Vinyl Review: Patrick Cowley – School Daze

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Although most have never heard his name, Patrick Cowley was an monumentally important artist in the development of electronic dance music. He first made his mark on the dance scene in 1977, delivering a legendary remix of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” that stretched out the tune to 15+ minutes, turning it into a wonderful frenzy of synthesizers and sequencers. From there, he worked with the great Sylvester, performing, producing and/or co-writing on many of the late great diva’s best tracks, including “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Do You Wanna Funk,” which remains one of the greatest dance numbers of all-time.

Cowley passed away in 1982, an early victim of the AIDS virus, but his legacy has lived on thanks to the artists he influenced, such as the Pet Shop Boys and New Order. But the Hi-NRG and synthpop sounds he helped to create were only part of Cowley’s musical output. Because in addition to his fast-paced, club-friendly dance classics, Cowley also composed some of the most compelling and interesting synthesizer instrumentals of the 1970s.

It’s just that most people haven’t heard them because, well, they were used as the soundtracks to gay porn flicks.

In 1981, Cowley allowed a collection of his instrumentals that he recorded throughout the 70s to be used as soundtracks to a pair of gay porn films by Fox Studios; Muscle Up and School Daze. This album, which takes its title from the latter film, collects all of the music from both of those films. And while I’m not a connoisseur of soundtracks to X-rated films, I think it’s safe to say that School Daze might be the best collection of music ever culled from porno flicks.

 

The tracks on School Daze really run the gamut. Pieces like “Seven Sacred Pools” and “Journey Home” sound like minimal interpretations of Tangerine Dream tracks, long and driving numbers backed by non-stop sequencer loops. Others, such as the title track and “He’s Like You” are more playful, and combine 70s funk with the wacky sound of early Gershon Kingsley LPs. And throughout all of the changing styles and tones, none of it really sounds like “porno music.” While I could easily imagine tracks like the eerie and haunting “Nightcrawler” or the rhythmic and intense “Mockingbird” on soundtracks to seventies flicks – in my mind they’re backing tracks to thrillers or action films, not background music for X-rated flicks made for the cheap movie houses of the era.

School Daze is available both as a digital download and as a 2LP package. However, you don’t get a download code with the physical copy, so that’s a drag. The audio quality is also a bit of bummer on both the digital and vinyl editions, with some pretty heavy tape hiss present in almost all of the tracks. That could be because the original tapes weren’t stored properly all these years, or because the people behind this release just didn’t have access to the most state-of-the-art digital restoration software. It’s not a deal breaker, the music still more than listenable, but it can be distracting at times.

Absence of a download code aside, the 2LP edition of School Daze is excellent, and comes in a nice gatefold sleeve with an excellent cover photo of Cowley. I’m also happy to report that the records themselves come in high-quality plastic anti-static sleeves, and not cheap paper ones. That’s something I rarely see in releases from major studios, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it here.

The inside of the gatefold sleeve includes an essay about Cowley by vocalist and friend of Cowley’s Jorge Socarras. The sleeve also contains some pretty graphic images from both Muscle Up and School Daze, which is why I’m not included any photos of it here. Also included is a replica mail-order form from Fox Studios, a funny bit of naughty memorabilia from the days before the Internet, or even widespread video stores, made obtaining such content much easier.

I bought this thinking it would be more upbeat dance music that Cowley became well-known for during his life. And although that didn’t prove to be the case, what I ended up discovering was even better – an amazing, wildly innovative and experimental collection of some of the most interesting and intriguing electronic music of the 1970s. Even if you don’t like disco, even if you don’t like everything you’ve heard of Patrick Cowley, even if the idea of owning the soundtrack to a gay porn flick makes you feel a bit odd, if you have any interest at all in early electronic music, new age ambient music, or minimal house music, then you need to check out School Daze as soon as possible. This is a great record by great, sadly underrated musician who left us way too soon.

And then buy “Do You Wanna Funk” by Sylvester because seriously, that is the most dope jam in the history of dope jams.

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