Patrick Cowley: Muscle Up

Gay pornography, gone cosmic.
Patrick Cowley
Muscle Up
Dark Entries

Film scores must first be functional before they need be accessible home listening music. Their primary purpose is to set the tone for a director’s vision. More than perhaps any other element of a motion picture, film music creates a subconscious environment for the characters and plot devices to live in. Porn, by nature of its format, may utilize a little bit leeway in their scores’ functionality since the narrative is essentially a series of sexual music videos with diegetic grunts and moans, but the same basic principle applies. Porn has also not always been this way though. Pre-VHS, pornography shot in 16mm attempted to mime or compete with the longform narratives and aesthetic contrivances of regular cinema, even arthouse cinema in some cases. As such, the scores often demanded a great deal from their composers. In the reissue boom of 21st century retro culture, porn soundtracks represent one of the last frontiers, potential treasure troves of adventurous and compelling music.

Fox Studio’s two 1980 M4M gay porno films, School Daze and Muscle Up, were shot without microphones and hence completely silent. Rather than dub in postproduction passion, Fox’s John Colletti turned to his friend, disco star Sylvester of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” fame, who recommended his up and coming star synth player Patrick Cowley. Cowley would eventually come into his own by toying around with Giorgio Moroder’s electronic-based Italo-disco aesthetic to create a new dancefloor phenomenon called called Hi-NRG, but at the time he was just an upstart, albeit one who had remixed “I Feel Love” into 16 minutes of ecstatic bliss.

Rather than sending a new batch of bubbly, upbeat arpeggiated numbers Colletti’s way, Cowley instead shipped out reel-to-reels of his artier and more experimental compositions, dating all the way back to music composed at his community college campus in 1973. Colletti then used a variable speed oscillator to match the tempo of the pieces to each particular scene’s editing rhythm.

The first glimpse at these excavated ruins was Dark Entries’ 2013 compilation School Daze, a revelation of sorts. Cowley’s early-’80s work was itself revolutionary, preconfiguring techno and setting the stage for the music of the future. School Daze (as well as his abandoned post-punk LP with Indoor Life’s Jorge Socarras, Catholic) proved that he had also been listening out for potential new directions that synth-driven music might lead to. School Daze is alternately seedy and sleazy like it’s busting out the template for Soft Cell’s career, dark and sinister like the chilly rush of coldwave, and leering and predatory in its persistence like a Carpenter/Howarth score. This is not queer music for passing or assimilation. It’s music that eroticizes the mystery and danger of the closet, the treacherous allure of the hidden clubs and secret hookups. It seems to delight in the homosexual’s status at the time as something of a folk villain to the puritanical religious right. Come to the dark side, it beckons. If it sounds and looks this good, imagine how it feels.

Muscle Up is the sequel to that collection, though it’s unclear how or if it fits into that sensory equation. Though the tunes on School Daze delighted in peppering their monotonous deep synth stabs with swirls of drifting psychedelia, Muscle Up’s entire sonic strata is far more guided by the cosmic. It’s music more about deviating out-of-body than succumbing to the flesh, more outer space than…ahem…inner space. There’s a brief suite hot electro-funk towards the album’s mid-section that consists of the worksman-like “Somebody to Love Tonight”, the exuberant “Pigfoot”, and the kitchen sink DIY restlessness “5oz of Funk”, but even these seem to be more enamored of the light than the darkness.

As per the rest of the album, it’s hard to say whether it really fulfills film music’s first objective as functional music. Some of the spacier tracks seem designed more for stoned post-coital embraces than for eroticism or sensuality. “Deep Inside You” is leisurely and measured, the rhythm registering below the 80 BPM mark, with righteous guitars that scorch like a b-Side off of Neu! ‘75, but it’s unclear here if we’re post-climax or ensnared in eternal foreplay. “Timelink” matches polychromatic electronic sounds with deep bass digeridoo for 11 minutes of meandering exploration, which is great for navel-gazing but never quite gets down to business for those looking to get down to business.

Ultimately, Muscle Up succeeds as the Yang to School Daze’s Yin. If School Daze was confined, dangerous lust and dark alleyway steam, Muscle Up is open field meditation and rich sensual tantra. It’s light on porn’s more utilitarian aspects, but does wonders to show how multivalent a talent Cowley was.

RATING 7 / 10