Patrick Cowley - Mind Warp
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Music moves in patterns, logically. There are brief flashes, insights that change the way we all think about it. Giorgio Moroder was one of these flashes with his innovative and futuristic disco productions. Taking his lead and building the bridge from disco to synth-pop in America was Patrick Cowley.
Cowley’s name doesn’t often come up in discussions of dance music, in favor of the over documented stories of the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, but arguably his influence is what made their stories come to be. In 1971 at the age of 21, Cowley moved to San Franscisco to study synthesizers. He was one of the first students in Jerry Mueller’s legendary Electronic Music Lab. Cowley soon moved on from the group, doing theater work for a short time, while also taking a strong interest in the burgeoning disco scene in the city. After a chance meeting with Sylvester, a local musician that also owned a studio, in which Cowley illustrated some of the innovative sounds that he could coax from the synthesizer, he began to take songwriting seriously as a profession.
And, in what was normal for producers of the day, he began to contribute to and make tracks for Sylvester and others, crafting a number of hits (most notably on Sylvester’s Step II and Living Proof albums). But it was on his own self-produced works that Cowley was able to indulge his musical whims to a greater degree. His first album, Megatron Man, contained perhaps his best known hit, “Menergy”, but it’s his second and final album that’s the more interesting and heartbreaking story.
By late 1981, it had become clear that what Cowley first believed to be a parasite ingested while on tour in South America was something far more serious. Hindsight being 20/20, we now know that Cowley had AIDS. By the time of the recording of Mind Warp Cowley was restricted to a wheelchair and weighed close to 100 lbs. Shortly after the album’s release he died, becoming one of the first casualties of the disease that subsequently decimated San Francisco’s thriving disco community.
With song titles like “They Came at Night” and “Goin’ Home”, it was obvious that Cowley knew and, was to a degree, resigned to his fate. The former rides a fearful bed of synths, with female vocals detailing a menace that “changes its shape” and “wouldn’t go”, imploring the listener to “beware of darkness”. The latter is the buoyant closer to the album, a song that is a joyous reminder of life. Even though, ostensibly, Cowley’s lyrics talk about going home, they also mention that “we’re going to parts unknown”, a seeming reference to his impending demise.
But it’s easy to read into the lyrics, looking for any shred of evidence that Cowley would try to leave his listener about his state. What’s more important is the musical evidence that he left of his genius. If we leave aside the fact that Cowley was working without the benefit of digital technology to construct his songs and that many of his productions were done on an eight-track and merely focus on the finished product two things become instantly obvious:
1) Cowley was America’s equivalent to Giorgio Moroder.Things like “Mutant Man”’s wavering synths, mid-tempo beat and vocoded vocals prove the latter, creating an unsettling effect on the listener that takes more time than the track contains to shrug off completely. Which could be said of most of his music and his unlikely story.
2) His productions sound positively alien and futuristic even today.