Grounded in the timeless twin aesthetics of pop art and power pop, Dramarama was nevertheless a star-crossed combo, out of synch with both the mainstream rock audience and the music business throughout its career. Formed in the basement of a collectors’ record shop in Wayne, New Jersey, at the turn of the ’80s, the band applied the brash energy of ’70s punk and glitter-rock to the glamorous propulsion and romantic irony of David Bowie and the Velvet Underground. With the exception of the 1985 track “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You),” a modern-rock radio fave in LA for years, Dramarama never escaped the critical-acclaim ghetto. But it is a tribute to a potent sound and enthusiastic vision that Dramarama still sounds as fresh and sharp now as when it first emerged during the corporate-rock bloat of the mid-’80s.
Produced by bassist Chris Carter and singer/songwriter John Easdale, Cinéma Vérité is an album of drawn-out vintage. Five tracks originally appeared on the Comedy EP, issued in 1984 on the band’s own Questionmark label. One of those five numbers, a beautiful-loser’s reading of the Velvets’ “Femme Fatale,” had first surfaced on Dramarama’s ’83 independent debut single. The other six songs were recorded after the French label New Rose commissioned a full-length album. For all its mixed parentage, though, Cinéma Vérité is an assured statement of refined style and desperate purpose. While Easdale’s burnt-heart romanticism in songs like “Some Crazy Dame” and “Questions?” suggest Jonathan Richman by way of Raymond Chandler, the Britpop gleam and Jersey bar-band crackle in the guitars of Peter Wood and Mark Englert (aka Mr. E Boy) evoke the power-chord thrills of Mott the Hoople and the New York Dolls. And in “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You),” Dramarama bottle that contagious tension with car- radio finesse. (The 1995 Rhino reissue adds eight bonus tracks: demos and the two originals, “You Drive Me” and “A Fine Example,” that appeared on the 1983 single.)
Dramarama’s identification with the beautiful and the doomed intensifies on the prophetically titled Box Office Bomb, recorded after a move to Los Angeles. The cover model is actress Jayne Mansfield (on Cinéma Vérité pride of place went to Warhol starlet Edie Sedgwick), “Spare Change” is lovingly modeled on the Stooges’ kamikaze anthem “Search and Destroy” and the suffocating smog of broken promises and glittery jive in LA is perfectly captured with sunshine hooks and dark humor in “It’s Still Warm.” While Box Office Bomb suffers slightly from pressed-for-time-and-money production, “Modesty Personified” still has plenty of Blondiesque bite, and the sextet invigorates Easdale’s vengeful frustration in “Whenever I’m With Her” (“Sorry I bit her…”) with hothouse guitar drama. (Box Office Bomb…Plus has six bonus tracks: three demos, a B- side, a European track and an alternate version of “It’s Still Warm.”)
A spinning-wheel feeling characterizes Stuck in Wonderamaland, right from the opening sardonic strum’n’moan of “Wonderamaland.” (Note the literal echoes of Bob Dylan’s acrid “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”) Dramarama cranks up “Last Cigarette” with the bohemian garage-band attitude of Cinéma Vérité; Easdale nails his sense of stasis in grungy microcosm with an ode to late-night reruns, “70’s TV.” Too bad the album’s engineer and co-producer Val Garay (Ringo Starr, the Motels) felt it necessary to streamline the life out of much of the material-good songs, cool cover choice (Mott’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother”), but not enough grit to draw blood. The spitfire performances on the mini- album Live at the China Club (originally a promo disc entitled Live in Wonderamaland) show how the album might have sounded with its rough edges intact.
Dramarama recorded Vinyl under trying circumstances, temporarily replacing departed drummer Jesse (no surname) with Brian Macleod of Wire Train and session vet Jim Keltner. Midway through the sessions, the band’s label declared bankruptcy (a distribution deal with Elektra saved the day). But Dramarama’s dry wit and love of pop iconography remained intact. They welcomed the CD age with a record named after a vanishing species, 12-inch wax, and recruited former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor to play lead and slide guitar on the acerbic “Classic Rot.” Spikier and more consistent than Wonderamaland, Vinyl juxtaposes sweet’n’sour Beatle-isms (“What Are We Gonna Do?”) with high-stepping paranoia (“I’ve Got Spies”) and edgy psychedelia (“Tiny Candles”).
The band broke up a year after the release of Hi-Fi Sci-Fi, but Dramarama went down fighting, with new drummer Clem Burke (ex-Blondie) jacking up the backbeat. Hi-Fi Sci-Fi is, in fact, Dramarama’s tightest and hardest-rocking album. The toll of a decade’s worth of bum luck and near-misses come to a boil on “Work for Food” and the slam-bam wakeup call “Don’t Feel Like Doing Drugs”; even jangly melancholia like “Incredible” packs a subtle but memorable sting.
For a group that had so much trouble getting — and keeping — a major-label deal, Dramarama produced a high volume of worthy ephemera. The Days of Wayne and Roses is a fan-club CD of early demos and hip covers dating back to 1981; one song was actually cut in the basement of that Wayne, New Jersey, record store! (Eight of those tracks wound up among the bonuses appended to the two 1995 Rhino reissues.) The Bent-Backed Tulips release is a pseudonymous 1989 album, originally issued in Europe, containing eleven orphan tracks from the Wonderamaland era. The eggBERT CD version is fattened with nine additional cuts and there isn’t a bummer in the whole bunch. File next to other worthy odds’n’sods classics like Elvis Costello’s Taking Liberties and The Great Lost Kinks Album.