Synths, Sex & San Francisco in The 1970s: Pat, Art, HiNRG & Me
by Maurice Tani
In the seventies I played with many people in many places but I had two main musical partners, Art Adcock and Pat Cowley. Pat became one of the pioneers in high-energy, electronic dance music. Tragically, he was one of the earliest victims of the AIDS epidemic and passed as he was rapidly ascending the ladder of success. That was 1982.
Over the years, pockets of interest in Pat and his music would appear. When the internet appeared, I began to be contacted occasionally by people looking for information about him. I was struck by how passionate these people were and how widespread across the globe they were. They didn’t come often, but they kept coming.
Then a group of DJs in San Francisco calling themselves Honey Soundsystem latched on and began issuing unreleased Cowley material. What follows here began as liner notes I started writing for another CD they’re releasing of Pat’s early material. My rambling needed to be edited down to fit their packaging -I hate tiny type! But here, well, consider this the extended dance mix…
When Honey Soundsystem DJ Josh Cheon contacted me and asked what unreleased early recordings I might have of Patrick, I was happy to help. I dug through the hundreds of hours of tape in my attic, handed him a stack of ten-inch reels and wished him luck. The tapes I gave him were sort of a master archive of all the work that came out of our studio -mostly in the seventies. They contained mixes that Pat, our partner Art Adcock and I all did individually and in various combinations with each other and people we brought in. We had been pretty good about maintaining the reels. Unfortunately, we hadn’t been very good about writing dates or much information beyond titles on the boxes, and when Josh started digging, he had lots of questions about who, when, where and what. He would send me tracks he had pulled and I would try to jog my memory of events decades ago. Material I had produced myself or played on was relatively easy to identify, as well as some other material I had been present for the production of, but Josh came up with some pieces of music that ranged from vaguely to completely unfamiliar. Listening to the tracks that weren’t ringing loud bells, elements of the production process often yielded the best clues to the dates, some things we did weren’t possible until we had certain pieces of gear, or had been exposed to some particular influence. This music wasn’t created in a vacuum. It was very much of that place and time and it got me thinking about context as an essential element of art. Art can’t be discussed without context. It is essentially a dialog exchanged between the creator and those that experience it. Having a limitless vocabulary, context is the unifying language of art that ultimately defines work as irrelevant nonsense, fresh creative genius or banal repetition of ideas already expressed. Context may span centuries or it might be a fleeting moment. Does the symbolism of that 500-year-old tapestry come through today? Is Banksy going to make any sense in 500 years? It can if one understands the context; other wise Warhol was just painting soup cans. Patrick burned brightly for a decade in San Francisco. His talent certainly came from within, but it did not exist in a vacuum. Pat’s world was a bubble in time and space. It was a time of major changes in society and technology and he rode those changes in a space that embraced them.
I met Pat in college during the spring of 1973. He was doing a shift as the student manager of the Electronic Music Lab. It was a volunteer job, but it gave him unlimited access to any equipment not being used. He had keys and we would stay long after the last student had signed out. Under the direction of Jerry Mueller, the lab consisted of a few telephone booth sized rooms each equipped with a quirky, English-made EMS VCS3 “Putney” synthesizer and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Electronic music synthesizers had been, up to this point, large, expensive, modular systems. The Putney was one of the first compact synthesizers. It contained a sampling of all the “modules” that made up the existing systems, (i.e. early Moogs and Buchlas) -a couple of VCOs, VCAs, an LFO, a lo-pass VCF, an ADSR, noise generator, ring modulator, crude spring reverb, a joy stick controller and a trigger button -all connected together in any combination by a 16×16 pin matrix (replacing the spaghetti of patch cords of earlier systems. Quite an innovation that never caught on).
EMS VC3 “Putney”EMS VC3 “Putney”
One should note a common feature of modern synthesizers missing from that list: the keyboard. Back then, the keyboard was still an optional device that could be attached to the system, but these early oscillators that generated the tone were very unstable, requiring constant adjustment and making use of the keyboard maddeningly difficult to keep in tune. Because of that, in spite of the Putney’s compact size, it was not a practical performance instrument. The music made on it tended to be experimental “space age” sounds recorded individually to tape and then physically spliced together to build “pieces” in the style of avant-garde composers such as Morton Subotnick. To most outside of the art dialog of that time, much of this music simply sounds like a series of blips and squeaks, but for those of us taking part in the conversation at the time, it was exciting new technology and an opportunity to create music with a new palette of sounds. Like early computers though, it took a lot of effort to get the simplest result. Electronic music in 1973 was not for the impatient. Imagine having to consciously operate every muscle required to speak. First move your diaphragm to fill your lungs with air. Then apply a small, specific amount of air pressure as you tighten your vocal chords to get them vibrating. Then separately operate your jaw, lips and tongue to form each of the timbres using dozens of separate muscles to form each separate phonetic sound to create each word. Our brains perform all this work for us in the background, just as modern computer programs automatically perform hundreds of functions for us at the single click. Early synthesizers weren’t there yet. Every sound was the result of conscious decision to connect modules in a specific order and control them in a specific way, and the sequence of these sounds was determined by arranging short individually recorded bits of magnetic tape using a razor blade and splicing block. Completed electronic music pieces could contain dozens or even hundreds of tape splices. So, that’s where Pat and I started. One blip and squeak at a time. It was the baby talk of a language just developing. Advances in the equipment came quickly over the next few years, but for Pat and me personally, a pivotal moment occurred near the end of that first semester when Pat introduced me to Art Adcock, a classmate that he had begun to work with off campus.
Art had a little money and had bought his own synthesizer system, an Electrocomp. This system was a huge improvement over the Putney and superior in many ways to the MiniMoog and ARP 2600 self-contained systems that had just appeared. And just as important, Art had bought a new tape machine that changed the face of recording: the TASCAM 3340 1/4″ 4-track recorder. This machine was revolutionary. Considered “semi-pro”, the 3340 was priced at about a third of the professional machines and used much less expensive 1/4” tape. It was a compromise in quality, but suddenly, multi-track recording capability was in the hands of anyone with a couple thousand dollars. It can be argued that this machine began a process of democratization that took recording out of million dollar facilities run by engineers in lab coats and into the hands of anyone with a computer (or smartphone) today. With Art’s new Electrocomp system, the 3340, a small mixer and a Tandberg 2-track reel-to-reel to mix down onto, the three of us began making actual melodic music together. At first we did some projects where we all took turns contributing, but we soon moved to working in pairs, and eventually to using the studio in shifts for our own projects, bringing in each other to lend our various strengths. Pat had three days a week, I had three days and Art… well, Art lived there. Pat and I were into the music. Art breathed synthesizers. While we were all focused on the synths, we each had our own way of approaching them, and between the three of us, the studio was in use 12-18 hours a day, nearly every day. Because Art owned the gear, and was more apt to read manuals and other material on the subject, he had the most time with the equipment and was the most knowledgeable about the workings and operation of it. Pat, on the other hand, worked more intuitively. His early process was often shooting in the dark and seeing what happened. He didn’t know what the Q/Resonance control on a VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter) actually did, but used it and most of the dozens of parameters in the system to wonderful effect. Between the two of them, Pat made Art’s material much more musical and Art brought Pat technical possibilities he wouldn’t have come up with on his own. It was a left brain/right brain relationship that worked very well for them both. While I was also into the synths, when working with either of them in the studio, as the only one of us that worked actively as a musician in bands and playing out, my contributions tended to be guitar and bass parts. Art and I did more collaborative writing. Pat was more self-contained and could play a bit of guitar too, so I generally played bass when we worked together.
And those were the positions we played for the live electronic music concert we had at the end of our semester when we performed Pat’s piece “Crickets” using every synthesizer in the lab, all of Art’s gear and every other unit we could lay our hands on. Crickets was Pat’s first long form musical piece combining melody with all the wild electronic sounds and was the grand finale of an evening of short blip & squeak taped student pieces. It took half a dozen students to set up and control all the sounds required during the performance. The visual icing on the cake of the performance involved a gigantic speaker enclosure that someone at the college had designed to reproduce a 20hz note -the lowest sound the human ear interprets as a note. It was a huge exponential horn 8’ high, 8’ wide at the opening and tapering back to a 15” driver mounted 20’ in the rear. Some use had to be found for this academic exercise in acoustics and it was decided that I would play bass through it. Everyone and all the gear was set up in front of the stage, orchestra pit-style with the rear curtain closed. I was at the front of the band, the only player standing with everyone else seated behind synthesizers, madly pulling patch cords and twisting knobs. The gigantic horn was on a huge dolly with it’s opening at the rear of the stage behind the curtain and the driver end hanging out a roll up door on the loading dock out back, some 60 or 70 feet from where I was standing. The acoustic delay between hitting a note and its arrival was like trying to play an echo. Attempting to play that far ahead of the beat is not conducive to pocket playing. At the big finale of Pat’s piece, the stagehands pulled back the curtain to reveal the mega horn and began rolling it forward. You could feel the collective gasp (the ‘70s equivalent of WTF?!?) from the audience, but I’ll never forget the look of growing panic on Pat and Art as it appeared that the stagehands weren’t going to be able to stop it from rolling right off the stage and into them. Luckily, disaster was averted with inches to spare and the audience loved it so much that we performed the entire piece a second time as an encore with less bass delay and terror…
But I digress…
Listening to tracks Josh dug out of the tapes in my attic, material from this period had a distinctive sound. In this earliest work from the Electronic Music Lab and our/Art’s home studio, none of us were working with much traditional percussion yet. We used some synthesized sounds for percussive effects and rhythms but Pat’s drums had yet to make more than an occasional cameo appearance in the material. We weren’t really prepared at that point to record much using microphones but that and more was about to change.
Busted and The Studio Moves
This was 1974 and Art was living at Golden Gate and Scott in the gritty Western Addition of San Francisco. In the fall of that year, Art and I were rehearsing a group in the studio when the police raided us. Pat was not there. They had been on a stakeout up the street, this was the era of the Patty Hearst/SLA kidnapping/bank robbery/etc. and relations between the police and counterculture were very bad. We were arrested on trumped up drug charges without a warrant. Months, multiple court appearances and thousands of dollars later, the police had no evidence to use, simply lost interest and all the charges were dropped, but we knew we had to move the studio somewhere safer.
(The story of the arrest is contained in greater detail here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/10152825083498150/)
Art and I found a small, very funky house out in the Ingleside district, close to the college. 1078 Plymouth Street. We set up the studio again, now with Pat’s drums and my guitar and bass gear installed full time and a new ARP 2600 on long-term loan, and went back to work. It was music full-time now. We formed Short Circuit Productions, doing mostly radio work. We did some jingles and commercial work but with our background in blip & squeak electronic sounds, we began to focus on sound effects for one of the biggest top-40 AM stations in the country, KFRC. Meanwhile we continued experimenting and writing anything that came into our heads. Besides Pat’s drums, this period also saw experimentation with tape loops and layered hand percussion: cowbells, wood blocks, tambourines, maracas, and other assorted, mostly Latin percussion. The Oberheim DS-2 digital sequencer appeared in the studio soon after the move and it’s rapid, swirling cascades of machine-like notes marked a new period for all of our work. The next years were a frothy combination of synth-based beats with traditional percussion layered on top. Pat in particular really piled up the percussion tracks, bouncing them down repeatedly on the 4-track recorder to lay a bed on top of which he would build his pieces. The roots of Pat’s Hi-NRG sound are in this material.
’70s San Francisco
San Francisco in the early seventies was still an affordable place to live, and perhaps more importantly, what would be considered borderline poverty was considered fashionable in the alternative culture. Rents were around $100 per bedroom and we didn’t know anyone with a new car until late in the decade. Pat came to SF with no money, but money was never an issue. He found part time work, made his rent and enrolled in a college that was nearly free. Materialism was largely considered something everyone flocking to The City was rejecting. My modus operandi in those years was to take a house band or touring gig for a few months, save a nest egg of a couple thousand dollars, then quit and live off it for months while I pursued my real life. It didn’t really occur to us at the time, we were too close to it and it just seemed like where things were at, but 1970s SF was a very sexually charged place. We were just a few years after the sexual revolution and the Summer of Love. The Stone Wall riots in NYC were still fresh and AIDS was still almost a decade away. The City was full of free love hippies, a rapidly growing community of gay people and straight, open relationship singles. SF was the capital of a new generation of pornography, bigger budget, more artistic and visible. Adult classified ads appeared first in the Berkeley Barb underground paper. Sex shops and bathhouses sprouted up across town, especially in The Castro and in the suddenly booming Folsom Street industrial area. By the time Pat arrived in SF, sex was everywhere, open and it was nearly all accepted as simply part of a wide range of preferences that were all fine and there to be explored as one felt like. Open minds and affordable living brought a burgeoning alternative art and theater scene. Pat was using much of his studio time now doing projects with people in the outrageous gay arts and theater community. Songs, radio spots, soundtracks…. Often very camp, it may have been shocking for mainstream America at the time, it certainly wanted to be, but like Patrick himself, there was an innocence and sweetness to it. The Cockettes, The Angels of Light, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, drag stars like Divine, etc. were raw, silly, over-the-top fantasy performers working the edge without a net on shoestring budgets. This was fertile ground for experimentation, and with the studio, Patrick was able to contribute unexpectedly sophisticated music and audio production. It was all a perfect match for Patrick’s fun loving personality and creative nature, and his work reflected that vividly. At least that side of his personality, and then there was the dark (in the best sense of the word) world of leather bars, back rooms and bathhouses. This too, was a fantasy world. Also a parody, but as opposed to the overblown, absurdist focus on the feminine by the colorful, flamboyant drag performers in the alternative theater scene, this was the other end of the spectrum: hyper-masculine. These places were generally seedy, gritty, intentionally dimly lit places. Not truly dangerous, but the vibe was hot, sweaty and dirty. Patrick plunged into this world as it grew and it became a major part of his life. The soundtrack to places like the (in)famous Barracks bathhouse was generally R&B dance music. Naturally, Pat was inspired to do his own signature take on sex music and produced a series of tracks for gay porn films. His first attempts were song-based – sort of odes to sex, but he soon moved to more extended atmospheric pieces. He might create a 7-10 minute, multi-layer percussion bed and I’d lay a bass line groove over it. From there he would add layer on top of layer of synths, guitars, voices (spoken or sung), piano, whatever. On some of the tracks Josh found, all I recognize is the original part I laid down, as I often never heard the final mix. It’s an odd feeling of simultaneous familiarity and discovery.
Occasionally, I could coax Pat into taking a money gig with me. Pat and I were the rhythm section in a band performing at The City disco in 1976. He was on drums and I was playing bass. We played our sets in the showroom and there was a full discotheque upstairs. We became friendly with one of the DJs and Pat got a part time job there running lights. Pat soaked up the music and vibe and began experimenting with remixing disco hits and adding his own tracks on top. Patrick, Arthur and I were listening to a lot of Isao Tomita, Weather Report, Kraftwerk etc. and all those influences were finding their way into our music. Patrick would be listening to something on the bus on the way over and that day create a piece that quoted the opening of An American in Paris or whatever. And we played off each other. Pat would sometimes create his own version of something Art and I had done. It wasn’t mimicry. It was combining ingredients in new ways to create something fresh. One night Pat brought in some experimental dance music he had been working on using Art’s new Oberheim DS-2 digital sequencer to a DJ at The City. It was so fresh and driving that it immediately became a staple of the night at The City. Pat made more and began to specialize in up-tempo, 150+bpm, “top-of-the-night” tracks used to peak the energy of the room. That was the root of what became known as Hi-NRG electronic disco. One evening the singer Sylvester came in and was so struck by Pat’s combination of electronic sound effects and swirling, arpeggiating sequences that he went to the DJ to find out how to contact him. It’s worth nothing that even as he was focusing on dance music, Pat never stopped experimenting. With his closest friend Jorge Socarras, he produced quite a few tracks of electronic-based art music, (eventually issued under the name Catholic) during the Plymouth Street period (’75-’79) and an album of Jorge’s popular band, Indoor Life in 1980. And then there were the projects Pat would take on a whim. Such as the didgeridoo player he showed up with one day, who, in old-school Pat style, he had lay down multiple tracks of droning (that was a long day next door…) on top of which Pat piled layer after layer of synths to create something that no one in the Out Back had ever imagined. As Jorge observed, “An evening of nothing but Hi-NRG would ultimately have bored Patrick – just as any one flavor of sex would have.”
Pat took the first money he made with Sylvester and bought himself basically an identical system to Art’s. I had moved for a year to New York City and when I got back, Art had decided he wanted to live somewhere that wasn’t a recording studio. So, for a short period we rented space in an industrial alternative art building on Howard at 10th Street called Project One. Patrick was working out of his flat, but while he was quite self-contained musically, he enjoyed working in a creative environment with other people around. Plus, his place was not conducive to four-on-the-floor disco pounding at all hours. With Patrick’s band mate from Sylvester, Tip Wirrick, the four of us found a commercial building on 8th Street at the corner of Minna. This place has been described as a “bombed out building”, but it was just a vacant storefront in a 2-story brick building with a commercial laundry next door. It was ideal for us. The downstairs was large enough for us to divide in two with a massive double wall and a 10” thick, sliding, soundproof pocket door. Pat and Tip took the front half and traded days. Art and I took the rear. We rented out the three spaces upstairs to help cover the rent. One of the first tenants was Nicolas Graham who started Joe Boxer as a necktie company up there. The other two were used as rehearsal rooms. The laundry next door never complained about the loud music because their operation was so loud and the large sliding door at the back was at street level on Minna, making loading gear in and out for gigging a breeze. Pat loved that we were a block and a half off of all the action on Folsom. It was a magic period of better gear and many creative people in an enabling environment. The drum machines appeared in 1981, the first of which we actually owned was an Oberheim DMX. We had used a LinnDrum on loan for a little while but it was a very expensive device (about $5000). When the DMX came out at about $3000, we took the plunge just about the same time we moved from the 1/4” 4-track Teac to the 1/2” Otari 8-trackrecorder. This was a huge leap for us. 8 tracks and the drum machine synched off it gave us seven tracks to work with and one we used for synch code to drive the drum machine, which allowed all the percussion to live off of the tape until final mix down. That meant no degradation of the sound, and even more importantly, the drums and percussion were now something that could change up until mix down.
The Death of Blip & Squeak
Ironically, as the development of Hi-NRG dance music was beginning to bear real fruit, the development of the technology that spawned it was instrumental in the death of it’s own root -old school blip & squeak electronic music. The flip side of the primitive nature of the early synths that required so much effort to produce a single sound was that the sound itself tended to be as important as the notes. For a moment, a perfect balance of new, unique electronic sound applied to melodic music was achieved in the mid-’70s with the work of artists like Tomita. These were generally multi-tracked orchestration of (in Tomita’s case, classical) music using synthesizers. As synths became easier to operate, the balance began to swing away from unique sounds and towards the integration of synths into pop music in increasingly standardized ways – the ubiquitous buzzy, slippery portamento MiniMoog solos, fat synth basses, etc. The synth was becoming a tool for making traditional music and the nail in the coffin of the promise of blip & squeak was the polyphonic synth, specifically the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. Up until the introduction of the Prophet 5, most synths were monophonic, capable of playing only one note at a time. A few, such as Art’s Electrocomp system could play two notes at a time, and around 1975 Oberheim began producing a 4-voice polyphonic synth. But this system was actually 4 independent monophonic Oberheim SEM synths linked to the same keyboard. Each voice was still programmed independently. Art, of course, had to have one, but it was large, not all that stable yet or reliable. Art and I spent many an hour between a sound check and our set backstage coaxing one or more of the voices back to life. The Prophet 5 was a revelation in many ways. It was the first large-production synth to incorporate five voices, all programmed simultaneously, and just as ground breaking, one of the first to have a patch memory system, meaning not only was it quick to program five voices at once, but every patch could be recalled instantly with the push of a button. And it was compact, looking essentially like all modern keyboards. Every synth manufacturer followed with their very own version. The line had been crossed. From this point on, the divide between synthesizers and organ/piano-based keyboard instruments became increasingly blurred in concept, use and usability. Until then, using a synth required a specialized skill set. From this point on, synths came programmed with default, factory installed patches like a home organ. The synthesizer, which began as an endlessly flexible sound source with an optional keyboard controller attached, had been tamed. It was now just another instrument in the keyboardist’s rack. Pat and Tip brought the first Prophets into the Minna Street studio. Art bought a Rhodes Chroma, quite a wonderful instrument, essentially a stack of ARP 2600s and a weighted, piano-style keyboard but, like the Prophet, with so much of the inner workings streamlined for ease of performance, it wasn’t that programming friendly. Pat still made a lot of use of the monophonic synths in his work, particularly the ARP’s arpeggiator function and the various sound effects so characteristic of his style. That purity made Pat’s personal work stand out from the work he did with Sylvester, where he was, to a considerable degree, the icing on top of a traditional pop-format band. Pat’s solo work and some of the New Wave art music of the period were basically the last gasp of the blip & squeak we had started out with. Electronic music had been assimilated into the pop music landscape.
By this point Patrick had formed Megatone Records with Marty Blecman and his process became one where he used his studio to demo and then either took those tracks to a larger 24-track studio, usually the Automatt (formerly CBS) or simply recreated them there. Bouncing from the 8-track caused a small amount of degradation, but the drum machine tracks, synched to the time code on the 8th track went straight onto the 2” 24-track tape. Every vocalist always wanted to redo their original track in the big studio and of course all those extra tracks were very enticing for filling with layer upon layer of synths or vocals or guitars. Sometimes there was nothing left from the original tape by the time we got to mix down. Much of Pat’s solo output was produced like this from that point. So were the records Art and I produced for Megatone (Shiver/SFX, JoLo etc.). Because so much of the final production process was happening outside of our studios in the final couple years, our archiving ends about this point. Tragically, another force came into play right about then. By the time Pat died of AIDS-related illness in the fall of 1982, he was one of the earliest, they had just come up with a name for it. Patrick’s passing was part of a massive change in San Francisco that cannot be overstated. The party was over. It was a frightening time when we knew very little about HIV. There are still traces of 1970s San Francisco, but it will never be like it was before the AIDS epidemic. Patrick’s San Francisco was a magical place. Not a fairyland (forgive the pun), but a bubble in time and space where the yin and yang mixed. Taken out of context, the tracks Josh has unearthed from the archives tell only part of the story they represent. Pat was always on the edge of something new. Even when his skills were still developing, his musical voice was expressing a fresh point of view from the crest of a wave of creative change that he rode to the end.
Arthur died from cancer in 1987. Tip had moved to Los Angeles the year before and I finally closed the Minna Street studio in late 1988 as the building was being sold. That was the end of that era for me. I doubt I’ll ever have that type of musical partnership again. I miss them both still. I’ve had dreams over the years where one of them would appear and my reaction is always, “Finally! Now we can get back to work!” -Maurice Tani