John “Smokey” Condon was a pretty boy from Baltimore who marched for gay rights in the aftermath of the Stonewall RIots in 1969. EJ Emmons was a budding record producer from New Jersey, already starting to work in small studios around Hollywood, when the two were introduced by a Doors associate. Teaming up in 1973 as Smokey, over the course of the decade, the duo produced five singles as well as a treasure trove of unreleased recordings. Later this month, Chapter Music is releasing Smokey’s music for the first time in the digital age as How Far Will You Go? The S&M Recordings 1973-81.
Smokey was an extremely “out” act for the mid 1970s, even in the pretty gay context of Lou Reed, Village People or Jobriath, they stood out as going “too far,” which is saying a lot. Their lyrics were outrageously uninhibited celebrations of male on male sex, “water sports,” leather queens and transvestites. They went for it where others feared to tread, let’s just say. Although Smokey had a rapidly growing fan base for their live shows in Los Angeles, predictably 1970s music industry execs thought they were “too gay” even if many admitted that they liked what they heard musically.
Undaunted Smokey formed S&M Records and self-released five singles that showcased their ability to adapt to and even prefigure the decades’ bubbling up from the underground musical genres. Smokey did rock, disco, protopunk, synth-punk, sleazy R&B, stoner jams… but all of it was topped off by their outlandish choice of lyrical subject matter.
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. Extensive liner notes tell the tale of one of America’s oddest, most obscure 70s should-have-beens-who-never-were acts.
I posed a few questions to John “Smokey” Condon and EJ Emmons over email.
In the liner notes it indicates that you were living alone, or at least apart from your parents, at a very young age, above a rock club in Baltimore, partying it up with drag queens and the John Waters crowd. How did it happen to be that you were turned loose in the late 1960s in that way?
John: I was asked to leave by my Dad at fifteen so I went to Baltimore. I lived above a nightclub named the Bluesette in a small room with a scarlet bathroom. Met a lot of musicians there, I guess the most famous was Nils Lofgren who was in a group named Grin and he went on to play in Bruce Springsteen’s band and still does. Hung out at a nightclub in the Fells Point section of Baltimore called Ledbetters where most of the John Waters people hung out. Lived for a while with a drag queen named Christine. Moved to New York and then Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and back to Baltimore, where I met Vince Traynor who was the road manager for the Doors. I went to Europe with them and then to L.A. where I met EJ. That’s the condensed version.
Reading the press release, at first it’s tempting to think, “Okay, this is another obscure Jobriath kinda thing,” but Jobriath was more gay in the sense of show tunes and Greta Garbo, whereas some of your music goes beyond merely having an out and proud gay image and pisses right in your face. How did people react to music that lyrically celebrated S&M, watersports and the hardcore leather scene of New York in the mid 1970s? Lyrically “I’ll be a toilet for your love” goes far beyond anything that anyone else was doing at that time.
John: It still does as far as I am concerned, only a few rappers are pushing buttons these days. As far as people reacting to the music, they loved it. [The sexual subject matter] really did not affect them, in fact the crowds used to shout out for us to do “Miss Ray.”
EJ: People that heard the stuff really liked it, thought it was forward, and we did well whenever we played. We had girls faint in front of Smokey! So it was always a very mixed crowd. We were not intrinsically “gay,” we just did what seemed cool at the time, and what I hoped as producer was somewhat ahead of the curve, since it takes so long to get signed.
“Pisslave” was another thing: I took a dub to the Odyssey, where Chuckie Starr, still a close friend, was spinning. He put it on, and the queens dutifully clogged away for 2:30 or so, until the minor section came in. It was like The Producers when the curtain rose, O-shaped mouths and not a movement on the floor. They just plain stopped, and listened in disbelief. Chuckie moved on.
Usually when there’s a release like this, the music often sounds low-fi, or was a 4-track home recording, or what have you, but you had a professional recording engineer in the band, so the audio fidelity is pretty solid here. What recording studios were you recording in?
John: EJ always insisted that free studio time was part of his gig wherever he worked. He was very much in demand. We worked off hours late at night, week ends and when there was down time in the studios. We started off at Artist Studios on Cherokee, but we recorded at Westlake Audio (when Quincy Jones and Eric Burden were next door, Paramount (where most of the songs were cut), we worked in the studio next to George Duke, Parliament Funkadelic, etc. the Record Plant, MGM Studios, etc.
Who else was working in these studios at the time?
EJ: Over the timespan, a lot of different folks, much Motown tracking was done at Paramount, plus many Fantasy Records artists like Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, The Osmonds recorded at MGM of course. Older jazz greats like Joe Pass, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald. Artist’s Studio was my first room, so the acts were either obscure or mariachis. We did things like Hudson and Landry, Little Richard, 4th Coming, Eden Ahbez… weird stuff.
Who are some of the musicians who came and went in Smokey’s orbit?
John: There was such a large array of musicians… the drummer from the Motels, Randy Rhoads, Kelly Garni (Quiet Riot) James Williamson (Stooges), Adrian Belew (King Crimson), Hunt and Tony Sales (Iggy Pop, Tin Machine) Billy Bass, Chuck Roast (Suburban Lawns) guys from both Rare Gems and Rose Royce.
But the line up we typically played gigs were Gordon Alexander, Bobby Jackson, and Johnny Perez (Sir Douglas Quintet). We used different lead guitar players a lot.
How did the mighty James Williamson get involved with Smokey?
John: Rodney Bingenheimer closed his club one night and brought him and several others to the studio and we cut some of tracks that are on the record, he then networked EJ to get a job at Paramount as he wanted to be a recording engineer. James worked in the shop along with EJ and myself, doing wiring of equipment.
EJ: He was a friend, and could wield a soldering iron pretty well, so I had him in the shop at Paramount between gigs. He is still a good and cherished friend. He came back to Paramount after he’d left as tech, to produce Iggy. I got to do some of their tracks, but James was more a pal and compadre than a member of our musical thing, save for that jam at Artist’s. Many of my masters burned in a studio fire in the late 80’s, and I suspect that one went with most of the album. A lot of the Smokey re-release is from the actual master two tracks from the time.
John “Smokey” Condon standing outside of Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in West Hollywood.
Where did you play live and for what kind of audiences?
John: We played at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco on the Sunset Strip a lot. We played a club called the Starwood, all around. Audiences varied as to who was on the bill. We always got a reaction, and usually we headlined. It got very, very, very crazy in the end, EJ and two others had to escort me to the stage as people went pretty nuts over me. We had girls faint, riots break out… We played with lots of groups that went on to make it, the Motels, Van Halen before they were signed. I think sometimes you can hear the Smokey influence in some of their songs.
Given the weird sort of counter culture/Stonewall/James Williamson/Rodney Bingenheimer, etc., pedigree that is the backstory to your music, why is it that Smokey hasn’t been released in the digital era before this?
John: I moved away from music.
EJ: A silent, friendly parting, I had my hands full with the Suburban Lawns (members of which are on the album pre-Lawns) and the Rare Gems, so it just sort of happened. I felt that we had just gotten bloody GOOD, too, with things like “Hot Hard and Ready,” but that’s showbiz!
Below, “Leather” from Chapter Music’s How Far Will You Go? The S&M Recordings 1973-81:
After the jump hear Smokey’s “How Far Will You Go…?” with James Williamson on guitar, circa 1976…