CIA Allegedly Behind 1980s Club Hit About Sleeping Dominatrix

How a pro-domme, a Russian diplomat, U.S. intelligence and Mary Tyler Moore’s landscaper conspired to create a dance classic


In 1978, the CIA was caught up in a BDSM Cold War affair. A potential Soviet asset had fallen for a professional dominatrix who made decent money peeing on entertainment lawyers. Also in play was Mary Tyler Moore’s landscaper, merely because he was sweet on the dominatrix and her record collection.

The most actionable intelligence from these black leather ops would not be obtained by the Agency, but by the landscaper himself, Stuart Argabright. Under the alias Dominatrix, Argabright recorded “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight,” a New York club hit released in 1984.

Subversively called “pleasant,” the 12-inch single was only awimbawe by association, nominally speaking. There were no lions to be found, just a reference to animals watching “beyond the fire,” happy to leave the taxonomic fetish to the critics. Whether it was synth pop, freestyle or electro, gay or straight, the song couldn’t be bothered.

“The women beat their men/The men beat on their drums.” Whip it jokes abound. Dominatrix would get so much airplay that Argabright got sick of it, but not sick enough to turn down shows opening for Run-DMC at Paradise Garage. The Limelight gig with Herbie Hancock’s robot pants legs, also memorable.

This all started like so many high-school dreams: with no wheels and dumb luck. In 1977, Argabright was picked up while hitchhiking back home on the Key Bridge crossing the Potomac from Washington, D.C. He was 18, wearing a Tubes T-shirt and had just won tickets to see the Stooges. He was six years away from borrowing Iggy Pop’s swim trunks in West Berlin, and seven from Dominatrix turning Iggy and Bowie’s “Play It Safe” into a post-punk seizure.

The woman driving was older, and her red Corvette Stingray smelled of spy perfume. In Argabright’s words, he was “like boing.” She could’ve thumped him in the head with a tire iron and he wouldn’t have felt it. Nothing happened during the ride back to his parents’ house in Vienna, Virginia, but everything seemed to have changed. High school suddenly became incredibly dull.

Argabright would bump into the mysterious stranger again a year later at Max’s Kansas City above Union Square. They began seeing each other, spending nights at her East Side apartment, getting high and listening to Bowie records. After Argabright noticed the bull whips and manacles hanging in the closet, it became apparent that his friend’s occupation entailed visiting all manner of welt and contusion upon the no-account hides of wealthy degenerates.

Dominatrix live | Courtesy Get On Down

They soon compared clientele: He had Dylan, Paul Simon and Rock Hudson. She had music executives and a Russian official in D.C., who apparently had been beaten senseless enough to fall in love, with ambitions of defection and marriage. (“But a dominatrix doesn’t often entertain marriage thoughts,” says Argabright.) Always game for defection, the CIA contacted the dominatrix and encouraged her to “play ball.” She reluctantly agreed while continuing to make the landscaper late for his mulching appointments on the Upper West Side.

The CIA’s interest in Argabright’s personal life only made this Venus in Furs situation even hotter, against formidable odds. (Argabright’s father did pre-internet “Mo-net” work in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War; his neighbors in northern Virginia were ex-NSA.) Instead of being returned to D.C. in a white van with a redacted brain, he stuck around New York and continued planting trees in celebrity houses while hungover. Shrubs to the stars. Gardens thrived. Mary Tyler Moore entered syndication while Argabright dabbled in New Wave vaudeville.

The punk arborist with a drum machine would form the band Ike Yard, pulling its name from the shelf of the record store in A Clockwork Orange. Ike Yard cut one album for Factory Records, the Manchester-based label that housed artists like New Order, A Certain Ratio and 52nd Street. Madonna would loiter outside the studio during recording sessions, bumming smokes off the bass player while Jean-Michel Basquiat materialized at odd hours, offering his services with a sawed-off coronet. (Downtown scholars are quick to note the total absence of coronet in Ike Yard recordings.)

When not in the studio, Argabright would spend his evenings at spots like the Roxy and Mudd Club, heading straight to the dance floor at any whiff of Ultravox or Fearless Four. In 1983, he was stabbed during a snowball fight while en route to a fashion show at Danceteria and relocated to Germany with a punctured lung and an affection for “Sucker MC’s.”

At a gallery show in West Berlin, Argabright met Rammellzee, a graffiti artist who seemed a bit gone of brain but enjoyed speechifying about the deployment of Panzers in the alphabet’s war against the Catholic Church. Impressions were made. Argabright admired Ramm’s strict policy of “no guts, no galaxy.” Ramm appreciated the serendipity of meeting Argabright while the gallery was receiving a bomb threat. Ramm would call him “Argabright-Argabright,” echoplexing his name while savoring the finer acoustics of pirate snarl. Argabright began re-spelling himself as “Arbright,” as they would later collaborate on a project called Death Comet Crew. (Arena Sex Death was also under consideration, with respect to Videodrome, a David Cronenberg film with its own BDSM interests.)

Argabright and the dominatrix had since amicably parted ways when he returned to New York. But the experience lingered — the memories of warm leatherette and whistling by sinister black sedans parked outside her apartment as he stumbled off to work in the morning. Is it still a bizarre love triangle if one side, well, happens to be one-sided and from Russia with delusions? (And wouldn’t the CIA’s involvement — let’s say, “the dark side” — make it a bizarre love square?)

Argabright was into the fact that her job description included micturating on Madonna’s legal counsel and flogging people who, for the most part, truly deserved it — the same types who initially blanched at “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight.” The video was deemed too controversial for MTV, though it merely depicted women in leather (and power) taking over Billy Joel’s auto-garage. The most deviant acts we see are a match flaring off a studded pump and a mechanic getting shoved into a closet.

“The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” was recorded in the studio of Tangerine Dream’s Peter Bauman, with vocalist Claudia Summers, Ken Lockie of Public Image, Ltd., and Bow Wow Wow remixer Ivan Ivan. (The flourish of “ow”s heard towards the end of the song belong to Ivan’s voice, taking its licks from an Emulator keyboard.) Conveniently within earshot was Arthur Baker, who would release “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” on his Streetwise imprint, after it was issued on the tiny label Uproar. New Order, New Edition, Dominatrix. One imagines the boys at Langley picking up this 12-inch and adding it to the Argabright-Argabright folder, somewhere between “weeded Paul Simon’s periwinkle bed” and “shared stage with Klaus Nomi.” Not to mention those gigs with Rammellzee, G.G. Allin, and good lord, Max Headroom. Best keep that tab open.

But if Argabright was Dominatrix, then who was the dominatrix? Was the diplomat returned to Moscow with a broken heart? Did anyone remember to wipe the case officer drool off the dossier?

Whip appeal and red Corvettes aside, Argabright had sympathy for the dominatrix and her predicament. Though his song kept kids out into the wee backsliding hours in their polymer zip-outs, “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” was really about staying in. It was about letting your friend just be name withheld to protect identity — a woman who wanted a quiet night at home with her vinyl. For a night off from the CIA was a night in with the landscaper.

“The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” has been reissued for Record Store Day 2015 on pink vinyl from Get On Down, featuring unreleased tracks.


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Dave Tompkins is the author of How To Wreck A Nice Beach
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