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The Los Angeles Free Music Society will liberate your ears at the Getty

Los Angeles Free Music Society

Don Lewis

Tom Recchion won’t reveal much about plans for the concert spotlighting the historic Los Angeles Free Music Society coming Saturday at the Getty Center’s Harold M. Williams Auditorium.

“I can’t tell you what we’re all going to do,” he says of the show, part of the Pacific Standard Time celebration of the L.A. 1945-1980 art explosion. “It would give it away.”

Ahem.

“And we don’t know.”

Fans and friends of the LAFMS would have it no other way. Not to mention the members. What part of “free music” is ambiguous? Well, arguably, all of it. And that’s the point.

“The idea of free music is that each of you come together with the idea that we’re coming together as experimenters to create something spontaneous, allow for a tremendous amount of freedom and work off each other -- and not work off each other, but come to an agreement to get together and work,” he says. “You’ve got to go along for the ride. Got to be willing to go, ‘Where’s this going to take me?’”

That can be anywhere -- or everywhere. The four acts on the Getty bill offer a vast spectrum of possibilities. There’s the disjointed yet oddly pop noise of Le Forte Four (the first show of its original lineup in 30 years), the friendly-side-of-industrial ensemble Smegma, the ambient-industrial Extended Organ and Recchion’s sound-collage experiments. And that’s just a few of the “constellations of groups,” as Recchion puts it, “each one of us bringing to the table a different set of musical sounds and experiments.” 

It’s been that way since Recchion convened a few like-spirited friends in the early ‘70s for after-hours jams in the back room of Poo Bah Records (in its original Fair Oaks location where Parsons Engineering now stands). Inspired, or perhaps liberated, by such groundbreakers as John Cage, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Ornette Coleman, Karlheinz Stockhausen and the German “Krautrock” bands among others, they messed around pretty much for their own amusement. There was no “scene” of which to be part, and no thought of starting one. 

Then one day Recchion, visiting an art gallery on the corner of Colorado and Fair Oaks (now the site of J. Crew), ran into Joe Potts, a regular Poo Bah customer. Potts was carrying a box of records by his nascent, neo-Dadaist group Le Forte Four.

“In the liner notes he mentioned that they had submitted a piece of work to a Norwegian music festival under the name the Los Angeles Free Music Society,” Recchion remembers. “Next time I saw him I said, ‘What is this?’ And he said it was kind of a joke. I said, ‘We should really do that! I have these guys here, appreciate what you’re doing and there’s strength in numbers. So we did. Started doing shows, releasing records on our own, magazines. Started working as a collective, occasionally in a very organized way and occasionally disorganized.”

Remember, this was before the punk DIY ethos developed. Fellow Poo Bah staffer and after-hours jammer Dennis Mehaffey (a.k.a. Dennis Duck) said that Le Forte Four’s release, done without benefit of an established record company, was a revelation.

“That was phenomenal,” says Mehaffey/Duck. “People didn’t to that. Record companies were big, important things and the guy down the street just didn’t do that. That was eye-opening.”

Duck provided one of the first LAMFS releases, which was ear-opening: “Dennis Duck Does Disco,” originally a limited edition of 25 cassette tapes featuring a series of what would later be seen as early turntabalism.

“All it was was skipping records,” he says. “I didn’t think it was pioneering at the time. All I knew was I had this weird German turntable you could do weird things with and wanted to see what I could do. Had no grand thoughts. But apparently a lot of people now think it was cool. I’m thrilled about that.”

And so it is with the LAFMS as a whole. Over time, the members discovered that they’d had impact beyond their immediate circles. Recchion remembers going back stage at the Whisky after a show by Ohio kindred spirits Pere Ubu and being told by that band’s leader David Thomas that he had great admiration for the Pasadenans -- free music being, to him, much “harder” than his band’s more formal pieces. In the burgeoning New York Downtown scene of the ‘80s, LAFMS was a presence -- and in fact Recchion was the drummer in an early version of Sonic Youth when he lived there in 1983. Along the way, such acts as the Doo-Dooettes and Airway and such anthologies as the perfectly named Blorp-Essette (originally a series of vinyl discs launched in 1977, later collected as a 4-CD set) or the very-limited edition 1996 10-CD (!) mammoth The Lowest Form of Music have taken on their own mythological stature. 

(You can sample an array of LAFMS acts on this YouTube playlist.)

After a few years the collective started to scatter. Duck, Juan Gomez and Rick Potts formed the art-pop band Human Hands. From their Duck went fully in to the rock world with the Dream Syndicate, his sensibilities expanding his bandmates’ Velvet Underground-meets-Creedence orientation into elements of Krautrock pulse. (Human Hands keyboardist Bill Nolan also made a mark with Wall of Voodoo.) 

Recchion, while also remaining active as a solo artist in music, became a top packaging and marketing designer in the mainstream music business -- he’s currently creative director of Capitol Records’ catalog division, where he was behind the elaborate artwork for the deluxe edition of the Beach Boys’ recently resurrected “Smile” sessions. Kevin Laffey, a member of Airway and other combos, slid into the major-label world as a Warner Bros. Records executive, signing and overseeing such artists as Jane’s Addiction and Daniel Lanois and partnering with Brian Eno on the Warner-distributed Opal label. 

Periodically, though, there have been excuses to revisit the concept(s). The current round kicked into gear last year when the organization was commissioned to do an ambitious set of concerts, films, panels and visual exhibitions in London, also under the title “The Lowest Form of Music.” Extended Organ member Paul McCarthy, who over the years became an influential visual artist, gushed about it to his daughter Mara, who owns the L.A. art space the Box Gallery and has booked a new version of the London exhibition as the inaugural event for her new downtown location, opening in January.

And just what does LAFMS represent today in the context of this and Pacific Standard Time? Good try, but no doing.

“Everybody always want us to summate it,” Recchion says. “I don’t know if there’s a way to put a stamp on what it is. It’s really undefinable. The organization ended back in ’81. What’s happening is every 10 years ago there’s a new group of people who discover what we do. So we have to revisit it every 10 years or so and rethink it. And now we understand it’s important in a historical context. And it’s still completely undefinable.”

Watch a video of the LAFMS taking over a park for a 2009 concert:

 

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