The Psyclone Rangers: Elvis I'm Scared

Foster Child zine, #17, Sometime in 1994

It wasn't the Breeders who the manager of the San Francisco studio remembered.

Nor was it Dick Dale, who rode into the studio with his surf guitar two weeks prior.

Kurt Cobain, who rolled in the previous week to record some tracks with the Melvins caused no stir.

And those young dudes in Grant Lee Buffalo? Wonderful fellows.

But that band from Allentown, Pennsylvania. . .Who were they? Oh yeah, the Psyclone Rangers. He remembers them all right.

Was it the driving music the manager remembered? The raw guitar sound? The fixation on American icons such as Elvis, JFK, Riot Grrls, Jackie Kennedy, Edie Sedgwick?

No, it was the damn keg of Anchor Steam: A huge, sweaty can of beer soiling his best leather console chair. He was not pleased at all with it, nor with the drunken louts standing around it at the time.

“Who rolled those kegs into the studio?” he bellowed.

Looking back on it, Jonathan Valania, lead singer of the Psyclone Rangers, has a perfectly good explanation.

“San Francisco was expensive as fuck,” he recalled.

“A six-pack of Budweiser was like $6.95 and when you're in one of those studio situations, it becomes apparent after awhile that it is all one big party,” he said.

“. . .on us,” he added.

“There were always plenty of people around to drink beer. It got to the point where buying six-packs became too expensive and so we actually started rolling kegs into the studio. It seemed like a good idea to us,” he said.

After 30 songs were recorded in three days, after two weeks of overdubs, and another half a week worth of mixing time, the Rangers finally took their party back home. And none too soon for the studio manager.

“I'd never want a band like the Pscylone Rangers on my label,” he told the head of the World Domination label, the label to which the Pscylone Rangers were signed, and which is run by Dave Allen, who used to be with Gang of Four and Shriekback.

The story of the soiled leather console chair, of course, doesn't begin in San Francisco. It begins five years previous, at Moravia College, outside Allentown, about 60 miles northeast of Philadelphia. There, potential English professor Jonathan Valania had just gotten tired of academic life. He started hanging out in the area clubs.

Well, the two area clubs. One was The Funhouse, the resident college hipster club. The Funhouse was a rundown bar with a strange Hawaiian motif and a torpedo hanging from the ceiling. The place occasionally featured live music, as did the Four G's, the other local dive, inhabited mostly by Vietnam veterans.

The biggest group of the area, the Original Sins, had gotten some national recognition during the '80s, but they had petered out by that time. Nonetheless, Valania had a vision of leading a band who played basic, stripped-down garage punk-rock.

That he was stuck in the middle of nowhere was just as well.

“I always thought the the most interesting music going on was from bands in Nowheresville,” Valania said. “Isolation [is] the best way of going about creating something, as opposed to always being concerned about the flavor of the month.”

Fortunately, Valania had friends with musical leaning. Scot Danzer played a bit of guitar. Jamie Knerr, whom Valania knew since the second grade, played drums. So they formed a band and practiced in one of the many abandoned warehouses in town, at least before the roof caved in from the snow. They played the Funhouse, the Four G's and traveled to New York and even Philadelphia to gig.

Like any good indie-rock band, they had sent tapes to Sub Pop, Caroline and Top Llama (home of the Young Fresh Fellows). All to no avail.

A break came through a College Music Journal showcase in New York. The band was playing on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. to about 10 people. One of them was a writer for the CMJ. After the show, he and Valania started talking. Turned out, the writer knew someone starting a label and looking for new bands.

“Uh-huh” thought Valania, “Another case of 'I know somebody who knows somebody.'” But Valania thought 'what-the-hell' and gave the guy a tape to pass along and promptly forgot about the exchange.

The band fell apart shortly after the gig, due to lack of interest from both within the band and from the world at large. Valania had returned to writing about amusement parks and bowling alleys for assorted trade journals. Danzer picked up some work as a freelancer cameraman. Bassist P.R. Behler returned to unemployment and Knerr returned to social work. For all intents and purposes, the Psyclone Rangers were but the glory day tales of four responsible young adults slipping into middle age.

Dave Allen wasn't informed of this fact, however, when he called Valania. Allen was impressed with the tape and wanted to see the band play. When he showed up in Allentown, the foursome got him good and drunk and then played a rocking showcase at the Four G's.

Allentown agreed to sign them and soon sent airplane tickets and hired a producer, Dave Ogilvie. That was impressive, Valania remembered. He called Ogilvie the “Phil Spector of Grunge.” At the time, Ogilvie was being courted by Motley Crue, but Ogilvie too was intrigued by the Rangers and told the motley crew to wait.

Still, the band was skeptical. On the plane ride out, the Rangers talked about how the deal could fall through at anytime. On the first day there, though, when they ran into members of Sonic Youth at a coffee shop, they knew they were in the big-time.

All they had to do was make an album. The band moved into the studio, a big old building that was an anchor factory in the 19th century. Allen and Ogilvie set up residence in the Phoenix, a pink-colored hotel with a spacious courtyard. The band became so smitten with the place (or got tired of sleeping in an anchor factory) that they started crashing in Dave and Dave's rooms.

Not that they had much time to sleep. For three days, they did nothing but drink beer and record. Mostly they did their own material, but also covered Gun Club's “For the Sake of Ivy,” Dream Syndicate's “Halloween,” and the Modern Lovers' “I'm Straight.”

When they were done, they picked the best 12 songs and made the album, Feel Nice. It included such gems as “The Devil Down There,” which may be about the south or Valania's genitals, and “Bigger Than a Gun” which chronicles running afoul with the law by means of a fast moving vehicle and some good hemp.

Perhaps the catchiest song on the album, however, is “Spinnin' My Head,” a graphic dramatization of what may have went through Elvis Presley's mind in the last hours of his life.

Valania explained, “One time my girlfriend and I went to see an Elvis impersonator in this strange, time-warped town outside Allentown. The crowd was getting rowdy and I heard the guitar player whisper to the impersonator guy, 'Elvis, I'm scared.'

“It immediately struck me that this was they very reason we keep Elvis 'alive.' Everyone from trailer park residents with velvet Elvis paintings and art school bohos with kitschy commemorative Elvis dinner plates to anyone who claimed to see Elvis at the Burger King or to have mothered his illegitimate children is deep down thinking the same thing. The thought of lingering on in this brutal world without a superhero like Elvis to relieve the boredom is too much to bear,” Valania said.

The last line in the song is “Elvis, I'm scared.”

Since its release, the album has been getting positive reviews, though the band is still waiting on the sales figures, Valania said. In Rolling Stone, the Breeders' Kelly Deal picked “Chrispie Indecision” as one of her favorite songs of 1993.

Maybe she heard about the soiled chair.

--Joab Jackson



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