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TURNS OF WORDPLAY AND WIT : Dramarama Keeps on Spinning Ideas Into Albums, but Can't Crack the MTV Rotation

January 06, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition

Dramarama's records keep getting better and better, while its luck keeps getting worse and worse.

As a songwriting and recording unit, the Southern California rock band has been doing all anyone can ask.

Dramarama has put out albums in each odd-numbered year since 1985. All five have had their share of memorable melodies, and the band's sound has gotten progressively tougher, culminating in a powerful 1993 release, "Hi-Fi Sci-Fi." John Easdale, the singer and main songwriter, dwells primarily on themes of fear, loathing and desperation, but typically enlivens his material with turns of wordplay and wit.

Some critics have downgraded the band for being tied too closely to the sound of such influences as the New York Dolls, David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and the Stooges. There's no doubt that Dramarama's members pay close heed to their record collection--something perhaps inevitable for a band that got its start in the basement of a New Jersey record shop run by a couple of the members.

But, even while it remains the rock band most likely to quote a classic Rolling Stones guitar solo verbatim, Dramarama uses its borrowings knowingly and intelligently. It may not have an original sound, but originality is an elusive grail in a genre as basic as guitar-oriented rock. The songs achieve something equally important: a sense that the band is looking at the world in a way that is personal, imaginative and very much its own.

But a distinctive songwriting style is no guarantee of heavy rotation on MTV.

Dramarama got an early career boost when "Anything, Anything (I'll Give You)," a song from its self-financed debut album, became a staple on KROQ. Thus encouraged, Dramarama relocated from Wayne, N.J., to Los Angeles in 1986.

By mid-1988, the band had broken up after failing to land a record deal. But the members thought better of it, regrouped, and landed a deal with an independent label, Chameleon. In 1989, the album "Stuck in Wonderamaland" finally won Dramarama a national cult following to go with its staunch Southern California backing. "Vinyl" (1991) was a strong bid for a commercial breakthrough; when that bid failed, band members groused openly about Chameleon's promotional efforts. "Hi-Fi Sci-Fi" was an even stronger bid (with new drummer Clem Burke, formerly of Blondie, joining the longstanding lineup of Easdale, bassist Chris Carter and guitarists Peter Wood and Mark (Mr. E) Englert). Again, though, the hoped-for commercial break didn't come. Now, however, there is no record company to complain about, Chameleon having gone out of business a few months after the album's release.

That leaves Dramarama to face another test of its already much-tested perseverance. Right now it can enjoy the comforts of home: The band is winding up a series of Southern California concerts with a double-header Saturday night at the Coach House. Dramarama will play "unplugged" during an early show, then crank up the volume for the night owls.

As for the future, maybe the group should try putting out an album in an even-numbered year. History suggests that the odds are not in this band's favor.

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