One Punk’s Guide to Electronic Music Pioneer and Disco Producer Patrick Cowley by Billups Allen

One Punk’s Guide to Electronic Music Pioneer and Disco Producer Patrick Cowley by Billups Allen

Originally appeared in Razorcake #107 Dec. 2018/Jan. 2019

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One Punk’s Guide to Electronic Music Pioneer and Disco Producer Patrick Cowley by Billups Allen

In 1978 a DJ subscription-only remix of the already popular Donna Summer song “I Feel Love” went out in the mail. It was 15:43 long. The bass line was looped so overdubbed synthesizer effects could be added. This particular version of the song went largely unnoticed by the general public and did nothing to make producer Patrick Cowley a household name. But dancers in nightclubs reacted. They may have been unaware and/or unconcerned about what they were hearing, but they reacted. They danced.

The first time I heard the name Patrick Cowley I was in a band with a friend in Brooklyn. She figured out songs to cover and brought them in without playing the originals for us. Thinking the mystery was fun and not being totally internet savvy at the time, it was a while before I heard Cowley’s original version of “Teen Planet”: a boppy rocker released as a single for his label Megatone Records. The song came across as Devo-inspired to me, with sci-fi lyrics and bouncy melodies carried on a raspy-sounding keyboard. Years later, I discovered Devo to be devotees of Cowley’s sounds and his seminal dark electronic album Time Warp. Cowley’s interests spanned a range of music. During his short career, he released electrocuted versions of rock’n’roll, morose electronic masterpieces, and quality pornographic soundtracks. But Cowley is best known as a disco producer who broadened the definition of electronic dance music.

The word disco often evokes images of The Bee Gees dressed in white suits and Donna Summer’s teased hair swaying high above a madly refracting sequin evening dress, creating an idol under the wildly rotating light of a disco ball. And for many, those are the more palatable images. Disco in America is largely remembered as a joke: an embarrassing fad Americans let themselves be taken in by. It clogged the market with artistically bereft records. It caused family restaurants across the country to open after business hours and serve as cocaine-fueled playgrounds to people in unfortunate suits. It forced established artists to make a disco song for a paycheck. Established rock groups like The Rolling Stones and Kiss had disco-laden tracks to answer for at the end of the ’70s, stuffing their rock sensibilities into the legendary “four on the floor” drum beat—a steady, uniformly accented beat in 4/4 time—a rhythm pattern that’s easy to move to even if you can’t dance. Muppets, Disney characters, and popular movie themes got the disco treatment. It was easy to disco up anything during this time and make it marketable. This ad nauseam practice helped run disco as a genre into the ground as quickly as any fad that’s swept the nation.

Yet disco often doesn’t get credit for its globalizing properties. Soul and funk bands with a penchant for the correct use of the “four on the floor” drum beat broke through to mainstream success. African American artists broke through to the mainstream. Latin music found a forum in new markets. Working DJs pulled records from a variety of danceable genres—which had polarized the disenfranchised—and created welcoming and multicultural stomping grounds where people could be themselves away from the judgment of mainstream society. Mixing elements of funk, samba, soul, and leaving no stone unturned in search of a beat, DJs blurred the strict line of culture at the edge of the dance floor.

Some musicians found the loose restrictions on dance music to be an opportunity to experiment with electronic music. On the outskirts of the emerging and extremely commercial market, Cowley became a producer in a producers’ genre. He went on to make extended use of a new instrument that changed the shape of music in many genres: the electronic keyboard. Keyboards available by the early ’70s were archaically simple compared to the modern keyboard: an instrument that often took the form of bulky wooden furniture meant to replace the piano in the home. While the factory-direct keyboards were extremely limited musical instruments, Cowley was not afraid to pull apart a keyboard and wire it back in novel ways to obtain a specific sound. His library of electronic bleeps and mishaps were fused with heavy bass lines and drum breaks, pushing dance music beyond the speed of funk. Cowley was an analog innovator using “misplaced” wires and tape machines to construct beats and melodies that came across as otherworldly.

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Cowley played drums in local bands and studied English in his hometown until the call of freedom—in the form of an opportunity to study keyboards at City College of San Francisco—drew him to California in 1971. Using electric keyboards in pop music was a fairly new phenomenon. The loose curriculum at City College allowed Cowley to focus his studies primarily on electronic music. He also worked in the checkout cage for the A.V. equipment at the college, giving him unlimited access to the school’s instruments and editing equipment.

Cowley created keyboard loops and ominous tones that would eventually contribute to the new electronic sounds in music. He spent hours connecting wires and tape machines, looking for sounds that would inform his otherworldly dance singles. Cowley’s first loops were severely analog, assembled on tape machines, with Scotch tape splicing the sounds together. The effect of these rhythmic squawks and blips was often a space age sound with a furious pace interrupted by moments of space-age ambience.

Like many musicians interested in electronic and ambient music, Cowley was informed by the cold, synthesized ambiance of Giorgio Moroder. Moroder was a pioneer in dance music and soundtrack production. Moroder won an Academy Award for his somber electronic soundtrack to the grim 1978 film Midnight Express. The controversially not-tough score to Brian dePalma’s Scarface (1983), including the montage standard “Push It to the Limit,” is also among the long list of ’80s movies Moroder put his electronic stamp on. Stars such as David Bowie, Donna Summer, and Blondie worked with Moroder, utilizing his space-age sounds to create an alien landscape for their talents. Blondie’s slow-grind “Heart of Glass” beat became iconic for the selling out of punk rock. Dance music with dark sounds arranged in movable beats were arriving and quickly being accepted in the funk-infused dance clubs springing up across the nation.

Cowley took Moroder’s danceable style as an inspiration for a new style of dance music he unwittingly helped create: Hi-NRG. Cowley’s extended remixes were among the types that wouldn’t quit, creating long dance sessions and standing out among the funk classics that made up the average disco playlist.

While major cities like New York and San Francisco had thriving dance scenes where nightclubs employed seasoned, forward-thinking DJs, mainstream America was being introduced en masse to the exploding disco market. After the release of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, the disco fad had a meteoric rise. Nightclubs across the country popped up anywhere a dance floor and a bar could be erected. During this brief moment, and on a surprisingly large scale, disco’s melting pot dance floor reached a wider audience by unwittingly crossing tense racial lines and creating a place for groups oppressed by bigotry to feel at home.

The unified club scenes gave voice to communities largely ignored and unorganized, even in large cities. If there was one example of a scene where this all worked harmoniously, it was in San Francisco’s Castro District: a microcosm for how the world could come together through music. If you were in town and wanted to party, it was likely you were heading for The Castro. If you possessed bigoted tendencies, you would be run out of The Castro. Celebrities and regulars partied into the early morning hours.

Cowley lived in a cheap apartment among the all-night discos and nightclubs where an endless array of performers and club regulars spent their free time. Cowley would produce in his apartment crammed with keyboards, busted machines, and loose wires during the afternoon and then join the late-night crowd. Hanging around The Castro scene is where Cowley encountered one of his biggest collaborators.

Trained in a Watts-based church choir, Sylvester moved to San Francisco where a scene for underground dance music was emerging. He distinguished himself during a stint in the legendary drag group The Cockettes. His act mimicked the style of early blues women like Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday. Sylvester’s performances lacked the camp value popular in drag shows at the time, making him stand out among The Castro regulars. His segments of nostalgia for the golden age of jazz quickly became popular segments of the troupe’s variety show.

After leaving The Cockettes, Sylvester auditioned a variety of combinations of musicians. This culminated most successfully into his rock-tinged blues/soul act Sylvester And The Hot Band. The band had a reputation as a fiery live act, but it was evidently hard to bottle. The band released two albums between 1972-1974 and toured regularly to little praise. The two albums were largely unsuccessful. The touring mostly enabled the band to barely stay afloat financially. Sylvester traveled the country for two years, including places where it was dangerous for the cross-dressing singer to appear. These were rough years, but they helped cement the backbone of a seasoned performer. By the time Sylvester approached his solo career, he had few doubts about what he wanted from a band and himself.

As a solo artist, Sylvester became a legend and a star around The Castro. His unique repertoire was well known and he found regular work in a growing club scene. Sylvester was drawn to Cowley’s keyboard innovations. The two clicked and Cowley joined Sylvester’s touring band as a keyboardist.

The two enjoyed their longest stretch of success as collaborators on the album Step II. Sylvester’s signature hit, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” was created with Cowley in the production booth. The mechanical and ethereal keyboard experimentation hangs over hyper-funk bass and drum tracks. It was infectious and became the sound to replicate. The collision of Cowley’s unusual sounds and the hyper-speed funk speed became more popular and eventually gained him the highest success as a producer for the rising disco singer—his records featured in dance clubs all over the world. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” became a big hit on the Hi-NRG scene with Cowley producing and Sylvester on vocals. The song reached number eight on the U.K. singles chart and was number one on the Dance/Disco chart in America.

Sylvester’s seasoned performances were infections and the two were unstoppable as a team for a short while. “Do You Wanna Funk?” also tore up the dance charts with an increasing pace and harder-edged double entendre that made the dance floor move. “Do You Wanna Funk?” made it into the Eddie Murphy film Trading Places (1983). The sound culminated into a new high-velocity dance genre called Hi-NRG that became a staple in dance clubs in the early 1980s. Cowley went on to produce several hits in the genre, including several of Sylvester’s singles.

During a baseball game on July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, an Illinois radio DJ named Steve Dahl staged what was thought to be a benign publicity stunt. Dahl encouraged people to bring a disco record to the game and set it on fire. Patrons showed up with armloads of records to burn. Individuals running on to the field throwing records quickly got out of control. Police were called and the game had to be stopped due to the frenzy. The event helped bring the popular phrase “Disco Sucks” into the mainstream. Disco was already flailing by 1979, and Dahl’s publicity stunt helped disco became a dirty word. The backlash against the genre was massive. If the Comiskey Park event was directly meant to employ anti-gay sentiments or not, the underlying tone was to return to the macho lifestyle of beer and rock’n’roll. It was an easy sell. The country had quickly grown as tired of disco as it had of hula hoops and yo-yos. Disco records, including forty-five million copies of the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, a record that remains one of the best-selling albums of all time, began to languish in American closets.

To be fair, a natural backlash against disco was likely inevitable. Intellectual circles may also have felt tricked and/or betrayed by the meteoric rise of disco as much as the beer and rock crowd hated the genre for its repetitive, narcissistic, and artificial qualities. It’s largely remembered as a fad and a soulless genre: a crown jewel of the bland, self-obsessed age of early-’70s pop culture. Disco became passé by the time existing artists were choking the market with novelty disco records, obscuring the disco artists who maintained some integrity in producing dance music. The death of disco left many artists scrambling to stay relevant and helped to re-segregate music in the ’80s. The Comiskey Park event is remembered as a watermark for the disco’s death. But hardcore dance clubs around the world were not in and out with the trends. And as dance music evolved, so did the sounds of what people danced to.

The high-speed, alien rock Cowley helped define was not suffering from disco’s quick death. Dance music was getting faster with louder bass lines and ethereal injections of space-age noise. The Hi-NRG genre was the successor to funk on the dance floor, and Cowley was among the creators of its blueprint. Established dance nightclubs in large cities that were able to survive the fad of disco could still keep a line of patrons around the block. Cowley’s solo minor club hit “Menergy” became a standard for defining Hi-NRG and spent two weeks on the Disco/Dance chart in 1981.

In the early ’80s a variety of electronic production seeped into the club scenes. John Water’s famous muse and female impersonator Divine had several hit singles and made a living between films traveling the world doing club performances. Divine’s double entendre-laced titles were mostly framed with cheap Hi-NRG beats that allowed Divine’s unique point of view to shine. Hi-NRG was becoming a standard on the dance floors of clubs around the world.

Synth pop was also taking shape. Bands like Yazoo with their hit “Don’t Go” and Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” had songs appearing on DJ turntables while also breaking through to mainstream radio success. While the soft side of the keyboard was making waves in popular music, Devo were utilizing the keyboard in their unique way as a punk weapon. The Screamers’ double keyboard attack created angry chaos during their reign as a mainstay in the early L.A. punk scene. After the death of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, the members of Joy Division formed New Order and consoled themselves by experimenting with the keyboard. New Order produced one of the more recognizable songs to be deemed Hi-NRG: “Blue Monday.” The song does double duty as a club staple and goth anthem. The keyboard as a primary focus found a place in both popular and underground music: not just as a stock instrument, but as a versatile tool that could be augmented and modified to make smooth sounds or horrible, controlled noise. Cowley’s influence was spreading in the industry and the underground.

Cowley formed Megatone Records in 1981with his friend Marty Blecman. Megatone became a forum for Cowley’s music and a place to release singles by up and coming artists he had produced. Megatone represented what was going on in the San Francisco club scene and was a popular export for the city. Sylvester’s reputation as a performer and Cowley’s new sound was a collaboration that kept the two afloat financially, touring the world with Sylvester in the spotlight and Cowley on keyboards.

Cowley was experiencing an unprecedented balance between his artistic career and financial stability as a musician until he was pulled unexpectedly from an ‘81 European tour with Sylvester due to a mysterious illness with flu-like symptoms. He was sent back to America with pneumonia. Twice misdiagnosed, Cowley was chronically unwell for months and doctors were clueless as to why. Cowley had to give up touring in his final months, but never gave up on his music. He recorded his most powerful record while the Reagan administration ignored the public health crisis affecting thousands of Americans.

Cowley tragically became an early victim of the emerging AIDS crisis, recognized to be among the first group to suffer before the disease even had an official name. Being among the first wave of people to die of the disease, Cowley suffered a debilitating death in 1982. AIDS not only sadly claimed Cowley’s life, but eventually the lives of a large segment of the Megatone Records roster, including co-founder Marty Blecman, who succumbed in 1992.

Mind Warp was the third and final full-length album released in Cowley’s lifetime and infuses elements of his myriad of dance tracks with spacey interludes. Mind Warp is his auteur masterpiece. It has been said in interviews with friends that his state of mind—weathering the uncertain toll of AIDS—drove him during the making of the album. The album would become a symbol of the struggle and suffering against the then-unknown disease. The album is also remembered as an electronic masterpiece by fans of electronic music, mixing speed and ambiance in a space travel frame.

Finding a cure for AIDS and discovering how to control its spread was not a priority for the government. Sylvester succumbed to AIDS in 1988. In the six years between their deaths, little progress was made in terms of a cure, giving hope for survival, or funding for medical research.

Cowley’s electronic innovations and speeding up of dance beats became a standard in the ensuing Hi-NRG style that became the soundtrack to the serious dance clubs of the ’80s and early ’90s. Hi-NRG became popular worldwide, returning nightclubs back into underground phenomena. Cowley also found much work composing for pornography. Cowley’s film soundtracks have been recently reissued and show a proclivity for scoring film. Here he was an innovator, strongly capturing the feeling of walking too close to the curtain in the back of the video store. Although it’s indicated he may have done this purely for the money, the recordings are hauntingly naughty and capture the essence of the twinge of privacy that made video store pornography exciting in the ’80s.

His success as a musician and producer came with few accolades at a time when experimenting with electronic dance music found few safe spaces other than in studios and dance clubs of ’70s. Outside of his dance music peers, many groundbreaking electronic artists cite Cowley as a major influence. His experimentation with keyboards and analog electronics made him a pioneer in electronic dance music. For those not interested in dance music, there is still a lot to explore in his catalogue, as his longer-form music is being unearthed and released.

 

Suggested Listening:

Patrick Cowley, Mind Warp, Megatone m-1004, 1982.

Patrick Cowley, Muscle Up, Dark Entries, DE 106, 2015.

Patrick Cowley, School Daze, Dark Entries, DE 052, 2015.

Sylvester. “Do You Wanna Funk?”, Megatone MT-102, 1982.

Bibliography:

Dayal, Geeta. “San Fran-Disco: how Patrick Cowley and Sylvester changed dance music forever.” The Guardian (U.S. Edition) 26 Oct. 2016: Culture. 19 July, 2018.

Echols, Alice. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. W.W. Norton: United States, 2010.

Gamson, Joshua. The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco. Picador, 2006.

Tani, Maurice. “liner notes to Muscle Up.” Patrick Cowley, Dark Entries 106, LP, 2015.

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