The Aging Punk.014

Thursday, 05 March 2009

I'll admit it. This is probably the best time ever to be a music fan. Why? Because whatever kind of music you like—from the most popular hip-hop to the most radical avant jazz (and from the most popular smooth jazz to the most radical progressive hip-hop)—it's out there somewhere where you can find it. Someone is not only playing it, they are making it easily available to you.

There are two reasons for this, and they both trace back to (surprise, surprise) the internet. They are also interrelated to such a degree that it is hard to separate them. First, there are more musicians playing and releasing music in a greater variety of styles than ever before. Secondly, there are more sources to hear and acquire that music than ever before.

Now, it's probably obvious how the variety of styles, and even the sheer volume of music being released, would encourage a growing number of music sources, but I believe the process works in reverse as well, that the number of sources one can use to find music encourages bands to be more flexible, and original, in what they play. The internet provides them with the hope of finding an audience, however esoteric their style may be. Under the previous model (getting your record on the radio), there was a direct equivalence between the commercial potential of your music, and its chance of finding an audience. That is no longer the case.

So, whatever kind of music you like, it is out there, just waiting for you to discover it. Granted, finding it may take some effort, whether it's trolling MySpace Music, or utilizing a music recommendation site such as Pandora or LastFM, or just relying on your friends to point you in the right direction. But it is there, and you can find it.

But it's not just music being produced today which you can find. Almost any music ever recorded shows up on the internet somewhere these days, which enables you to search the past as well as the present for your taste. And it enables musicians who thought their time had come and gone to gain a new lease on success, to get one more shot at an audience.

To illustrate this, here is the story of Laser Pace's Granfalloon, an album released in the early 70's which has been resurrected by the internet.

The early 70's were another wide-open period in rock music (though not nearly as wide-open as today). The late 60's had been a period of wild experimentation in rock music, and that experimentation carried over into the 70's. Prog rock, fusion and art rock took that experimentation into wild new directions.

It was also a time when record companies and the other commercial powers, had—to a certain degree—lost control of the music business. Much of this was because music simply progressed too fast for the record companies to keep up with. The musicians had as much say as anyone about what they played and what was released, resulting in a large volume of non-commercial music being released.

However, that would not last long. The record companies quickly reasserted their control, turning rock music into the big business it would be for the next thirty years. And in the process, the music became formulaic again. (Witness the progression of prog rock itself, from the innovation of early Yes and King Crimson to the cliches of Kansas and Styx.)

Still, a number of wildly experimental albums managed to slip into that gap, between experimentation and formula, between anarchy and consolidation. Laser Pace's Granfalloon was one.

Laser Pace was, at its core, three musicians—Maureen O'Connor on guitar and vocals, Doug Decker on bass and synthesizer, and Chris Christensen on drums and vocals—although a number of other musicians participated on Granfalloon. In the early 60's, Doug and Chris were in a band called Opus 1, who had a hit with "Back Seat 38 Dodge" and still has a cult following. At the same time, Maureen played lead guitar in an all-girl band (extremely rare for the time) called The She's.

In 1967, Chris was drafted. Doug and Maureen, meanwhile, became a couple. When Chris emerged from the army in 1970, the three began playing together. This informal jamming eventually coalesced into Laser Pace.

By this time, Doug had begun working as a recording engineer. He worked with Wally Heider on such recordings as Hendrix's Band of Gypsies and the Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Yas Out. While working as an engineer at United/Western Studios in 1972 and 73, he was able to use studio downtime to record his own projects, which became Granfalloon. He did try to shop the record to various labels, including Capital, which told him "Interesting, but we already have Pink Floyd."

In 1971, he had started working for John Fahey's Takoma Records. Fahey, a finger-picking guitarist, had formed Takoma in 1959 to release his first album (far ahead of musicians such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who would set their own record companies in the late 60's and early 70's). By the 70's, he was regularly releasing his own work, and that of other artists he enjoyed, including Leo Kottke and George Winston, on Takoma. Doug had helped Fahey capture the guitar sound he wanted in the studio, and Fahey in turn offered to release a Granfalloon on Takoma.

Granfalloon is truly a strange record, especially for its time. Influenced by King Crimson and Kurt Vonnegut, Laser Pace produced a combination of funky rhythms, prog rock improvisation and futuristic lyrics. The music builds in long, flowing jams.

Another important influence was actually one of their instruments, a Buchla synthesizer. Donald Buchla invented his synthesizer in 1963, the same year that Robert Moog invented his more famous version. While the Moog Synthesizer rapidly came to be used primarily to imitate the sounds of regular instruments (a trend that was encouraged by the inclusion of a keyboard on the Moog), the Buchla was designed to create its own sounds. This is how Doug used the Buchla on Granfalloon, and that pushed the album's sound even farther out, as Laser Pace worked to incorporate these sounds into their music. In many of the songs, such as "Avatar" and "Endless," the synthesizer sounds become the bedrock on which the jams are built.

Released in 1974, Granfalloon had some moderate sales, but never took off. Chris attributed this to three factors.

One, the lead guitarist was a woman. In another sign of how much rock music has changed in 35 years, in 1974 the only acceptable role for a woman in a rock band was as a (sexy) lead singer. Even though Maureen had been part of an all-woman band ten years previous, the idea of a woman guitarist still had little credibility. (Had anyone really listened to her guitar playing on Granfalloon—especially the final jam on "Scatter," where she takes us into the stratosphere and back—maybe that would have started to change earlier.)

Secondly, it didn't receive a lot of promotion. Takoma was a small label, and didn't have the resources to promote the album heavily. Also, Granfalloon didn't really fit with the rest of their list, which was primarily acoustic music. Takoma may not have known how to promote such a bizarre release.

Which brings up the third, and probably most important reason—it was just too weird. Granfalloon is a bizarre album, especially for the time it was released. Although it fit in with the prog rock of the day, it was on the outer fringe of even that. It also incorporated aspects of early 70's funk, not readily associated with prog at the time. Interestingly, in discussions of the album today, it is often compared to bands such as Pere Ubu, which actually came after Granfalloon.

Granfalloon quickly made its way into the cut-out bins, and then vanished. Although they started to work on a follow-up album, Laser Pace broke up due to the usual band tensions before it was completed.

In 1979, Takoma was sold to Chrysalis, and became part of the giant corporate structure dominating rock music. Its more popular releases (Fahey's own albums, Leo Kottke, etc.) were kept in print, but it ceased to be any source of innovation.

But Granfalloon never disappeared completely. Laser Pace had built a following in Europe (always more open to experimental music than the U.S.), and the record continued to sell in places like Italy.

Many years later, enter the internet and its ability to connect people; in this case, people who like obscure music—record collectors, tape traders, and the like. Widely scattered geographically and socially, they are nonetheless eager to come together over their obsessions, in chat rooms and discussion boards and all the other networking which makes up the internet.

Chris, realizing the potential here, "began doing periodic internet searches on this and other past projects with which I had been involved, fanning the flames when and wherever I could, well aware that… contact with your fans was the way to generate interest in your music – past, present and future."

One thread which caught Chris's attention was on a bulletin board called ILM (I Love Music). One Scott Seward acquired a copy of Granfalloon, and began raving, "Fantastic stuff. I haven't even listened to the second side yet, and I'm already in love."

More than just raving about Granfalloon, Seward posted some mp3 tracks of the album, so the other members of the board could hear it for themselves. This kept the discussion going, and made it more interesting. One reader calling himself Gott Punch II Hawkwindz said, "Man this stuff is strange. I'm always waiting for that cheesy moment, that explosion into gucky super melodic pop or something, but it always heads in another direction."

Chris, who was monitoring the discussion at this point, had no problem with letting the members of the board download tracks from the album. As he says, "Conventional wisdom would be to shut this file sharing of copyrighted material down immediately. I encouraged them to share and discuss… this is exactly the kind of thing that fosters loyalty and helps build a strong fan base."

Eventually, a board member named Dow proposed contacting Anthology Records (actively rereleasing numerous titles from the 60's and 70's), to see if they would be interested in the album. At that point, Chris joined in the discussion, offering to contact Doug and Maureen, who had the original master tapes, and running the idea past them.

In the end, negotiations with Anthology fell through, but Doug was encouraged enough by the renewed interest that he rereleased Granfalloon himself, making it available on CDBaby and his own websites. And it has been selling steadily ever since.

Doug and Maureen are also talking about getting the group back together; they did play one reunion gig in Albuquerque, NM, in the spring of 2008. They are also reviewing other material Laser Pace recorded, including the second album. A future Laser Pace album, of either old or new material, remains possible.

The important thing here is that this is in no way an isolated incident. Old, out of print albums are being rereleased every day. Anthology records, to give just one example, have rereleased dozens of albums from the 60's and 70's (although they did not, in the end, rerelease Granfalloon).

The other important factor is how much this is driven by the fans. Chris was out there fanning the flames for Granfalloon, but Scott Seward discovered it on his own. Chris didn't even join the ILM thread until a certain level of enthusiasm about the album had been reached. Which brings me back to my original point—what a great time this is for music fans. For, not only can you discover whatever sort of music you like, you can even play an active role in its promotion. You too could start talking up your favorite, obscure out-of-print album and—who knows—see it rereleased due to your efforts.

G. Murray Thomas writes and performs poetry because he can't sing. He can be found at


Laser Pace – Granfalloon is out now. Buy it on CDBaby.


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