The '70s glam rock scene brought sexual ambiguity to the forefront in pop music, and artists from the era such as David Bowie and Lou Reed flirted with bisexuality in their lyrical themes, but Smokey were a band that had no use for being coy. From 1973 to 1981, Smokey boldly and unambiguously sang about the gay experience in no uncertain terms, and upped the ante for other bands eager to push the thematic boundaries of rock & roll. Though Smokey never enjoyed much commercial success, they managed to cross paths with a number of personalities who would go on to fame and fortune in the years that followed.
Smokey was led by vocalist John "Smokey" Condon and multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer E.J. Emmons. Condon was just 15 years old when his father kicked him out of the house, and he moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he rented a room above a rock club and got to know many of the musicians who played there (including Nils Lofgren of Grin, who would go on to join Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band). Condon became friends with John Waters' Dreamland superstars, and also spent time in New York, taking part in the protests that followed the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969. When Condon went to a Doors concert in 1970, their road manager Vince Treanor took a liking to him, and he was invited along as the band went to England to play the Isle of Wight festival.
While Condon returned to the East Coast after touring with the Doors, he decided to give Los Angeles a try, and was living with Treanor when he was introduced to Emmons, who was a roadie for the post-Jim Morrison Doors. Condon and Emmons became fast friends, and started working on songs; Emmons was also a recording engineer at a small studio in Hollywood, and was helping produce an album for his friend George Alexander. Condon and Emmons decided to record one of their own tunes, and with members of Alexander's band recruited for backup, they cut a single, "Leather" b/w "Miss Ray," the A-side inspired by Condon's adventures in the demimonde of leather bars, while the flip celebrated a drag queen he met when he was 16. The outré sexuality of the lyrics was too much for the record label reps who heard the single, so Condon and Emmons formed their own record label, S&M Records, to put it out. Eventually, S&M would release five Smokey singles, with the music reflecting a variety of styles -- polished hard rock, proto-disco dance sounds, retro-pop, slinky urban funk, and strutting blues-rock.
In addition to their recordings, Smokey also gigged regularly in Los Angeles, playing frequently at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, L.A.'s epicenter for glam rock, and at the Starwood. While the core of the Smokey band featured guitarist Gordon Alexander, bassist Bobby Jackson, and drummer Johnny Perez (the latter would go on to play with Doug Sahm's reunited Sir Douglas Quintet), dozens of musicians passed through the band, including Randy Rhoads and Kelly Garni (who would later found Quiet Riot, while Rhoads became a metal guitar icon through his work with Ozzy Osbourne), Tony and Hunt Sales (brothers who later backed Iggy Pop and played in David Bowie's Tin Machine), Adrian Belew (later a member of King Crimson and a solo artist), and future members of the Motels, the Suburban Lawns, and Rose Royce. James Williamson of Iggy & the Stooges also played on one of Smokey's studio sessions.
While Smokey had a small but enthusiastic following in Los Angeles, their record sales were limited by the fact they rarely got airplay (outside of spins on Rodney Bingenheimer's radio show) and S&M Records' shaky finances (they could rarely afford to press more than a few hundred singles at a time). In the late '70s, as hair metal and new wave began to dominate the Los Angeles club scene, Smokey stopped playing as a live act, and while Condon and Emmons continued to make records, the mass audience was clearly not ready for songs like "Hot, Hard and Ready" and "Piss Slave." In 1981, Condon quit the music business, while Emmons continued his work as an engineer and producer and dissolved the band. Smokey's singles became cult items over the years, and in 2012, Chapter Music included the song "Strong Love" on a collection of rare gay-themed pop songs called Strong Love: Songs of Gay Liberation 1972-1981. In 2015, Chapter Music released How Far Will You Go: The S&M Recordings, 1973-1981, which collected Smokey's long out of print singles along with a handful of unreleased tracks and alternate takes, assembled with Condon and Emmons' participation. ~ Mark Deming
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