T.Rex records were done years earlier). The dBs were big fans of these recordings, so working with him seemed a perfect match, and there was talk of him doing the next album if the single went well.
The next stops (travel was by rail) were Amsterdam at the Melkweg (Milky Way) and Stockholm where Stands for deciBels spent a week in the Swedish Top 20, and the band consequently sold out a small hall, the Gota Lejon, to a rapturous reception.
The dBs returned to London and, having worked up parts on the train trip back from Sweden, background vocals were added to "Judy" at a brief session without Bechirian in attendance. The song was mixed at Rushents studio, and a photo session on the roof of the building housing Albions offices used for the picture sleeve. The band was not too happy with the mix, and further work with Bechirian was ruled out.
The single was pressed quickly and Albion put high priority on breaking the single on radio no small challenge in the relatively small world of radio in Britain, where there were hundreds of new acts inspired by the punk and new pop movements of the time. When not much happened for "Judy" on radio, Albion even had a small pressing of DJ copies of the single made with the track sped up slightly, to no different result.
Also on this trip, Peter, Will and Mitch (on bass) recorded three tracks backing Kimberley Rew for his debut single as a solo artist, he having recently quit the Soft Boys. Gene wound up producing these tracks (he and Mitch flipped a coin to choose who would produce and who play bass), his first production credit. The 45 "My Baby Does Her Hairdo Long"/"Fishing" appeared on Armageddon in the UK; a mini-LP released on Armalanta in the US had all three tracks ("Walking in the Dew" being the third) plus tracks with Rew backed by the Soft Boys and the Waves (their first appearance on record).