Studs, Synths, and Liberation: A Brief History of SF Disco
August 31, 2018

Studs, Synths, and Liberation: A Brief History of SF Disco

Subscribe to Bill Brewsters Spotify playlist of the best San Francisco disco tracks here. Or, better yet, check out the full YT playlists here, which includes tracks not available on Spotify.It’s not surprising that San Francisco’s disco heyday has become a source of fascination for subsequent generations. Like New York’s undergrounds clubs of the ‘70s and ‘80s, San Francisco’s scene offered LGBTQ people, straight women, bohemians, racial minorities, and other folks facing discrimination a community that provided a safe space and a chunk of freedom. The music reflected the audience’s diversity, and you can hear that on For Discos Only, a compilation that features a cross-section of New York and SF disco from that era. But the SF dance scene didn’t suddenly materialize the night its most famous star and international LGBTQ icon Sylvester first walked on stage in a fabulous thrift-store gown, and it wasn’t principally about platform shoes, poppers, or any other superficial signifiers that would ultimately characterize it. The scene grew out of a culmination of sociological, musical, political, and economic factors rooted in related liberation movements of the ‘60s. San Francisco represented a mecca that welcomed all the beautiful freaks Middle America tried to flush out, and the city’s disco scene was first and foremost about sexual, communal, and spiritual love.If there was a single San Francisco birthplace for that kind of amorphous, amorous experience, it has to be the Stud, which still exists today. Originally situated on Folsom Street, this funky 1966-originated dance bar was one of several South of Market clubs that followed the Tool Box, an even earlier leather bar, to court a new kind of gay man who flouted stereotypes. Stud patrons were largely hippies who lived in communes, took drugs, preached revolution, and created what we now consider cultural institutions like the bygone Cockettes and the ongoing Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – radical drag troupes that celebrate gay liberation, community service, and pan-gender outrage as elements of the same countercultural movement. Even Janis Joplin hung out at the Stud.This was when SOMA, the Tenderloin, and Polk Gulch neighborhoods showcased much of SF’s queer nightlife. The Castro had just started absorbing a gay crowd during 1967’s Summer of Love when thousands of kids from all over the US descended on the Haight. In the early ‘70s, a wave of Castro bars and clubs opened. Among these was the Pendulum, which welcomed a black clientele, and Toad Hall, which signified the earliest transition from dance bars to disco by becoming one of the first spaces to shun jukeboxes in favor of pre-recorded tapes featuring segued, continuous music.Opening downtown in 1972, The City offered another evolutionary step with a sizable dancefloor and cabaret where Sylvester performed. Three other SF disco pioneers worked there – DJs John Hedges and Marty Blecman, as well as its lighting man Patrick Cowley, who’d studied electronic music, composed gay porn soundtracks, and recorded hypnotic mixes of disco hits augmented by his own synthesizer parts. Boosted immeasurably by Cowley’s electronic contributions to his records and live band, Sylvester made the leap into the pop Top 40 with “Dance (Disco Heat),” here included on For Discos Only in its churchy 12-inch mix. Sylvester’s success meant that Fantasy – a Berkeley-based label previously known for jazz and Creedence Clearwater Revival – embraced disco in a big way, with several releases featuring Cowley, Sylvester, or his backing vocalists Two Tons o’ Fun in subtle and sometimes overt ways. Listen closely and you can hear Two Tons’ Izora Rhodes growling through the climax of Paradise Express’s “Dance,” or Cowley’s synth arpeggios percolating through Fever’s heated “Beat of the Night.” Around this time, SF’s club scene exploded with hugely popular dance venues like the End Up, the I-Beam, and arguably the most beloved in the city’s history, the Trocadero Transfer, where DJ Bobby Viteritti’s frenzied, Pan-like mixing style inspired a devotion exceeded only by New York’s Paradise Garage and its legendary DJ Larry Levan, who championed many of the Vanguard grooves also found on For Discos Only.When disco was declared dead in the early ‘80s mainstream, Cowley started his own gay-targeted, SF-based label Megatone, which began releasing Sylvester’s subsequent, defiantly queer output. Shortly thereafter, Cowley died in 1982 of a mysterious disease then not even known as AIDS. Consequently run by Hedges and Blecman, Megatone along with other local indies like Moby Dick carried the torch with hi-NRG club tracks until Sylvester, Blecman, countless other DJs, and much of SF’s original disco revelers also perished in the plague.The next dancers embraced house music and other harder sounds that reflected their experience. But as AIDS subsided when treatment and prevention methods improved, yet another generation came of age, one curious about the city’s illustrious nightlife past. Homegrown DJ collectives like Go Bang! and Honey Sound System have, in recent years, helped revive vintage SF disco; the latter’s Dark Entries label even issued Cowley’s porn soundtracks and other previously unreleased experimental work. The technology that currently defines San Francisco may have changed the cultural landscape of the city, but the sounds and spirits of love and liberation captured in For Discos Only remain a gateway not to paradise lost, but to hard-won ecstasies of the past, preserved for the present and future alike.This post is part of our Disco 101 program, an in-depth series that looks at the far-reaching, decades-long impact of disco. Curious about disco and want to learn more? Go here to sign up. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out by sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or just sending your friends this link. They’ll thank you. We thank you.

Sylvester’s Mighty Realness
September 5, 2018

Sylvester’s Mighty Realness

This post is part of our Disco 101 program, an in-depth series that looks at the far-reaching, decades-long impact of disco. Curious about disco and want to learn more? Go here to sign up. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out by sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or just sending your friends this link. They’ll thank you. We thank you.Sylvester James Jr, better known simply as Sylvester, was one of the boldest and most memorable figures to emerge out of the late ‘70s disco scene. His signature song, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," remains not just one of the most recognizable songs of the era but possibly the most exhilarating, too. Sylvester was more than just a hitmaker -- he was an icon for both the LGBTQ community and the San Francisco dance music scene. His life is the stuff of legend. During his far-too-few 41 years on the planet, the distinction between factual incidents, apocryphal stories, and fantabulous fabrications is often difficult to discern -- and where’s the fun in trying to do that, anyway?My favourite of these legends reflects the ongoing inability of the music industry of the ‘70s and ’80s to figure out what to do with a natural-born star with such a singular sensibility. Frustrated by one of these record companies’ efforts to tone him down and repackage him as a Teddy Pendergrass-type – whose husky voice Sylvester could actually emulate when not doing his trademark falsetto – our hero had no recourse but to burst into the president’s office while wearing a blond wig and negligee and exclaim, “This is my image and I’m not changing it!” Gestures of defiance don’t come much fiercer than that.Regardless of whether it actually went down like that, the story is in keeping with the unapologetically lusty bravado that Sylvester brought to many classics of disco’s golden age. The recent arrival of For Discos Only: Indie Dance Music From Fantasy & Vanguard Records -- a compilation featuring rare versions of many of these tracks, including “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “Over and Over” -- is one of many recent signs that Sylvester continues to loom large. Another is the near-weekly namechecking he receives on RuPaul’s Drag Race, whose host was inspired by the bravery and brazenness Sylvester displayed in an era that was far more closeted than its hedonistic reputation may suggest. Though producer Jacques Morali populated the Village People with symbolic representations of members of New York’s gay subculture and initially marketed the group to LGBTQ audiences, the record company and performers (all but two of whom were straight) still played coy with mainstream listeners about the true inspiration of songs like “Y.M.C.A.” Openly gay performers – like Tony Washington of the Motown act Dynamic Superiors or the utterly singular Klaus Nomi – remained surprisingly rare.Of course, things were different in San Francisco, disco’s West Coast epicenter. Later memorialized by writers like Armistead Maupin, the city’s clubland was a far wilder and bolder place than even New York’s. The scene’s music makers had no choice but to keep pace. A former songwriter and producer at Motown, Harvey Fuqua showed a keener understanding of Sylvester’s potential than most of his music-biz peers would when he signed the singer -- who’d been a member of the gender-bending avant-garde theatre troupe The Cockettes – to his imprint on Fantasy. He also made a deal with Sylvester’s backup singers, a duo named Two Tons Of Fun who’d have their greatest success as the Weather Girls with “It’s Raining Men”.But Fuqua’s smartest move was teaming Sylvester with Patrick Cowley, a San Francisco synthesizer boffin with a knack for increasing the intensity of the kind of sultry, machine-made grooves that Giorgio Moroder had first fashioned for Donna Summer. When Sylvester’s gospel-influenced yet unabashedly carnal vocals topped Cowley’s sleek synthesizer throb on hits like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, the results were so extraordinary, they birthed their own subgenre: hi-NRG.At the height of his success at the end of the ‘70s, Sylvester was a sensation among gay and mainstream audiences alike. But like many artists of the era, he struggled to find a new direction when the disco backlash caused record companies to be more skittish about the kind of flamboyance that had been de rigueur just a few years before. More gospel and soul influences came to the fore on Sylvester’s final albums for Fantasy and subsequent recordings. He also showed off other aspects of his voice, his natural baritone having been long obscured by his show-stopping falsetto.By then, the gay community that had made him a star had begun to suffer the ravages of the AIDS plague. After one final triumph with the singer on 1982’s exhilarating “Do You Wanna Funk,” Cowley became an early casualty. AIDS would also claim Sylvester in 1988, though he defied another taboo by going public about his condition in an interview published before his death in the Los Angeles Times. “It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a gay, white male disease,” said the singer. “The black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when weve been so hard hit by this disease. I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”The songs Sylvester was working on at the time of his death were posthumously released on an album named Immortal. Given the long shadow that his music and style cast on the present, the title seems like more than the usual hyperbole, and the cover photo of him in flaming orange hair and a pair of black heels captures his timeless spirit. Here’s a playlist of Sylvester at his finest.

The Psychedelic Funk Family Tree
November 6, 2017

The Psychedelic Funk Family Tree

Psychedelic music emerged in the mid-60s as a mutant offspring of the British Invasion and American garage rock, but has since morphed into so many different forms that it is more accurate to describe it as a feeling than a sound. Be it the the brain-melting feedback of Jimi Hendrix or Ty Segall, the dreamy reveries of Spiritualized and Tame Impala, or the heady, head-nodding beats of Flying Lotus and J Dilla, psychedelica is hard to pin down—but you’ll know you’re hearing it when you feel your mind altering. Heres our curated guide to the best head music to help you chase the rush, including our genre-spanning psych playlist (at right) and links to past Dowsers mixes for even deeper trips.


PSYCH FUNKPsychedelic music has traditionally been used as a way to explore the inner workings of your mind. But if you take off the headphones, its also a great way to explore your body on the dance floor. Soul, funk and R&B have a long tradition of making music that rocks the hips and the third eye at the same time, from Eddie Hazels righteous riffing on Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop to Dâm-Funks alien synth-funk bangers.Recommended Listening:A Deeper Shade of Psych SoulThe Afrofuturist Impulse in MusicInto the Nite: Synth-Funk Fantasias


PSYCH RAPPsychedelic music has drifted into every form of music, and since any worthwhile hip-hop producer keeps their ears open, its only natural that it’s became part of the mix. Revered producers J Dilla and Madlib have made hip-hop tracks that oozed with so much mood and shimmer that they didnt even need MCs to rewire the listeners brain, while the genre’s heady offshoot, trip-hop, has been obliterating genre lines and listeners’ minds for more than two decades.Recommended Listening:Great (Post-Donuts) Instrumental Hip-Hop TracksBehind the Beats: Madlib and DillaBest Trip-Hop Tracks


PSYCH JAZZAt its mid-’60s moment of origin, psychedelia immediately found a natural host in jazz. After all, both are concerned with evoking a feeling and a mood, and following inspiration wherever it leads—from the spiritually searching compositions of Alice Coltrane to Mulatu Astatke’ slippery Latin-flavored explorations to Flying Lotus dedication to feeding brains with jazz-damaged trance whispers.Recommended Listening:The Black Experimental Music MixtapeChampions of Ethiopian GrooveThe Best of Brainfeeder


PSYCH-TRONICAWhy settle for rocking minds and rocking bodies when you can do both at once? From the Chemical Brothers to Neon Indian to Boards of Canada, many of the most cutting-edge electronic-music producers spend equal amounts of time focussing on booming beats as well as keyboard lines, sine moans, and digital gurgles designed to tickle the mind. And if you need to rest after a night out, theres plenty of trippy ambient chillout tracks for that as well.Recommended Listening:Essential Acid House TraxThe Art of Psychedelic Disco-RockThe Best Electronic Shoegaze


INDIE PSYCHPsychedelia never dies, it just keeps getting weirder. Animal Collective threw down the gauntlet with 2004’s Sung Tongs, their childlike, free-spirited update of psych rock, and a generation of indie artists have taken up the challenge. From Deerhunters fearsome ambient punk to Zombys scrambled dubstep to Ariel Pinks wounded daydreams, the youngest generation continues to push music inward.Recommended Listening:Animal Collective’s Outer LimitsDreamy Noise Sounds: The Best of Kranky RecordsNew Tropics: The Modern Los Angeles Underground


PSYCH ROCKWhen rock first got psychedelic in the 60s, the most obvious proponents were self-professed freaks like Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa. But nearly everywhere you looked, you could find someone trying to access their inner mind via some radical noise, from cult acts like Love and The Fugs to icons like The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Since then, every generation since has found their own way to look inside, from the Dream Syndicate in the ’80s, to Slowdive in the ’90s, to My Morning Jacket in the 21st century.Recommended Listening:Bad Trips: The Dark Side of the ‘60sSpace Rock: A Cosmic JourneyHow Psychedelia Reclaimed Modern Rock


PSYCH FOLKIn the beginning, psychedelic music was associated with guitar gods like Jimi Hendrix and waves of feedback. But that big bang was soon followed by generations of artists—from 60s Greenwich Village folkie Karen Dalton to Bert Jansch and his 70s British folk group Pentangle to modern dreamweavers like Devendra Banhart— who used acoustic guitars, pared-down arrangements, and dexterously plucked melodies to pull the listener into their headspace without the need for amplification.Recommended Listening:Way Past Pleasant: A Guide to Psychedelic FolkReligion, Rock, and LSD: A Brief History of Jesus Freaks


PSYCH PUNKThe common myth about punk is that it formed in opposition to bloated 70s rock, and rejected Pink Floyd and anything associated with psychedelia. But the truth is that plenty of punks, such as restless hardcore purveyors Black Flag and volatile noiseniks the Butthole Surfers, not to mention punk-adjacent acts like the Jesus & Mary Chain and Dinosaur Jr., looked back to the ‘60s when deciding how to expand their sound and beguile their fans.Recommended Listening:When Punk Got WeirdPsychedelia in the ‘80sThe 50 Best Shoegaze Albums of All Time

Prince’s Sign O’ The Times: Unpacked
March 24, 2018

Prince’s Sign O’ The Times: Unpacked

Only Prince could release a double album and have it be considered a back-to-basics move. His 1987 masterpiece, Sign O’ The Times, works in spite of itself, bubbling over with ideas and sounds that form an encyclopedic study of funk music and reconnect Prince to himself and to his roots. On its 30th anniversary, it sounds just as timeless, complex, and vital.But in the wake of its triumph, it’s easy to forget Prince had a difficult 1986. His label, Warner Brothers, did very little to promote “Kiss,” a song from his then-latest album, Parade. The record doubled as the quasi-soundtrack to Prince’s directorial debut, Under The Cherry Moon, in which he also starred, however, widespread critical pans prevented it from becoming his next Purple Rain. Additionally, members of his band, The Revolution, wanted more credit for their involvement in the songwriting process, particularly Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, resulting in Prince dissolving the band and scrapping his next record, a project called Dream Factory. At the same time, his relationship with Susannah Melvoin (Wendy’s twin sister) was on shaky ground.He eventually poured his work into Crystal Ball, a triple album that combined new songs, reworked songs from Dream Factory, and songs he’d written for Camille, a failed offshoot in the vein of his female-fronted acts Vanity 6 and Apollonia. Warner had doubts about the album and the feasibility of releasing a triple album after having such a rocky year. Embattled, Prince was on his own for the first time in years.Obliging Warner, he cut Crystal Ball down to a double LP, renaming it Sign O’ The Times. Rather than sounding like a record with its wings clipped, Sign has absolutely no filler despite its still-sprawling size and the fact that it had been cobbled together from other projects—as soon became clear, Prince would stockpile songs and save them for later throughout his entire career.If anything, the record revels in natural contradictions. The minimal drum beat of “It” and the lean, undeniable funk of “Housequake” are set against the maximum pop of “Strange Relationship” and the live full-band exhibitionism of “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night.” Styles and time periods are juxtaposed as well, with references to Grandmaster Flash (the title track), Joni Mitchell (“The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”), Sly Stone (“Forever In My Life”), and Prince himself (“Adore”) grounded in songs that sound modern yet often recall the paisley-eyed heyday of peace and love. This was undeniably a return to form and a conversation between styles and even genders, all held together by Prince’s ample charisma—which can be seen as well as heard in the concert film that followed.This slamming playlist serves to contextualize this overwhelming record, sussing out reference points and digging up discarded songs to highlight the brilliance of the record as well as the process that created it.

Woke As Fuck Disco Mix
December 22, 2017

Woke As Fuck Disco Mix

Disco has proven to be one of the more malleable and durable genres, certainly more so than punk or many other genres that sprung up during the 70s. Tim Finney -- who’s written for Pitchfork, Complex and nearly everywhere between those poles -- offers this “woke as fuck” playlist on Spotify. And though there’s no written context for this, and the tracks span decades, they seem to all be from the more proggy and experimental end of the disco spectrum. They’re also consistently jaw-dropping amazing.

Obscene Bass: Revisiting Miami’s Invasion of White Suburbia
January 7, 2018

Obscene Bass: Revisiting Miami’s Invasion of White Suburbia

Back in the ’80s, uptight white people fretted over the decline of western civilization. For Tipper Gore and the PMRC, suburban youth were being morally debased by the down and dirty sounds of gangsta rappers, Satanic headbangers, and provocative pop divas. The most obscene of all was 2 Live Crew and the Miami bass sound they helped transform into something that was equal parts pop fad and national epidemic. Seemingly overnight, white teenage girls were shaking what their mamas gave them, while their brothers cruised strip mall parking lots in cars with the boom. School dances were cancelled, musicians arrested, and record stores shuttered. To celebrate this gloriously obscene time in America, here is a bass-thumping blast of genre cornerstones, radio hits, and lost nuggets.

Indie Rock Face-Off: Neo vs. ’90s

The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.

The Year in ’90s Metal

It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.

Out of the Stacks: ’90s College Radio Staples Still At It

Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.