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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

MEGATON MAN

One of the great pleasures of Blogging is the joy of rediscovery: reading or writing about music that you've got but you'd completely forgotten about; stuff stashed away on the bottom shelf that you never listen to, but can't bear to be parted from. And so it was with a recent thread on Dissensus about Patrick Cowley...

"Who he?" I hear you ask. Well, Cowley was the San Fransisco-based electronic musician-producer responsible for the sheer synthetic disco-genius of Sylvester's finest moments: "Do you wanna funk" and "You make me feel (mighty real)". That's who.

He also made a handful of tastefully tacky solo LPs such as "Mind Warp":



An SF-themed Concept LP recorded using synthesisers: what the fuck was he thinking of? In theory, it sounds like some sort of Evil Prog Aberration created by The Alan Parsons Project, but it's not. It's too, ahem, gay to work as a spliffed-up Tomita electronic home-listening concept piece, yet it's seemingly too slow, ponderous and unfunky to rock an early Eighties West Coast Night-Club. The guest vocalists lack the screaming queeniness of Sylvester; they're dry and flat and slightly disinterested; you can almost imagine them scratching their heads as they sing Cowley's frankly bonkers lyrics on tracks like "Tech-No-Logical World" with it's rousing chorus of "Tech-No-Logical World/ Tech-No-Logical World/ Communication network everywhere/ But the flags of doom have unfurled/ On Tech-No-Logical Woooorrrrld!" Wow: how prescient is that?

There's even a sub-Kraftwerk express-train soundalike track, but with mock African chanting (huh?) and weird sound FX. And there's so many vocoders on this LP that there was a World Vocoder Drought for, oh, at least a decade afterwards.

Needless to say: I love it to bits. And hearing it again after more years than I care to think about has made me so deliriously hyper that I'm considering raiding the attic to find that pre-recorded cassette copy of Cowley's "Megaton Man" that I've got stashed somewhere. Still, I feel a certain deep-seated sadness that no one will ever record LPs that sound as lumpenly static or awkwardly-posed or futuristic-yet-banal as this again without being 'ironic'. (Air, take note.) We've lost the naive enthusiasm and childlike glee that enables musicians to make a ridiculously un-selfconscious statement like this. These days, Post-Modernism requires, nay demands, that we wink at the camera to acknowledge the ancestors whose art we're referencing.

Cowley's fusion of synths with real drum-kits gives the music a plodding, leaden feel that reminds me of Giorgio Moroder's earlier stuff or Italian Splatter soundtracks (In fact, Italo Horror S/Ts seem to almost indirectly document the Death of Disco with their flat-lined beats slooooooowed down to near-barbituate levels and Fulci's zombies recast as the disease-ravaged survivors of an apocalyptic HIV Holocaust) ...but, in fairness, though, we've been spoiled by MIDI and music software, and we've forgotten how hard it is to create, edit and sync stuff like this in Real Time using analogue-tape. Cowley is one of the forgotten synth pioneers; important (like Moroder and Bellotte) for finding a brand-new new context for Voltage-Controlled Oscillators in the late Seventies: the dance-floor.

"Mind Warp" was recorded late in his career ('82) and sounds a bit of a curiosity now, especially when weighed against electronic dance-music contemporaries such as early B-Boy Electro and Bambaata. Cowley's vision of a synthetic future sounds strangely flatter and less enticing, almost old-fashioned, compared with the Bronx Mothership that was being constructed on the East Coast by the Zulu Nation's Afro-Futurist visionaries...but perhaps that was because Cowley was dying from AIDS. He directed much of its recording whilst laying down, almost too exhausted to move. It was his last LP.

Cowley's synthetic Disco dream seemed to fade along with his health, but it would return in the mid-eighties, stronger than ever, emerging from The Warehouse to eventually conquer the entire planet.