"Column D" THE Mag, June 2009
Since the widespread availability of home recording technology in the late 60s, experimental DIY musicians have produced a steady stream of surprising and idiosyncratic recordings - often technically unschooled but profoundly inspired, resembling more a grassroots form of sound art than contemporary popular music conventions. Usually there is a corresponding cultural movement/marketing protocol through which such work can be distributed and pigeonholed: psychedelia, punk, lo-fi, bedroom electronica, or the New Weird America. Occasionally though, through timing, geographical location, or sheer plain batfuck weirdness, an entire movement can slip through the cracks.
Case in point: the Los Angeles Free Music Society, a sprawling anarcho-syndicalist sound conspiracy falling roughly between the psychedelic and punk eras, though still pulling strings to this very day, according to some. Fomenting in some combination of the CalArts’ electronic music studio and the cut-out bin at Pasadena’s Poobah records, the LAMFS – in a variety of configurations including Smegma, Le Forte Four, the Doo-Dooettes, Airway, and more - unleashed a legendary series of live performances and a string of vinyl and cassette releases that became sought-after treasures of the international record geek community.
Cobbled together from such West Coast outsider legacies as John Cage, Harry Partch, Ornette Coleman, Terry Riley, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart, the LAFMS relied about equally on primitive sampling (using tapeloops and appropriated LPs) and free improvisation – often on invented homemade instruments. Networking with like-minded freaks from around LA (Paul McCarthy and John Duncan, whose contemporaneous KPFK experimental Close Radio show was archived at the Getty in 2007 ) California (The Residents) and the world (several LAFMS releases made the infamous Nurse With Wound list; Airway’s Live at LACE is said to have planted the seed for the entire genre of Japanese Noise) ensured the collective’s place in the history of fringe culture.
But it wasn’t until the early-90s explosion of avant-garde turntablism and analog electronica chic that a resurgence of interest in the LAFMS scene resulted in the unexpected 1995 release of The Lowest Form of Music - a lavish 10-CD box set by the Malibu-based Organ of Corti label. The over-the-top retrospective initially generated an enormous amount of public interest. Unfortunately, when label founder/director Gary Todd fell from a balcony and suffered severe head trauma in 2001, his catalog basically went out of print, and Lowest Form has itself become an eBay collectible.
Nevertheless, various other archival projects and spin-offs have kept the LAFMS legacy smoldering – the former category including an additional 4 CD set of historical material entitled Blorp Essette issued by the itinerant LA label Transparency (allegedly the first in an exhaustive series), which has also just released a collection of early-80s material from Ace Farren Ford (of Smegma, Ace & Duce, The Child Molestors, etc.) There have been recent UK rereleases of Airway’s Live at LACE and the rare i.d. art #2 compilation, and still-breathing Poobah Records’ recent expansion to label status brought a deluxe double vinyl reissue of Dennis Duck Goes Disco – a 1977 cassette-only release that anticipated the plunderphonic vinyl salvage of John Oswald and Christian Marclay by several years.
Many of the original team have persisted with their audio explorations – original poobah guru Tom Recchion’s Chaotica and I Love My Organ CDs (as well as his 2004 COLA installation Gold & Black ) chopped and reassembled exotica albums to reveal their secret Minimalist heart. His latest project is The Incandescent Gramophone - a 78 rpm vinyl release being randomly droplifted into public spaces. Smegma continues to haunt Portland. Rick Potts and Joseph Hammer – along with Steve Thomsen of the post-punk art band Monitor – spent most of the 90s producing dreamy, burbling soundscapes as Solid Eye. Since Thomsen vanished mysteriously, they have reconfigured one of the earliest LAFMS groups Dinosaurs with Horns for KXLU experimental DJ (and sound artist) Mitchell Brown’s Melon Expander label.
Many of the original LAFMS have been contributing their talents and resources to SASSAS – The Society for the Activation of Social Space through Art and Sound , Cindy Bernard’s non-profit which organizes such events as disparate James Tenney’s virtuosic performance of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano at the MAK Schindler House and the monthly experimental free-for-all soundShoppe happenings at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts. For February’s Telethon Revisited SASSAS collaborated with LAFMS and Otis College to recreate a 24-hour experimental performance telethon (originally produced by Joe Potts in 1977) for live webcast, bringing the psychedelic proto-punk tape splicers into the digital arena that perhaps best accommodates the viral potential of their DIY aesthetics. I can’t wait to see what they cough up next.