Josie Cotton’s 1982 new wave hit “Johnny, Are You Queer?” is unquestionably in dubious taste (although its killer chorus is one of the more memorable of its era), but there’s more to this underrated singer/songwriter than her one shock-value novelty hit. Not only are Cotton’s two early-’80s albums underrated pop gems, she since resumed her career in a surprising fashion; rather than jump the lucrative ’80s nostalgia bandwagon like so many of her Los Angeles contemporaries like Berlin and Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons, Cotton has turned to a lovely, haunting version of art rock closer to that of Jane Siberry or Kate Bush.
Some magazine articles in the early ’80s claimed that Josie Cotton was the granddaughter of the actor Joseph Cotten, a piece of misinformation that overlooks the obvious difference in spelling. In reality, Josie Cotton was born Kathleen Josey in Dallas, TX, daughter of a prominent local family whose fortune had been made in…well, cotton. After singing with some local bands in Dallas’ artsy Deep Ellum neighborhood, Cotton moved to Los Angeles in the late ’70s to further her career. In Los Angeles, Cotton met and began dating a local musician named Bobby Paine, who with his brother, Larson Paine, had written a tongue-in-cheek girl group pastiche called “Johnny, Are You Queer?” that was a staple of the Go-Go’s early live act. When the group declined to record the song on the advice of their record company, Cotton offered to do the song herself. A 12″ single of the song with the B-52’s-like “Let’s Dance the Blackout” on the flip was released by Bomp Records in 1981. Although the song was a subject of controversy both on the Right (who claimed it promoted the gay lifestyle; one television preacher even claimed that playing the 12″ single at 33 rpm instead of the usual 45 would reveal that it was actually a man singing) and the Left (who claimed it was homophobic), the single sold well enough that Elektra Records signed Cotton and reissued the single. Cotton’s first album, Convertible Music, was rushed to completion and released in the summer of 1982. A glorious blast of Farfisa organs, surf guitars, and Cotton’s appealingly whiny voice, the album scored another minor hit with the near-perfect “He Could Be the One.”
Cotton appeared in the 1983 cult classic Valley Girl, singing both her previous singles and the Gary U.S. Bonds oldie “School Is In” during the climactic prom sequence. Her second album, 1984’s From the Hip, was also produced by the Paine brothers, who took a more active role in the songwriting, minimizing Cotton’s own excellent contributions and unwisely updating the sound with synthesizers and electronic drums. Though the superb “Jimmy Loves Maryann” was a minor hit, Elektra dropped Cotton shortly thereafter.
In most cases, that would be that, other than the almost inevitable nostalgia tours. However, Cotton, temporarily reverting to the proper spelling of her real surname, Josey, unexpectedly reappeared in 1997 with the mysterious Frightened by Nightingales. Co-produced by her husband, legendary L.A. punk producer Geza X, the album is worlds away from the snappy ’60s pop of her ’80s albums. A follow-up, The Influence of Fear on Salesmen (which found Cotton changing back to the original spelling of her stage name), was released in early 2002.