Today is the 25th anniversary of the death of one of my heroes (and another one of those dance music legends suffering from a SERIOUS respect defecit), Patrick Cowley.
As much as Giorgio Moroder, Cowley introduced electronics into a genre that had been until-then composed primarily with traditional instruments, in effect inventing electronic dance music.*
Born in Buffalo, NY in 1950, Patrick moved to San Francisco in 1971, where he began studying synthesizer at the City College of San Francisco. Though he was originally more interested in prog rock and the like, he soon found himself immersed in San Francisco’s disco scene: he began working as a lighting tech at the City Disco on Montgomery and Broadway, and soon he was running lights and playing organ for up-and-coming disco legend Sylvester. All the while he was working on quirky synth projects in his spare time, and eventually he played some of this stuff for Sylvester and the rest of the band. Sylvester’s pianist (and sometimes Cowley rival) Michael Finden:
“He had a tape which he let us hear and Sylvester became very intent on somehow integrating this synthesized music into our basically R&B sound at the time. It was really quite astonishing to hear his work at that point in time because he really created a whole new sound and technique which was very fresh for 1978.”**
Patrick got brought more and more into the creative side of Sylvester’s records, first racking up a lot of synth and co-writing credits and then moving on to production duties. Here’s one of his first writing credits for Sylvester, “Stars”:
In 1981 he founded Megatone Records with local DJ (and 1/2 of Hi-NRG duo Modern Rocketry) Marty Blecman, as a reaction to the sudden dearth of Hi-NRG releases in thee wake of the disco backlash of 1979/1980. Fellow San Fran DJ (and frequent Disconet remixer) Casey Jones describes the Cowley/Megatone style: “It was a druggy sound. It was an ‘up’ sound. The whole scene in San Francisco at the time pretty much revolved around ‘up’ drugs. The entire gay disco scene has in fact, since the mid to late seventies, been influenced by music which would complement their drug highs.”**
Basically the stuff Cowley was working on was a kind of gay parallel universe proto-rave: harder, faster, and more synth-driven than anything that had previously existed, layering new wave, prog rock, then-nascent ambient music and industrial, science fiction, and often hardcore gay imagery and lyrics onto a disco framework that had until then been simply an extension of soul and R&B. A couple of example cutsâ€”first, from his Debut LP “Megatron Man”, a cover of the theme from the 1950s Lloyd Bridges TV series “Sea Hunt”:
Second, his legendary remix of the Giorgio Moroder-produced Donna Summer smash “I Feel Love”â€”basically a re-edit of the original with a ton of added synthwork. For those of you familiar with the original, this take is a pretty good way to get a feel for his synth genius.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of this is that he did it all in the pre-MIDI era. In fact, he died a full year before MIDI would be invented. All he had was some synths and an 8 track recorder: no sequencers, no computer, no fairlight, not even DIN sync.
By late 1981 Megatone was doing quite well: Sylvester had ended his contract with Fantasy to record exclusively for Cowley, and Cowley’s own album had just broken the Billboard dance chart’s top 10. But like a lot of the gay men in late-1970s San Francisco, Patrick Cowley lived hard, and it caught up to him sooner rather than later. Fellow Hi-NRG producer Frank Loverde recounts: “He really didn’t have much of a social life, it was just music and the baths, music and the baths. That’s probably how he got sick.”** Cowley was on a tour of South America in November of 1981 when he came down with AIDS-related Pneumocystis. He was hospitalized in San Francisco, literally days away from death in an era before any real understanding of HIV/AIDS even existed, much less treatment options. Marty Blecman remembers:
“Patrick, at the time, was screaming for us to unplug him, and his father was freaking out…but [Sylvester] went in and held Patrick’s hand and prayed with him, and told him that he better get out of there quick because as soon as he did they would go into the studio together and record a new album. Well, he pulled through and went over to Paul Parker and Ken Crivello’s house to recuperate for a while and then began working.”**
His second LP, “Mind Warp”, would turn out a lot darker than his previous work (or any Hi-NRG record do that point, really). Basically the first album of the AIDS era, the whole record is this moody, thinly-veiled exploration of what it’s like to be on the brink of death, set to bizarre sci-fi disco soundscapes. Perhaps the eeriest track on the album, however, is also the poppiest: The final cut, “Goin’ Home”, is a fluffy synth-disco number which, after six tracks of depressed, paranoid, anxious music, seems to be Cowley’s way of welcoming death. The lyrics: “Goin’ Home / Leavin’ troubles far behind / Goin’ Home / Far beyond all space and time / We’re on a journey to parts unknown / We’re gonna take you along.”
Here’s the darker “Mutant Man” (a title with obvious resonances for a man living with what was, at the time, a deadly mystery disease), which segues into “Goin’ Home” around the 5 minute mark:
Megatone artist Paul Parker describes Patrick’s mindset at the time: “During that period of Patrick’s life it was very obvious through his song-writing what was on his mind…He died a short while after finishing ‘Goin’ Home’ which was…very indicative of his situation at the time.”**
Backup singer Jo-Carol Black (later in the group JoLo) recalls the sessions:”When we were working later on the ‘Mindwarp’ LP (the ‘death record’ as we called it), we’d tell Patrick that we were just not singing that stuff, but he’d put his foot down and tell us that it was just what he wanted to sayâ€”to express.”**
Cowley wrapped up a few other projectsâ€”a full length Paul Parker album, the legendary Sylvester single “Do Ya Wanna Funk?”â€”before finally succumbing to AIDS-related illness on November 12, 1982. Twenty-five years later, I still don’t think many people have bested his synthwork, especially in light of the technical constraints within which he was working. It’s a shame he didn’t have a chance to put out more, or to see and participate in the stylistic and technical revolutions that would hit electronic music a few years after his passing. We miss you, Patrick!
*I know SOMEBODY is going to bring up Kraftwerk in response to my comment about who did or did not invent electronic dance music, but allow me to nip that nonsense in the bud: Kraftwerk were certainly ELECTRONIC music, but they weren’t DANCE music until post-Cowley disco DJs repurposed their music as such. Kraftwerk were a bunch of hippy-dippy acid rock synth-tinkerers (not that there’s anything wrong with that) until American DJs recontextualized Trans Europe Express as a dance thing, and only then did they start to make tracks like Tour De France, Numbers, etc.
**These quotes are taken from fellow Megatone artist David Diebold’s book Tribal Rites, an excellent collection of photographs and interviews from virtually every major (and minor) player in the San Francisco dance music scene, many of whom have passed since the book’s publication in 1987. It’s a great resource if you can snag a copyâ€”thanks to Katie’s mom for the hookup!