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"Let's Just Go For Broke": The Story of Unapologetically Out '70s Rock Band Smokey

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Above photograph by John Van Hamersveld; add'l photos by E.J. Emmons

More likely than not, you've never heard of Smokey. That's a damn shame, because whether they were creating disco-punk three decades early, banging heads with future metal lord Randy Rhoads or blending sleaze and innocence as seamlessly as they combined glammy club thump and street smart sneers, singer John "Smokey" Condon and producer EJ Emmons put an indelible stamp on every sound they attempted.

But don't blame yourself for your Smokey ignorance; blame the homophobia of the 1970s music industry. Even though Condon and Emmons had shameless hooks and access to some of the best studios in town, as well as top-flight studio musicians like Rhoads (along with his future Quiet Riot bandmate Kelly Garni... oh, and Stooges guitarist James Williamson and King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew), every record label in town passed on them, unable to see a way to market out-and-proud anthems like "Leather,""Piss Slave" and "Hot Hard & Ready." Smokey kept going as best as they could, forming S&M Records to release their singles, which became widely emulated hits in their home base of Los Angeles. Disheartened at their inability to reach a wider audience, Condon and Emmons eventually went their separate ways. Condon retired from music and Emmons kept working as a producer.

But in these reissue-happy times, it's hard to keep an unheralded punk treasure unknown forever, and last week Chapter Music released the first-ever collection of Smokey's music. How Far Will You Go?: The S&M Recordings, 1973-81 collects all the hits and unreleased material and showcases the group's formidable aesthetic range. To celebrate the occasion, PAPER  spoke with Condon and Emmons about how it feels to be rediscovered after getting passed over by every label in town -- and why Van Halen are a bunch of assholes. 

How did you two first meet?

Smokey: Well, you wanna tell that, E.J.?

EJ: Sure. We met at the road manager of the Doors' apartment. It had a couple bedrooms and I was renting one of them and had just at that time decided that I'd rather sleep in the drum booth of an unused recording studio that I finally attained. So I wasn't using it anymore, and then Mr. [Vince] Treanor, who was their road manager, invited Smokey out to Hollywood to see what he could do. And then he called me up and said, "I've got this guy and he's staying in your old room, and why don't you come over and meet him and see what you think?" Well, myself and Gordon Alexander did that, and I was pretty stunned. I thought, "Wow, what a good-looking guy. If he can sing, this'll be great." And then we went into the above-mentioned studio and discovered he could [laughs]. And so we did "Leather" and "Miss Ray" with Gordon Alexander's band. Then we moved in together I think within two weeks.

Smokey: Yeah, it was instant. I had space in my apartment and I was more than happy to accept him in because well, I kind of fell in love.

EJ:Andwe were together eight years. And we recorded a lot of songs.

And how did you first know when you really had that artistic connection?

Smokey: EJ has pictures of himself taking apart vacuum cleaners and whatnot since he was a toddler. He's mechanically inclined, he's brilliant when it comes to technical, and all he ever wanted to do was make records, and all I ever wanted to do was sing. So, you know, it was a great combination.

EJ: Yeah, I was born with a 45 in my hand.

Reading up on you, it sounds like you were talking to lots of different record labels, and most of the heads of the labels respected the music but  thought you were completely unmarketable. 

Smokey: They didn't feel comfortable marketing it because of the gay aspect. That was the problem. 

Did you ever feel the need to tone it down to have a hit? Or were you always determined to be yourselves no matter what?

Smokey: Absolutely the latter. No, we weren't going to kowtow to that, because it just wouldn't have been true or honest. We had to be true and honest. So that was the end result of it. We couldn't get arrested. Other people would tone things down and they would get arrested. They'd get signed and have some success. And we got notorious, but we didn't get signed. Redbone was a group, god, in the '70s/'80s, I don't know. I think they had one hit. I remember E.J. and I went down and I auditioned to sing for them. I had on leather chaps and a leather jacket. It was summertime and they said, "Do you always dress this way?" and I said, "Yeah." 

EJ: Was that at the Record Plant?

Smokey: No, that must've been somebody's house down in, like, someplace. But, it was just who we were. You know, we weren't gonna change and we felt we were on the cutting edge of something. And that if somebody could see it like we could, we'd be successful.

EJ: One person did. You can tell him the Ron Levin story, if you'd like.

Smokey: Well, I don't know. I think you do that one better than I do [laughs].

EJ: We used to play at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco on Sunset. He was a big supporter. And one night we got a call: some people wanted to meet us, so we went over and we met Bianca Jagger and Paul Morrissey with the Andy Warhol Factory people, and a guy named Ron Levin. And they loved us. And we sat there and got plastered, and then Ron said, "I really want to sign you. We're starting a record label, Rhinestone Records, and it's gonna be with us." So we went over the next day, we signed the contracts for a single and he turned out to be really a big crook. And he finally was the one killed in the Billionaire Boys Club that they made a movie about, but that was the closest we got to a contract. And it took somebody that was free-thinking to see what we were doing. Mercury didn't want us, Capitol didn't want us. We knew Elton John had the 45s on his jukebox, but Rocket Records didn't want us, so. We just kept pluggin' away.

Not even Elton?

Smokey: Not even Elton John.

EJ: We got a beautiful letter! I still have it. [laughs]
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As far as the audiences went, you were playing punk clubs and you played with Van Halen and other heavy bands. Did you have to deal with a lot of homophobia back then?

EJ: No.

Smokey: People ask that question over and over. It was just a time where people were people. Whether it was the musicians we played with, like Randy Rhoads or James Williamson, they were just musicians. And nobody really fucking cared if we were gay. And when we played out, people went nuts. They loved it, and they would scream out to us to play "Miss Ray," which is a blatant song about a drag queen. They loved it. "Leather" was a semi-big hit in Los Angeles; we sold thousands of the little 45s. No, it wasn't like today where they put a label on it. We were entertainers.

EJ: We played mostly in Hollywood, which was a freer environment to play in anyhow. And when we went into the outlying areas, it was a little bit more uptight. But Hollywood embraced us as far as the audiences were concerned. And as far as selling our little records out of the back of the car -- that worked. Just when we got to the majors, they felt very uncomfortable because it was a "gay band" and you can't have that.

So it's not like you were trying to tour through the Midwest or something.

Smokey: Yeah, right. That would never have worked. We would've been mugged.

I know the band started to taper off in the '80s. When America became a lot more conservative after Ronald Reagan was elected and then the AIDS crisis hit, how did you react to that as musicians?

Smokey: There were reasons. We had really taken it to the max. We had petered out, so to speak. AIDS hit L.A. really, really, really hard and the phobia started coming in. But it was just time.

EJ: And you know, the AIDS crisis happened after we planned to stop doing it anyway, so that didn't actually affect us. It was not our time at that point.

You mentioned "Miss Ray." How did you meet Miss Ray?

Smokey: God, I was a kid in Baltimore. I lived above a nightclub, and I met this guy named Larry, and he was living with this drag queen who, at 16, I thought was a real woman. And so, I moved in with him and her. He and I used to party all night. And she would work at night, on a place called the Block. And she'd turn tricks. And then in the daytime, Larry and I would wake up, usually around 4 in the afternoon, and then we'd go out and buy her clothes and what have you, and do the same thing every night. She kind of just supported us and we'd party and we were her friends.

How do you feel about not getting the recognition you deserved? How did you not get too dispirited about it?

Smokey: Well, when it ended, I did. It took me many years to get over it, because a lot of the bands we played with just kept persevering and got signed and went on to big, big things. It took a long time for me to get over the fact that we didn't make it because my heart was really in the music, and so was E.J.'s. It hurt a lot. I mean, for no money we did incredible recordings. Seriously. No money. And one of the prerequisites when E.J. got a job in a studio was that he get free studio time. So the records sound good because we recorded at Record Plant, MGM, Westlake Audio, the best studios in town. With no money! And these cats that came in and played, like James or Hunt and Tony Sales or Adrian Belew or Randy or whoever. It was before contracts and agents and managers and money, so they came in just to play music and jam. It hurt a lot when we had to say goodbye.

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Was there a moment you thought would break through, but then it didn't happen?

Smokey: Yeah, there were lots of moments like that. That's what I'm saying. The night we played with Van Halen, the big song we were pushing was "DTNA." We were supposed to headline and they bullied us into headlining, they had Warner's there to see them. They were unsigned. And the next thing I knew, we showed up at the Whiskey and David Lee Roth had basically the same fucking outfit on that I had on the week before. And the first thing that they came out with was called "Dance the Fuckin' Night Away," and they had never done a song like that. And they didn't do it the night we played with them. And so, that kind of shit kept happening and happening and happening to us.

That's crazy!

Smokey: There's a lot of untalented people in the world that cop other people's ideas. Whether it's white punks out there singing "more more more" when I was out there singing, "You're begging for more" on "Leather," whether it was David Bowie singing, "Leather, leather everywhere." And we fucking couldn't get signed. So we knew it was over.

EJ: [Van Halen] were nice when we were there, but in the end we couldn't actually do any business just because we were so gay I guess.

Smokey: They weren't nice at all. I remember they took over the fucking dressing room and our group had to go in the fucking men's room. They weren't nice at all. They were assholes.

Tell me how "Piss Slave" came about.

Smokey: Once again, we go back to that we couldn't get signed. I felt people were copying some of the things we were doing. We were pissed. I was dating a guy that was into piss and we said, "Let's just go for broke here." And so we did.

When this reissue started happening, were you surprised that there was in interest in the music?

Smokey: We're shocked. [laughs]

EJ: Yeah.

Smokey: I'm thankful, because I think it's important to me. I know it's important to EJ, but we're totally blown away. Shocked. I think this is our twelfth interview. And everybody has just really been sweet, and everybody has said it's really good. And I'm just shocked.      

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