For such a small state, New Jersey has managed to produce a disproportionately large number of great recording artists. All but a few states in the union would be envious to claim the Feelies, Smithereens, Shirelles, Misfits, Four Seasons, Adrenalin O.D., Gaslight Anthem, Ricky Nelson, Frank Sinatra, and Bruce Springsteen as their own. So if Dramarama easily rates as one of Jersey’s ten greatest bands ever, that’s no small feat. Originally based out of the town of Wayne (home to, among others, boxing trainer great Lou Duva, infamous “reality TV” star Danielle Staub, and a fellow named George Washington), Dramarama eventually relocated to L.A. and took the world by storm. Okay, so they didn’t quite take the world by storm. But they should have, and at the very least they scored the all-time most requested song on legendary L.A alternative rock station KROQ, the blistering anthem “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)”. And while it was hardly a chart dominator, the band’s debut album was probably as good as any rock album released in 1985. In a truly epic year for below-ground guitar rock albums (Husker Du’s New Day Rising and Flip Your Whig, the Replacements’ Tim, REM’s Fables of the Reconstruction, The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder, the Meat Puppets' Up on the Sun, to name a few), Cinema Verite rated up there with all of the above.
Rooted in the Bowie/Lou Reed/Ian Hunter strain of glam rock, informed by early ‘80s new wave, and infused with the simple hooks of classic punk and power pop, Dramarama’s sound was unlike any other band’s. John Easdale was one of the finest songwriters of his day or any other, and he was backed by a hard-rocking quintet that would have made Mott the Hoople or the ‘70s Stones proud. Part Brit-pop revivalists, part Jersey bar blasters, and part Hollywood club scene rock stars, Dramarama had the radio-ready hits and buzzworthy live act that ought to have propelled them to international fame. No matter that they didn’t – the songs hold up regardless. The Rhino best-of comp 18 Big Ones is pure gold all the way through and belongs in the collection of anyone who’s got taste. But the albums are great as well, and none are greater than Cinema Verite.
“Anything Anything (“I’ll Give You)” qualifies as a “classic” by even the most stringent application of the term. In its account of impetuous young love’s de-evolution into an acrimonious and ill-fated marriage, perhaps it qualifies as the most realistic love song ever written. Beyond that, it’s a killer rock n’ roll tune, propelled by Easdale’s impassioned vocal delivery and the fine guitar work of Peter Wood and Mr. E Boy, who go off like a new wave Thunders and Sylvain. Completely different, but equally great, is the melancholy pop tune “Scenario”, which somehow sounds uniquely Dramarama-ish even though it blatantly rips off the Psychedelic Furs. Hands down, it’s my fave Dramarama song (“Sister’s in the everglades/Mother swallows razor blades/Father makes the flags for all the Labor Day parades” - Where did he come up with this stuff?). It seems unforgivable that “Questions?” was left off the Rhino comp. It’s classic Easdale – the song’s narrator confronting an ex-girlfriend’s new man (“Does she make you buy her jewelry?/Does she speak to you in tongues?/Does she tell you about her brother/Who's got liquid in his lungs?”), his anguish conveyed not just through words but also a despairing vocal tone. The cliché about broken hearts is that they sometimes give us classic songs, and no doubt this classic song was inspired by real-life heartbreak. And if I call the guitar work “Clapton-esque”, do I mean it as a compliment? Yes! Elsewhere the band takes on jangle pop (“Transformation”), ballads (the marvelous “Emerald City”), glam rock standards (the Velvets’ “Femme Fatale” and the Bowie obscurity “Candidate”), and straight-up punk rock (“All I Want”), coming up aces all the while. Whether you think of Easdale as a poor man’s Paul Westerberg, a modern-day Ian Hunter, or a masculine David Bowie, no doubt it’s his growling voice and brilliant lyrics that really bring Cinema Verite to life. The men backing him are fantastic as well, and bassist Chris Carter’s no-frills production effectively marries Dramarama’s bar band roots to its pop art sensibilities.
Dramarama would record four more studio albums before calling it quits in 1994 (only to be famously reunited on a VH1 TV show a decade later). It is this writer’s humble opinion that all five pre-breakup LPs are must-owns. The Rhino comp, as good as it is, will not suffice even for the most casual fan. When you’re talking about a songwriting talent as prodigious and inimitable as John Easdale, an 18-song sampling only scratches the surface. You gotta go catalog with Dramarama. Stuck in Wonderamaland, if only for its outstanding cover of Mott the Hoople’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother” (a rendition so poignant it made my cry the first five times I heard it), earns serious consideration as the very first Dramarama album you should buy. But Cinema Verite edges it out. If you're a fan of good music, you really need to own it.