San Fran-disco: how Patrick Cowley and Sylvester changed dance music forever

A new release celebrating the work of Patrick Cowley sheds light on San Franciscos disco scene which was cut down in its prime during the Aids crisis

Patrick Cowley was one of discos most mysterious figures.

His life was cut short in 1982, when he died of Aids at age 32. He was a key presence in the gay San Francisco disco scene; in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the city had one of the best disco scenes in the world.

Sylvester was San Franciscos biggest star and Cowleys muse a larger-than-life presence around town, dressed to the nines and often carrying multiple shopping bags as he walked down Castro Street. Cowley most famously worked with Sylvester on the ecstatic mega-hit You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and was a pioneer of the genre known as hi-NRG, a relentlessly uptempo variant of disco that gained serious traction, especially in the UK and Europe.

Cowley was a good deal quieter than Sylvester, and more of a tech boffin, experimenting with music in an apartment in the Castro crammed with electronics, with cables hanging everywhere. It was a mess of wires, recalls John Hedges, who ran Megatone Records for many years, the now-legendary record label that Cowley originally started with Marty Blecman in the 1970s.

It certainly didnt look very safe, he adds. He was always experimenting to get the sounds. They would wire everything in and have tape machines, and the tape would go from one tape machine to another about 10 feet away to create the echo they wanted, or delay.

Sylvester died six years after Cowley, of Aids-related complications in 1988. Over the past several years, the San Francisco label Dark Entries has been unearthing Cowleys unreleased output, much of it thought to be lost. The latest release, Candida Cosmica, is an intriguing collection of experimental synthesizer music made by Cowley between 1973 and 1975 with his erstwhile lover and collaborator Candida Vadalla, also known as Candida Royalle, who died earlier this year. The music, made with synthesizers in the City College of San Franciscos Electronic Music Laboratory and at Cowleys friend Art Adcocks flat, was found almost by accident while sifting through old reels in Cowleys friend Maurice Tanis attic, according to Dark Entries label boss Josh Cheon.

The early synthesizer experiments, with Royalles sultry voice flickering in and out of the mix, foreshadowed Cowleys 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 Summers 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.

San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, left, and Mayor George Moscone are shown in April 1977 in the mayors office during the signing of the citys gay rights bill. Photograph: AP
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.

Major political shifts were happening in the city. San Francisco had its own special position as far as what was accomplished politically in this city in the municipal government with Harvey Milk running for supervisor, the first out politician that was running for office basically in the US at that time, says Fabus. He became supervisor, and the gay community was building up power throughout the city.

Nightlife was gaining steam, too. The Trocadero gained a reputation well outside of San Francisco. People would come from LA, from Miami, people from the music industry, remembers Bobby Viteritti, the main DJ at the Trocadero during its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I had the chance to play whatever I wanted sometimes I would play until 7am.

Viteritti who garnered Billboards national DJ of the Year award in 1979 and 1980 had faith that the Trocadero would achieve wider renown. It had good acoustics it was a space where TV shows were produced and the lighting, orchestrated by Billy Langenheim, was taken as seriously as the DJing, specifically designed to augment the experience. Soon, the club was attracting celebrities.

I would put Diana Rosss name down on the guest list every week and people would make fun of me, Diana Ross +1, Viteritti recalls, laughing. And then one day my phone rang in the booth Diana Ross is here! She comes walking into the room, and the room parted like the parting of the Red Sea She walked up the steps of the booth and gave me a big kiss, and said Hi people! Then she hit the turntable which went brrrng people didnt know the sound system went off. They were cheering so hard. Then I picked up the needle and put it back on the record. That was 1978.

We had such a variety of people they all congregated, he continues. The gays dominated the city back then. That was right before the Harvey Milk assassination and right before Aids, and then Aids came around and everything changed around 1982. The crowds changed, the whole mood became very somber, and I noticed it on the dancefloor. There was a lot of gloom down there.


figcaption class=”caption” caption–img”> You Make Me Feel Mighty Real

Cowley was one of the first documented to die from <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Aids on the west coast, struggling to work on his final album, Mind Warp, as he became desperately sicker with what was then a mysterious illness.

The growing Aids crisis cast a pall over Megatone Records, effectively shutting the label down. We were losing our artists, our producers, our customers. They were all dying It was very bizarre, says Hedges.

I think thats what stopped that sound of San Francisco, for sure, he continues. In fact, Moby Dick Records, the owners, they were some of the first to go too, from Aids. They were a big up-and-coming record label, big competition with us, and they disappeared. Moby Dick Records shut down in 1984.

Cowley, says Viteritti, was thrilled when his tunes were played at the Trocadero, but never got the chance to perform them live. I always wanted to get Patrick on the stage to play synthesizers along with his music but never got the chance, says Viteritti. He passed away so soon, just like Sylvester.

San Francisco has changed drastically in the decades since, but Fabus who still DJs regularly in the city, and gives props to local DJ crews like Honey Soundsystem, says the flame of disco in the city is still alive.

There are still really good things happening right now, says Fabus. Like anything else these days you have to look harder for it, but its there.

  • Candida Cosmica is out now on Dark Entries

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