With all the pieces now in place, Dramarama — specifically, Carter, Easdale, Englert, Peter Wood, and Ronny Machuga — began writing and recording songs at Looney Tunez.
Chris Carter: We had this basement in the store that we could all hang out in. We started the band down there because we had a free place to practice. Looking back, our first recordings were there. We had some guy we were sharing space with who had a reel-to-reel player, real primitive stuff. We were putting stuff onto reel-to-reel tapes.
Mark Englert: We didn’t have very much in the way of instruments. But this guy, Jerry, whose stage name was Bolt, because he actually had a lightning bolt dyed into his hair, had very good equipment. Marshall half stacks, Gibson … a lot of stuff that, to me, was a big thing. I couldn’t afford a Les Paul — I had real shit equipment — so when Jerry wasn’t practicing, we’d squeeze in a practice. We learned how to get stuff moving forward at Looney Tunez.
Chris Carter: I think we all wanted to be songwriters. I wrote one or two in the beginning, but then we realized we had one of the greats in our midst. We didn’t know until we started to hear John’s songs, like how good they were. He played off of us. He knew our taste and what we liked.
John Easdale: We put out a 45 that had “A Fine Example”, “Femme Fatale”, and a song called “You Drive Me”. That came out the same year they sold the record store, so around ’82, but it probably actually came out the beginning of ’83. We made the 7″ ourselves. We went down to the factory ourselves and put it out.
Mark Englert: There was one moment where we were trying to conceptualize the 45 cover, and it involved a record pressing plant out on Long Island. I had to go out there, but a big horrific snowstorm was coming through, and I ended up sleeping on the Cross Bronx Expressway that night. I was driving a 1973 Ford Maverick, which had been leaking gas, and I basically got there on next to nothing and then got stuck because the bridge had shut down.
John Easdale: I don’t think the 45 was big anywhere outside of our families’ houses. But we were lucky enough to get a review in the Trouser Press magazine, and there was a DJ in France, Jose Ruiz, who contacted us because he read the review and he was playing us on his radio show in France. We then went into the studio to record what basically turned out to be the first half of Cinéma Vérité, a 12″ called Comedy.
Chris Carter: The Comedy EP was our first time really, really going into the studio for any given time. We had a little bit more time, and we figured these were the days you could make an EP. We didn’t know what we were doing. We had no distribution whatsoever. We just wanted to make a record. We paid for it ourselves. We couldn’t even afford four colors on it.
John Easdale: We recorded the EP at the Barge. It was a studio in Wayne owned by a guy named Jim Barg, and we added the silent E to call it the Barge, but it was just in the basement of his mom and dad’s house.
Chris Carter: The Barge was a guy’s house that looked like, if you were driving down the street, any other house. It wasn’t like, “Oh, there’s a recording studio!” You went in to his house — he had a sliding door — and instead of going into a house, you had a recording studio. There was a couch, he had a big huge board, it was happening. It was happening for 1984. Just like any studio, you’d walk out of the mixing room and into the recording room. He would have baffles up. There was a big piano over here. The drums would go over there. It was like anything. The Stones and Sticky Fingers was no different, you know what I mean, like when they were at Muscle Shoals or something? This was the same deal. Big room. You never knew you were in a house.
Of course, it was when you left and you’re back in your neighborhood. John’s house was down the street and his mother would call to him for dinner. They were literally two blocks away. You knew you were in the neighborhood. It was cool because we didn’t have to go anywhere. We didn’t have to drive into New York and pay some crazy prices. And the guy, Jim Barge, had some actual real records recorded there. There was this band called City Boy, who were signed to Mercury at the time. They did their fourth album there. Some guy from Rainbow had just been in there. Real people with real careers with real record companies were making records there. We were at a good place.
Mark Englert: I probably haven’t heard the Comedy record since it was pressed, but I would imagine that there were a lot of tracks that were recorded over, so in a sense, Comedy would be the demo of Cinéma Vérité in that way.
Chris Carter: There were five songs that ended up on the album. You had “Visiting the Zoo”, “Transformation”, “Femme Fatale”, “All I Want” and “Emerald City”. The record came out good, the actual vinyl, and the label looked pretty professional. It was pretty classy the way you could look at the label and the sleeve and everything. Again, we did it all ourselves. We wanted to have a record in our hands and say it was us. The next one was Cinéma Vérité.
John Easdale: The same DJ in France hooked us up with this weird little French label, New Rose, which was based out of a Paris record store kind of like what Looney Tunez was like. They mainly put out American music by artists that really didn’t do well in America. Johnny Thunders couldn’t get signed on a solo deal, but they would jump at the chance to put out the solo Johnny Thunders album.
They put out the Cramps. They put out The Replacements’ Let It Be, and they put out a bunch of other things. They put out Alex Chilton solo albums. They had the Comedy EP and were like, “We’ll give you a thousand dollars to go in to add six more songs to make it a full album,” and so that was what we did.
Chris Carter: We returned to [the Barge] for Cinéma Vérité. I remember we were there like a week straight. I remember going every morning or afternoon, showing up. It was studio time.
John Easdale: We spent like $100 an hour, we probably spent $1000 recording, I would say $4000 to record the records. But in those days, it was imperative to have a real studio with a real recording machine that would cost you $50,000. It wasn’t like now where anybody can make an album on their laptop. We were still starving and working day jobs in New Jersey. Chris was working at a record distributor after he sold the store. Mark and I were both working at a record store called Discomat.
So, through ’83 and ’84, we continued to work at record stores and work three jobs and try to play original music in clubs, which wasn’t what was going on at the time in New Jersey. Most of the clubs had cover bands. It was strictly a labor of love and something that we spent our money on, you know, like a hobby. Nothing that we had any hopes of success. Even after the record came out in France, I still worked at the record store. I remember working there when Robert Christgau wrote a really nice review for the Village Voice and gave [the album] an A–.
Robert Christgau (Village Voice album review, 1985): “In these days of acoustic punks and live Paul Revere elpees, six guys who salute their roots with Reed and Bowie covers are like unto a breath of springtime — and so unfashionable that though they reside in Wayne, New Jersey, they had to put out their album in Paris, France. One John Easdale would seem to be the auteur, if you’ll pardon my French. Sounds a little like Richard Butler without the delusions of Vaughan Monroe, and the main things he has going for him are an acerbic but not self-serving way of describing his woman problems and a band that rocks without hyphens — in other words, plenty.”
John Easdale: I always figured that guys who would get an A- from Robert Christgau weren’t still working at the record store. It’s always kind of been weird for me. Imagination is never the same as reality.
Mark Englert: We played a Dobro bar in Patterson, New Jersey, and played a couple of shitholes like that around the area. Success didn’t really come through until we made our way out to the west coast.
Chris Carter: You had to bring pizza otherwise you couldn’t come to the studio. That’s why we would have so many people. It was a way to eat. That’s what Pat Pearson, artist liaison, that’s what he did. He worked in a pizza place. He would bring us, literally, pizza every day.
John Easdale: We would save our pennies and dimes, go in the studio, and spend a weekend in the studio.
Mark Englert: Chris said we needed money to record, and I remember actually taking my student loan and saying, “Here ya go,” not realizing you gotta pay that back later. So that’s not the best idea financially, but at the time, you’re young, you’re ambitious. This was my education. I would never advise anybody to do that with their student loans today.
John Easdale: At that time, we had another new drummer, whose name was Jesse [Farbman]. On the Comedy EP, there’s like three or four drummers, and then there’s one more when Jesse joins, so there’s four or five drummers on Cinéma Vérité, including me. I play drums on “Visiting the Zoo”, and I’m not sure what else.
Chris Carter: “Visiting a Zoo” was our starting song. That’s where we started when we were playing the strip bar in Patterson, New Jersey, before we moved to California. That was our starting song and John would come out. We tried to play it like the Psychedelic Furs. That’s one of my favorite songs ever to play.
John Easdale: The versions on Comedy and Cinéma Vérité are really different. I remember Mark going in and overdubbing guitar on “Visiting the Zoo”. He was overdubbing to the mixed two-track, not to the multi-track. They’re slightly different recordings. They’re the same basic tracks, but there’s a little weirdness that we added, for that song in particular — mostly instrumental passages at the end.
Chris Carter: Honestly, if you asked me to pick a single, I probably would have went with “Scenario”. That’s a great one.
John Easdale: I think we had already worked out “Scenario” in the rehearsal space or onstage as opposed to “Anything, Anything” and “Punishment”; both of those were songs we were working on in the studio.
Chris Carter: John would listen to what we were creaming over in the back of the van or what me and Pat Pearson were listening to and he would just slyly listen to it and never get as excited as we would about any new band. Yet, I knew he was listening because we would get these songs. “Oh, ‘Scenario’, it’s the Furs. You guys like the Church and you like the Furs, alright, here ya go.”
We would subconsciously think, Yeah it does sound like that. John’s no dummy. He knew what was happening musically because he was surrounded by it. He was surrounded by every new record that was coming out. He had this gang of guys around him and one of us would be listening to it. He didn’t like everything we liked, but you could tell with songs like that where it was coming from.
John Easdale: It’s hard to get the players to play it the way you hear it in your head, but most of the time, it was pretty effortless. We all grew up together. You would say, “Play like Johnny Thunders. Play like Mick Ronson. Play like, you know, Ace Frehley from KISS.” And Mark would know what I was talking about. Chris and I, we were always big music fans.
Mark Englert: At the end of “Scenario”, I was playing at different octave points on the actual solo part, which John whistled to me. I had figured out the first part of the lead and John was like, “Why don’t you play these notes in the second bar?” He whistled to me the notes. So if you listen to the song, there was an octave thing that goes on the first five, the second point the leads were played in unison together.
John Easdale: Everyone thought “Anything, Anything” sucked really bad because it was the same chorus over and over. There was no warm up, so they didn’t know what I was going to do. Like when we were going over songs that could be on the album, they were like, “Oh, yeah, that one,” until I sang it, and then they were like, “Oh, wow.” There’s no parts, no verse-chorus. There’s no changes, just full chords. If you listen to the version on the bonus tracks of Cinéma Vérité, the “Punishment” song, you can hear me instructing the band how to play it.
Chris Carter: I could be 100% wrong, but I feel like I remember doing “Anything, Anything” at the end of recording and just having the music and never knowing what was going to be sung over it. It was just four chords. And then John singing it.
John Easdale: I wrote the song in the studio. I had the words and the chords. It was based on true events in our life. We were all living together in an apartment in Lodi, New Jersey, and then I married a little girl; it was literally like her 18th birthday the day I married her. We waited until she was 18 because then she could make the decision as an adult and her father couldn’t come after me.
We got married, she worked at McDonald’s, I was the assistant cassette manager at Discomat, and we moved into an apartment together. Not a one bedroom, a one-room apartment that was in the same building the rest of the band was living in — we were geniuses.
We had fights, and one night a fight brought her dad to the house with a gun. I was looking up at his gun. I was on my knees crying. I was not a movie star, or a hero, so I didn’t try to kick it out of his hand or punch him. I fell to my knees and cried, “I love your daughter.” She jumped on him.
I don’t recommend any of this to young newlyweds. The song definitely reflects the tumultuous times and the ridiculousness and the craziness of that moment. I don’t know how and I don’t know why it resonates in a way no other song I’ve ever written has. But, that’s what that song is about.
Chris Carter: I remember mixing “Anything, Anything”, again I could be wrong, but I’m thinking it was Christmas time or something. I remember being at the Barge with Jim. There was nobody else around. We just whipped it together real quick, that mix. I remember Mark’s guitar made that noise when you pushed it, you get that feedback and the reverb on the amp. And that’s that thing during the bass part. I remember putting that in there. It was a mistake. I think he hit an amp. I don’t think he did it on purpose. I mean why would he?
Mark Englert: I won’t blow that whole thing by telling you that my hand was just actually off the string and I had this thing called an effect rack, and I did what you weren’t supposed to do: I turned up the overall volume of the effect rack that made my amp distort. I’d have these sound engineers say to me, “You know your effects rack is clipping the guitar amp?” I didn’t know what that meant. I just felt that, “Hey, if I turn this up, I get a lot of distortion.”
Chris Carter: All I know is it sounded cool. I remember making the call with somebody else. Should that be in there? I hope we don’t get in trouble for leaving that in there.
Mark Englert: One of the things that was a bitch to me was that click track. I couldn’t dial in. I actually ended up borrowing that from the Barge and ended up practicing. That I can remember. You gotta think, too, that the studio was by the hour so you had to make every minute count. So, I’m sure in one sense it was a couple hours here, a couple of hours there trying to put it together. From my point of view, there was also the ego attached to it. I wanted to be the big cheese with all the guitar playing even though I wasn’t. Unfortunately for Peter, I was focused in getting my sound on there.
That’s how I ended up doing a lot of the tracks on “Anything, Anything”. Getting that thing all set up and the sound effects that went with it, again that was all based on the effect rack, which was a multi-effects unit. That was before you could have foot pedals set up for that. I think we lost that in the south of France somewhere. A bunch of equipment got set up there and left behind. That was life on the road.
Chris Carter: There’s a reason you got two guitar players; you don’t want them to do the same thing. Listen to the way “Anything, Anything” starts. That’s Peter. He plays that like a clock. He plays that the same way every single time. Thank God Peter starts that song, you know. Marky would give it something different every night. He’s like Leslie West [of Mountain]: “Tonight, we’re going to play it like this.” It was unpredictable.
Mark Englert: Peter was a better guitarist than I was. He was Mr. Stable and Steady and that’s kind of how it goes. The young ego in me would say that’s not true, but the thing is Peter really was a better rhythm guitar player in terms of that. But on my end, I was more like the saxophone player of the orchestra, if you will. I could improvise like it’s nobody’s business, and it would just come off the top like, “Where’d that come from?” It came from the inspiration of the moment. That was really my strong point.
Interestingly, “Anything, Anything”, for the longest stretch, was always four of us making the audience work and letting me take a break because I would play the notes pretty much the same but at the end there was always a thing where John would just jump off the stage, so there was actually room to improvise. I never felt like the guy who plays a million notes a second because I’d do that a lot during the show, so basically I would try to stick more to the punk roots and play notes that counted more.
John Easdale: Muddy [Shoes] and the backup singers are all on “Femme Fatale”, which we wanted it to be the song that it ultimately became, which was what carried us from a 45 to a 12” to an album. But we also knew that people would be listening to it because if they were like us, they were Lou Reed guys, they were Velvets guys, you know. We didn’t want it to suck and none of us could play the piano. Those guys, Butch [Justin] and Nick [Celeste], were our friends and they had their own band.
Chris Carter: I always made us do covers because I thought if you could put one cover on the record, that might lead a listener to where you’re coming from. If I knew a band did a T. Rex cover or if I knew some band did an obscure Mott the Hoople song, I would love that band before I even knew about them. Or I would know about them and see if I could love them. But at least something led me to them as opposed to the 14th original song you could put on the record, you know what I mean?
You got 13 originals, you got 10 originals. Whatever, put an Ian Hunter song on there, and you’ll get a whole bunch of fans that you might not ever have just because you did that. It’s like The Beatles putting on Chuck Berry. We want you to know we dig him. We would put a Patti Smith song on an album. We would put whoever we thought was cool. That was definitely purposely done. We did Bowie and Lou Reed on the first album for Christ’s sake. We did two!
John Easdale: We were Bowie nuts, as much as you could be back then.
Chris Carter: “Femme Fatale” came out when, ’66, ’67? Now, it seems like it was a hit song and you wouldn’t want to cover that, but at the time it was really unknown — and it was such a pretty song. It was so different. And that was the thing about the Velvets that we loved. For all the danger they were supposedly involved with, they had such beautiful music, and at times, some great songwriting. So, we just wanted to give a nod to what we were all about. John loved these songs. I guess I picked them, but I would make sure to pick songs John wouldn’t say no to.
Mark Englert: The first Lou Reed composition I ever heard was the song “Heroin”. I thought this was the most amazing tune. Rock & Roll Animal, that’s the version I heard. As I got more and more into the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, I completely fell under the spell of his songwriting.
Chris Carter: As for “Candidate”, that’s a section of a song. It’s in a song called “Sweet Thing”. Let’s fuck with everybody and instead of doing “Rebel, Rebel”, let’s do this. And that was my favorite part of Diamond Dogs. I loved that. It was a guilty pleasure. I just wanted to play it. I just wanted to hear it. And Marky would play that intro so perfect that we just had to do it. I don’t remember anybody ever complaining. Pete, for instance, might not have had Diamond Dogs, but Marky and John did, and they were huge into it. We were all on the same page.
Mark Englert: If they had an idea, I would just kind of go with it. “The Candidate” was pretty much Chris saying he wanted to take the middle part of this song and make it its own song. Same thing with “Femme Fatale”. They knew the songs but they didn’t know the chords. More or less, I gave them the song structure and then they just took it and made it their own.
Chris Carter: I knew what it would do and it did. There are compilation CDs of all the cool Bowie covers, and you’ll find it there. And it’s in Bowie books. Oh, yeah, Dramarama covered “Candidate” on their New Rose record.
John Easdale: Bowie kept changing and doing different things at a period of my life when I was very impressionable, basically the ’70s. He went through such a wide variety of mutations in a sense, from the musical styles and the fashion and the look. No one compares to David Bowie.
Chris Carter: I loved “Transformation”. I thought we recorded that really well. Listen to the air between the guitars. There’s a lot of space and everything sounds really balanced well. It’s completely unlike “Anything, Anything”. You can tell it’s the same band, but musically it’s a whole different ballgame. Which is good. Mark and Pete were so different you could use them that way, almost pit them against each other. Pete’s rhythm is really great when Mark is playing a lead, and then Pete’s lead on top of Mark’s rhythm sounds completely different. Then you can blend them together. It’s really great having two completely different guitar players in the same band. You just have to use it properly.
Mark Englert: I recorded all my tracks in four days, but I didn’t practice. I just came down there and improvised. Peter practiced a lot on lead. As far as arrangements go, I would have to say that “Transformation” was certainly built on the fact that that’s how Peter kind of operates. “Anything, Anything”, I just willfully jumped in there and said, “Let me start this one off.” The same thing with “All I Want”.
Chris Carter: “All I Want” and “Emerald City” couldn’t be farther apart. That’s what we loved. We loved the White Album mindset, where you could have “Helter Skelter” and “Martha, My Dear Blues” and “Mother Nature’s Son” from the same band. That’s where we come from. You don’t have to sound like The Beatles to do that; that’s just kind of your blueprint. That’s what all the bands and artists we liked did. It wasn’t all Ramones. We’re going to do every song. This is what we sound like, like it or not. Boom. We had all kinds of different styles, yet it was all kind of rooted in one place.
Mark Englert: On “All I Want”, I kept hearing this guitar note that fed back on a higher thing, but I couldn’t get the guitar to actually feedback because I couldn’t get the thing to kick in. I could now. I think what Jim [Barge] did was he recorded the feedback. It was like looping it back on tape. It was our version of cut and paste. You can hear it in the beginning of “All I Want” where that feedback was kind of going on already there. That was my biggest thing at that point.
Chris Carter: “Some Crazy Dame” is kind of like “Scenario” on steroids. It’s that same pulsating verse only it’s more rock and roll. Me and Pete were into the Furs big time and we would do that, you know. We would get that rhythmic pulsating thing going, which is what they kind of did. We just did it louder. “Etc.” was a bitch of a song for me to play the bass on. I remember hating to do that. It was a weird record. It had so many different styles.
Mark Englert: A lot of time was also surrendering authority to John and Chris. There were times they were in the studio and I wasn’t necessarily there because that’s when they started to exert their authority a little bit more.
Chris Carter: More than my talents as a bass player, my real talent, if I had one, would be listening and knowing what sounds right where and when and what not to do. When we grew up making records, it was a dodgy era — it was a horrible time. Snare drums sounded like shit. Everything was horrible. Bruce Springsteen records in the ’80s. Anybody. Even The Replacements. I cringe every time I have to hear great songs with shitty drum sounds.
Whatever band we liked, that awful snare drum would creep in. That’s the way the studios were then. If you were signed to a label, they made it sound like that. I hated it. We hated it. So thank god, when you listen to Dramarama’s body of work, aside from maybe Box Office Bomb, it doesn’t sound overly dated. Which is the case for a lot of records that we liked back then that I can’t listen to now. Strictly because of the production.
It’s like a painting. You almost know how it’s supposed to go; you just have to get it there. It is pretty basic stuff. You’ve heard it a gazillion times. You kind of play live and you keep bass and drums. If you got a good guitar track, great, because there’s nothing better than the live feel. We recorded like that pretty much throughout our whole career. We were basically doing it live and then the overdubs, the keyboards, vocals, and extra guitar parts come later. It’s pretty standard fare. We’re not like Genesis where everybody would go in and spend a week on each part. We were pretty much a 1-2-3-take band.