By Jason Shoff
Over the past decade, as vinyl continues to rise steadily in popularity and music collectors and geeks continue to dig for the most obscure records they can find, independent boutique and archival record labels have begun sprouting up left and right. From Light in the Attic Records and The Numero Group to Paradise of Bachelors and Omnivore Recordings, they serve one main purpose: to rescue albums from obscurity; records that, for whatever reason (label neglect, artist misfortune, being “way ahead of their time,” etc.) fell through the cracks at the time and deserve, in their eyes, to be rediscovered by a mass audience. Most of these releases still never go beyond cult status, but they usually do manage to get an increase of press and exposure regardless, and a few even manage to find the wider fan base that these labels are seeking (Searching for Sugar Man’s Rodriguez being a perfect example).
Now Chapter Music is tossing its hat into the reissue wars with their latest release, Smokey’s How Far Will You Go? The S&M Recordings: 1973-1981, which hit stores yesterday. Yet this isn’t just any ordinary crate-digger curio, as this release stands out and differentiates itself from the rest of the pack in a big way: it’s one of the first (at least to my knowledge) to cover the catalog of an openly gay artist in an era that had hardly any, if none, in the musical mainstream.
Now for a little bit of historical context: in 1973, the Stonewall Riots were only four years old. The American Psychiatric Association had only declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder that year, and some in the medial field were still using electro-shock therapy to cure people of “homoerotic tendencies.” And such musicians ranging from Liberace to Barry Manilow and Elton John were afraid of coming out due to the fact that they feared their sexuality would kill their careers. Yet ironically, 1973 was also the peak of the glam rock era, and such artists as David Bowie, Lou Reed and T. Rex were becoming cultural icons with personas that were fueled by androgyny, making the public essentially play a guessing game of “Gay or Not Gay?” So you’d think that there might be a chance for an artist like Smokey to find some success in the musical landscape.
However, the big difference between Smokey and the glam artists of the time is that he didn’t flirt with sexuality: he made it obvious; no, he threw it right in your face. And that appears to have been the goal of Los Angeles-via-New York/New Jersey transplants John “Smokey” Condon and producer EJ Emmons; to make music that was brazenly and unabashedly gay, showing absolutely no shame in either their sexuality or their love of men and pushing the limits of homosexuality in music at the time. Needless to say, no label would touch their material with a ten foot pole, so they ended up forming a label (S&M Records) to release it on their own, putting out five rock and dance-influenced singles throughout the rest of the 70s.
So how does the music sound all these years later? Well, before you even listen to it, the list of artists and bands name-dropped in the press leading up to its release is quite impressive (and is, in full disclosure, what gravitated me to want to write this review in the first place). James Williamson of the Stooges, Randy Rhoads and members of the Motels, King Crimson, David Bowie’s Tin Machine, Suburban Lawns all make cameos, and it definitely sets your expectations high for the material.
Luckily, first track (and his first-ever single) “Leather” does not disappoint: with its boogie-woogie piano, funky bass, and straight out of the ‘70s “doo-doo-doo” backing vocals, it sounds like a lost hit, something that you could have swore you’ve heard before on a commercial for one of those Time/Life compilations. By comparison, the b-side from the single, “Miss Ray,” is a slice of good old fashioned rock-and-roll, complete with a nice slab of Clapton-esque electric guitar. The other stand-out rocker, for me, is “Fire,” easily the hardest rocking song here with a vibe very reminiscent of Thin Lizzy or KISS. It’s the kind of tune you’d hear to pump yourself up before getting on your Harley and heading to the nearest biker bar.
Yet the biggest surprise for me was that, even though Smokey is billed as a pre-punk icon, not a whole lot of this material sounds very punk rock, or at least the kind of punk you’d expect. “Topaz,” for example, is one of the best Doors impressions I’ve ever heard, Vox Continental-sounding organ and all. “I’ll Always Love You” is straight up disco, a song that should have been given to an artist like Donna Summers to record and take to the top of the R&B charts (seriously, this sounds like a song tailor-made for Studio 54), while “DTNA,” despite its annoying and unfunny intro, has a bassline that would sound great on a hip hop record (actually, this whole record is a potential gold mine for rap samples, should hip hop producers be listening to it.) And while Williamson lends his talents on the de facto title track, it sounds more like a There’s a Riot Goin’ On outtake than anything off of Raw Power. With its slow-mo groove, Bootsy Collins-inflected bass and organ straight out of a Vincent Price horror film, it gets my vote for best track on the record.
And then there’s “Piss Slave,” which is easily the most explicit song on here. It’s essentially the funkiest (and only) disco workout about golden showers you'll ever hear. It starts out innocently enough: a toe-tapping dance/rock number fueled by analog synths that couldn’t be more late 70s if they tried. But then the lyrics start, with Smokey repeating “I wanna be your toilet” over and over again before getting more and more graphic. Even by today’s standards, they’re incredibly unsettling and uncomfortable, and I’ll admit it took quite a bit of strength for me to not hit the “skip” button. But honestly, I don’t think Condon and Simmons would have wanted it any other way.
So separated from all of its historical context, does How Far Will You Go? hold up on its own? For the most part, yes. You can put a handful of its best tracks on any rock/dance playlist, or spin them at any party or club, and (with the exception of “Piss Slave”) not offend anyone’s tastes musically. And in some cases you might even make their ears perk up and wonder who this artist is. But the historical importance of this release cannot be overstated either: this is a compilation that shows that, in an era that most people think of as being pretty conservative, people in the gay community were willing to put themselves out there with no compromise, even if it meant no mainstream success and almost zero acceptance from the music industry. And while we can argue how much gay rights have (or haven’t) changed in both America and in the music industry, at least there are labels out there now like Chapter Music who are willing to put music like How Far Will You Go? out there. It’s music that deserves to be heard.