John "Smokey" Condon's music struts into the heteronormative room of rock 'n' roll and drags the pain and passion of Stonewall, the puckish filthiness of John Waters, and something like the West Coast warmth of Armistead Maupin along with it. The songs on "How Far Will You Go?: The S&M Recordings, 1973-81," a crucial compilation of tracks from this forgotten gay grimy glam rocker, were affronts back in the '70s simply because they existed and spoke with honesty and humor and frankness about homosexuality.
Let's begin with 'Piss Slave,' a near nine-minute disco boogie woogie about watersports that incorporates elements of synth-pop, space disco, stadium rock, honky blues, Rust Belt punk, and more and features this forgotten Baltimore-raised, New York-radicalized, Los Angeles-based musician chanting, "I wanna, I wanna, I wanna be your toilet" and howling "sexy sexy." Also, about halfway through the song, Smokey's vocals speed up and then glitch, as if the poppers just kicked in. Imagine if, say, Giorgio Moroder remixed Led Zeppelin's 'Carouselambra' and they got Jean Genet to pen some lyrics and you'd get something like 'Piss Slave.'
Beyond 'Piss Slave's' sexy shock meets knowing schlock, the rest of the songs here are no less joyous or transgressive. There's 'Leather,' which is like if the "colored girls" from Lou Reed's 'Walk On The Wild Side' walked away from Lou's song to go hang out with someone more interesting; flirtation ballad 'Strong Love,' which sounds like The Doors covering Paul Williams' "Phantom of the Paradise" score; the mess of melting sleaze that is the title track; and 'Hot Hard & Ready,' best described as Billy Joel's speedy piano schtickiness heard on, say, 'Pressure' except, you know, about boners. There is also a boozy sing-along version of 'Puttin' On The Ritz,' and the switchblade-flicking doo-wop of 'Ballad Of Butchie & Claudine,' which picks up where Kenneth Anger's "Scorpio Rising" left off in terms of queering '50s street gangs. This tangle of influences predicts '80s pop acts such as Bronski Beat or Frankie Goes To Hollywood, similarly minded high-concept queer musicians who knew their way around crafting catchy pop.
Thanks to eerie, trashy organs and Smokey's drawn-out Dracula-like voice, there's a kind of haunted-house-music quality to these songs that seems to sonically acknowledge the dangerous thrill of giving in to desire. But Smokey's music also runs the gamut of the gay experience from romantic love to fuck-me fist-me yelps to getting peed on—which he makes sound totally awesome, by the way. And it seems as though it was more than just good ol' fashioned music industry homophobia that kept Smokey from breaking through, but rather the variance with which he approached gay life that doomed him to obscurity. (Brandon Soderberg)
Smokey's 'How Far Will You Go: The S&M Recordings, 1973-1981' is out now on Chapter Music