Forty years ago, Pasadena High School hosted their annual spring concert of student orchestras and stage bands. Not content to merely record the show, the school released the full concert as a 3-LP box set to sell to students, parents, alums and others. However, in an era before CDs, PHS couldn't press up the records themselves. Instead, they turned to a company founded by one of their own former students: Custom Fidelity.
Once based at 7925 Santa Monica Blvd, near Fairfax, Custom Fidelity was one of the premier "private press" companies in Los Angeles. Anyone -- be it an individual, a band, a high school, et. al. -- could walk into Custom Fidelity and contract them to produce a record. Depending on how deep your pockets went, they could help record and engineer a session or take an existing recording and convert it to vinyl. Private presses handled all the manufacturing -- mastering, lacquering, pressing, etc. -- and then delivered a package of anywhere from 5 to 50 to 500 records to their clients. Using a custom company usually meant spending at least a few hundred dollars but unlike a regular record label, there was no A&R or industry suit deciding the worthiness of your project. Custom labels put out what you asked them to put out; there's a reason why many of these releases are known as "vanity records."
A new, 500 page book and accompanying compilation chronicles the rise and fall of American custom records: "Enjoy the Experience: Homemade Records 1958-1992." The book, edited by Johan Kugelberg and released on his and Eothen "Egon" Alapatt's new Sinecure Books, is a hefty compendium of album images, collector interviews and artist biographies, all dedicated to the massive, seemingly endless number of custom records made over the course of nearly four decades. On "Enjoy's" sister compilation, liner notes author William Gibson describes the recordings as, "artifacts of a media universe that no longer exists," a time before the ubiquity of digital recording and internet distribution meant that any inkling of a musical idea could potentially spread. Private press records were, by and large, meant to be literally private, i.e. not for public consumption.
Consider that a conventional record company in the 1960s or '70s -- Columbia or Atlantic for example -- had dense networks of regional distributors, retail stores, mail-order services, etc. to help move thousands, if not millions, of units across the country. A custom label, in contrast, provided manufacturing services but that was it. Once you received your box of records, you became the distributor; all that work fell on you. Some were sold as souvenirs at live shows. Others were sent to record labels as demos. But many simply languished, out of mass circulation. As a result, Kugelberg notes in his intro, "the records are truly ephemeral. Not expensive (usually)...but scarce."
Despite that scarcity, private press records form an important, alternate history of American music, one unencumbered by genre guidelines or industry tastes. That's one reason why Alapatt, who also runs the popular reissue label, Now-Again, out of Highland Park, worked with Kugelberg to make "Enjoy the Experience" the first book on their joint venture. "We [decided to] start out with Johan's great passion, which, by and large, for an American book publishing company interested in music, is probably the most important statement you can make...the private American musician from the latter half of the twentieth century." Compared with the more "official" version of music history we get from Top 40 charts and music magazines, Alapatt suggests, "I think you find something that's a lot quirkier and more interesting than the stuff you've gotten used to. You're looking [at] something that makes absolutely no sense sometimes. It follows...an illogical path."
That illogic, however, could also be purposeful. "It took a certain type of personality to say 'we're not going to rely on our record label to put our record out and sign us,'" says Chris "Thes One" Portugal, one-half of the L.A. rap group People Under the Stairs and another avid private press collector. "It takes a certain amount of gumption on the part of the artist to follow through. And sometimes, it's just because they knew how unsellable the record would be. Some of the private records are just so bizarre and weird that you can almost tell the type of artist that would just go through this process." "Enjoy the Experience" is filled with myriad albums in that vein. Alapatt runs down a few of his own favorites in the book, beginning with Gary Wilson. As a teenager in L.A., Wilson released a private album in 1977 called "You Think You Really Know Me."The LP became cult legend, partially for the song "6.4 = Make Out," a not-so-thinly veiled reference to a particular appendage measurement. "'6.4 = Make Out,'" like really? And you're only 16? That's the refrain?," jokes Alapatt. "Yeah, it's not going to get picked up." Likewise, Alapatt also mentions Bill Russell aka Médico Doktor Vibes, a Los Angeles transplant by way of Guyana, who, "made this weird, minimal synth, fuzz guitar record in Compton in 1979. No way that Bill Russell was getting signed by the most avant-garde of the avant-garde labels!"
(Listen to "Diska Limba Man" from the album)
It's easy to fixate on these records as eccentric and weird -- and they often are -- but that only tells part of the story. Recordings, regardless of format, are a primary way in which a modern society defines its musical culture. However, at least in the pre-internet age, we mostly fixated on records that widely circulated in the marketplace but those were hardly democratic: they represented the choices of record executives, radio programmers, and other elite gatekeepers. Custom records, on the other hand, had far less of a filter between artist and recording. It didn't matter how well (or poorly) you could sing or play an instrument. It didn't matter how well (or poorly) you understood the basics of songwriting and arrangements. You could still put out your own LP thanks to the custom companies and the recordings that have survived help document a different side of musical America, least of all in a city as vast and diverse as Los Angeles.
For example, Alapatt argues that custom press records often lie closer to the source of a city's identity. He discusses the Los Angeles soul/funk group Apple and the Three Oranges, helmed by drummer Edward "Apple" Nelson, who released a handful of 7" singles on small local labels, including his own Sagittarius imprint. "We find much more about the city, I think, listening to Apple and Three Oranges than we do listening to Charles Wright [of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band" claims Alapatt. "Apple, who was gigging with a lot of the same guys in the city, had no pretense of making music that was going to sell. First and foremost, he spoke about the experience of being a hustler in Watts, stealing things from people in Beverley Hills and Bel Air to pay for his recording dreams and cheating on his wife that he's having sing background vocals on a record about another woman. This is the real Los Angeles, '70s gangster doing his gangster shit. I love Charles Wright. It's polished, beautiful music. But when I'm thinking about what it must have been like to live in Los Angeles, I listen to Apple and the Three Oranges."
For Portugal, private press records are also an intimate connection to the "local" in the most literal ways. "There is no firewall between the artist and the art and us," he points out. "You look at a Brian Wilson or a Beach Boys [record], there's not a whole lot of information because it's been passed through the graphic designers of the label. The address on the label is the record label's address." In contrast, he offers up the example of one of his favorite L.A. custom records, "The Naked Truth" by "Captain Puff," the nom-de-plume of Owen Marshall who recorded the album at both Compton and Los Angles Community Colleges. When Portugal first came across the album at a record swap, "I flipped it over, and the guy's butt-naked playing the flute. I was sitting there, reading the liner notes that the artist actually wrote himself, and I get to the end and look at the address, and the address is two doors down from where I am sitting." This was on the southern edge of Koreatown and Portugal called up a friend and both walked over to the house and knocked on the door. "A Korean family had moved in but we had the record with us and we could look at the pictures on the back of the record and see it's the exact house on the record. That's an awesome thing about these records and how they relate to a very real, very physical history of L.A.," he says.
One irony about private press records is that despite their hyper-local-ness, many of them visually appear to have come from Genericville, U.S.A. As dozens of pages in "Enjoy the Experience" catalog, many custom records used identical stock photos -- a rainbow in the sky, disembodied hands raised upward, a beach at sunset. Spend enough time looking through bins of rescued private press LPs and these images become as familiar as a sports logo.
The repeated stock images were a simple product of small budgets. A custom label could, if you wanted, help produce unique artwork so long as you had the art or photos but for most clients, the stock image option was the least expensive. In some cases, the stock imagery was done "in house" as was the case with Ohio's QCA (which is still in business as a custom label). Alapatt learned that, "the guy from QCA was taking the photos himself. Here's 'towering pines and a waterfall.' I have 50 records that have that jacket." The photographer behind the book's "beach at sunset" image is lost to history but Alapatt muses, "it's one of the greatest stock record cover images ever. It says everything about an artist's hopes and aspirations. It's the American dream, and yet, how many people who were considered to be 'losers' in the music industry's game have that as a record cover?"
Alas, for Pasadena High School and their 1973 Spring Concert albums, Custom Fidelity sent back their order back in a generic, black cardboard box: no stock image of a beach, sunset or otherwise. The company did include a personalized letter however, promising them "THIS RECORD IS GUARANTEED." As it turned out, Custom's president and founder, David Berkus, was an alum of the school and the letter makes point to mention this: "Dave graduated from PHS, founded CF while a student there, and takes a personal interest in the quality of his records." Now that's custom service.