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Patrick Cowley’s pioneering electronica

Today, Patrick Cowley is barely known outside record-collecting circles: but his ecstatic electronic disco left an indelible mark on the music scene.

In the distant, glittering landscape of 1970s TV, Top of the Pops shook up notions of fixed gender identity often. Take David Bowie in his catsuited Ziggy Stardust pomp, throwing his arm lovingly (and back then, controversially) around band-mate Mick Ronson. Or Kate Bush in 1978, showing us a young woman who just couldn’t be quiet and sweet, undulating wildly and loudly, performing “Wuthering Heights”.

Later that year came Sylvester, in a pop video from America’s West Coast. He descended a staircase in perfect make-up like a film-noir femme fatale. He danced in a sequined robe and a turban like a glamorous earth mother. The record-buying public responded: “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” reached number eight in the UK singles chart and spent 13 weeks in the top 40.

The music behind Sylvester’s vocals felt particularly revolutionary. A turbo-charged, relentless new strain of electronic disco, it didn’t come from a seasoned studio producer. It came from an unassuming lighting technician at San Francisco’s City Disco nightclub: the 27-year-old Patrick Cowley. Voguish new synthesisers and sequencers were out of his means. Instead, he cut, spliced, layered and looped tapes together, and built his own primitive, imaginative electronic set-ups.

Cowley had already made a pumped-up, 16-minute version of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” before he worked with Sylvester. (It is still considered the definitive “I Feel Love” remix by many contemporary DJs, 42 years later.) And before Cowley lent Sylvester a tape of his experiments, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” was a slow, R&B/gospel song. After its electronic reinvention, it became a clarion call for LGBTQ club culture, and Cowley’s Hi-NRG sound inspired the sonic rush of the decade that followed. (The Pet Shop Boys and New Order mentioned his influence in interviews; genres such as house and techno bear the imprints of his DIY, progressive style.)

But today, Cowley is barely known outside record-collecting or committed clubbing circles. This is largely because he died in November 1982, aged 32, of complications from a debilitating syndrome only named four months earlier: Aids. His reputation has also risen in recent years since the US label, Dark Entries, discovered and released lots of his unheard music. It recently put out a new collection of 13 of Cowley’s adventurous recordings called Mechanical Fantasy Box – named after his private homoerotic journal, which is also included in the set and published for the first time. To say this journal is not for the faint-hearted is akin to saying progressive socialism is de trop for Donald Trump. In its X-rated recollections, it lays bare how the rise of LGBTQ culture after Stonewall liberated Cowley and many others, enabling new forms of expression, sexually and creatively, of their real identities.

Patrick Cowley was born in 1950 in upstate New York. “A nice place to raise your kids,” he writes in January 1976 upon visiting home. “Sepia tint neighborhoods and the winter sky.” He’d come to terms with his sexuality after the Stonewall riots of June 1969, and came out to friends and family soon after. In 1971, he moved to San Francisco to study electronic music at City College, living in the Castro district, still one of the best-known LGBTQ hubs in the world. During his time in San Fran throughout the 1970s, Cowley also composed strange, ambient soundtracks for gay porn films.

“It’s hard to appreciate what a turning point that time really was for LGBTQ culture today,” says Ann Bausum, author of Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights. There had been riots in San Francisco before Stonewall, she points out: the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot saw trans activists rebelling against the police. “But Stonewall promoted a critical mass of activism and liberation, perhaps because this was near the end of a very turbulent decade. And it being in the middle of New York: suddenly the community appeared as a visible community.”

This liberation – this “retreat from shame”, as Bausum calls it – also found a physical, almost spiritual dimension through sex. Cowley’s journal pulses with deep, cosmic joy as he takes us through bathhouses and back rooms, describing “shining underworld caves” in which he feels “the gods moving with me”; men are described as “banquets for my soul and body”. The detailed descriptions of his lovers feel almost cathartic at times and at others unintentionally funny – such as the Scottish man he’d like to pleasure to the sound of bagpipes. The surrealism in his writing almost makes him a disco-era Rimbaud, although his drugs were uppers and speed, not opium and absinthe. Newly commissioned illustrations by Berlin-based artist Gwenaël Rattke also add to the journal’s frenzied, psychedelic mood.

Music became the glue that held this culture together. Disco had developed from the string-laden, love-suffused, mid-1970s soul scene, and new drum machines were popularising the idea of the metronomic, superhuman pulse. “Disco literally added those notes of liberation,” explains Bausum, “and the irresistible pull of movement for people exploring themselves physically in a new, open, powerful way.” Continuous mixes in clubs were also very new at the time. “Imagine what music represented to these people. Then imagine how it must have felt that the music never stopped.”

Mechanical Fantasy Box showcases the variety of music Cowley made. Beautiful, ambient instrumentals on “Out of Body” and “Before Original Sin” sit alongside BBC Radiophonic Workshop-like tracks such as “Shrouds” and “Sensitivity”. There are plenty of high-octane club tracks too, of course, shuddering with glossy, squelchy synths at heart-racing speeds. Some titles speak volumes, like “Lumberjacks in Heat” and “Right Here, Right Now”. Many feel incredibly contemporary and Bill Brewster, the author of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, a history of the DJ, says it’s hard to underestimate Cowley’s contribution to pop culture. “He was the first American representative of an electronic sound that was largely coming from Europe, from bands like Kraftwerk, or producers like Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte [who co-wrote Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”]. Patrick’s disco was also absolutely rooted in what was going on in the nightclubs, unlike theirs.” Moroder and Bellotte never went to clubs, neither took drugs; Moroder only drank occasionally, and Bellotte was teetotal. “But Patrick’s music was deeply embedded in sex and club culture. You can hear that, too.”

Until his 16-minute psychedelic “I Feel Love” remix, Cowley was discreet about his talents. He hadn’t even told his City Disco colleagues he made music until that year. It became huge, filling floors months before the original song reached number eight in the US charts. It also gave him confidence. On 16 October 1977 he writes in his journal: “I now realise my talents are valuable and are fast approaching a level of maturity sufficient to pay the rent. I’m ready for it. Ready to dive into the business of music and come up with my share of the larger life, the Extended, Augmented Version!” Three years later, after “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” became an international smash and he toured around the world with Sylvester, he had also set up his own label, Megatone, begun collaborations with other artists and had his own hits, such as “Menergy” (a US dance-chart number one). Given this work rate, it’s unsurprising his journals substantially quieten down in these years.

The last entry is from 19 October 1980 and it suggests he felt at the top of the world. “The big-three-o.” he writes. “I wonder to myself if many people can burst into momentary tears at the wave of happiness that breaks over me – the realisation that my life, body, music is so beautiful.” A year later, he started feeling ill after a South African tour; the following year, he was dead. He was one of only 466 people known to have died from complications of Aids in the US at that point. He worked to his limits even in those last months, including making a 1982 album, Mind Warp, which explored the ways he felt he was unravelling.

You sense that he would rather be remembered in a much more joyful way. So let’s think instead of how “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” was selected by the Library of Congress this year for preservation in the National Recording Registry, by virtue of it being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. That’s quite a trip for the nightclub lighting technician living on limited means, inventing the future with his ecstatic dreams. So here’s to the joy of music on higher planes. Here’s to the rush of his music forever pulsing on. 

Patrick Cowley’s “Mechanical Fantasy Box”, both CD/LP and LP/journal sets, are out now on Dark Entries

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone