Music

Remembering Patrick Cowley, Pioneer of Dance Music and Occasional Composer of Porn Soundtracks

Melding psychedelia with disco at a fast tempo, Cowley helped refine a new music genre, “Hi-NRG,” which seemed ideal to enhance the hot and sweaty vibe of San Francisco’s gay clubs.

Patrick Cowley (photo courtesy of Dark Entries Records)

Good music often results from a happy encounter between inspiring places and talented artists. Such was the case with London and Handel, Paris and Chopin, New York and Dvořák. This was also the case with 1970s San Francisco and Patrick Cowley, a long-forgotten pioneer of electronic disco music who’s behind some of the best tracks of the time.

A nimble 21-year-old from Buffalo, NY, who had just come out of the closet, Cowley moved in 1971 to study electronic music at the City College of San Francisco. At the time, the city was cementing its identity as gay capital of the world, a cultural process grounded in 1967’s “Summer of Love,” which had attracted throngs of baby boomers celebrating sexual freedom, and the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, which had launched the gay rights movement. San Francisco’s rapidly growing gay population was centered in the Castro neighborhood, where bars, cafes, clubs, sex shops, and bathhouses flourished. Sex was everywhere and easily accessible.

Members of Jefferson Airplane performing at the KFRC Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival in Marin County, California, United States in June, 1967 (Photo via: Wikimedia Commons)

In the early 1970s, electronic music was still regarded as highly academic and too avant-garde to reach a wider audience. Analog synthesizers, the only technology available, were expensive, unpredictable, and incredibly difficult to operate. Yet Wendy Carlos’s and Morton Subotnick’s experimental electronic compositions, Steve Reich’s manipulation of magnetic tapes, and Terry Riley’s minimalism were in the air.

Quick-witted and energetic, Cowley spent his days composing music, and nights hitting the clubs and cruising the bathhouses. “It was a time of major changes in society and technology and he rode those changes in a space that embraced them” remembers Maurice Tani, a friend and recording partner, in an article on Cowley.

Patrick Cowley (photo courtesy of Dark Entries Records)

During one of those nights, in 1978, Cowley met the legendary singer Sylvester, who was in the midst of recording his second solo album. Cowley invited Sylvester over to play some of his synthesized music. It impressed the singer so much he asked Cowley to add to a couple of songs he had already recorded. Disco hits “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat)” were born and a collaboration began that would launch both of their careers, with several international tours and countless gigs. From there, Cowley went on to compose dozens of tracks, including an unauthorized remix of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” that is twice as long and possibly even better than the original.

Melding psychedelia with disco at a fast tempo, Cowley refined a new music genre: “High-energy,” (stylized as “Hi-NRG”) seemed ideal to enhance the hot and sweaty vibe of San Francisco’s gay clubs. It also influenced the entire music scene, anticipating the house and techno genres that emerged some 15 years later.

And then, at the peak of his career, Cowley started to feel ill. Doctors were puzzled over his weight loss, unable to diagnose an early case of AIDS. In spite of his physical condition, he released his third and final album. He died at his San Francisco home on November 12, 1982, at age 32.

Shortly thereafter, the entire system that had been instrumental to Cowley’s fame would be shaken to the core. As the AIDS epidemic progressed, grief, fear, shame, and anger overtook people. It wasn’t time to dance anymore. Hi-NRG faded away, and with it, Cowley’s myth and music — until its recent rediscovery by Josh Cheon of the record label Dark Entries.

Patrick Cowley (photo courtesy of Dark Entries Records)

A chance encounter with Cowley’s music led Cheon to undertake extensive research that has culminated in re-publishing Cowley’s long-lost compositions. The latest album, Mechanical Fantasy Box, was released last Autumn in conjunction with the publication of Cowley’s sexual diary of the same title.

Among the unexpected treasures Cheon unearthed was Cowley’s instrumental music for gay porn company Fox Studio. School Daze, Muscle Up, and Afternooners are a triad of evocative soundscapes, grand accomplishments of melodic sensibility, and very likely the best porn soundtracks ever created.

The three records overflow with erotic energy and desire. The sound is so reminiscent of the steamy saunas Cowley would frequent that it almost feels liquid: it drips, bubbles, and ebbs and flows in waves that conjure sexual fantasies and memories.

 

“Because he passed away at such a very young age, nobody knows what would have happened as his sound had continued to evolve. There’s a mystery there, questions left unanswered,” Cheon told Hyperallergic.

As interest in the years preceding the AIDS crisis grows, Cowley has finally re-emerged as a preternaturally talented artist and the personification of a bygone era.

Patrick Cowley (photo courtesy of Dark Entries Records)

Mechanical Fantasy Box is now available from Dark Entries

comments (0)