Earlier today an article by one Geeta Dayan in The Guardian, “San Fran-disco: how Patrick Cowley and Sylvester changed dance music forever”, popped up on my feed. Patrick Cowley was an innovative producer, Sylvester was a singer with an unearthly falsetto, and before each died of AIDS in the 1980s (Cowley in 1982, Sylvester in 1988) they made, together and separately, fantastic music. Their 1982 hit “Do You Wanna Funk” is especially noteworthy.
Writing about a discovery of some of Cowley’s early synthesizer music from the 1970s, Dayan makes the case that San Francisco in the early 1980s was a centre for hugely interesting innovation.
The early synthesizer experiments, with Royalle’s sultry voice flickering in and out of the mix, foreshadowed Cowley’s prescient disco music to come, fusing euphoric vocals with a synthesized pulse to reach massive, almost unbearable peaks. His epic 16-minute “megamix” of I Feel Love, which managed the seemingly impossible feat of improving on Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer’s original track, and upbeat tracks like Menergy and Megatron Man became instant classics.
“I think we knew we had something special, even way back then,” says Hedges. “The music was pop sounding, but definitely with an artistic edge to it. People were going nuts for it, in England, especially … the Pet Shop Boys were quoted in the press several times that Patrick Cowley influenced their music, which you can hear in this electronic pop music.”
The music also hails back to a different, more freewheeling time in San Francisco. Longtime San Francisco resident Rob Bregoff, who knew Cowley, remembers paying $235 to rent a three-bedroom apartment in the Haight district in the 1970s. Split between room-mates, that meant each person paid less than $100 – a far cry from the tech industry-fueled San Francisco of today, which now holds the dubious distinction of the highest rents in the US. “It was a time when everything was forced out into the open,” says Bregoff. “All social mores were being questioned.”
As the 1970s progressed, Trocadero Transfer and Dreamland in SoMA, I-Beam in Haight-Ashbury, and the City disco in North Beach – all gone now – became key spots for disco. “When the Trocadero Transfer opened and got their all-night permit, it ushered in a New York-style all-night party in San Francisco in a club – a regular club that was open every weekend and around the clock,” says Steve Fabus, who DJed at the Trocadero in the late 1970s and 1980s, and at the nearby Endup.
And then, this was all killed by the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic. Entire record companies, and their audiences, disappeared. Joshua Gamson’s The Fabulous Sylvester provides a good perspective on this phase of San Francisco’s history. One year, people were around; the next, they could be gone. We have what remains, but what could have been!