The Music Is Free, But You Have to Pay for the Plastic, Paper, Ink, Glue and Stamps / by Jeff Hunt

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THE LOS ANGELES FREE MUSIC SOCIETY didn’t just fly beneath the cultural radar in the 1970s: It roared beneath it, as low to the ground as it could possibly get, screaming and shrieking like a nitro-swilling, flame-belching, drag-racing funny car. And maybe that bit of era-specific, Southern California imagery is apt. These guys weren’t like other collectives in 1973, spouting polemics or Jesus Freakin’ and living off the land. They were running amok through the concrete fields of Los Angeles, just plain Freakin’. In 1973, brothers Joe and Rick Potts and friend Chip Chapman inadvertently became the generous and forward-thinking nexus of an anarchic “society” that would welcome warped musical pioneers and aspiring Dadaist provocateurs, and then facilitate their mad sonic visions. In the fallow years between Altamont and punk, there weren’t many who had been influenced by the weirdest of the weird – e.g., Beefheart, Ayler, the Godz, the Residents – but a few had, and they were out there, crouched in their camouflaged spider-holes and secret warrens and labyrinthine tunnels, like Victor Charlie, waiting to abruptly ambush and cut you off at the knees. And the Los Angeles Free Music Society was the signal to attack.

In mid-’73, calling themselves the Patients, Chapman and the Potts initiated their own twisted and Southern Californian take on electo-acoustic composition. They jettisoned every last, tottering pretense of academic bluster, and plunged into the cultural flotsam at hand, making cut-ups and pastiche from pop LPs, television commercials, and Saturday morning cartoons, and regurgitating it all through tape manipulations. They decided to release an album, and briefly changed their name to the Los Angeles Free Music Society, but that didn’t last long. By the time Bikini Tennis Shoes (LAFMS, 1975) was released, Tom Potts had joined the act, and they settled on the name, Le Forte Four. LAFMS would be the “organization” that issued the LP.

Farther east, in Pasadena, the Poo-Bah record shop was oozing similar conceptual silt, where a troupe of like-minded transgressives led by Tom Recchion were performing as the Doo-Dooettes, with a rotating cast that included Harold Schroeder and Juan Gomez. The scene also included the act Ace & Duce, and Dennis Duck (who went on to “mainstream” success as the drummer for Steve Wynn’s Dream Syndicate). Experimental diehards Smegma were also in Pasadena, making a unique brand of clatter that continues into the 21st century. When the Pasadena gang got ahold of Bikini Tennis Shoes, they had a collective Close Encounters “We Are Not Alone” moment, and tracked down Le Forte Four in East LA. Realizing there was strength in numbers, the Los Angeles Free Music Society was now a bright beacon with a ratty umbrella, under which any creative wretch could huddle. There would be no distribution for material like this; almost all of it was sold by mail order.

The second release from the Los Angeles Free Music Society was a compilation LP, called ID Art. Joe Potts from Le Forte Four organized it, and it tidily sums up the LAFMS ethos. It was an open invitation: Pay two bucks, you can have 15 minutes on the album. There you go. Those were the days. A similar project, Blorp Essette, would reoccur several times. Curated by Ace Farren Ford of Ace & Duce, all three volumes featured art by Captain Beefheart, and one included a rare track by the Residents. As the LAFMS expanded, so did their freewheeling discography: there was the double LP by Le Forte Four and the Doo-Dooettes, Live at the Brand (LAFMS, 1976, edition of 200); Joe Potts’ Airway released Live at LACE (LAFMS, 1978, edition of 200); Smegma contributed Glamour Girls (LAFMS, 1979, edition of 200); notorious performance/sound artist, John “Worst Date Ever” Duncan, Organic (LAFMS, 1979). Toward the end, Le Forte Four revealed their overweening lust for glory by releasing an unprecedented 1,000 copies of their final LP, Spin 'N Grin (LAFMS, 1981). 

There were also singles by a number of groups including Slimy Android, John Duncan, and the classic LA post-punk group Monitor. A multi-media magazine, Lightbulb, was published under the LAMFS moniker. There were also cassettes, concerts, Fluxus-style happenings and more, before things shriveled in the early ‘80s. It must have seemed like a fleeting moment, a riot dispersed, but the legacy of the Los Angeles Free Music Society would once again have its day in the smog-choked sun. 

In the mid-1990s, two imminently regarded labels would join forces to exalt the LAFMS and its efforts. LAFMS: The Lowest Form of Music (Cortical Foundation/RRRecords, 1996) is a lavishly packaged, lovingly assembled, and breathtakingly comprehensive 10xCD boxed set. Over the course of nearly twelve sprawling, spread-eagled hours, it delves into minutiae and monstrosity, and depicts the LA scene of yesteryear in all of its anti-glory. Don’t let the title fool you: Lowest Form of Music is the highest form of flattery. But the Los Angeles Free Music Society deserves this sort of enshrinement. They led the way, and they did it with careless, shambolic gusto. Their motto says it all: The Music Is Free, But You Have to Pay for the Plastic, Paper, Ink, Glue and Stamps.

 

Atlanta, Georgia
August, 2009

 

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