Smokey

How Far Will You Go: The S&M Recordings, 1973-81

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In the 21st century, many gay and lesbian pop and rock musicians are still hesitant about declaring their sexual orientation to their fans, and though the glam rock scene of the '70s was built around artists who enjoyed playing guessing games about their ambiguous sexual preferences (most notably David Bowie and Lou Reed), outside of Jobriath, few if any were willing to make a bold, decisive statement that they were gay (and Jobriath's courage played a major role in his career never taking off). So Smokey are more than a bit remarkable for the simple fact no other rock band was as flat-out gay as they were during their 1973 to 1981 run. Led by singer John "Smokey" Condon and multi-instrumentalist and producer E.J. Emmons, Smokey devoted nearly all of their repertoire to the joys of man-on-man love, and if Jobriath sometimes came off as fey, Smokey sounded as up-front as a hustler cruising Hollywood Boulevard on Saturday night, as Condon's lyrics and wardrobe left no doubt he was a guy who liked his leather and all that went with it. Not surprisingly, no major label would get anywhere near Smokey, so Condon and Emmons released their music on their own independent S&M Records label, and How Far Will You Go: The S&M Recordings, 1973-81 is the first collection of the singles they released in small quantities in the '70s and early '80s. Ultimately, Smokey's sexuality and Condon's bold enthusiasm about expressing it are the most interesting things about this music; Condon was a solid vocalist, but not exceptional, and his Bowie affectations on tracks like "Leather" and "Strong Love" only point out that he wasn't as natural a talent as Bowie. And their fusion of rock and disco may have been prescient but it wasn't always exciting, while their detours into cocktail pop on covers of "Temptation" and "Puttin' on the Ritz" sound clunky and uninspired (though Smokey can be credited with beating David Johansen by creating their own variation of Buster Poindexter a decade before the fact). There are a few proto-punk numbers here that connect, most notably the cheerfully sleazy "Million Dollar Babies," but the most notable tracks are the ones that throw all caution to the wind, particularly the outré "DTNA" and "Piss Slave," which is even more blatant than you'd expect, and Condon seems to delight in taking the audience somewhere they may not want to go. Guy Blackman's liner notes offer a very entertaining history of Smokey's wild ride (and the surprising number of notables who crossed their path, including Stooges guitarist James Williamson and metal guitar icon Randy Rhoads), and if How Far Will You Go is hit-and-miss as music, it's a remarkable document of a forgotten musical detour on the way to the sexual revolution, utterly fearless and not much like anything else of its era.

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