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John Easdale of Dramarama

By Gary Wien

John Easdale of Dramarama

Dramarama was an explosive live band that recorded several brilliant records during the late 80s and early 90s.  The band was formed by a group of guys from Wayne, New Jersey who moved out to California around the time they were signed to their first record deal.  Even while they were living on the West Coast the band played a major role in an emerging alternative rock scene along the Jersey Shore.  With sold out shows at clubs like the Green Parrot, the Fastlane and the Stone Pony, Dramarama became one of the most popular bands of its day.

Unfortunately, the rest of the country (with the exception of California) never took to the band the same way.  Although Dramarama songs have reached near classic levels in the alternative music world, the band never achieved the success or recognition they were due.  But to the fans that packed each show along the Jersey Shore, Dramarama will always be one of the greatest bands that nobody knows.

Let’s start with today.  What do you do at Network Magazine Group?

I am the senior editor here.

I guess that takes up a lot of your time...

Unfortunately, it does.  After the band played what proved to be its final show at the Stone Pony in 1994, I took about a year off, I kind of stepped away from being in a rock group.  Then I got back into this place by producing a radio show for the company that was hosted by Johnny Rotten called “Rotten Day.”  I produced that show for about two years and then saw the writing on the wall for that to be going away.  So, I kind of like jumped into editing and I’ve been here a total of nearly eight years.

And you still have the John Easdale Band.  Is that basically whenever you feel like doing a gig?

No, it’s way more about when people ask.  For the last few years we’ve actually been, I guess, playing on our popularity in the Central Jersey region.  We’ve played every May... the first weekend in May.

That’s the Surf Club in Ortley Beach.

Yeah, opening the season for them for a couple of years.

You’ve also come back for some birthday shows...

And I’ve come out for several birthday shows.  What really got me back into playing or even considering playing was doing a show for the station down there, which I always consider an Asbury Park station, WHTG.  For years that station played music and was very influential on things that were going on down in that area.

WHTG listeners have consistently voted songs like “Anything, Anything” and “Last Cigarette” among their all-time favorites.

Wow!  I wasn’t sure because I knew they had gone more right of center.  I haven’t been in contact with them since the new people bought it.  That’s fantastic! That’s certainly very flattering and gratifying.

How are the shows with the John Easdale Band different from the Dramarama days?

Umm, I don’t think the crowd or the artist is different except that maybe he’s not drunk off his ass anymore!

Little older... little wiser?

Yeah, that’s the thing.  As far as the crowd out there, whenever we’ve played and whenever there was a place to play in Asbury Park we’ve always continued.  The John Easdale Band played there as well.  I was calling my band the Newcomers for a while.  The last few times I’ve been out there I’ve been using Jersey guys to play with.

I used to go to concerts down the Shore in the mid to late 70s.  All kinds of great shows were down there after the Springsteen era when the boardwalk was still open and it was still happening.  Then when we started playing there with Dramarama it became a decidedly quiet town, more like Bruce Springsteen’s video for “Atlantic City.” A really kind of  dark and scary place.  We were down there on the 4th of July one year at the Pony and it was empty.  The entire city was like a ghost town.

The good thing is that it’s finally showing signs of coming back.

Well, I certainly saw last year’s big Bruce send-off and that was refreshing.  I didn’t watch the whole “Today Show” so I don’t know if they actually focused on the positive or the negatives of the city.  It really is a bizarre kind of thing.  It had such history and was such a cool place with the boardwalk and the rides. I think it had a lot to do with narcotics and stuff.

And corruption...

Yeah or lack of corruption, you know? No one was paying to keep the place clean anymore.  And that’s me using my “Simpsons” kind of logic.  It’s like the boys moved out of town, go ahead it’s a free for all! Because the boys run the boardwalks, the coliseums, the stadiums, the jukeboxes and the pizza boxes.

What do you remember about those early Fastlane shows?

I remember everything about them.  They were always very well attended, great crowds.  When we were growing up in New Jersey we never played down in Asbury Park.  It was at that point when the Springsteen thing had passed and the originals thing hadn’t taken off.  It was more of a cover band scene when we were growing up.  We were an original band, so we played up in North Jersey in Passaic and any dive that would have us, places like the Dirt Club.

When we moved to California our record came out and WHTG came on the air.  We came back and first played a place called the Green Parrot.  That was our reintroduction into New Jersey via California after we started making records.  Originally, the Asbury Park scene was closed to us if you will.  It was far away and it wasn’t a thriving original scene in the early 80s.

What did you think of the Green Parrot club?

We had a wonderful, wonderful time there.  We had magnificent shows, always well attended and enthusiastic crowds that wouldn’t let us leave.  We had to keep coming back.  That was one of the few places where we would get called back for encores that weren’t planned.  We loved it!

It was like a house, you know? Actually, it was like going home.  You’d go upstairs and go into the little rooms.  That was a different kind of club than the Pony or Fastlane.

Did you guys feel a part of that local music scene at the Parrot?

I was stunned and shocked.  It had a lot to do with a guy named Matt Pinfield and Mike Marrone and the guys who worked at WHTG.  Obviously, they made us a part of that scene by including us because we were from Jersey.  Even though we lived in California we never became an L.A. band, I don’t think.  We always felt like we were from Jersey.  When we lost a guy we tried to get somebody from Jersey.  It’s very much always been a part of us.  It’s where we’re from and it’s what we’re a part of.  I have a very warm spot in my heart and I love it dearly.  If I hadn’t come out here and married and had four children I would be back there.

What is it like for you to come back for a birthday show?

It’s heartwarming, it’s delightful - those cliche words that they use on

television shows.  It’s the most wonderful kind of feeling because everyone’s really just so welcoming.  I like the relationship that I have with the people who like my music.  I’m very fortunate that there are people like that. 

I try to be as non-showbiz as possible because I’m so aware of it,  especially working at the trade magazine and seeing all the stuff that goes on in the business.  Coming here to work I didn’t so much learn a lot as have a lot of my suspicions confirmed about the way things go.  As much as I felt what happened to our band and our story was very unique with our battles with the labels and the ups and downs - the fact that we had a career at all, much less that we did accomplish as much as we did and the fact that 20 years later you and me are talking about it and that they’re playing it on the radio is so miraculous.  I often say that it’s easier to win the lottery than to make a living playing guitar.

For people in NJ and the LA area, it’s hard to fathom why Dramarama didn’t become a bigger band.  The albums still stand up.

That’s very kind of you to say.  What’s funny is that we’re gonna be like the New York Dolls, a band that never sold any records but influenced a lot of people.  Everyone loves the Dolls.  Everyone loves Dramarama.  But when we made records no one really went out in droves and bought them, which is not all bad.  Sometimes you’re ahead of your time.  And I’ve got to think that was the case rather than we just sucked or something.

Why do you think Dramarama never reached that final level?

There are hundreds of reasons, thousands of reasons, and none of them have anything to do with the quality of the music.  First and foremost, most of the time we were totally independent.  The first three albums we released basically on our own.  The 4th and 5th albums were released through Elektra but through a subsidiary called Chameleon, which was owned by this really rich guy who had bought the independent record label we were part of and dropped every band but us.

I mean, your book is about New Jersey and Asbury Park.  You know what? New Jersey and Asbury Park never let us down and we always had extreme popularity there.  I can still go there and get a crowd of people to show up.  It’s fantastic!  The rest of the country was a couple of years behind.  They started listening to rock music in the early 90s when Nirvana came out.  Whether it was the Cure, Depeche Mode or anything else it was considered old as far as radio was concerned.  Very few bands that were having hits in the 80s survived the cresting of that wave.

I’d much prefer to think about the amazing thing as to why we did what we did.  I think it’s the music.  Luckily, we based everything we did on our music.  We weren’t really of a time.  It’s not like you listen to that record and say “oh, that sounds so much like 1985 or 1989 or whatever.” Not that it sounds so great or so modern, it’s just not dated so much hopefully.

What do you think of the label alternative music?

Well, it meant a lot more then.  None of that stuff had any outlet in New York City. Bands played shows there but there was no radio station playing that music except for college stations and WHTG.  So, every band would come to New York and then take a ride to Asbury Park to visit Matt Pinfield or whoever was on the air.  That’s why Asbury Park had such an amazing spotlight on that scene that a lot of the rest of the country didn’t get.  A lot of those bands had an entire North American tour consisting of a gig in Manhattan and the Pony or Fastlane.  That was their trip.  There was no reason to go anywhere else because no one knew who they were.

One other thing about alternative music was you had a radio station that was unlike any other radio station in any major market in the country except for KROQ.  KROQ was unique for many years until Nirvana came along and then all of a sudden there was 100 modern rock stations.  You had people listening to that music and that influences people in an area. 

I think alternative itself was alternative until grunge came along. Alternative meant something that wasn’t popular particularly, something that wasn’t mainstream.  Something that was an alternative to the

mainstream.  Now it’s become a branding/marketing tool that is targeted at the mainstream.  It’s a word that they use that doesn’t mean the actual meaning of the word because I don’t know how you could be less alternative than U2 or No Doubt doing the Super Bowl halftime show.  What’s that the alternative to? Jazz music? Classical music? I guess it’s not alternative anymore at all.

Dramarama had a pair of final shows, which have been called the band’s funerals.  What do you remember about those shows?

Every show Dramarama did in New Jersey except for the tent show was unspeakably hot.  It was ridiculous.  I remember having to stop that particular show in New Jersey and go outside and breathe for two minutes because I was suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion, I think.  I almost passed out.  We were all soaking wet as was the crowd.  It was a wonderful thing.  Actually, that was the first time I had cut my hair.  I had short hair at that show for the first time in God knows how long.  I’d been long-haired forever!

Every time we played in Asbury... every time we played in New Jersey it was so much better than any other show we ever did in California or anywhere else in the country.  There was something just wonderful and heartwarming, it felt like being at home.  It felt like going home and we were welcomed like the prodigal sons. 

That show, in particular, was pretty much our last show and we knew it was gonna be.  The other one in California I don’t know that everyone knew it was going to be the last show at that point.  We were still trying to do something at that point.  It was like our last effort.  The California show was in April.  The Jersey show was in July and by that time we had pretty much called it quits and knew it was going to be our last hurrah.  So, that had a lot to do with that final show being maybe more of a funeral.  Well, more of a wake I hope, more of an Irish wake than a very dark thing.  They’re always celebrations and always really cool.  The only time I ever crowd surfed and ever stage-dived was out there.  It had been the type of experience to enable me to do that.  I’m just so lucky to have been able to experience all that shit.

Why did Dramarama break up?

It was way more to do with the industry than it had to do with the music or the people in the band.  It seemed as if the time had come.  We had discussed it before, when we were on our last tour and we were still our own record label, about how we were fighting a losing battle.  And realistically we got more of a shot than most bands get because we did it ourselves for so long. 

Our first major label record was our 4th album and we got to do another one after that.  But we ran into the same kind of things that a lot of bands run into when they deal with major labels.  And also because we had been spoiled by doing it ourselves for so long that we had our own ideas about how things get done.

My recommendation to any band that ever gets signed is shut up and let the label do what they want.  You write the music, deliver the record, the greatest record you possibly can, and then just sit back.  Don’t say “I don’t like that pick for the single” because maybe the record company can’t guarantee that they can make it a hit but they can sure as hell guarantee that it won’t be a hit.  

Do you have a particular favorite album by Dramarama?

No, not really.  I like them all.  There’s certain ones that are more embarrassing than others and certain ones that I wish I could go back and fix.  They’re like photographs of a time.  You can remember entire periods of your life just as with anybody’s favorite and I can remember parts of my life from looking back at those albums too.  We always tried to have different styles on every record.  We never wanted a sameness from beginning to end, never wanted a sound that was the sound.

What would you like people to remember about Dramarama?

It’s all about the music ultimately.  It’ll be 18 years this year that we released “Anything, Anything” on an album.  It came out in 1985 in November in France on a little label.  That was all it was ever going to do and we were so thrilled about that.   And the idea that 18 years later it’s still on the radio is just ridiculous and it has to do with the music. People don’t remember our haircuts or clothing.  People don’t remember anything about us except for our songs, which is pretty cool.  I’ll take that over being remembered because I had a funny haircut in the 80s or wore some goofy clothes in a video.  I don’t mind not being part of that whole 80s nostalgia wave.  There’s all these 80s albums that come out we’re not on them and I’m thrilled about that.  The greatest compliment and the greatest reward is that anybody still cares.  It’s just so cool.

originally published: 2017-01-26 19:47:02

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