MusicPlay it again, Larry
And Party Every Day:
The Inside Story of
by Larry Harris with Curt
Gooch and Jeff Suhs
In terms of its role within the music business, Casablanca Records was like the George W. Bush presidency a quarter- century early. It was an operation that elevated publicity and image marketing to an unheard-of level of importance, all while racking up a massive amount of debt on its way to a flameout that had global implications.
As executive vice president and managing director of the label, Larry Harris had a ringside seat for the entire process. And he lays it out with entertaining forthrightness in And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records, an industry memoir he’s written with Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs (authors of the thematically related KISS Alive Forever: The Complete Touring History).
As Harris depicts, keeping the Casablanca (insiders affectionately referred to the company as “the Casbah”) hype machine humming would have been a 24-hour-a-day process – if not for the executives’ regular dope breaks. One minute, label staffers were mailing in thousands of illicit ballots in the Circus magazine readers poll to convey the false impression that Peter Criss of Casablanca act KISS was the most appreciated drummer in America. (In comparison, the Iraq war was an easy sell.) The next minute, Harris himself was engaging in the bald-faced bribery of Bill Wardlow, the guardian of the all-important Billboard charts, to inflate Casablanca’s rankings – a task made considerably easier by Wardlow’s utter corruption and yearning to be near the spotlight of the disco acts like Donna Summer and the Village People who, along with KISS, formed the foundation of the label’s undeniable, if self-inflated, success.
“We did set the standard for promotional and marketing efforts in those days,” recalls Harris via e-mail, “and a number of companies did pick up on what we did. But many of the bigger companies were run not by music people, but by accountants who did not see the value of spending the dollars we did to break and market the artists.” Spending money, the book reveals, was Casablanca’s modus operandi: The ongoing drive to make not only its artists but the label itself look like the biggest thing going usually kept the operation in the red. As Harris writes, one of the only ways he could run afoul of label founder Neil Bogart was to turn in expense reports that were too low.
Yet the book is no mere mea culpa. Remembered by some as the home of platinum-plated kitsch, Casablanca was, for much of its life, a scrappy indie that took chances on both the superstars of tomorrow and experimental European instrumental forays that were destined to earn the label little but pride. Sometimes, its commercial and artistic aspirations managed to coalesce in the person of a genius like Parliament’s George Clinton. And of course, many of the label’s tactics are now de rigueur among the Rolling Stone–approved elite that once lambasted the Casablanca crew as rank hucksters.
For 310 pages, Harris avoids either solemn penitence or smarmy self-justification. He merely goes about frankly recounting the way things were. (Albeit not for everybody: Via e-mail, he clarifies that the Billboard manipulation was really restricted to his label and RSO, the home of Saturday Night Fever and Grease.) Just as Casablanca was built by clued-in New York Jews who went to California to exercise the more cosmically outgoing aspects of their personalities, so does the book wed street smarts to sunshine and rainbows. On one page, Harris extols the “family” vibe Casablanca extended to its acts and its employees; on another page, he recalls the four members of KISS as “some of the worst-looking guys I’d ever seen.”
The portrait of label president Bogart, Harris’ second cousin once removed, provides the human spine of And Party Every Day. Having cut his teeth as a 20-year-old crooner, Bogart comes off in Harris’ retelling as a fascinating bundle of contradictions – a spendthrift Svengali who loved his weed but was also a rock-ribbed Republican.
“Neil believed that things should be run by a benevolent dictator,” says Harris. “He was conservative when it came to his money and how much the government would take. He was liberal when it came to human rights and helping those less fortunate. He did politically what he felt would benefit him” – like hosting a soiree for Gerald R. Ford, the utter awkwardness of which supplies one of the book’s most amusing anecdotes.
Casablanca’s eventual decline was both a harbinger of and a contributor to the music industry’s struggles in the 1980s: When foreign interests bought the formerly independent label, they discovered just how precarious a position the U.S. record business had been put in by headlong moves like Casablanca’s disastrous gamble to market four KISS solo albums at once. Harris argues in the book that his label’s collapse was also due to Bogart’s personal loss of vision. Once a forward thinker with an eye and ear for new talent, he became in Harris’ eyes a deluded publicity hound who attached his company to faded “personalities” like the Captain & Tennille as part of a misguided quest for personal notoriety.
“Keep in mind [that] he always wanted to be a star, even when he was very young and performing in the Catskills,” says Harris. “Maybe he thought his opportunity had finally come.” (Bogart died of cancer in 1982, at age 39.)
Harris left Casablanca in 1979 before the bottom fell out. These days, he says, he runs a company that “secures exposure” on radio for musicians, products and services – “everything from a new type of pill splitter [and] herbal foot pads to computer programs, and [from] Neil Sedaka, Kris Kristofferson [and] Natalie Cole to new groups like Back Door Slam.”
New groups and herbal foot pads? Sounds like the Casablanca ethos still lives.