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Do Ya Wanna Funk? Paul Flynn On Hi-NRG
Paul Flynn , July 12th, 2021 08:42

In our monthly subscriber-only essay, writer Paul Flynn describes being handed a flyer for an unusual literary event which acts as a madeleine, casting him back to the 1980s, and a sexual and sonic awakening. Home page image: detail from the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt photographed by the author

Paul Flynn portrait by Danny Moran

In autumn 2019, a listing for a niche London night out caught my eye:

"Naked Boys Reading: Patrick Cowley's Sex Journals at Ace Hotel, London Shoreditch. Doors 7pm, show 7.30pm. Tickets £8 (on the door), £10 (on the night)."

Despite the competitive pricing and ten-minute proximity to my doorstep, at first glance it prompted nothing more than an embarrassed schoolboy snigger. “Naked Boys”? “Sex Journals”? Pull the other one. Returning to the listing a day later, I recalled a buried memory which would take a little unpicking.

When I was an actual sniggering schoolboy, between 1982 and 1987, at the same battered Catholic comprehensive on Sharston Mount, Wythenshawe, Manchester that had previously educated two prominent members of The Smiths (Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke) and one prominent Coronation Street actor (Kevin "Curly Watts" Kennedy), I had a lovingly compiled C90 cassette of songs taped mostly from the radio. Scrawled across the gold label of the Maxell XL II-S was the genre distinction: “hi-NRG”.

My hi-NRG compilation was not a sophisticated reading of the genre. Compiled by a 14 year old and comprising selections plucked mostly from the limited resources of Radio 1’s unusually disco-minded early-evening DJ Peter Powell, Piccadilly Radio’s weekend dance show and a slim selection of LPs borrowed for 20p a pop from Wythenshawe’s brutalist Record Library (address: Leningrad Square), it was hardly likely to be.

These are my memories of that tape. It kicked off with Miquel Brown’s 'So Many Men, So Little Time', a record so deliciously sluttish it has to shorthand the number of men she intends to devour in multiples of ten during its intro.

Discovering the thrilling personal-life details that Miquel was not only a musical theatre actor but, furthermore, Sinitta’s mum only redoubled the camp audacity of 'So Many Men''s matter of fact opening couplet:

“This morning I opened my eyes and everything’s still the same
I turned to the guy who stayed last night and asked him: ‘What’s your name?’”

The full 12-inch extended mix of Hazell Dean’s 'Whatever I Do (Wherever I Go)' was on there, a hit fashioned in the early Stock, Aitken and Waterman days at the PWL Hit Factory on Borough High Street, two blocks south of the Thames. I later learned from an avid SAW devotee that Pete Waterman would whisk his succession of starlets straight from the vocal booth to The Gladstone Arms, a gay pub situated behind the studios for a celebratory pint, so long as he considered they’d just recorded a hit.

The tape hit more fabulously shameless peaks. The original, raw Bobby O production of Pet Shop Boys’ 'One More Chance' and the record which most clearly inspired it, The Flirts’ 'Passion'. The preposterously literal Evelyn Thomas hit 'High Energy'. Fun Fun’s featherweight Italo-disco masterwork 'Color My Love'. Inevitably, Man 2 Man and Man Parrish’s 'Male Stripper', a song which opens with the kind of keyboard figure Vince Clarke specialised in during the infancy of Depeche Mode before thumping through our faded hero’s recollections of his past life as a muscled go-go dancer, dollar bills shoved down his jock strap.

Buried in the middle of the tape was my absolute favourite, Patrick Cowley’s 'Do Ya Wanna Funk', a record elevated from the unfussy, lathered-up sexual energy of its genre by the celestial nature of Sylvester’s voice, an instrument which could take even the functional single entendre of the title to church. The reason I can recall so much of the detail of that tape is that it is one of only a handful from the analogue age which survived the multiple house moves of my 20s and 30s, before eventually snapping from overuse as I settled at my current address.

Now dead for over a decade, something about its memory disquieted me. Not because of the genre. Far from it. I still love hi-NRG, a feet, hips and crotch sequence of militaristic, synthetic sound, one of the multiple dance sub-genres that bridge the musical gap between disco and house. Perhaps buoyed by the nadir of white, straight male culture which was the burning pyre of disco vinyl in Comiskey Park in 1979, hi-NRG felt like a kind of radical, stereo gay revenge. "You think that was pansy music?" it teased. "Well try this for size, you narrow-minded fucks."

These records, even airing from a tinny wireless, directly evoked the leathery scent of gay nightclubs long before I’d stepped into one. They get a fond nod from Rupert Everett in his memoir, when he first discovers the Coleherne on Old Brompton Road, the favourite boozer of the capital's clones. First as Boystown disco, later Eurobeat, hi-NRG has escaped any revisionist hour in the sun, despite its clear influence on so many 21st century dance classics, including tentpole club classics, Lindstrom’s 'I Feel Space' and Hercules and Love Affair’s 'Blind'. When The Guardian published an arbitrary best British No 1s list last year, two of its top five (Dead or Alive’s 'You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)', and Donna Summer’s 'I Feel Love') were proto hi-NRG classics, the No 1 (Pet Shop Boys’ 'West End Girls') originally recorded as one.

Detail from the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt, photograph by the author

Mostly, these records were sung by a succession of brilliantly accomplished, caterwauling divas: Barbara Pennington, Earlene Bentley, Marsha Raven, Carol Jiani… names long forgotten by pop historians but recalled fondly by men of a certain age and disposition. Hi-NRG had its own proto boy bands too, such as Seventh Avenue. Oddly, for a musical genre mostly synonymous with gay sex, its Canadian wing even managed to house one married couple: Montreal duo Lime's Denis and Denyse LePage.

Its British arm included the first resident Heaven DJ, Ian Levine, a garrulous Blackpool chatterbox who was given £2,000 by the Chinatown dance music shop Record Shack, to set up a hi-NRG label of the same name. Speeding up the Boystown sound of Chicago, Levine produced and licensed a succession of records which made effortless passage from the leather bars of Earls Court to regional Yates’s Wine Lodges. With clattering rhythm tracks that quickened the heart rate, lyrics as transparent as a soft porn movie and the gospel sincerity of its singers, hi-NRG hit an expedient suburban pulse. It is indivisible from the musical identities of a mistily defiant golden age of British gay pop, the connecting spinal fluid between Bronski Beat, Pet Shop Boys and later Erasure. My favourite British No 1, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s 'Relax' walks a straight line from hi-NRG to monolithic arena rock, a quite literal orgasm of sound.

Yet there have been no hagiographic biopics to Levine in the way there have been for Tony Wilson or Alan McGee. Because nobody really eulogises hi-NRG, it remains set in cultural aspic, a memory lost and stored, the sound of lives unhindered by constant retelling. The only mythologies around hi-NRG are the ones incubated by the communities it first fostered and soundtracked. Some of these thoughts came back, formless and unguided. I wondered why. No music prods the sex button – more pertinently the gay sex button – with quite the pinpoint accuracy of hi-NRG, the cum shot to disco’s extensive foreplay. In this sense, it is basic music for basic people. Yet because it caught me first in adolescence, basics were all I really had the grasp of. At 14, everything relates to sex. The gleeful transparency of hi-NRG was the key to a door I wanted to unlock, to turn the clumsiness and furtiveness of adolescent fumbles into something properly grown-up.

The arpeggiated basslines and sharp snare snaps imitate sex itself: in and out, up and down, working towards a succession of inevitable climaxes. Each middle eight follows the same amyl rush. Hi-NRG lyrics eschewed romance in favour of devilish smut, best distilled by the brazenness of Paul Lekakis’s 1982 hit 'Boom Boom (Let’s Go Back To My Room)'. Its denizens sang about backroom sex, sauna sex, cruising of each and every variant. A one-night stand was practically a confession of lifelong monogamy amid its wham-bam lyrical metre.

Patrick Cowley was one of three producers at the vanguard of hi-NRG. The other two, Giorgio Moroder and Bobby "O" Orlando were, astonishingly, straight. Cowley is often credited as its inventor, after producing 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)' and 'Dance (Disco Heat)' for Sylvester’s earth-rattling 1978 disco opus, Step II. He was born in Buffalo, upstate New York, and decamped to San Francisco at a time when politics and culture were reorganising, catalysed by first the election, then the assassination of Harvey Milk. If Moroder and Orlando were the odd men out in a genuine gay disco revolution, Cowley was bulging with enough gay for all three.

I stared at the listing of his readings for some time, remembering a summer spent mostly in a box room in south Manchester compiling a favourite cassette. Tapes are more affecting than diaries for me, the assorted documents of a life lived short of experience, long on curiosity. The transference onto an identity just out of reach. Why now, 30-odd years later, could I not imagine watching a few men reading aloud from Cowley’s unfiltered recollections?

In the mid-80s I supposed, not unreasonably given the climate of the times, that any suggestion of my own emerging, unconfirmed gayness would end up mostly in verbal and physical abuse, possible family exclusion, at best a dread visit from a concerned priest. If I’m being absolutely honest about how gayness was presented to confused teenagers back then, I assumed it would probably also end in my early death from an incurable disease. Hi-NRG rebuffed it all. Its celebration of gay sex represented a fantastical flipside to the social and medical tragedy of HIV/Aids.

In this respect, loving hi-NRG was not really about loving the sound of a thousand forgotten divas singing about sexing their way into oblivion. It was more a personal fortification or donning of musical armour, a banging and clattering litmus test for stepping into a world that looked a bit doomed.

I clicked the "buy tickets" icon.

The author as a teenage New Order fan in Manchester

One of my idle intrigues as a middle-aged man is not why we love the music we love but why we love it at the time we love it. The journey music takes you on, the places you specifically need transporting to as you negotiate the promiscuous habit of falling in and out of love with records. It’s a trip far easier to understand retrospectively than in the moment, when every noisy inkling opens several avenues to walk down.

There is, though, something so specific about the timing and age when I first heard hi-NRG which makes it distinct from the rest. Outside of Gordon Collins in Brookside, Daniel Day Lewis in My Beautiful Laundrette and Larry Grayson presenting Blankety Blank, my entire gay education began with pop music. The first time I read the expression "hi-NRG" was in an interview with local hero Bernard Sumner explaining the genesis of New Order’s 'Blue Monday' during the famed Factory Records anthropology expedition to New York in the early 80s. The gay clubs were better than straight clubs over there, he noted. That message stuck, rotating around my head in confused cycles, so at odds was it with everything I’d heard about poofters in Britain, as the punchline to jokes being boomed from the stage at Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club, just a couple of miles up the road from The Haçienda.

That one of Manchester’s many curious city-wide anthems is essentially a hi-NRG record, made with the exact same machinery Bobby O used to manufacture his sound, is not coincidental to my enduring taste for the music, the singular high it prompts. Sumner always struck me as cooler than the rest, an observation not solely based on his exemplary collection of indoor cagoules. There was something a little perverse, diffident and abject about him. He chose his words wisely, sparingly and never seemed to say anything he didn’t mean. He always came across as sound in a way that other men hadn’t quite figured out how to be yet. 'Blue Monday' was the gateway drug for a cataclysmic new puberty soundtrack, built to specifications which felt almost comically precise to my incoming teenage requirements.

A patina of retrospective pathos had already been scattered over the genre by the time I got to see the inside of the places it was made for. I first went to a little gay club in Manchester, the No 1, a square box tucked behind Central Library, just next to Bootle Street police station, at the kindly suggestion of a girl a year above me at sixth-form college. She had spotted the thing in me I wasn’t quite ready to voice. The musical moment had shifted so quickly that my own gay soundtrack turned out to be nascent house music, not hi-NRG. The men of the No 1 were not decked out in muir caps, vests and jackboots but Lacoste polo shirts, stonewashed Pepe jeans and Adidas shelltoes. Handily, clothes I already wore. It was 1988 and I was not yet 17.

I made my first gay friend shortly after, when some lad spotted me emptying the bins in a local shopping precinct, part of my Saturday job at a municipal car park, and shouted down the street, “Oi, you! Were you at the No 1 last night?” After the initial blushes of recognition and wondering if anyone else had heard my outing in broad daylight, our conversations weren’t about The Weather Girls or Record Shack. We talked about particular mixes of Adeva B-sides, the genius of Frankie Knuckles, where to buy shrink-wrapped white labels of the records we’d danced to together. Music was still the confluent currency by which identity could be adopted, tried on for size to see how deeper, more interior conundrums might sort themselves out. Music has always worked best for me as a cushion for resting your curiosities upon.

By 89, ecstasy had arrived at the club, the carpet had been ripped up, a smoke machine and lasers installed. The only separation from the changes sweeping through the rest of the city’s nightlife, among whistles blown, shoulders massaged and the aroma of Vicks Vaporub replacing amyl nitrate was a (slightly) higher percentage of men wanting to get off with one another. When The Haçienda shut down one summer, faces started to appear at the No 1 you recognised from its dancefloor, and a convergence of interests based on taste, not sexuality became discernible. For a couple of seasons, house music achieved what hi-NRG could only dream of: turning gay clubs into the envy of the rest.

Amid this new utopia, homages to hi-NRG were paid by smart DJs who understood the roots of where house music came from. One of the central reasons 'I Feel Love' has remained such a perennial, untouchable pop classic is how unquestionably amazing it sounds on disinhibiting love drugs, whatever the decade. Cerrone’s 'Supernature' fitted with expedient ease into the middle of a house set, filling in colour from the trippier, more cosmic end of the disco rainbow.

By the time I was ready to appreciate Patrick Cowley records like 'Megatron Man' and 'Menergy' on my own terms, their lyrics would be way too literal a message to lean into. But 'Do Ya Wanna Funk' always retained a special place, one that would often be called on at splattered 5am back-to-mine sessions in a host of different addresses I called home.

It isn’t just about being a perfect pop record. 'Do Ya Wanna Funk' is one of the few hi-NRG records around which myths have built hard and fast. The intensely researched, expertly delivered work of Josh Cheon at the tiny San Francisco independent imprint Dark Entries has made honourable work of keeping Cowley’s legacy intact, venerated and ripe for reappraisal. After re-releasing Cowley’s three soundtrack albums for the Fox Studios films School Daze, Muscle Up and Afternooners, Cheon set about his masterwork, a complete repackage of Cowley’s "pornophonics": Mechanical Fantasy Box, a selection of uncovered, previously unreleased soundtracks for gay porn movies which form the seedlings of what would later become hi-NRG, his great gift to pop culture.

Cowley was hospitalised with an unknown illness in 1981 and recorded 'Do Ya Wanna Funk' while briefly released from the ward. Cowley died on 12 Novemberh 1982, two weeks after his 32nd birthday , and legend has it that Sylvester heard the news while carousing through the hallway of Heaven, on a brief UK promotional tour for the song around regional British gay clubs. By 16 December, 1988, Sylvester was dead from the same big disease, which by now had a little name: Aids.

By some confluence of insanely good fortune and fate, I arrived at gay clubs to a backcloth of safe-sex messaging, high-level community resistance and giveaway boxes of free prophylactics on bar tops. The rumbling undercurrents of panic and fear that marked the time were counteracted in part by the industrial quantities of ecstasy that were circulating my home city. Cowley had experienced none of that, while paving the way indirectly for it all with his astonishing experiments setting man against machine.

There is an expression that was passed around gay communities throughout the rabid first wave of the Aids pandemic: survivors’ guilt. Usually, it refers to a shared feeling among those diagnosed HIV-positive who reached the mid-90s and saw a time when the correct combination of medications could at first suppress the virus from developing, then eventually turn it undetectable. But survivors’ guilt is an expression everyone who touched the hem of the global Aids catastrophe can empathise with. It is the reason hi-NRG, that joyful, carefree, free-for-all sex music, the sound of our social liberation, can now land with such a hard residual sting.

By 2019, I didn’t so much think of hi-NRG as music of the gays as music of the gods. When I hear the messaging of 'So Many Men, So Little Time' now, it carries new and entirely accidental meanings, a poignancy one couldn’t have begun to imagine at the time.

The author in his teenage rave days

In late 2019, I went along to the Ace Hotel to watch the naked readings from Cowley’s sex diaries, grateful for the pause for thought the announcement of the event had afforded me. The audience was made up of the same demographic of men who had danced first time around to Cowley’s amazing noise in situ, as well as a younger, hipper subset in thrall to the age their forebears lived through, and a smattering of spectacled academics attuned to the sociology of it all.

The first man on stage was a German reader who bore a startling resemblance to Cowley himself, a compact man with sandy hair and a moustache. He looked to be in his early 30s, close enough to the age Cowley was when he died to lend his appearance that of a living ghost without so much as opening his mouth.

The passages he read were a bold selection of detailed sexual encounters, random, serious, fleeting, multiple occupancy, solo and in couples. It turned out music was not Cowley’s only special skill. The absolute candour with which he documented his riotous gay sex life through 70s San Francisco trod a line I had never once before imagined, somewhere between poetry and pornography. It was a powerful moment, of such intense personal significance to me I thought at one stage I would have to excuse myself discreetly from the back of the room for a sob. Just about managing to hold it together, I sat through a succession of readers, realising the nudity was the easiest, most powerful conduit to Cowley’s absolute freedom from bodily shame, his uncomplicated documentary delight in recording physical pleasure.

In a passage from 15 February, 1976, Cowley recalls a Mardi Gras sex club party, a three-act, six-man orgy which rotates through a paragraph before he ends up with David, a well-built redhead with something of the Barry Lyndon-fantasy about him. “This is a sweet sex and the feelings flow with the juices,” he decides. “Let the juices flow.” By this point, he almost sounds like he is writing a hi-NRG lyric. “The longer you love,” he concludes, “The longer you live.”

Mechanical Fantasy Box, The Homoerotic Journal Of Patrick Cowley is out now