When the worlds of experimental Hi-NRG and leather chaps collide.
Pornography in 2015 is not exactly synonymous with pioneering and experimental electronic music. Given its now YouTube-like format in which anyone can film themselves getting fruity and upload it for the world to see, the sort of music one is prone to encounter is more likely to be the grainy sounds of 'Losing My Religion' blaring out of built-in laptop speakers in the background as an earnest couple are getting intimate on their webcam. Or maybe there's the leftover cliché, the Seinfeld-esque slap bass funk-style of music that seemed to typify the 70's output, adding a cocaine gleam to the production. However, a porn connoisseur I am most certainly not, so if I'm missing out on an acclaimed underground porno movement, the sort directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and soundtracked by Phillip Glass then you'll have to forgive me. However, should you have had a penchant for gay pornography in the late 1970's and early 80's then chances are you did come across such a period, one that was soundtracked by Patrick Cowley who, if you're not familiar, very much operated in the same way as someone like Arthur Russell or Larry Levan; an idiosyncratic figurehead and innovator of underground electronic music—a comparison that extends beyond musical similarities as Cowley, like Russell, would die from AIDS and like Levan it would be in his thirties. What he did manage to squeeze into his short musical life, however, is often more than some people can muster in twice the time.
Two of Cowley's porn soundtracks, School Daze and Muscle Up, have recently been posthumously released on Dark Entries, a label run by Josh Cheon. "I first heard Patrick's music through my friend Jeffrey Sfire. He played me the Mind Warp album and my life was changed forever", he says of discovering Cowley's music. Cowley moved to San Francisco in 1971 where he studied music and founded the Electronic Music Lab. One of his classmates and long-time collaborators Maurice Tani recalls the city that Cowley, a gay man, arrived in: "1970s San Francisco was a very sexually charged place. We were just a few years after the sexual revolution and the Summer of Love. The Stone Wall riots in NYC were still fresh and AIDS was still almost a decade away," he says. "The city was full of free love hippies, a rapidly growing community of gay people and straight, open relationships and singles." San Francisco was, he told me, "the capital of a new generation of pornography —bigger budget, more artistic and visible. Adult classified ads appeared first in the Berkeley Barb underground paper. Sex shops and bathhouses sprouted up across town, especially in The Castro and in the suddenly booming Folsom Street industrial area. By the time Pat arrived in San Fran, sex was everywhere, open and it was nearly all accepted as simply part of a wide range of preferences that were all fine and there to be explored as one felt like."
Cowley, when DJing one night, playing the sort of Disco / HI-NRG hybrid he later became primarily associated with, caught the attention of disco legend Sylvester. Cowley would go on to join Sylvester's band, playing synthesiser on such hits as "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)". However, despite these dabbles with the mainstream Cowley was fundamentally as much of an experimental artist as he was a disco savant. If Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love" is considered the epitome of disco music, a record that would change not only electronic and club music indefinitely but also several other genres (see Brian Eno running into the studio in Berlin one day, clutching the record and proclaiming, "I have heard the sound of the future" to David Bowie) then Cowley clearly wasn't phased by the stature of the song when he undertook his remix. He turned it into a near 16minute monster that was as wonky as it was propulsive, a form of HI-NRG music that he made undisputedly his own.
John Coletti, owner of the gay porn film company Fox Studio, was introduced to Cowley's music (he thinks through Sylvester but is not sure) and as the VHS and Betamax boom was in full swing Coletti needed some music for his films which were to be edited as sort of greatest hits clip release as their previous form, shot on 16mm film, had been silent. Having embraced the bathhouses and backroom bars of San Francisco's gay scene, this put Cowley in the perfect position to soak up all those experiences and give them a beat. Maurice Tani recalls these places at the time, "These places were generally seedy, gritty, intentionally dimly lit places. Not truly dangerous, but the vibe was hot, sweaty and dirty. Patrick plunged into this world as it grew and it became a major part of his life. The soundtrack to places like the infamous Barracks bathhouse was generally R&B dance music. Naturally, Pat was inspired to do his own signature take on sex music." Tani continues, recalling some of the first attempts to capture this sound, "His first attempts were song-based —sort of odes to sex— but he soon moved to more extended atmospheric pieces. He might create a 7-10 minute, multi-layer percussion bed and I'd lay a bass line groove over it. From there he would add layer on top of layer of synths, guitars, voices (spoken or sung), piano, whatever."
The end results, as can be seen in the edited NSFW-ish clips (and it depends how down your boss is with topless guys, a bit of bare ass and leather, I guess) captures a snippet of what was captured over the span of the two releases. As Cheon describes, the songs functioned within the films very literally, "Director John Coletti would edit the songs and slow them down or speed them up using as much of the song as possible for one scene only. As each song builds, so does the intensity of the scene and the climax of each song is timed to sync up with the climax of each orgasm."
The end music used for these films is truly innovative: rich, deeply soaked in tones and layers and brooding with murky atmospheres. Despite them being commissioned for such a specific project there is a beautiful ambiguity in the tracks and often you could just as easily be listening to the soundtrack for a Phillip K. Dick adaptation—as some tracks move from eerie, pulsating electronic ambience to grubby, explosive space-funk. When you learn that as a child Patrick covered the ceilings and walls of his bedroom with aluminium foil with stars and planets on them, these outer-planetary sonic tendencies make sense. It's worth noting though, as his friend and collaborator Jorge Socarras (Cowley produced for his band Indoor Life) said, "An evening of nothing but Hi-NRG would ultimately have bored Patrick—just as any one flavour of sex would have." When speaking of Cowley's proclivity to break new ground, explore new sounds and essentially transcend genres. Likewise Tani says simply, "Pat never stopped experimenting."
Sadly, Cowley's experimenting was put to an end when he passed away in 1982, a moment that changed things irreversibly for Tani, "Patrick burned brightly for a decade in San Francisco. By the time he died of AIDS-related illness in the fall of 1982, he was one of the earliest; they had just come up with a name for it. Patrick's passing was part of a massive change in San Francisco that cannot be overstated. The party was over." In Tani's eyes, what we now have of Cowley's music is only a window into the wonderful world he occupied in his time. "Taken out of context, the tracks Josh [Cheon] has unearthed from the archives [for Muscle Up and School Daze] tell only part of the story they represent. Pat was always on the edge of something new—even when his skills were still developing, his musical voice was expressing a fresh point of view from the crest of a wave of creative change that he rode to the end."
The Dark Entries Patrick Cowley reissues are out now on, yep, Dark Entries. Head here for more information.