(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

History lesson: Dramarama, Hi-Fi Sci-Fi (1993)

The gatekeepers of mega-fame said, "no" and the band rocked on

The music industry is ruled by accidents more than talent. Thousands of brilliant bands never make it out of their hometowns. The ones that make it into a studio often watch their creative babies languish for lack of attention. Dramarama was poised to be just another example when they were accidentally discovered by KROQ-FM’s Rodney Bingenheimer in the mid-‘80s. The Replacements-like sound of “Anything Anything (I’ll Give You)” from 1985’s Cinéma Vérité introduced them to L.A.’s radio market and then to national attention. A new record deal followed and things looked bright for the band.

They seemed ready for the leap. Lead singer/songwriter John Easdale had a way with snappy, droll lyrics and could deliver them with attitude. His personality struck a chord with the times; he was a bit of a smart ass, but clever and funny. The band’s sound was rooted in the classic rock of the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, colored by glam band flash, and decanted into an updated punk attitude. But the luck that got them their break deserted them before they really scored. The band filled several albums with strong songs like “Last Cigarette” and “Haven’t Got a Clue”, which helped build an audience but they couldn’t translate that into widespread national success. Instead, they stayed trapped in the college radio ghetto, which adored quirky, witty bands like Dramarama, Doug and the Slugs, and the Pursuit of Happiness. These groups could develop cult followings and even slip a song or two into mainstream rotation, but they didn’t have the formula to break out. And when a band like R.E.M. did make the jump to the big time, the reasons remained an inexplicable mystery. But each random success served as intermittent reinforcement to keep the others trying.

By the time they released Hi-Fi Sci-Fi, the band was getting desperate; time was running out to capitalize on their earlier successes. The album emphasizes a harder grind than their earlier work, as if to translate energy into audience enthusiasm. Many of the songs reflect Easdale’s frustration with the music industry and its obsession with getting big returns on little investment and less artistic merit. This led to morose tracks like “Senseless Fun”. The down tempo beat and defeatist lyrics express the pointless pursuit of stardom: “And every time we load the gun/ And say that this one is the one/ It’s senseless fun/ Disappointed.” On “Work for Food”, he paints a picture of himself as a damaged, homeless burnout carrying the reminders of his failed career among the cans and other detritus filling his shopping cart. Despite the pathos, though, the music rescues the mood with a hyperactive beat that gives strength to Easdale’s defiant assertion, “I deny a problem with my attitude/ ‘Cause I will work for food/ Yeah, I keep on rollin’.” That statement perfectly sums up Dramarama’s deeper truth. They may sneer and complain, but they keep on rolling, working hard to impress the gatekeepers in the music business and reach a larger audience. That resilient undercurrent keeps Hi-Fi Sci-Fi from falling into a downward spiral, driven by the band’s depression. They may plea “Where’s the Manual?” and offer weary doubts on “Late Night Phone Call”, but they also strut through “Bad Seed” with a convincing brag, “I’m a one man army, I’m the King of Hearts/ I’m like a Shaolin master of the martial arts.”

Revisiting these songs, I’m struck by how they show off Easdale’s pragmatic perspective. Even their collection of anti-drug songs on the second half avoids preaching. Instead, they deliver a straight-edge message on “Prayer” with nervous energy and a Keith Richards-inspired guitar solo. The punchy “Don’t Feel Like Doing Drugs” uses sarcasm to deflect peer pressure, “Always looking for an alibi/ A sad excuse, but what’s the use?/ Come to think of it, it never crossed my mind/ ‘Just say no.’ Duh,” The autobiographical feel is refreshingly ambivalent.

Of course, Hi-Fi Sci-Fi didn’t become a rallying cry for the band. Instead, it was their swan song. Between their label, Chameleon, going under and apathetic radio support, Dramarama read the writing on the wall and called it quits in 1994. It would take almost a decade and VH1’s “Bands Reunited” show before they officially came together again in 2003. Their one newer album, everybody dies (2005), captured their old sound fairly well. But despite the reboot and continuing to tour, the band is more or less in the same place they were at the time of their 1994 breakup; they have a small cult of rabid fans and little mainstream presence.

Twenty years after its release, the album stands as a testament to the band’s wit, energy and earnestness. The production is a bit lush by modern standards and sound effects like the street ambiance intro on “Work for Food” are fairly passé, but there’s a timeless aspect to their heads-down rock ‘n’ roll and dogged fight against the odds. Their influences, like the Rolling Stones and the New York Dolls, still hold sway in today’s indie scene, so Hi-Fi Sci-Fi doesn’t sound as outdated as it might. When I listen to recent bands like White Denim, the Henry Clay People, or Team Spirit, I can hear the echoes of Dramarama. Unfortunately, hard work, catchy lyrics, cathartic rock, and scattered pockets of fandom aren’t driving huge market success for those groups either. Instead, their best hope comes from the random luck of a viral video or hip commercial. Some things never change.
(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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