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First Listen: Patrick Cowley, 'School Daze'

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Patrick Cowley is the disco equivalent of a Jimi Hendrix or a Janis Joplin — an electronic-music trailblazer who died while his records were packing dance floors and setting trends. A synthesizer player who got his big break in the late-'70s backing and writing hits for gender-bending diva Sylvester, Cowley helped invent hi-NRG, a synth-driven Eurodisco offshoot targeted to a gay audience for whom disco never perished. Fast and intense, hi-NRG suggested an otherworldly future that lay over the rainbow, far away from anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant, Harvey Milk assassin Dan White and, indeed, the plague that had only begun to claim disco's original dancers and DJs. The utopianism of "Stars," a 1979 disco hit Cowley wrote for Sylvester, may have connected the musician to his hippie forebears, but unlike Hendrix or Joplin, Cowley lacked a self-destructive streak; he was simply one of the first to die of AIDS, in 1982 — before it even had a name, before there were guidelines governing safe sex and the rest.
With disco back in the mainstream courtesy of Daft Punk, Pharrell and other contemporary students, it's fitting that Cowley's non-disco output is finally getting an underground-targeted release. Named after an anthology of 16mm "loops" by John Coletti, a gay porn director and former Playgirl pinup who scored his previously silent films with Cowley's music at the beginning of the home-video boom, School Daze (out Oct. 19) features Cowley's secret stash of experimental sounds that are even more erotic and illicit than his club anthems.
The opening "Zygote" starts with a twinkling synth arpeggio strikingly similar to the one that opens Cowley's 1981 Billboard disco chart-topping hit "Menergy" before exploding into a synth-dominated approximation of New Wave. Driven by a pounding drum pattern reminiscent of D.A.F.'s 1981 synth-rocking "Der Mussolini," it's likely the most recent track here. The earliest School Daze cuts were recorded during Cowley's own school days at the City College of San Francisco, where he founded the Electronic Music Lab. Cowley began as a drummer, and the 1973 track "Pagan Rhythms," possibly the earliest cut, features a simple synth sequence set to a thudding drum solo that sounds as though it was recorded on a distant planet.
The rest is considerably less beat-centric, more liquid and misty, allied with the murky jams of Tangerine Dream, Jean Michel Jarre, Klaus Schulze and other European synth wizards favored in the bathhouses and sex clubs of pre-AIDS San Francisco. Following the lead of these once-unfashionable prog-rock dudes now worshiped by current EDM masters like M83, Cowley created foggy indigenous music akin to the sprawling psychedelia of the Bay Area's famous Haight-Ashbury bands — the keening synths of the title track even approximate screaming guitar heroics. Yet the bulk is far more delicate and sensual, like the warm, well-lubricated touch of a skilled masseur.
Cowley helped pioneer hi-NRG and hence the trance-y, uptempo end of today's EDM, but his influence in the porn world may be even more profound. According to Dark Entries — the San Francisco label behind this double vinyl/digital release — only some of the School Daze material was written specifically for Coletti; the rest was earlier work for which Cowley had no other commercial outlet. Yet nearly everything here is recognizable as the nuanced prototype for most subsequent porn soundtracks: If you've seen any moving-image porn from the '80s or beyond, chances are you've heard generic Cowley knockoffs.
Making a radical break from the wah-wah funk and light-jazz kitsch of '70s porn, Cowley was perhaps the first to take a less expensive, more expressive DIY approach to scoring hardcore eroticism, one that actually reflected the squishy softness and bodily fluids of actual — not just symbolic — sex. His spewing synth ooze really does reflect the slo-mo money shots at the crux of literally millions of sex films, gay and hetero alike. That may or may not be your idea of an artistic accomplishment, but that doesn't mean the man doesn't deserve a little long-overdue credit.
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