Cowley was instrumental in developing dance music in the late 70s/early 80s – and his death from AIDS in 1981 robbed the queer community one of its most promising talents
Late night editing for Queerly Departed had my Spotify playlist deliver an unexpected tune that slaps. I liked the sound of it, turned up the volume, and played it on repeat. Continuously. Who was the artist? A quick Google introduced me to a queer music producer who isn’t as well known as he should be.
Patrick Cowley is also sadly no longer with us, one of the generation of men in the 1980s whose lives were extinguished by another pandemic: he was one of its early victims. He’s buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, New York, dying aged only 32. The cruelty of the disease took so many men before their time and one wonders what he would have gone on to achieve had he not contracted HIV.
I messaged my friend Paul, an avid LP collector whose front room I’ve spent many an afternoon listening to records in, to see if he knew anything about him.
‘Famous for working with Sylvester. His remix of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love‘ is sublime’.Paul Vesty
But his legacy lives on and is growing as music from his vaults and archives are re-released to a new audience – a recent release, Mechanical Fantasy Box was named after his homoerotic journal. His music remains little known outside clubbing circles: so let me introduce you to a founding father of disco and Hi-NRG music whose work would go on to influence the sound of New Order and the Pet Shop Boys. A curator whose music is still decent enough to fill the dance floor of any gay bar.
Cowley was born in Buffalo, New York in 1950 and studied English at the University there: spending his early years as a drummer in various local rock bands before hitch-hiking to San Francisco when he was 21 to the Castro district, which continues to be a LGBTQ enclave, where his interest in electronic music grew after playing around with synthesisers at the City College of San Francisco’s Electronic Music Lab.
His work massively influenced EDM and Hi-NRG dance music as well as inspiring the likes of New Order and the Pet Shop Boys. He was the first American to produce the type of dance music that was chiefly being made in Europe by the likes of Giorgio Moroder, although when listening to his music you can hear the influence of club culture and drugs: whereas Moroder may have made the music, you could argue Cowley not only made it but lived it as well.
He was a trailblazer: a gay man making gay music for a gay audience: and it’s for this reason perhaps his music isn’t as well known as it should be: the very same audience who would be devastated by the virus, preventing his works being shared and played in the way they perhaps otherwise would have been.
It’s because of him Sylvester’s hit is the barnstorming disco classic You Make Me Feel (So Real) is exactly that, a disco classic, instead of the ‘mid-tempo gospel number’ it was originally written and performed as: it is regarded as the best and definitive remix of the song. He met Sylvester whilst working the lights at San Francisco’s City Disco – and the pair would work together, bar brief a falling out, until his death. Whether he was aware of the severity of Cowley’s illness, this article highlights how Sylvester nursed him back to health in time to produce one last classic: “Do You Wanna Funk“. Sylvester would succumb to AIDS himself in 1988.
One of his biggest known tracks was ‘Menergy‘, a frank celebration of the gay club sex scene, and again it gives insight to himself as an artist as well as man- ‘when Patrick wasn’t in the recording studio, he was in the bathhouses. He was interested in the full spectrum of sex in San Francisco, and music was another way for him participate in those worlds’ said former classmate Maurice Tani. Released in 2013, his album School Daze was originally a number of his compositions that appeared in hardcore pornography. Gay readers of mine may like to be directed to XHamster to see this vintage classic in its original setting.
His third and final album, Mind Warp, was written as a direct commentary and response to the AIDS infection as it affected his body and mind, in a similar way that Queen’s last studio album with Freddie Mercury, Innuendo did. The theme of what was a farewell album in the vein of David Bowie’s Blackstar, with tracks such as “Dr. Terminus”, which according to his friend Theresa McGinley, addressed his loss of faith in the medical system, and “Going Home” a jaunty but poignant reminder that the time left he had left was limited as his body ailed.
Mind Warp’s launch party at the San Francisco Design Center was a heady celebration of his music, with the aroma of poppers filling the dance floor and men dancing freely and energetically, however a figure looked on, weak and ill. It was Cowley, who was glumly sat in a wheelchair overlooking the revellers with tears streaming down his cheeks. To him this wasn’t an album launch party, it was his own living wake. His business partner would later reveal years afterwards that when he knelt down to ask him what was wrong, Cowley sobbed “those stupid queens, don’t they know?”
He died a month later, with “Right on Target” still lingering in the dance charts from the summer beforehand.
But people are beginning to rediscover his work, like myself, and it says something that the National Library of Congress chose to include “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being culturally significant.
So this LGBT History Month, as we all roll our eyes at yet another event we’ve signed up to on Zoom amidst another virus that’s bringing havoc, log off, chill out and put Patrick on your playlists. As his epitaph says: his music shall live on.
References & Further Reading
Waking the Spirit of a Disco Innovator – New York Times
Patrick Cowley’s Pioneering Electronica – New Statesmen
‘Afternooners’ – unheard Cowley material unveiled for what would have been his 67th birthday