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Going (Back) Underground 

Peter Holsapple examines the comprehensive Rhino Records box set, Left of the Dial, and recalls life in the '80s indie-rock scene.

Rhino Records' 2003 release, No Thanks! The '70s Punk Revolution, documents a period when bands took a brick to pop/rock music and the industry that created it. The set's four discs collected more (and less) successful attempts to imagine another kind of pop, one that valued individuality over the generic. This fall's Left of the Dial: Dispatches From the '80s Underground picks up the story as bands and small companies tried to emulate the establishment, but with the values of punk.

For Peter Holsapple, it was an exciting time to make music. The former Continental Drifter and hired musical gun who played keyboards with R.E.M. on the Green tour, Holsapple was one of the founding members of the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based band the dB's, along with Chris Stamey, Gene Holder and Will Rigby. The Holsapple-penned song "Amplifier," included on Left of the Dial, is about a girlfriend leaving and taking everything but the protagonist's amp. "That's the song that'll be on my tombstone, but it's tough because Chris wrote the lion's share of the first two records," he says.

Living in New York City, the band members found themselves in the middle of a number of musical circles. "When we rehearsed in the Music Building on 38th, 39th Street on Eighth Avenue, we had so many people in that building," he recalls. "That's the building Madonna supposedly lived in. Well, who didn't? The Fleshtones had a party in there and filmed one of their Cutting Edge (episodes)" -- the show sponsored by indie-rock label IRS Records, and which Fleshtones singer Peter Zaremba hosted on MTV. "The Del-Lords lived across the hall from us. The first Coyote (Records) studio was over there."

Reflecting over coffee on the box set, Holsapple remembers a lot of bands fondly, declaring them "very, very cool" or "brilliant." He gets almost gushy over Mission of Burma and the Gang of Four, and he can't figure out why Kate Bush was included and Pylon was left off. Bands he's less fond of, he glosses over. For much of the '80s, he also worked at the Musical Maze, a record store in Manhattan, so for bands like Ultravox, he simply says, "We would sell all that stuff. We got the School of Visual Arts crowd bearing their next week's issue of NME saying, 'Why don't you have this yet?'"

He's far more enthusiastic talking about R.E.M., the Athens, Ga.-based band that helped the dB's get on IRS Records right before R.E.M. moved to Warner Brothers. When the band was starting, then-manager Jefferson Holt called Holsapple asking about a place for the band to record, and he recommended Mitch Easter's studio in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Easter, also from Winston-Salem, had moved his recording equipment to New York City. This was before, Holsapple says, "it occurred to him it was sort of insane to have a recording studio in a loft in New York when there are professional recording studios. He moved all his stuff back to Winston-Salem and his parents' garage." It was in that studio that R.E.M. recorded the version of "Radio Free Europe" that appears on Left of the Dial, along with "Sitting Still" and "White Tornado."

He's equally excited talking about the Feelies, whose "Fa Cé-La" is also included. "The best," Holsapple says. "They would only play on national holidays. Why? I don't know. They would play Flag Day; they would play Veterans Day. I assumed that Bill (Million) and Glenn (Mercer) had regular jobs they couldn't get away from, but when they'd play, both of them playing black Les Paul Specials and they're both out there jumping around like spring lambs.

"I loved the later records they did, but the first one, Crazy Rhythms, it's astonishing that people don't see that as more of a pivotal record." Indeed, today the album sounds like a blueprint for indie pop, and it's hard to imagine Pavement existing without it.

Holsapple met some bands under awkward circumstances. "Dave Wakeling (of the English Beat) and I are born on the same day, and one time when we were both on IRS Records, somebody in the Los Angeles office put us on a conference call together to wish each other a happy birthday."

He also recalls when the Los Angeles-based band X first came to New York. "They weren't real friendly that day," Holsapple says. The band had been on the cover of New York Rocker and was anxious about the expectations, being hailed as The Next Big Thing. When Holsapple moved to Los Angeles early in the '90s, he became friends with drummer DJ Bonebrake, who subbed on drums with the Continental Drifters a few times.

The dB's shared bills with many bands on Left of the Dial, but in other cases Holsapple actually played with the bands. He subbed on bass for the Gun Club, for instance, when regular bassist Rob Ritter was stranded in Detroit. "Years later at CBGB's," he says, "[singer Jeffery Lee Pierce] borrowed my guitar for some show we were doing and I got it back and it was just like someone had put caulk all over it. Weird."

Others he met in the studio, like XTC's Andy Partridge, with whom he worked on a Peter Blegvad album. "Andy had tremendous stage fright, like paralyzing stage fright," he recalls.

He met Robyn Hitchcock when he interviewed him for New York Rocker while Hitchcock was a member of the Soft Boys. In 1991, he then played with Hitchcock, Glenn Tillbrook of Squeeze, R.E.M., and Billy Bragg -- who's also on Left of the Dial -- at an acoustic show in London. "It was a very lo-fi, silly kind of show mainly for the fan club," he says. "Then word got out on the streets and things went crazy. They added another night and tickets were scalped for insane prices."

With bands like the Dream Syndicate, the Plimsouls, Let's Active and Concrete Blonde, the dB's shared what Holsapple calls "combo-raderie," bands going through the same challenges and in the same positions in their careers. "I knew Vicki (Peterson) for years before we were in the Drifters because of the Bangles, and we were fans of each others' bands."

Some bands, he remembers briefly:

Green on Red: "I loved that first record, Gravity Talks. It was a weird record because it seemed to get more and more out of tune the closer it got to the label."

The Lyres: "At CBGB's, the whole thing ground to a halt when [singer Jeff Conolly] dropped a contact lens. He had all these chicks down on the ground looking for it."

Jane's Addiction: "This is a weird thing for me because I knew people when I lived in Los Angeles who said, 'Jane's Addiction for me and my generation are like the Beatles are for you and your generation.' That stopped me dead. I wasn't sure what to say from there, but it's good that a band has that sort of reaction, I suppose."

Though much of his time is spent these days on the road or recording with Hootie & the Blowfish -- who periodically encore with the Violent Femmes' "Add It Up," also on Left of the Dial -- Holsapple's also preparing to record again with Chris Stamey for the first time since 1991's Mavericks. "The interaction Chris and I have is pretty splendid, and I'm grateful we're going to start working together again on a fairly regular basis," he says. Still, he's cautious about a full-fledged dB's reunion.

"People say, 'Why don't the dB's get back together?' I'm not absolutely convinced there would be more people today who would know about us."

click to enlarge "['Amplifier'] is the song that'll be on my tombstone, but it's tough because Chris wrote the lion's share of the first two records," former dB Peter Holsapple says of bandmate Chris Stamey.
  • "['Amplifier'] is the song that'll be on my tombstone, but it's tough because Chris wrote the lion's share of the first two records," former dB Peter Holsapple says of bandmate Chris Stamey.
click to enlarge ae_feat-10549.jpeg


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