Unlike the similarly styled works of David Bowie and Lou Reed, Smokey never managed to break through to a broader audience. Much of this can be chalked up to the lack of mystery surrounding their sexuality. Where Bowie and Reed flirted with the notion of bisexuality and were often coy about their true orientation, preferring to remain enigmatic, Smokey, like the equally unsuccessful Jobriath, made no bones about their sexuality. Out and proud, theirs was an approach to glam rock that, despite the genre’s flirtation with sexual ambiguity, proved a bit too strong for mass public consumption. Playing pretend was one thing, living the life and singing about it as explicitly as Smokey chose to was another entirely.
Even now, some forty years removed from their debut recordings, the songs on How Far Will You Go?: The S&M Recordings, 1973-81 feel like the work of an underground act that, regardless of the era, would remain forever relegated to the underground. Where Jobriath largely conveyed his openness about his sexuality in print and the embodiment of his post-Ziggy image, Smokey, led by John “Smokey” Condon, sang of the joys of homosexuality in a manner predating disco and lacking that genre’s campy irony.
While a number of these tracks could be considered a sort of proto-disco (“Leather”, “I’ll Always Love You”, and the title track in particular), much of Smokey’s recorded output for their own S&M label, and certainly the best tracks here, largely sticks to a sort of mutant glam rock. A clear Bowie protégé, Condon does his best to emulate the former’s broadest characteristics. Unfortunately, he lacks the nuance and artistry to create anything more than a collection of mildly interesting tracks that get by more on their thematic material than underdeveloped arrangements.
As with last year’s reissue of Lavender Country’s similarly themed album, the appeal of these songs lies more in their approach to the subject matter than the music itself. The title track is an interminably ambling six minutes featuring a repetitive figure over which Condon attempts to croon seductively. Lacking the requisite vocal capabilities, his flat intoning of the titular phrase proves more dull than titillating. Conversely, the seven-minute “DTNA” proves far more effective both in terms of provoking a response from the audience and musically. Where the title track simply poses a rhetorical question, “DTNA” goes all the way in explaining just how far Smokey is willing to go, albeit in a rather harmlessly camp way.
Similarly, their stylistic approach often seems to hew closely to the prevailing musical trends most closely associated with gay culture. By “I’ll Always Love You” they’ve embraced a disco aesthetic that, while certainly danceable, doesn’t carry the immediacy or urgency of their more glam-indebted sides. In jumping from style to style, Smokey fails to create a sound immediately recognizable as their own. Despite Jobriath’s massive commercial failure, he still managed a sound identifiable as his own. Smokey instead make their way through a variety of styles without ever truly settling for one over the other and thereby failing to truly master a sound befitting their aesthetic.
Their tepid rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” merely drags, while “Temptation”, with its insistent, martial beat feels lifeless and phoned in. It’s an odd approach for a group that could clearly have a good time and, as on the opening “Leather”, put it into song. But it seems their ambition ultimately outweighed their talent and, save a few exceptions like the intriguing “Million Dollar Babies” (presented here in two versions), resulted in a number of forgettable tracks that lack enough substance to transcend mere curio status.
As is unfortunately too often the case with those relegated to pop cultural footnote status, the idea of Smokey proves far more appealing than the music they created. Exploring the group’s history via the album’s in-depth liner notes, they came into contact with a roster of stars ranging from John Waters to Randy Rhoads and nearly everyone in between, proving them more compelling characters than artists. And where Bowie and Reed ultimately moved on, Smokey, having lived the life rather than merely pretended to, had nowhere else to go thematically. Lacking the necessary talent musically or otherwise, Smokey delved further and further into camp.
Chiefly among these is the unambiguously titled “Piss Slave”. With its “I wanna be your toilet” refrain, in-depth lyrical exploration of the joys of watersports and its nearly nine-minute running time, it would seem to embody everything promised by the collection’s title. While certainly lyrically provocative, it, along with “Hot Hard & Ready” feels more an absurd caricature designed to raise a few eyebrows, a sort of last-ditch attempt to make a name for themselves by being as outrageous as possible.
Ultimately an intriguing curiosity from an evolutionary dead end, How Far Will You Go? lacks the quality of material to appeal to anyone beyond those with a predilection for the more obscure end of the pop spectrum. By no means essential, Smokey prove themselves an interesting footnote in the annals of pop music, one full of ideas but lacking the necessary talent to execute effectively.