In 1977, Dennis Duck (who would go on to play in The Dream Syndicate and Human Hands) probably never thought this to be anything more than fucking with records on a variable speed turntable and dubbing 20 cassette copies for some friends of The Los Angeles Free Music Society. But like punk rock, 30 years later Goes Disco -- and the greater LAFMS -- amounts to something historically more altruistic than its self-serving, incestuous origins. A loose organization of sorts, LAFMS’s grassroots, DIY aesthetic largely foreshadowed the contemporary noise/experimental scene -- making short runs of cassettes and privately pressed records for whoever would listen (usually friends in bands). Often favoring freethinking, experimentation, and quantity over quality, there’s an inherent charm in just how unapproachable recordings by Smegma, the Doo-Dooettes and other LAFMS groups can be.
While the collective as far as the name is concerned is no longer officially active, the Los Angeles music scene hasn’t changed much. The Sunset strip is still defined by leather, bar rock, hair metal, and other types who will gladly “pay to play.” But deep within the drudges of the city there’s a thriving, self sustained music community giving themselves all the attention they need to make successful art. Among them is the city’s oldest (although technically in Pasadena), and one of the few remaining record stores (2006 bidding farewell to historic landmarks such as Aron’s, Rhino, and Tower), Poo-Bah. Former employer to LAFMS veteran Tom Recchion, the store has always embraced the avant garde with open arms and has played host to many LAFMS events in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s only fitting that they reissue Dennis Duck Goes Disco as part of the launch of their new record label.
So eat your heart out Christian Marclay. Not that the two are identical, and with no disrespect anyone, but Duck’s one-time experiment is a delicate reminder that there are always innovators who will never get due credit. And not to put Marclay on the spot, for there’s a seemingly endless amount of historical context that Goes Disco’s primitive turntablist tinkery fits into. Amongst mash-ups, DJ culture, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Phillip Corner, Pierre Schaffer, and you name it, Goes Disco could most easily be compared to the modus operandi of John Cage.
In the ’30s and ’40s, before delving deeply into compositions based on the I Ching and other chance operations, Cage primarily composed percussive pieces that bore the simplistic intricacies of Erik Satie. But far be it from the classical world to welcome Cage’s percussion, comprised of car parts, toy pianos, and other found items with open arms. Much like Duck’s carefully “prepared” turntable, Cage’s greatest invention from those years, the prepared piano, was made by meticulously placing nuts, bolts, screws, keys, etc. in between the strings on the piano according to diagrams and specific instructions within the written score, thereby altering the characteristics of the piano and giving it a more percussive effect. Just as Cage’s piano was (among the aristocrats at the time) a desecration of the most sacred instrument in music, Goes Disco too, sounds like a defiance of what is musically correct (even 30 years after the fact). It uproots musical form, basking in the sound of (in very broad terms) warped and skipping records. By meticulously deriving different combinations of speed, anti-skate, lopsidedness, and off-centered center holes, Duck finds new possibilities in what a turntable can do.
To further this somewhat blasphemous comparison of Goes Disco to the career of John Cage, Cage’s work from the ’50s and on was derived from chance operations, and though often misconstrued as randomness, he always operated with a detailed written score, creating something of a musical ‘choose your own adventure’ for each piece. Duck didn’t necessarily have the same egoless, Zen Buddhist motivation for his art that drove Cage, but there are parallels in their processes. Duck’s liner notes describe the specific ways in which the turntable was manipulated for each piece as though setting up the obstacle course for the Mousetrap board game. With all the compositional tools in place, the stylus is left to run through the grooves and barriers at its own freewill, and its ultimate sound is unique to that very moment in time.
Perhaps it’s not all that heavy-handed or intentionally asking for that much conceptualism. Duck unknowingly struck at gold using any vinyl not too precious to be destroyed, thereby making a “disco” comprised of society’s waste (unless you’re Don Bolles or Irwin Chusid). Old children’s records, instructional LPs, laboratory samplers, demonstration discs, and other curiosities are brought to life or hammered fiercely into the ground depending on your point of view. Like a child thrashing his records and breaking his father’s turntable, Goes Disco is indeed a brute tour de force, but fortunately there is a conscious sense of flow and continuity through the album. Duck digs humor out of otherwise banal narratives, desperately trying to move them forward, and children’s songs that sound like they’re melting. It’s things like these, as well as comical clauses and juxtapositions that keep Goes Disco from becoming tedious and allow the more minimalist, beat-induced skipping to become that much more effective.
Thirty years ago, Goes Disco couldn’t have come from a government grant (the U.S. still being behind the times in that regard) or a performance at Carnegie Hall. However, time has aided these pieces in terms of their value as high art. While critical writings such as this review seem like the antithesis of the impulsive activities of the LAFMS, history needs every anti-art movement it can get (and they have the fancy, “coffee table” box sets to back up their historical significance). Ultimately Dennis Duck Goes Disco works so well because its original intentions were more an obnoxious experiment than a grand artistic statement.