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Smokey: A cult-favorite glam-rock act from the '70s gets a revival

The 1970's glam-rock artist Smokey reemerges forty years later with
The 1970's glam-rock artist Smokey reemerges forty years later with "How Far Will You Go?: The S&M Recordings, 1973-81"
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Smokey, made up of musician John "Smokey" Condon and producer EJ Emmons, dabbled in everything from synth-punk to disco back in the '70s. Although musical innovators of their time, the duo could never get a record deal, frequently being described as "too gay." 

Although they wanted to take part in the music scene in Hollywood at the time, Smokey and Emmons were misfits, with no intention of joining the mainstream.

"Well the music scene in Hollywood at that time was glitter, some glam. We had some disco," Emmons recalls. "It was kinda coming out of the psychedelic era — Led Zeppelin was really big. The scene was just totally wide open. We felt we could do anything that we wanted to. But I think that was more our bent — that we didn't see any particular reason in fitting in and we didn't fit"

"We were pretty outrageous for what was happening," Condon adds. "Everybody was mellow in California. We were just outrageous for the time. We sang about and recorded songs that we knew life about. You know — leather bars, drag queens, dancing."

Smokey, originally from Baltimore, had previously been living on the streets in New York. In his late teens, he moved to Los Angeles and he got a job as a bartender in Hollywood. Emmons and Smokey were introduced through Vince Treanor, road manager of The Doors. After that, the music followed. 

After putting out singles such as "Leather" and "Miss Ray," the band gained popularity by playing at Rodney Bingenheimer's famous club, English Disco, on the Sunset Strip. 

"It was the place to be at that point," Condon says. "The Starwood [club] was around. The Whiskey was around. But Rodney's was the club to be at. You could walk in any night and see members of the biggest bands in the world there."

"It was very much like a neighborhood bar on steroids that had just gone mad," Emmons says. "There wasn't anything else like it."

Smokey regularly packed the house.   

"It was pretty chaotic," Condon says. "People were nuts. People were standing on tables and screaming. Guys were clawing at me, ripping my clothes. We got written up in the [Los Angeles] Times. All of the press was there. The hype that had surrounded 'Leather' and 'Miss Ray' drew huge crowds."

However, what seemed like a glimmer of hope for the band gave way to few results. Emmons and Condon tried a number of times to get a record deal via various connections, but were rejected for being "too gay" or too unorthodox.

"One Saturday morning I got up and I thought, You know, we really ought to try to get a deal somewhere," says Emmons. "We went to Mercury Records to see Mr. Denny Rosencrantz, who a couple of months later signed The Runaways. They were our fan club at Rodney's. He was very kind and very sweet and he said, 'This is really a great record, but you realize Mercury Records cannot sign something like this.' That was basically the response across the board."

"It was disheartening," Condon says. "Because we would have these shows where people would go nuts over us and yet we couldn't get a record deal. It was mentally and physically exhausting on both of us to keep going."

Condon and Emmons also felt as though the sounds and methods they were creating and introducing to the rest of the L.A. music scene were being attributed to other artists. Condon, tired of the attention he received in his local neighborhood, moved to the Valley where he tried to get his life together. Emmons continued to work as a sound engineer in Los Angeles while still maintaining hopes for the group. 

"While I missed what me and Smokey were doing I was busy," Emmons says. "I was like, He'll be back, or, you know, maybe he won't. I don't know. I think Smokey just felt like he had had enough for a while."

After a long intermission, the band remerged because journalist Guy Blackman and J.D. Doyle of Chapter Music wanted to create a compilation of gay bands from the 1970s. 

"[Blackman]  just happened to mention in passing," Emmons says, "'You don't happen to have any other tunes do you?'  And I said, 'Well I just happen to have in my cellar a whole album.' He said, Oh really?' I expected that tape box and the tapes to rot into dust. [They] didn't."

The reception from 2015 audiences is maybe looking better than it would have in the 1970s.

"You know, I think with the feedback that we're getting it seems like it's right on target for today for some reason," Condon says. "I would expect that we're going to hear some of these songs in places that I never would have expected."

"How Far Will You Go?: The S&M Recordings, 1973-1981" has just been released on Chapter Music.  

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