AND PARTY EVERY DAY Casablanca Records

KISS, Donna Summer, Village People, quaaludes
and more – a delightful new memoir pulls back the veil on an almost-forgotten
era.

 

BY ROBERT MAY

 

In the Summer of
1978 I was working for a tiny, Nashville-based independent record label.  We produced no memorable hits, but over a
period of a couple of years we managed to release and promote more than a dozen
albums, and maybe twice that number of singles. 
Keep in mind we’re talking at least a decade before under-funded,
overworked laborers for love were raised to the elevation of “entrepreneurs,” but
that seat-of-the-pants operation was the quintessential multiple hats environment.  Just about everybody did just about everything
that ever figured into the business model of a pre-Internet music company. 

 

I made my first
big business mistake back then.  I
convinced myself – and two close friends – that our learn-by-doing, experiential
PhDs had equipped us to turn the whole industry into a board game – a sort of “Monopoly
of the Record Business.”  The Record Game (ultimately bearing the logo
and endorsement of Kenny Rogers) was released less than a year before the
introduction of Trivial Pursuit – after
which, anything that looked like a board game was assumed to contain decks of
cards with color-coded questions.  The Record Game passed into near(1) total obscurity, but my lack of trivial foresight was not the error to which I
refer . . . see, The Record Game was
destined to die soon enough anyway.

 

[(1) I say “near” total obscurity because David Geffen bought a few hundred copies
for promo gifts; and in an even more flattering development, a few music
business schools used the game as an in-class educational tool.]

 

The thing is, in
1978 the record business was an exciting, envied, strobe and psychedelic,
members-only world!  It was filled with
larger than life personalities and job descriptions, and everybody associated
with it seemed graced with a certain stellar countenance.  One thing was evident to me and my pals . . .
from radio DJs to roadies, no matter their age, gender or geography, they were
all getting laid! 

 

Sure, I’ve
evolved along with my industry brethren – that is to say, I can download, I
know what a ringtone is, and at least a few times I’ve disgusted myself by
trying to listen to Led Zeppelin through a cell phone – but I’m thinking back
to an era of multi-floored record stores, sexually-explicit posters (illegible
to anyone over 30 – and somehow even more explicit when viewed under Black
Lights), rows and stacks of amps rendering stages a look more daunting than the
walls of Gaza and the Rio Grande, and of course, festivals that turned pig farms
into tourist stops.  That was the world
we sought to reveal with our board game. 
It’s long gone now, and you don’t have to be an old die-throwing role
player to feel the pangs of nostalgia.

 

Well, many of those
old nostalgic wounds were recently reopened, and in a good way.  I’d say a curtain of time was pulled back offering
me the chance to relive years of memory and emotional connection when I picked
up the new book by Larry Harris And Party
Every Day – The Inside Story of Casablanca Records
(published by Backbeat,
the book division of music publisher, Hal Leonard).

 

Larry Harris was
a co-founder (along with his infamous cousin, Neil Bogart, and their mutual and
former Buddah Records co-worker, Cecil Holmes) of Casablanca Records – the
company that came to symbolize, if not embody, the wildest corporate culture
and most innovative marketing in the history of the record industry.  Harris would likely be the first to admit
that had he not been Neil Bogart’s cousin he would never have become a Hollywood star-maker. 
But to the great benefit and enjoyment of us readers, not only was he
granted nepotistic access and authority, but Harris possessed a good head for
creative business, and an outstanding sixth sense for pop culture trends.

 

Indeed, while any
name-in-neon success tends to bring with it a surfeit of authors, the case can
be made that Larry Harris’ role at Casablanca may have been the single most pivotal
regarding the introduction of two separate trends in pop music, each of which
delivered multiple imitations and hundreds of hits.  The theatrical special effects and pyrotechnics
of acts like KISS and George Clinton (Parliament Funkadelic), and the
exuberantly influential prominence of Disco (a la, Donna Summer, The Village
People, Giorgio Moroder) both came to power and subculture status on his
watch. 

 

Harris is a
great storyteller and memory revealer – which is exactly what we need for this
kind of historical account, and perhaps even these times.  But also, the importance of his being there then is unmistakable despite the modest
and unassuming tone of his recollections. 
A perfect example is Harris’s account of what was to be the first
artist-label deal in the long and industry-influencing career of uber-rep, Allen
Grubman . . . a meeting for which Harris says he was expecting, “guys dressed
in leather, a construction worker, a cop, and some cowboys and Indians.”

 

“The two (producers, Jacques Morali and
Henri Belolo) had picked up on Casablanca’s
maverick approach . . . (remember that the Warner execs had initially hated
KISS, telling us that the band should lose the makeup to be more palatable to
the music-buying public).  . . . They
played us a recording of the Village People. 

 

“Neil immediately loved it, but he decided
to let me put it to the ‘Casablanca
test’ first.  This consisted of playing a
song at such a high volume that everyone in the entire two-story building would
hear it.  If people came running to find
out what it was, we knew we had something.”

 

While that
particular meeting beget one of the most memorable pop culture icons of the ‘70s
and ‘80s – guest appearances on everything from “Love Boat” and “Married With
Children,” to Jerry Lewis’s MDA Telethon – not all of Harris’s inspirations
came to fruition. As Harris explains:

 

“The problem with having a glut of disco
product was that our rock promotion department, which was second in size only
to publicity, had little to work with . . . so I went on a tear to get some rock
product into the pipeline. 

 

“Not long after I started this drive . .
. our international department brought me an exciting tape . . . I ran into
Neil’s office and told him I had found the next great group.  He said, ‘Why sign a band for a hundred thousand
when we could sign four or five disco acts for that?’  I was disappointed, but there was nothing I
could do, and so Casablanca
lost out on signing Dire Straits.”

 

Anyone who loved
pop music back in those days, and ever wondered how it actually got done – how
did artists become stars?  How did radio
decide what to play?  Why did one song
become a hit and another never get heard? – will wind up thanking Larry Harris
for keeping good mental notes through all those years.  And those of us with some compassion for the
“davids” in all those giant-fighting, biblically-rooted business analogies can
draw vicarious satisfaction from the accounts of flipping off the Goliaths.  Wall Street bankers could still learn lessons
on how useless it may be to purchase a creative enterprise expecting ownership
to inspire cultural change.  Harris
suggests the very briefest of honeymoons followed Casablanca’s purchase by PolyGram (at that
time, the largest record company in the world and the music holdings entity of
the Dutch actuarial and engineering automatons known as “Royal Philips
Electronics”):   

 

“PolyGram had an issue with us from the
beginning . . . we hated the stiff culture of the corporate world . . . We
didn’t like being managed; we didn’t like bureaucracy; we liked acting like a
bunch of delinquents with an expense account. It was difficult to talk about
music and movies with people who had little understanding of our market or our
artists. Neil and I grew to have so much disdain for PolyGram that we would
show up at board meetings in New York
tripping on Quaaludes.”

 

As it turns out,
Harris was front and center – from Woodstock and
the discovery of KISS, to the founding of Casablanca,
Studio 54 and the origin of Disco.  He
relates each story with a refreshing humility, often sharing the recall of his
own overwhelmed surprise. 

 

To put it
bluntly, Harris’s firsthand accounts go way beyond enjoyable and engaging.  Without belaboring the value of his
perspective, Harris leaves us with the sense that he was pretty much like any
other non-celebrity twenty-something of the day.  And the result is, for anyone who ever sought
to associate with fame, or chanced to experience even a moment’s elbow-rubbing in
such environs, Harris’s chronicle immerses us within the awe and aura of having
been there with him.  The reader is
granted a backstage kind-of Being-John-Malkovich-like
access to the endlessly preposterous scenes and events which, ultimately,
became the quoin of Casablanca
within American popular culture.

 

Thousands of circa-2010
chat rooms and discussion boards are dedicated to young independent music artists
pursuing “discovery” – along with all the fame and fortune it was always
purported to deliver.  While I often
engage in those conversations myself, I’m convinced that most of my words do
not connect.  Of course, I employ today’s
jargon (“mp3s,” “online branding,” “platforms,” and so on) but I keep thinking
back to the days when there really was a record business . . . when artists
could actually create a brand.  Those were
the days when I read Billboard every
week – keeping track of, and envying, the exploits, overindulgences and
promotional shenanigans of Larry Harris, albeit usually in the name of KISS or
Donna Summer or the Village People, or Casablanca in general.  Indeed, those were the days when the record
business was composed of charts and airplay, wildly breakable do’s and don’ts,
and crazy codes of unwritten etiquette which, though quite different from
normal business and society in general, might be interpreted as rules for a
board game. 

 

I don’t miss The Record Game, but I miss a great deal
about the business and culture that inspired it.  That may sound like a solely personal lament,
but if anyone understands why I might feel and express such wistfulness – that
is, anyone who might also recall the combination of wonder, belonging and
discovery, occasionally infused with the aromas of incense or patchouli, and reverberating
from the walls of record stores like Tower, Wherehouse, Record Bar and Peaches,
or rock cathedrals like Aaron Russo’s Kinetic Playground in Chicago, and of
course, Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditoriums (East and West), and so many other
place names of the era – then to you I must enthusiastically recommend And Party Every Day!  And to anyone for whom those references have
little meaning – anyone who may be confused, let’s say, by the image of the 1979
Maxell “blown away guy” ad where a long-haired,
tie-wearing freak is sitting, G-forced deep into the cushions of a plush chair
facing end-table sized music speakers – then I advise that you get your hands
on this book ASAP, and find out some of what you missed. 

 

And Party Every Day – The Inside Story of
Casablanca Records
is not
just an insider account of a major portion of American Rock ‘n’ Roll history –
it’s a work of cultural anthropology. 
Those dreams, those experiences, those trips and those days, may well be
gone forever . . . but thanks to Larry Harris we’ve been blessed with an
unabashed look back into our most fantastic and frivolous past. 

 

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