[REVIEW] Smokey, The Lost Great American Gay Pre-Punk Icons, Reissued

Get ready for Smokey: a band perhaps “so amazing that the only reason you haven’t heard of them is because they were faggots and they didn't give a fuck.” The truth of the matter is that there are a lot of bands that should have been, but never were, for whatever reason.  Big Star was in that stratosphere – so were Rodriguez and, more fittingly, the all black proto-punk band Death. But what these bands did have going for them was the fact that they were straight – in a world where being gay was not only a sin, it was billboard poison. Smokey hardly stood a chance.

In 1973, John ‘Smokey’ Condon, a “bewitchingly beautiful Baltimore transplant” who used to party with John Waters, met budding record producer EJ Emmons. They both moved to Los Angeles around the same time – along with a lot of other creative outcasts who didn’t “fit in.” Strangely enough, they were introduced to each other by a rather “touchy-feely” road manager for the Doors. Together, they went on to produce five of the most criminally neglected singles of the decade, as well as a treasure trove of unreleased recordings.

Condon had marched in New York the night after the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and so by the time he and EJ created Smokey, they weren’t about to hold back. Released in 1974, the first single Leather b/w Miss Ray wasn’t just openly gay, it was exultantly, unapologetically gay, examining front-on the newly-liberated leather and drag scenes thriving in America’s urban areas. The single was shopped around to labels using Emmons’ industry contacts, but doors were regularly slammed on the duo. “We can’t put this out, it’s a fucking gay record, what’s the matter with you,” said one record exec, while adding “it’s really good though

Instead of retreating, Smokey rebelled and formed S&M Records, with a logo featuring a muscular arm encased in studded cuffs, and “S&M” tattooed on the bulging bicep. They went on to self- release five singles that span pre-punk, stoner jams, disco, synth-punk and more, all stamped with Smokey’s fearless candor. The 1976 single How Far Will You Go…? features guitar from EJ’s studio buddy James Williamson, fresh from his adventures recording Raw Power with Iggy & the Stooges in London with David Bowie.

There are numerous amazing tracks just as amazing. There is the 9-minute disco workout entitled Piss Slave, and two versions of Million Dollar Babies, an ode to New York’s notorious trucks where men would go late at night to trick. Other tracks include cameos by Randy Rhoads of Quiet Riot/Ozzy Osbourne and members of the Motels, King Crimson, David Bowie’s Tin Machine, Suburban Lawns and many others. Essentially, Smokey laid the groundwork for an entire generation of leather-clad rockers who would bend the context of popular music and their own sexuality.

Fortunately, Emmons has collaborated with Australian record outfit Chapter Music to present the first ever reissue of Smokey’s music. The compilation, entitled How Far Will You Go?, has been lovingly restored by Emmons from original master tapes, and even mastered for vinyl by Emmons on his own cutting lathe. There are also extensive liner notes with stories and lyrics – along with photos. The compilation is available for preorder now and you will receive a complimentary MP3 download of the title track. The full album will be available on June 23rd.