Honey Soundsystem presents a Tribute to Patrick Cowley with Daniel Wang
Oct. 21, 2012
Better than: It's hard to compare, honestly.
The "golden age of San Francisco dance music" is how writer and musician David Diebold refers to the brief window of time between 1978 and 1983 in his essential history book Tribal Rites: San Francisco's Dance Music Phenomenon. It was during these years that San Francisco carved a niche and established a sound for itself. With roots in the city's gay discos, the "San Francisco Sound" was a unique take on Hi-NRG that carried within its chunky arpeggiations and bizarre lyrics an almost psychedelic surreality. At the heart of this movement was the vision of Patrick Cowley, a club lighting technician and early electronic music experimenter who got his break when a demo tape found its way into the hands of Sylvester.
Almost solely responsible for laying the blueprint for what would later temporarily become a major industry, Cowley's presence looms large in tracks like Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real," Paul Parker's "Right on Target," and his own "Menergy." Yet, as joyful and popular as this sound once was, today it's almost a lost chapter in recent dance music history. Much of that has to do with AIDS; the sound's short lifespan corresponds almost exactly with the dark period when the disease became a devastating epidemic. Many of the people who experienced those days were afflicted and died tragically young. Cowley himself died at the age of 32, in 1982. Bad memories, combined with a smaller group to tell the tale, have so far meant that subsequent dance music scenes are recounted more readily.
Yet it shouldn't be for lack of remembering that this period is lost. Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in Cowley's body of work. At a local level, no party that I know of has done more than Honey Soundsystem to remember his legacy. Back when it was getting started in the mid-'00s, Honey threw a number of events in honor of Cowley and Megatone records (one of the larger SF-based Hi-NRG labels). Last night marked another tribute as the party brought out disco selector Daniel Wang to celebrate what would have been Cowley's 62nd birthday.
Honey Soundsystem is the kind of party that makes other parties seem half-assed by comparison. There's a level of care and attention to detail that makes it a totally immersive experience, like a dive bar version of an Olafur Eliasson piece. Each party features delicately placed decorations: geometric shapes, dangling mobiles, netting, and even a huge gong featuring engraved honey dippers. On special nights organizers go the extra mile, last night being a prime example. The walls across the entire club had been done up like the cover from Cowley's Megatron Man LP. Grids of thick tape crossed each other, sending lines towards a three-dimensionally rendered pyramid. All of this worked together to create a very specific mood that seemed to manifest somewhere in the haze between the disco ball and the sweaty men on the dancefloor below.
Sound for the early portion of the night was provided by Robot Hustle (a.k.a. Robert Yang), a DJ I used to associate with rare Italo records and Cybernetic Broadcast System mixtapes. Admittedly, it's been a while since I've seen him play, but last night he surprised me by sticking almost exclusively to of-the-moment house music. Perched up in the Holy Cow's almost-hidden DJ booth, he played a set that I overheard someone describe as "working it out at the gym." It was good, and the dancefloor seemed to show its approval as some took off their shirts to dance half-naked in the fog.