Rock Never Dies: The Pedaljets prove that sometimes it just needs a 20-year time-out

“Giants of May,” by the Pedaljets, from The Pedaljets (OxBlood Records):

It’s July 5, and Lawrence’s Replay Lounge is packed. Veterans of the ’80s underground are everywhere.

One-time Lawrence singer-songwriter Lori Wray, back from Minneapolis and onstage with her old band, the Von Bulows, has just thrilled Shelle Rosenfeld, writer and former editor of The Note, by reprising her cover of Lulu’s “To Sir With Love.” DJ Ray Velasquez, now firmly established in New York, is back in one of his old haunts, standing in the center of the crowded floor.

Four unassuming guys take the stage. There’s been a little slack between sets, but the crowd shuffles forward. The lead singer, Mike Allmayer, hasn’t changed much over the years — in his brown Levi’s and black T-shirt, he still looks straight out of the garage. Standing to his left is legendary Lawrence ax man John Harper, wearing a Sasquatch T-shirt and filling in for this band’s regular guitarist, Phil Wade. The similarly tall, lanky Matt Kesler is bald now, with shades, a Fu Manchu mustache and a sinister goatee.

Kesler is the one who looks most obviously different, with a Western shirt and boots the only signs of his former longhaired self. On the drums, Rob Morrow looks considerably more bright-eyed than in the old days.

Allmayer contemplates his guitar like it’s some piece of equipment he’s just rediscovered, and he begins playing a complex, circular rhythm. He seems to have to stretch his neck to reach the mic, and his slump-shouldered stance suggests he’s fighting gravity to stay up there.

I’m just a dumb waiter, he sings. I don’t know how to serve you. The band’s pounding rhythm insists otherwise.

Sooner or later, I’m going to deserve you, yeah, he sings, repeating the yeah in a small build that anticipates the screaming crescendo of yeahs the audience knows so well.

That’s when the band explodes into bass, guitar and drum fills that knock everything back down to the basic pulsing rhythm, only to start building again.

The slightly grizzled crowd is bopping to the music. The guy who was sitting on the floor in front of the stage has now stood up to rock on his heels. A woman just to the right of the stage has found incredible rhythmic possibilities in this throbbing beat. Creating the sense of some Underground Garage version of The Today Show, people on Mass Street are putting their faces to the window to see who’s playing inside.

The Pedaljets don’t let up through crowd favorites “Liking You” and “One Million Lovers” before hitting “Tiny World,” the climax of their 1988 debut album, Today Today.

But then a swirling counterpoint to “Dumbwaiter” begins, and Allmayer is moaning, I left my motor runnin’. Kesler applies almost sadistic pressure with this unrelenting, descending bass line. Morrow hits the stuttering beat hard, like a car that will shake apart before it quits idling. Meanwhile, Harper reels back and forth in a kind of half-circle pogo while he strangles countless variations on the spiraling core of this bit of nightmare.

The Pedaljets, “Dumbwaiter” live at the Record Bar, 3-31-07

Now Allmayer is screaming, And I can’t turn it off/And I can’t turn, can’t turn, can’t turn can’t…. Though it sounds like he’s shouting down one hell of a nightmare, the pulsing house suggests no one wants him to stop.

He doesn’t, not right away. The band closes with an unrecorded gem, “Get Lucky,” that has taken on new life in recent performances as a sort of rockabilly rave-up. Tonight, it feels like a love letter to the room.

In some ways, the whole set has felt like that. Tonight’s lineup is Act II in a reunion of KJHK DJs that started hours ago at Burcham Park with a barbecue that featured DJ Ray spinning records.

Lawrence’s KJHK, run by University of Kansas students, was a model independent college rock station throughout most of the ’80s, when the punk-influenced underground couldn’t get on the radio any other way. In Lawrence, that meant bands such as the Embarrassment (who were really based in Wichita), Get Smart and the Mortal Micronotz — by most accounts, the greatest punk band Lawrence or Kansas City has ever seen — and the Pedaljets.

The fact that the Pedaljets signed on for this reunion generated momentum enough to haul aboard Topeka rock band the Klusterfux, Get Smart’s Marc Koch (with his current band, Crying Out Loud, playing all of the old material) and the Mortal Micronotz (all original members except for Kesler, filling in for the late David Dale). The room swells through these sets, and it’s clear that the core of the crowd — including the double-drumming headliner, anarchic party band Gourmet Mushroom X — has this music in its bones.

The Pedaljets were key to making this night happen in more ways than one. For starters, in May, after nearly two decades apart, they staged their own second act by nationally releasing a brand-new version of their 20-year-old second album, Pedaljets (this time on Kansas City’s new Oxblood Records). The unconventional move breathes new life into that rock-and-roll spirit that says to hell with the rules.

llmayer doesn’t want to suggest that the Pedaljets’ music was as significant as that of R.E.M., Hüsker Dü or the Replacements. After all, he notes, you can’t even call the Pedaljets has-beens. “But I do think we embodied the quintessential indie work-your-ass-off ethic, with a never-make-it-famous arc,” he says.

“We encountered all the contradictions of being an ’80s indie band — writing a song as big as you could make it but then ultimately being limited to the tastes of college-radio DJs, who would move on to real jobs, marriage and children by the time you won them over senior year.

“There was a critical mass that we never achieved,” he continues. “We certainly tried. We now have less hair and bigger bellies, but we still have the same heart, and I think we managed to bring some good songs back into focus that otherwise might have eternally sat in cut-out bins throughout America.”

Here, then, is the story of the Pedaljets, past and present.

Phil Wade, the band’s lead guitarist, is spending the summer on the road with the Wilders. For those familiar with the Wilders — who have backed Iris DeMent on A Prairie Home Companion, been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition and are now touring Scotland with their acoustic old-time jams — the contradiction is both funny and enlightening.

“I’m a rock-and-roll freak at heart,” Wade says. “Sure, I’ve been playing in a honky-tonk band for the last 10 years, but I defy anyone to come see the Wilders and not envision me in black Spandex and platform heels.”

He’d always loved the Beatles, Wade told me before hitting the road. And though the Pedaljets talk about the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Soul Asylum, he says, “In my mind, Mike [Allmayer] was influenced first and foremost by the Beatles. When the Pedaljets released Today Today, I first read about it in The Pitch, then went to Pennylane Records in Westport, grabbed a copy and went home and listened to it on my turntable for about two weeks solid. The Beatles’ influence on Mike’s songwriting was undeniably in the grooves.”

He was ecstatic when Morrow asked him to audition, early in 1988, and the band asked him to join for the Today Today tour. “I immediately dropped out of college at UMKC and joined them on a six-week East Coast tour, leaving my fiancée behind to hold down the fort. That experience has shaped me as a musician and as a person ever since.”

But that part of the story ended rough. “Phil was always an even-keel kind of guy,” Allmayer explains, “but he just got tired of the fighting that grew out of disappointment and rubbing each other raw after six years.”

The Pedaljets fell apart after the second album tour. Although Kesler and Allmayer tried some different variations for a while, Allmayer’s songwriting was growing darker and more experimental, and it wasn’t a good fit. “Matt and I were somewhat relieved to finally let it go,” Allmayer says. He went on to form Grither, the band for his new writing, which had a solid run in the mid-’90s.

Wade and Kesler kept in touch. But when the idea came up to get back together and rerecord Pedaljets, he was nervous, thinking Allmayer wouldn’t be happy to see him. Wade had tried to contact him a few times over the years, and Allmayer had been unresponsive.

“I told him that I had worried about him hating me for all these years, and he said, ‘That’s silly, old bean.’ I still love Mike for those few reassuring words.”

That moment describes Allmayer well, right down to the anachronistic turn of phrase.

When he’s not screaming onstage, Allmayer is thoughtful, soft-spoken and well-read, happy to talk about the worldview of Dostoyevsky or crime novelist Jim Thompson. He’s likely to work his way into a meandering conversation that might incorporate the Kansas Flint Hills or the complexities of Lincoln’s presidency, or regale listeners with a story about the night Prince hit one of his band’s shows in Minneapolis and wound up borrowing its equipment for an impromptu set. That reeling mind lies at the heart of the band, though he is also known for his musical insecurities.

“From our very first get-together, Mike wanted me to do all the singing,” Kesler recalls. “But I couldn’t keep up with his lyrics. Mike’s style of writing is crazy. For years, he carried around a drum case full of papers loaded with chicken scratch. Even if he started on a typewriter, he would ultimately make changes all over the pages. Each song was always a work in progress. If he had an idea musically, he would pop open the drum case and grab a piece of paper and try it — riffle through it again to find the middle eight or the last verse. Then, once the song was done, he would usually change it. There was no way for me to keep up with that.”

Allmayer, Kesler says, “is not a natural singer and didn’t like his voice.” He explains, “I had been singing and playing bass in a power trio, and he thought I could do it, but eventually he came into his own style and created his signature yell.”

I first saw them in 1987, playing as a trio on a bill with about seven other bands, mostly national acts. Some terrific bands played that day — the Reivers, the Ben Vaughn Combo, Big Dipper — most of them now forgotten. But the Pedaljets stood out. The name made perfect sense because they were the day’s scruffiest-looking musicians, long-haired kids from the garage. They roared with raw energy, and songs like “Ride With Me” brought tenderness to the mix. They made me think of the Who. Morrow pedaled away with manic fills and a big-eyed grin that couldn’t help but recall Keith Moon, Kesler anchored the sound in a prowling rumble, and Allmayer made his way from a croon to a scream time and time again.

The band’s first album drew considerable attention, including kudos from Ira Robbins, the editor of the indie-rock bible Trouser Press. David Sprague of Creem also gave it a strong review. The Pedaljets spent a couple of years relentlessly touring, and rough mixes of the second album suggested the best was yet to come. Wade’s influence was particularly apparent on randy rockers “Burgundy” and “King’s Highway,” songs that wouldn’t have fit the first record.

But something happened in the engineering and mastering of the self-titled second album that flattened and deadened the sound. And that sonic dullness, coupled with much simpler production values (the band ran out of money), led to a record bound to alienate listeners. Robbins called it “a step in the wrong direction,” but those following the band at the time knew it was much more than that — a dizzying leap followed by a heartbreaking fall.

Morrow wants to set the record straight. “In recent interviews, we have basically said that the first version completely sucked,” he says. “It didn’t.

“It wasn’t that the songs were bad. It was that we ended up leaving several parts on there that we never really honed or fine-tuned. So you would have, for example, a certain song rocking quite well. Then, suddenly, the midsection would contain a really bad little melody.”

It was a hard time in Morrow’s life. “I was a fucking mess. I was going through a painful divorce, and my ex had taken our child and moved to Texas. People have ways of consoling themselves, and I masked my pain in just about every common way you can think of. Plus, I had a ringside seat watching the disintegration of my band.”

He eventually cured a serious depression by moving to Dallas to be near his daughter. Sometimes, in the ’90s, Morrow says, he would put on the album and listen. Hearing it was a sad reminder of those darker days. “I used to take extensive notes on what I thought would be good to change, purely for psychological reasons.”

He spent years working what he calls “two crap jobs.” He saved enough money to go to art school. “I earned my degree, landed an excellent job, had a nice car, a split-level apartment — and, in typical Rob fashion, promptly chucked it all for love, sold all my stuff and moved to Scotland. Which didn’t work out at all, of course. Still, I continued to take the damn notes about how to fix the first version.”

He moved back to Kansas City in early 2003 with nothing, then started writing and playing music with David Hogerty, the bass player from the Sin City Disciples and Cher U.K. Hogerty died in 2004.

“I hadn’t seen Matt for years, but he was the one who phoned me about David’s death,” Morrow says. “So Matt and I started hanging out occasionally. Eventually, Mike contacted Matt, and naturally Matt told Mike I was back in Kansas City.”

Allmayer had a box of old Pedaljets tapes and memorabilia, and he wanted to save it. Both Kesler and Morrow had similar boxes. Though they didn’t have the masters to their first album, Today Today, they did for the second album. They started taking the tapes to Westend Recording Studios to preserve this piece of the past and maybe breathe some life into what had sounded so flat. After producer and studio engineer Paul Malinowski (also the well-known bass player for Season to Risk, Shiner and, most recently, Open Hand) baked the tapes to make them strong enough to play, he heard enormous potential.

“By the end of the first day, everyone was excited with what we were coming up with,” Malinowski says. “It wasn’t as horrible as they thought it was, and I was very excited about it.”

At that time, Malinowski was also producing the introductory compilation for Robert Moore’s OxBlood Records. Moore heard the Pedaljets’ “Burgundy” during these sessions and decided that he wanted to include it on the anthology.

“Since I was putting together a compilation of local indie bands, it made sense to include one of the bands that really put Kansas City on the indie-rock map,” Moore says. “It also offered a little more punch that we needed on the album, the kind of thing a lot of bands are going for right now. There’s some Stooges in there, but with hooks.”

Hearing Moore’s and Malinowski’s enthusiasm, the band began to talk seriously about rereleasing the old album, better than before.

esler, however, was slow to invest in the project.

He’d been through his share of losses over the years, too. His business partner at Midwestern Musical Company, Jim Strahm, lost a battle with cancer in 2000. It was during Strahm’s chemo that Kesler had first shaved his head; he did it again when his wife went through chemo later. After that, he decided to keep it shaved.

He never stopped playing with various bands. He still gigs with the Midtown Quartet jazz band, and he hooked up with Mike Niewald and Joe Gose, Strahm’s bandmates from Absolute Ceiling and the Saddlemen, to form the Doo-Dads, which also features Ken Lovern of OJT (Organ Jazz Trio).

“The first go-round was such a disappointment and a heartbreaker that I really didn’t want to revisit it,” he says of the original album.

But Malinowski heard what Kesler couldn’t.

“He’d get excited about what he was hearing and start saying things like, ‘This sounds contemporary, people today are trying to get this sound — this fucking rocks!’ I started listening to it differently. For the first time in nearly 20 years, I thought, Maybe this doesn’t suck. Maybe we were a pretty good band. Then, when we got together and played, it was like muscle memory or something. It just happened, and it sounded good … and loud.”

Before they could stop themselves, the old Pedaljets plunged into a deep reckoning with the past, re-envisioning and re-creating the album.

“On the new version, I got to do so many things,” Morrow recalls. “I even play a percussion piece on an air-conditioning vent. No joke, there were many magical moments in the studio, with Mike and I hunkered down in a corner, coming up with brand-new, beautiful parts, and nearly every single idea worked. The payoff is that the record sounds truly new to me.”

“I don’t think any of us expected to reunite the Pedaljets,” Kesler says. “We started out just wanting to preserve the tapes and put everything to digital format and maybe play around with the mix a lot.”

They spent close to a year at it, with Kesler fully coming around about six months in, and the album they released nationwide tells a new story.

Allmayer credits Malinowski for making that happen.

“He took what was basically an incomplete DNA strand of music and thought about how we should fill the gaps. Of course, we all did, but Paul brought fresh ears and talent into the mix, plus a few very choice piano and guitar parts as well as oddball other noises,” Allmayer says. He says Malinowski’s enthusiasm for the project was infectious. “He would stay on you until you got with the game plan. I think he has a bit of high school football coach in him — or drill sergeant.”

The results are stunning. An album that was once a stark look at heartland despair, combated by healthy doses of rock-and-roll swagger, now feels like what it wanted to be — one of a kind.

As a CD, it has three movements rather than two sides. The first four songs make gut-wrenching leaps between childlike reflection and the kind of bitter experience that comes roaring up like hard sidewalk.

“Dead Dogs,” a song that blends both of these elements, sprang from a dream. “I was sitting in a poorly lit cabin of some sort, across the table from Elvis,” Allmayer recalls. “His mother was serving us a meal. He was young Elvis — still very innocent. Among other things, he explained to me that a man will be judged in heaven by how he treats animals on Earth — specifically dogs.” The resulting song is a fever dream of voices contradicting one another with nursery rhymes and surreal images of muted domestic violence — Broken china charges up the family stairs/Her dreaming drawers, her clothes spread everywhere.

The middle third of the album starts with Kesler singing a car song (a theme throughout the album and the setting that bookends it), but whereas the opening drive is wistful and the closing is filled with defiance, this song, “Looking Out My Window,” offers little hope in the music or Kesler’s voice.

“A lot of Pedaljets fans consider it their favorite song on the LP,” Allmayer says. “We should give Matt more singing duties.”

A road trip to nowhere, the album climaxes in a noirish tale of betrayal and murder, “Stipple County.” Sustained bass riffs march forward, acoustic guitar makes space but offers no relief, and background vocals taunt. There’s a creepy, discordant guitar part before the final build, which Allmayer says Morrow played. “Fingernails scraping,” he calls it, and that’s about right — on the inside of a coffin.

The last part of the album deals with reckoning and release. “Agnes Mind” and its follow-up, “Mrs. Green,” are two of the most obvious improvements over the original album. Once skeletal, they’re now luxurious. The closer, “Place in the Race,” pours on the guitar throttle and explosive bursts of lead, juggling a difficult problem, the band going fast and furious while acknowledging that the place in the race/Is not the space/For a thinking box like you.

ines like that had a certain resonance late one evening in May, as Allmayer and I stood out on a rainy sidewalk after a gig at the Brick, thinking about how good this music feels and where it fits in.

It had been a great night, more like the old days than two previous Record Bar shows that felt like one-time events. People were crowded up to the stage, singing along. The band dusted off its great cover of John Lennon’s “Isolation” that night, a perfect fit for the band at its most turbulent and sublime. That night also marked the resurrection of “Get Lucky,” a song nearly the musical and lyrical antithesis of “Isolation.”

That last chorus — I get lucky — summed up the way I was feeling out on the sidewalk in the rain. After the show, Allmayer tallied the missed notes and lack of focus at various points — elements that, for me, made the night all the more warm and accessible.

I reassured him, though I wasn’t able to say what I was really thinking. My mind was still reeling over the sense of closeness among the people inside, standing with Kesler’s wife, Lendy, and Allmayer’s girlfriend, Sara, talking for the first time in a decade with Grither bassist Mark Reynolds, a man who has definitely grown younger over time. A band is a symbolic thing — a community in which each player offers something unique to create an otherwise impossible whole. It felt like these old friends appreciated that about one another more than ever.

I felt the same way. Back in 1988, the Pedaljets had fueled my early desire to write and to believe in the promise of rock and roll, especially what was happening in Kansas City. Now, these four guys were showing that the promise can live on.

I’d just finished writing a story about the band, but I knew I was going to scrap that story in favor of this one. I told Allmayer about the plan for my new approach.

He gave me a sideways grin and asked, “So, you think you can get a second story out of us?”

“By now,” I answered — meaning sometime during the past 20 years — “I thought I would have written the book.”

He laughed and patted me on the back. “Sucker!”

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