Thirty years since the death of pioneering producer and synth genius Patrick Cowley, Rory Lewarne looks back on the creator of the “San Francisco Sound”
Cult VIP taken from the January Issue of Dazed & Confused:
That whoosh. Those space-age sounds. When “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real”, sung in a swooping falsetto by Sylvester, an ambisexual black queen built like an American-football player, really hit in 1978, the appeal was immediate. Sylvester’s implicitly homosexual gospel message of becoming yourself on a dancefloor was made transcendent by synth flourishes and an electronic disco beat, in the spirit of the genre’s 1977 futurist manifesto, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. Yet these electronic elements were only added to the track at the last minute, following a chance encounter with Patrick Cowley, America’s own Giorgio Moroder.
It was one of many key moments in Cowley’s short, amazingly productive career. By the time he died, just four years later, he had created countless hits for a whole stable of artists, and pioneered an innovative yet brutally simple hi-NRG sound that soundtracked and exalted the ritualistic gay underground he belonged to.
“Mighty Real”’s parent album, Step II, was Sylvester’s attempt to ride the disco wave after too many years of never quite making it. The track was already recorded when he played it at the City nightclub, where he was performing. The venue’s likeable, blond, 28-year-old spotlight guy invited him home to hear some tapes of his synthesiser work. When he heard it, Sylvester “totally flipped out”, he later said, sensing that this synth genius – Cowley – was the magical ingredient to take his own sound to a new level. Space-age gospel. The future. Cowley came into the studio and overdubbed and rejigged “Mighty Real” and its followup single, “Dance (Disco Heat)”. On release their impact was immediate, and transformed Sylvester into the star he always knew he was.
A music-obsessed English major from Buffalo, New York, Cowley moved to San Francisco in 1971 to study synthesisers at the City College’s inaugural Electronic Music course. That wasn’t the city’s only appeal; as his friend and collaborator Jorge Socarrás notes, San Francisco was undergoing a youth and gay culture revolution. “It was an eye-opener for young people from the north-east,” Socarrás says now, from his home in New York’s Meatpacking District. “It was very, very exciting, and of course, the plentitude of drugs certainly fed into the equation!” When Cowley met Socarrás, who was studying performance art, they became fast friends. “I know we slept together at some point,” Socarrás says. “It was such a ritual in those days that when you met someone you slept with them. I mean, assuming that you liked them and they were interesting to you. That was just part of becoming friends, and we became best friends.” Socarrás was seeking original music to soundtrack his performances. “I told him what I wanted, something very hypnotic, trance-like. He did a beautiful job, and loved the challenge of being given a very specific context. Shortly thereafter he announced, very matter-of-factly, that he wanted to make music with me and he wanted me to sing, and I was like, ‘Sure, sure!’”
They almost immediately started collaborating on songs together. “It was very Svengali-like,” Socarrás continues, “but he was like that, because he was working with other singers and doing different projects with each of them. We started recording in the early mid-70s, about the time he was starting to play with Sylvester’s musicians. It wasn’t long before he began making music with (singer) Paul Parker, and he was working on music for shows, a theatre group called Warped Floors. He was collaborating on projects all around.” With Socarrás, Cowley made weird art-rock far removed from the hi-NRG that would make his name.
At the same time, Cowley was getting very into San Francisco’s developing gay scene, which would provide stimulus for his future sound. “He had a very mythological sense about the gay, erotic underworld,” Socarrás says, “and created his own special vision of it. One day he announced, ‘Okay, I’m taking you to the Jaguar Bookstore.’ He decided that I would become a member of this gay men’s sex club in the Castro, and he would initiate me. He took me there, he made me get a card, and I had a totally mythical experience worthy of a (arty San Francisco porn director) Wakefield Poole movie. I came to understand more about the appeal of this world that he frequented.”
Connected to this was the emergence of disco, based initially around local club the Mindshaft, where the resident DJ was John Hedges. “People were producing their own records and putting them out on small labels, and selling them like crazy without radio play,” Hedges, who now lives in Palm Springs, remembers. “Huge numbers, especially in the gay community. Soon Billboard magazine got on the bandwagon and disco exploded.”
At first, Cowley kept his own ambitions under his hat. His first known remix was his 1977 Mega Mix of Michele’s “Disco Dance”, produced by remix pioneer Tom Moulton. In what would become a signature move, Cowley elongated the tune and drenched it in futuristic synths. It was just a warm-up for his legendary 15-and-a-half minute 1978 Mega Mix of “I Feel Love”, an underground sensation when distributed on acetate that year.
Heard today, Cowley’s mix is surprisingly similar to the original, perhaps explaining why its popularity baffled Moroder. What the American did was to stretch the original idea to its logical limit – reshaping it into an unending dancefloor dream that rose and fell to the pulse of Moroder’s continuous, abrasive arpeggiated synthbass, but always returned to Donna Summer’s soulful, orgiastic vocals. He also smothered it in a welter of his own outrageous, almost prog-rock synthwork. The result evoked and glorified the ritualistic repetition of the club environment, inspiring DJs, mixers and producers around the world, especially after finally making it to vinyl in 1980. In 1982 it reached #21 on the UK singles chart. On hearing it for the first time, the young JD Twitch, who would later found Glasgow club/label Optimo, was an instant fan for life. “There are some records I have heard too many times to enjoy any longer,” he says now, “but I can’t imagine ever getting bored of Patrick Cowley’s mix of ‘I Feel Love’.”
For Socarrás, it was the first time he understood what his friend was creating. “They’d arranged to play it for the first time at the biggest gay dance-club in San Francisco. When it came on, and there were 300 guys whipping off their shirts and going into this exalted hi-NRG mode, that’s when I really understood what Patrick was doing. I got it. He was inspired by, and creating music for, this scene, this jubilant brotherhood that was very celebratory about its sexuality, its independence, its freedom.”
After “Mighty Real” hit in the autumn of 1978, peaking at #8 in the UK chart and #36 in the US Hot 100, Cowley toured the world with Sylvester’s band. On the one hand it was an excessive, celebratory lifestyle, but on the other it was a struggle, night after night, just to get his Prophet V to actually work. On Sylvester’s next album, Stars (1979), he wrote both the title track and the slow, grinding, house-y “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight”.
Their work together was a hit with critics and dancefloors, but a backlash was coming. In 1979, following a Disco Demolition Night at a baseball game in Chicago, when DJ Steve Dahl blew up disco records to chants of “disco sucks!”, mainstream radio suddenly dropped the whole genre. Record labels were running scared, and Cowley was banned from the studio for Sylvester’s next album, the ironically titled Sell My Soul (1980), on the grounds that synths were passé. More ominously, Cowley returned sick from a tour of South America. Friends assumed – hoped – it was food poisoning.
Of course, disco didn’t die; it simply went underground, back to its club roots. A coterie of producers developed in San Francisco, based around such luminaries of the scene as Cowley, Hedges and their friend Marty Blecman. In 1981 Cowley released the futuristic, druggy and explicitly gay solo single “Menergy”. Co-written with Blecman and sung by The Patrick Cowley Singers (two of which would later become Jo-Lo), it topped the national dance chart, despite such poppers-soaked lyrics as “The boys in the back room laughin’ it up, shootin’ off energy / The guys in the street talk checkin’ you out, talkin’ ‘bout Menergy”.
The first in a string of hits, its enormous hooks and distinctive production introduced what would become known as the San Francisco Sound. With Blecman, he founded Megatone, a label dedicated to “masculine music”, and released “Megatron Man”, a science-fiction synth chant that made #2 on the dance chart. He released three albums on Megatone, as well as producing hit singles for Paul Parker (“Right On Target”), Frank Loverde (“Die Hard Lover”), and others. In each of these cases, with the same “Svengali-like” tendency with which he encouraged Socarrás to sing, he helped nurture his friends’ talent until they developed whole careers. Socarrás himself was now in New York and touring Europe with his own band Indoor Life. (Cowley produced their first EP.)
Incredibly, he would be dead less than two years after “Menergy”’s release. “Patrick started having health problems in 1980,” Socarrás says. “At first the doctor thought it might be mould in his apartment. They had no idea what it was, even though by this point in ’81 there was talk about the ‘gay cancer’. I was so oblivious that I went to the hospital and he seemed relatively well to me – I was joking so much that he was trying to be angry but couldn’t, he was laughing so much. He was going, ‘Your behaviour is totally inappropriate! You’re not supposed to be making me laugh!’ I never really thought when I saw him that he was going to die.
“I had to go back to New York, and that was the last time I saw Patrick. He did one more touring cycle and died in ’82. He was my first close buddy to die from what would very soon finally have a name, Aids, but even when he died it was ambiguous. He became one of the first documented cases in the medical world.”
His final recordings might not have happened without the energising reappearance of Sylvester, who had split with his management. After Cowley was taken into intensive care on New Year’s Eve, 1981, “I would go there as much as I possibly could, and read my bible and just be with him,” Sylvester said in David Diebold’s 1986 history of the San Francisco dance scene, Tribal Rites. “I finally told him he HAD to get better. That everyone was waiting on a joint project from us, and that he just had to try harder. I told him I wasn’t going to have it any more and to get his ass up so we could go to work.”
When Cowley got out of the hospital he and Sylvester made one final classic together, the irresistible cowbell-laden single-entendre “Do Ya Wanna Funk” (the title brooked no question mark), another hit for Megatone. The now wheelchair-bound Cowley also completed another solo album, the gloomy, dystopian Mind Warp. Featuring the industrial “Tech-No-Logical World” – in which Paul Parker surveys the glory of the modern world and concludes sadly (if presciently), “Communication network everywhere but the flags of doom unfurl” – and tracks with titles like “Mutant Man” and “Goin’ Home”, it was clear where his mind was at.
When he died, on November 12, 1982, Mind Warp was at #4 in the dance chart, proving that his golden touch remained. Megatone and its artists continued, steered by Blecman, until, one by one, many were struck down by the same disease. Sylvester passed in 1988, Loverde in 1990, Blecman in 1992.
Club culture moved on almost immediately, leaving Cowley’s once science-fiction sound stuck forever in 1982. His innovations were seized on by everyone from Bobby Orlando and Stock, Aitken & Waterman to New Order, Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys. His project with Socarrás was left forgotten until reissued as Catholic in 2009, to a stunned reaction from fans who had not been aware of its existence.
But his influence persists as young people continue to discover him. For Twitch, he remains an inspiration. “What affects me most is the fact that he was so cruelly taken away from us at such a young age. God only knows what other marvels he’d have created if he’d remained with us. If there was an afterlife, Patrick Cowley and Arthur Russell would be two of the very first people I’d want to give a huge hug of thanks to.”
Main image: Patrick Cowley (arms behind head) and Jorge Socarrás in a proposed cover for their Catholic project, shot by Archie Style. All archive images courtesy of Daniel Heinzmann. Visit his online tribute to Patrick Cowley here