Los Angeles Free Music Society
The Lowest Form of Music
By John Corbett
Everything old will be new again, or so the story goes. A depression in record sales in 1996--300,000 fewer units sold than in 1995, according to SoundScan, and thus ten years of unimpeded industry growth brought to a grinding halt--has sent companies scrambling for their vaults. Not for the preservation of cultural history, not for lack of new acts, not even to capitalize on nostalgia; no, the reason they're so invested in scraping every scrap of music off their decomposing old tapes is simple: they own it. It's already been recorded and produced, packaged and promoted, and will incur little in the way of new costs. No big tour, no mammoth studio bill for months working on the perfect mix. In industry terms, it's virtually risk free: if they make money, great; if not, no skin off their cigars. Hence the flurry of box sets, best-of compilations, remastered classics, complete, alternate, and unexpurgated sessions. Everything owned will be new again.
At times it really does seem like the delirium has blinded the labels to commercial concerns. Major record companies have been plundering their easy-listening coffers, reissuing records at standard list price that you could have bought in any decent junk store for a quarter five years ago. Columbia has even reissued the Hampton Grease Band's Music to Eat, which reportedly sold only a few hundred copies when it first appeared in the early 70s. The larger jazz labels have initiated particularly voluminous reissue programs. Blue Note, for instance, has three: their regular reissues, the "rare groove" series (funkier items designed to appeal to hip-hoppers and acid-jazz casualties), and the "connoisseur" series (select records expected to sell in smaller quantities to collector types). In addition, the label maintains a special relationship with Mosaic Records, the premier mail-order repackager, which compiles complete collections from the Blue Note archives. Verve is equally active on the reissue front, as are Capitol, RCA Victor, Columbia/Legacy, and numerous others.
But of course not everything will be reissued. The cumulative audio archive has been in constant flux since the advent of recording, before the turn of the century; it expands as new things are recorded, but it also ebbs as old things are forgotten, frozen in antiquated technologies, sequestered in private collections, or left to rot in the cemetery of popular interest. While they're willing to take chances on some seemingly insane and unsalable stuff, record labels have executive boards to answer to, and if the novelty of the forgotten is the wind that currently fills their sails, the bottom dollar is still the rudder that steers their way. On their journey, certain dispensables are thrown overboard, to sink and remain buried or await excavation by future salvagers.
A quick list of misbegotten recordings--saxophonists alone--badly in need of reissuing: 78s featuring the prototypical extended technique of vaudeville trick saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft; west-coaster Boots Mussulli's killer baritone- and alto-fronted quartets; Swedish saxist Bengt "Frippe" Nordstrom's groundbreaking 60s solo records; West Indian-born alto man Joe Harriott's alternative to harmolodics on his fascinating Free Form and Abstract or Chicagoan Joe Daley's equally engaging trio date for RCA from '63; Joe McPhee's monumental 1976 solo record Tenor. Here's the catch: A record like Harriott's Abstract, issued as part of Capitol's "Dimensions in Jazz" series in 1962, is seen as too marginal to reissue, but when a smaller label tries to license it, the interest is taken as prima facie evidence of the music's phenomenal market value. So important things get buried, lost, wasted. In other words, history is written.
But what's distinctive about today's reissue market is the plurality of approaches being exhibited and the tenacity of many of today's treasure seekers. There's a startling amount of genuinely interesting historical material being tapped. Take, for example, the Dexter's Cigar reissue series started two years ago by Chicago's David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke, who together constitute the band Gastr del Sol. Grubbs and O'Rourke have worked without genre prejudice to assemble a catalog of material that they simply want to have around. This is exactly where a reissue program should take shape: in the frustrated grimace of the fan.
Two of the label's finest offerings are by improvising guitarists. Henry Kaiser's Outside Aloha Pleasure compiles the solo electric guitar tracks from two different records (originally titled Outside Pleasure and Aloha) from 1979 and '80, a time when the Bay Area improviser was rapidly moving into electronic processing and goofier eclecticism and somewhat away from sheer string plucking. These 14 tracks document one of America's great noisemakers at the height of his powers; the longest, "The Shadow Line," is 19 minutes of astounding development, featuring feedback, basic effects, and volume-pedal and real-time gray-matter manipulation. Arguably the most important reissue of Dexter's is British guitarist Derek Bailey's Aida, a live recording often singled out as Bailey's finest. It is as clear a demonstration of his genius as there is: in the late 60s, Bailey reinvented the guitar, establishing a singular palette of harmonics, open and fretted notes, puckered clusters, ice-pick scrapes, craggy shapes, and chirping forays beyond the bridge. These elements are assembled in unaccompanied improvisations on acoustic and electric guitar--a suite of absolutely essential music for anyone interested in free playing.
Another wing of the Dexter's Cigar program has concentrated on electronic music. The Swiss ensemble Voice Crack's superb 1990 studio record Earflash sports the peeps, crackles, and chirps of "cracked everyday electronics"--mysterious devices that Norbert Moeslang and Andy Guhl create by disinterring consumer objects like calculators and CD machines and reconfiguring them for their own devilish sound-making designs. On this once hopelessly rare record, the group (usually a duo) factored in Knut Remond, whose percussion gives it an even more pronounced edge. But if it's edge you long for, Dexter's offers one of the all-time most vertiginous: Merzbow's Rainbow Electronics 2. Initially available only as a cassette tape, made in a very tiny edition (most dubious on the "reissue" front, as it was hardly "issued" in the first place) in 1990, this blizzard of electronic sound is so forceful it'll knock you flat. If there's an aural equivalent to Jean Baudrillard's The Ecstasy of Communication, Rainbow Electronics 2 might be it.
Many great DIY punk records have faded from memory; among them until recently was a 1979 EP by Circle X, originally made for an anonymous French label (laying plans for obscurity!) and long since out of print. Grubbs, who first made his mark as a teenage punk in Louisville, port of departure for Circle X, made Circle X a priority for Dexter's, and it's easy to hear why: Tony Pinotti's ripped singing, grinding two-chord guitar action, and a sense of genuineness that insinuates itself into the open feel of the drummer's time. The two punk classics by Grubbs's high school band Squirrel Bait (Squirrel Bait and Skag Heaven) are also available on Dexter's, as is the fantastic 1981 collaborative record by the Red Crayola (later Red Krayola) and the conceptual group Art & Language, Kangaroo?, initially released on Rough Trade. Grubbs and O'Rourke are members of the current Red Krayola lineup, fronted by kingpin Mayo Thompson, whose out-there folk record Corky's Debt to His Father was their label's maiden release.
The same impetus that's led Dexter's Cigar to scour the dustbin of aural history has prompted the folks at the Cortical Foundation and RRRecords to compile The Lowest Form of Music, an utterly devastating ten-CD box set of the works of the Los Angeles Free Music Society. This tremendously obscure collective--a loose assemblage of individuals and ensembles with shared subversive musical interests--began in the mid-70s and nominally continues today. In its time, LAFMS counted in its ranks groups such as the Doo-Dooettes, Le Forte Four, Airway, Monitor, Smegma, and Dinosaurs With Horns. Like many of the second-generation improvisers in England (Steve Beresford, David Toop, Paul Burwell, Alterations), members of these groups were compelled by a wide range of music and art: free jazz, restructuralism, prototypical noise rock, art rock, performance art, prog rock, chance composition, instrument building, kitsch, autodestructive art, minimalism, tape collage, genre jumping.
Rather than distill these into a single stylistic MO, they productively dabbled in different ideas and methodologies, cobbling together pieces recorded in home studios or in concert at makeshift spaces and uncooperative drinking holes. The participants in LAFMS drew on punk's ethic of self-determination, the aesthetic purview of post-60s eclecticism, and a uniquely Californian combination of irony and hippie open-mindedness. These ten discs bring the deeply underground picture into frighteningly clear focus, helping the rest of us to understand the Residents, for instance, as something more than an unexplained freaky object on the weirdo music map. And for the real prehistory of lo-fi, look no further.
The reissue itself, packaged in a sturdy brown box with a foldout plastic accordion of discs, is a marvel of historiography. Two booklets provide lavish notes on personnel, descriptions of each track augmented by context-setting details, and hundreds of photos and essays by many of the different participants (and a few significant bystanders, like Toop and Byron Coley). This means that the story is told from separate perspectives, not by one determining narrator.
"We saw the future," writes Le Forte Four's Chip Chapman, "we knew how it would smell, we got it out of our system and we got up wind before it stank." Olfactologists--looking back on the dawn of stink. What sets the Dexter's Cigar series and the LAFMS box apart from many of today's reissues is the fact that they were conceived, first and foremost, out of love for the music, rather than as a convenience of production. There may be great things happening as a result of rough economics--records we never thought would reappear, suddenly available--but the excavation site erected by these archaeologists is there in the name of the art. Whatever it smells like.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Album Covers.