The dBs, Marti Jones, Don Dixon, Mitch Easter
Some classic, lost alt-rock sounds
The dB’s were one of those bands that should have been at the top of the pile for their time period. Not for hit records, they were never going to achieve that in the early eighties, but as one of the great pop bands to come down the pike (like Buzzcocks). They had the yin and yang that groups with two great songwriters often do, with Peter Holsapple writing the more traditional song structures from the Beatles school, while Chris Stamey wrote songs that were a bit more off-kilter, something like early Andy Partridge with a Steve Diggle edge. But it's more complex when you have two self-contained songwriters who come together in a band as a matter of convenience rather than a songwriting team in the Lennon/McCartney, Difford/Tilbrook mode.
The dB’s were really a southern band, part of the jangle pop fog that shrouded the American southland in the closing decades of the 1970s and the dawning of the eighties. All of the original band members were from North Carolina, but the group convened and started gigging in New York City. Yet the spirit of Winston-Salem was never far away, as Mitch Easter, leader of Let's Active and owner of the famous Drive In Recording Studio would soon get together with Don Dixon to produce the first two records by a new band from Athens, Georgia: REM.
Let's Active and the dB’s are both links in the chain between the slanted pop of Big Star and the so-called jangle pop of groups like REM, as well as important elements in the story of alt-college radio programming. College radio became the new underground radio, as FM radio had been at the dawn of the seventies, pushing the envelope of what would be played and demonstrating a sizeable market for new, sometimes experimental, rock and pop music.
Don Dixon had been in a band himself: Arrogance, a longstanding group with enormous regional success that recorded six albums and yet never broke through to a national audience. Arrogance wore its influences on its sleeve, and there can't be much doubt that they were highly influenced by the music they heard around them, but they also fly the flag of the eclectic mixed bag championed by The Band, soon to be known as Americana. There's also the influence of Buffalo Springfield, CSN, and Workingman's Dead era Grateful Dead. In '82 Dixon got a call from Mitch Easter suggesting he help produce REM's initial recordings. It was a case of the band's aesthetic matching that of Easter and Dixon. Dixon told The Washington Post that he and Easter didn't see the need to change much of what the group was doing, instead feeling a sense of protection towards the band.
"We did add an underpinning, a substrata to hold it together and make it sound like something more than just another guitar, bass and drums band," said Dixon. "There's all kinds of found art on those records: slowed-down tapes of them playing pool, noises coming in and out, additional guitars. It's not like we sat around and talked about it for months; we did it as we did it, which is still my approach to producing."
Following his time in Arrogance and his REM production work with Easter, Dixon continued to produce projects for other acts, including Guadalcanal Diary, The Smithereens, Marshall Crenshaw, and the dBs’ Chris Stamey. During this time Dixon would note the work of other songwriters, what made their songs tick, all the while writing songs himself and entering into collaborations with other artists, most notably Marti Jones.
Marti Jones came from Uniontown, Ohio, near Akron. In the late seventies the largely industrial area became a hot bed for new wave and experimental rock and roll, spawning a variety of bands including Pere Ubu, Lene Lovich, Rachel Sweet, The Waitresses, and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. It was also home to Liam Sternberg, a songwriter and producer, who used Jones as a singer on a demo tape and recommended she join the group Color Me Gone, who were looking for a singer. The group recorded an EP, but nothing really came of that.
In 1985, Jones was signed to A&M Records and recruited Dixon as producer. The match was a heavenly one. Dixon seemed to grasp the ways that Jones' voice was both clear as a bell, yet also vulnerable, and he supplied the textures to support her readings of the various songs. Jones was an interpretive singer, a role that had fallen out of favor in the sixties and seventies, when writing one's own material was essential to a proper career. The most successful interpretive singers I can think of in this ear are Linda Ronstadt and Dusty Springfield. Both were attuned to songwriters whose work fell into their sweet spot vocally and provided an emotional edge they could work with.
For Jones that included writers like Elvis Costello, Richard Barone, Dwight Twilley, and Marshall Crenshaw. On her debut, Unsophisticated Time, Jones covers two songs by Peter Holsapple, and recorded by the dBs. The first, leading off the album, is "Lonely Is As Lonely Does," a song from the 1984 dBs release Like This, the first release by the band without Stamey. The results are a predictable swing to a less stylistically diverse band as Holsapple was now the sole writer. But the production is also uncharacteristically flat. They were aiming for wider success, but this particular song lacks the punch that Jones and Dixon give it. Still, it's a beautiful song that demonstrates as well as anything Holsapple's link to the more cosmic aspects of Big Star, a more soft focus version of jangle pop that's directly relateable to the work of REM and Mitch Easter.
Dixon and Jones give manage to combine synth and drum machine with piano and a cello line worthy of George Martin, along with Marti's vocals, to create an arrangement that conveys the feeling behind the song elegantly and clearly.
The other track Jones does on Unsophisticated Time is "Neverland" from the original group's second album, Reverberation. This one has straightforward rock energy and Jones doesn't mess with that energy but Dixon's production is quite similar to the sound he and Easter created as 'underpinning' for REM.
Recently the original video that was shot by Phil Marino for 'Neverland' was discovered and posted online. Marino used some stills in creating the cover for the Reverberation album, then lost touch with the band. The footage lay forgotten until a chance encounter put Marino back into the band's orb it, leading to the recovery of some archival footage. The band was on the way towards mainstream success, but ended up sidetracked by a label that didn't issue their first records in the U.S. when it might have helped, the rejection of the video for 'Amplifier' due to its suicide theme, and the departure of Stamey.
Holsapple and company returned the following year with Like This, which included "Lonely Is as Lonely Does" as well as a re-recorded version of 'Amplifier,' but just like that the moment had passed them by.
Marti Jones didn't fare much better, but has maintained her career, both with and without Dixon, by gaining a reputation as a solid live performer. She is also an accomplished artist whose work regularly sells to collectors. Jones' first two solo records, Unsophisticated Time and Match Game, both originally released by A&M, are the gold standard for her albums, though if you enjoy her voice and delivery, there is something charming on every one of her recordings.
In October 2021, Propeller Sound Recordings released the dBs anthology I Thought You Wanted to Know: 1978--1981. Consisting of remastered early singles, demos, and live recordings, it is likened by Holsapple to "home and field recordings of the dBs" recorded between their arrival in New York and the sessions for their debut album. It's an essential piece of the dBs puzzle, connecting the band to their North Carolina roots and making clear their contributions to the sounds of REM and future jangle pop bands.
Burt Bacharach, 1928—2023
I have to acknowledge the death of Burt Bacharach today, but of course it is much too soon for me to get my thoughts and information together to write about the loss. Burt was a bridge between Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and the pop/rock music stage. His work with Elvis Costello is being honored with the release of The Songs of Bacharach & Costello on March 3. The set collects all of the songs that the two songwriters wrote, including the complete Painted from Memory. Here, from that album, is “In the Darkest Place”
Subscribe Now for My Life in the Cutout Bins
The first installment of ‘My Life in the Cutout Bins’ will premiere next week for paying subscribers. These pieces are based on records that I bought in the cutout bins of local record stores between roughly 1975—1995. I’ll be writing about the records themselves, the artists, where and why I bought it and where it fit into my musical development. Along the way we’ll touch on the experience of growing up in the suburbs during the seventies and eighties and how music helped me in so many ways.
Paying subscribers will receive drafts of these pieces with the intention that they will be developed into a print book to be published in 2024. Subscribers will have the opportunity to offer their comments and suggestions regarding the pieces as well as their own thoughts and memories about the records covered.
As always, you can support my work with a free subscription or by sharing my work with others.
100% agree that The dB's should've been more popular than they are.
There are worse legacies than being "one of your favorite band's favorite bands," but it's hard to argue that much of the late 80's college rock/power pop landscape would still look the same without tracks like "A Spy in the House of Love."