Buffalo, New York native Patrick Cowley is best known as a pioneering electronic dance music creator from the 1970s and early 1980s who used synthesizers and instrumental programming to create distinctive and infectious beats for artists like Sylvester and Paul Parker. Cowley reportedly died of AIDs in 1982, but over the years, there has been a posthumous interest in his recordings, many of which were experimental and never issued during his lifetime. Some Funkettes is the latest such release and contains Cowley’s instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.
Much of what made Cowley’s music so interesting was how he used the technology of the times to create something that seemed futuristic. These tropes have been endlessly replicated by user-friendly software and musicians over the years, making the original versions seem quaint, like a space helmet on an astronaut monkey. What was once cutting edge now reveals the limitations of the originals. There is nothing inherently wrong with the eight tracks here, but their attraction seems more related to nostalgia for a time than for the inherent quality of the music. There are no hidden diamonds here, just semi-precious stones. Their value lies in the predisposition of the listener.
The best track here is Cowley’s seven-minute instrumental “Papa Wuzza Rollinston”, based on the psychedelic Motown hit, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”. Cowley’s version keeps the percussive beats (especially the bassline) steady and hard while melodic synths snake and explore, and a guitar with a wah-wah pedal weaves in and out of the proceedings. By the four-minute mark, the song has lost its tether to the source material. Cowley’s jamming to a serious dance rhythm while bits of sound spark off in different directions. He never brings things home, but just the instrumental thread goes off someplace unworldly before stopping.
Unfortunately, the worst cut is a vocal version of the same song. The words do get in the way. The other vocal cut on the disc, the People’s Choice disco hit “Do It Any Way You Wanna” also doesn’t work, although the instrumental version is bouncy and infectious. The good news is the vocal cuts are only included as bonus tracks on the digital and CD releases, so vinyl is the recommended format.
Cowley’s longest extended versions, 10-minute treatments of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” (here called “Spiked Punch”) and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, have merit on the dance floor but do seem to drag at different points. This may be purposeful to let audience members make moves to a repetitive beat while not much else is happening, but it does drain the energy from the songs’ propulsions. The tracks go on and on, but they don’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. “Spiked Punch” just fades out. “I Feel Love” just ends.
Cowley would have been 70 years in 2020. These tracks from his youth reveal a different world where sweating on each other on the dance floor was a good thing. They may make you smile at the pleasures of clubbing even if you’re dancing by yourself these days.