Chris Stamey’s “A Spy In The House Of Loud” Is An Unusual, And Excellent, Artist’s Memoir

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It makes sense that Chris Stamey named his band The dBs, because he’s always been intrigued by the technical aspects of making music.

Stands For Decibels was this seminal New York-by-way-of-Winston-Salem band’s first album, and perhaps Stamey’s best song on it was “Cycles Per Second,” both reference points to music making.  So it makes sense that in his new book A Spy In The House Of Loud, Stamey doesn’t merely write about his bands, he writes about how they made records.  Even if you’re not a gear head, it’s fun, because he’s an engaging writer and he really was in the right place at the right time.

To place him in his proper coordinates, Chris Stamey came to New York midway through the ’70s and saw Television, often, in their earliest CBGB incarnations, quickly figured out the world was changing and that he wanted to play a role.  By 1978, he’d teamed up with fellow Southerner Alex Chilton in his post-Big Star solo foray.  Chilton and Television’s Richard Lloyd played on Stamey’s excellent initial singles, before he put together the dBs with fellow North Carolinians Will Rigby, Gene Holder, and Peter Holsapple.

If you were there at the time, and I was, the dBs were a remarkable anomaly in New York. An experimental pop band with an ear for the kind of radio hits their progenitors Big Star should have had, they existed in that post-first wave CBGB bands environment in which you could see, over successive nights, No Wave bands like DNA, the newest British important (from Gang of Four to XTC, Magazine to the Soft Boys), bands from L.A. like X, and Lou Reid’s latest incarnation.  New York was the center of the rock’n’roll world and the dBs were just slightly off kilter from the environment around them — excellent musicians with jangling guitars and a tight, propulsive rhythm section, two singer-songwriters vying for dominance, and a Farfisa adding color. They never quite made it, and some of it — explained in Stamey’s book — flowed from how they were never quite able to capture on vinyl — yeah, vinyl — that stage set that could bring down Hurrah or other clubs of the day.

Stamey went on to be a charter member of the Golden Palominos and release a number of solo albums, including one of the highlights of the 1980s, It’s Alright. Over time, as he moved back to North Carolina and raised a family, his influence on contemporary music shifted from musician to being the producer on several of the best albums of the age, particularly Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac, and Alejandro Escovedo’s A Man Under The Influence.  Most recently, it was Stamey who put together, following Chilton’s 2010 death, that series of all-star shows playing Big Star’s Sister Lovers, also known as Third.  In fact, Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Third Live is one of the most remarkable documents of recent years, with Jeff Tweedy, Ira Kaplan, Robyn Hitchcock and so many more playing the music from this greatest of American artists of the ’70s and beyond.

And now Stamey has written a book.  A Spy In The House of Loud is fascinating reading for anyone who’s ever wanted to understand what happened when a new set of bands displaced the rot in Rock Music in the punk and post-punk era.  Stamey’s a musician and a fan, and he writes of his contemporaries with a rock critic’s eye.  But he also ably captures what happened when making albums shifted from an analog to a digital process — and all that got lost along the way.

Chris Stamey will read from his book at Politics and Prose in D.C. this coming Sunday, June 17th at 3:00 PM.

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