At first, there was just one question L.A. Weekly needed answered about the band Smokey, and it was a simple one: You aren’t … dead, right?
“Jeez, you came up with a question we’ve never been asked before!” laughs Smokey producer EJ Emmons, who’d go on to work with noted L.A.-area punk bands including The Plugz and Suburban Lawns. For the record, not only is singer John “Smokey” Condon himself not dead, but that’s not even the most ridiculous rumor out there. Instead, says Emmons, he’s heard that the band he formed with — and named after — his longtime friend never even existed.
To be fair, the more information that comes to light about Smokey, the more unlikely their story seems. They’re revealed on Chapter Music’s new compilation How Far Will You Go? as one of the last great lost L.A. proto-punk bands, dedicated to doing things their own way and making music that fits perfectly between Iggy Pop albums like Kill City and The Idiot. (Smokey even recorded with Stooges guitarist and Kill City co-creator James Williamson, and borrowed the Lust for Life rhythm section.)
But they were also fearlessly out gay musicians in an era when a coy, Bowie-esque is-he-or-isn’t-he was about as much as a record label would allow. When they couldn’t get signed with songs like “Leather” and “How Far Will You Go?” they founded their own S&M Records — so named because Smokey was splitting his nightlife between glitter-rock landmark Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco and local leather bars — and did it their own way. That refusal to compromise — as ably demonstrated on their song “Piss Slave” — is probably the main reason why you’re only hearing about them now.
Smokey himself had a bizarre talent for gliding along the edges of history. He grew up as John Condon in Baltimore, leaving home as a teenager to live above a nightclub where he’d cross paths with the first devotees of John Waters. Soon he’d march with Cesar Chavez and tag along to the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 with The Doors. Later in 1973, when the post-Morrison Doors brought Smokey to L.A., he’d meet producer and soon-to-be co-conspirator Emmons, a young roadie who’d been racking up impressive studio credits, including time with underrated L.A. producer Curt Boettcher. And so, in that strange world that came after hippie but before punk, they decided to make music together.
By the time they officially put Smokey to rest in the early '80s, they had helped build the L.A. glitter scene, peformed with bands like The Dogs, Zolar X and Burger Records–beloved power-poppers The Quick, pioneered DIY record production by slipping the guy at the pressing plant a hundred bucks for a stack of 45s, and recorded with a now-staggering roster of sessioneers including Williamson, the Bowie/Iggy rhythm section Tony and Hunt Sales, guitar god Randy Rhoads and cult-famous funk band Rare Gems.
They also cut what was probably the most cheerfully filthy song on the planet at the time — “Piss Slave,” which tricks the listener with two full minutes of catchy pop-disco before Smokey starts singing, “I wanna, I wanna, I wanna be your toilet! … I need to feel your piss runnin’ down my throat!” By then, they were sitting on a fragmented album’s worth of tracks that link the gutter-glam of Lou Reed (especially on his first solo album) and The New York Dolls to right-now rock by Ariel Pink (check Smokey’s “Topaz”) and Hanni El Khatib.
Really, Smokey could do it all — stripped-down synthesizer disco, belting glam, bleak street funk and even some sadly unrecorded blues numbers, inspired by historical raunch such as Lucille Bogan’s startling “Shave ‘Em Dry.” But even with all this — even with L.A. punk legend Nickey Beat as the drummer at their very first show, who worked at a limo company then and drove them to the gig in a stretch limousine — Smokey never made it, either onto a label or into the history books. What happened? Would things have been different if — as described in the album liner notes — Smokey hadn't barfed on David Geffen at one of those wild '70s Hollywood parties?
“I always wondered!” Smokey says. “Where did you hear that? I better read those liner notes!”
“There was still a [stigma] for being gay,” Emmons says. “And ‘Leather’ and ‘Miss Ray’ — there were too many songs that had too many connotations. One guy, I took the record over to him one Saturday morning and he said, ‘Is this guy a faggot?!’”
“We can’t put this out — it’s a fucking gay record,” one major-label exec told them. While Jobriath had become the first openly gay artist on a major label in 1973, he was destined for his own kind of obscurity and rediscovery. And though Bowie and Lou Reed deployed gay imagery in their lyrics, they deployed camouflage in their public personas that Smokey never used.
Emmons, who was then and is now a Bowie fan, says he didn't appreciate the double entendres. “We were totally honest about it,” he says. “We were just saying it. He wasn’t saying it, that asshole! He was just playing it and using it and working it, and I have a problem with that. I love what he’s done, but I think it was fucked — if he’s gonna be bi, he should say so.”
“We weren’t gonna change who we were for anybody,” Smokey says. “And I never considered myself a gay artist. I was just like, ‘I’m a singer.’ I remember walking into the musician’s [referral service], where you’d put your name up on a board, and I had my name up on the board and it was really hurtful — somebody wrote FAG across my name. That’s the kind of stuff that would hurt us, you know? But the kids that came to see us at the shows didn’t care. They were 99% straight and they loved it.”
They probably sold 5,000 copies of their 45s altogether, says Smokey now. That’s as many or more units sold as bands on, say, the fabled L.A. punk label Dangerhouse. Bingenheimer gave them plenty of airplay; at one point, they were even told that Elton John had their music in his private jukebox. They had a deal in place with an ill-fated Andy Warhol/Mick Jagger venture called Rhinestone Records, but that exploded due to more-spectacular-than-usual music industry scammery. And as the '70s turned into the '80s, they felt more and more frustrated — and more and more ripped-off.
“EJ can attest to this 'cause he used to have to hear me scream about it, but a couple things really broke the camel's back,” Smokey says. “I’ll tell this story over and over — we played Norwalk Roller Rink one night and we were supposed to play with another band but instead Van Halen was on the bill. Our big song we were pushing was ‘DTNA,’ which stands for ‘Dance the Night Away.’ And I’ll be damned — the first [hit single] Van Halen came out with was called ‘Dance the Night Away.’ It was not on their set that night. Shit like that kept happening and a couple really really got to me, and that’s why we walked away from it.”
But they went out with less a farewell than a fuck-you. One of the last Smokey songs was the epic, eight-minute “Piss Slave,” explicitly recorded as a dare to any second-guessers and potential plagiarists: “That was way out there — wayyy beyond the pale,” says Emmons. “And that was the exact intention. We were so pissed off at these assholes. We just couldn’t get arrested! That was recorded on one roll of tape from one end to the other and edited together, and the whole thing was to say, ‘We’re thumbing our nose at all you motherfuckers. You can’t play this on the radio! Here’s a record you couldn’t possibly sign!’”
And … well, no one signed it. And that was it. Emmons and Smokey walked away. Condon would move into lighting design and Emmons would return to the studio side of the music business, eventually helming his own mastering and recording outfit, Imagehaus. The world heard no more from Smokey until Chapter Music rediscovered one of their S&M 45s and used their song as the title track for the 2012 compilation Strong Love: Songs of Gay Liberation 1972-81. Once that deal was done, Chapter asked if there was anything else. And of course there was: reels of studio sessions that’d been sitting untouched in Emmons’ storage for 35 years. (“I’d look at the tapes and go, ‘Gee, what a pity we never made it.’” he says. “And that was as far as it would go.”)
Listening to How Far Will You Go now, it’s a powerfully individualistic collection that deserved far better than it got from history or the industry. But looking back, Smokey regrets nothing.
“We gave it a shot,” Smokey says. “We gave it a really, really good shot. EJ gave me incredible production and incredible recordings and I gave it the best I had in me — and it just didn’t fly.”
“They had to take us the way we were or fuck it,” says Emmons. “That’s how it was. And that’s how it is.”
Smokey's How Far Will You Go: The S&M Recordings 1973-81 is available on Tuesday, June 23, from Chapter Music.