The Last Days of Disco 

A new book provides an inside look at the drug-fueled hedonism at Casablanca Records

Thursday, Jan 7 2010

It’s shortly before Christmas, 1973. A small group of New York music-biz guys led by Neil Bogart arrives in L.A. with little more than a dream. Okay — it’s actually more than that. Bogart and his buddies have their reputations as ace promo men, a financial-backing and distribution deal with Warner Records, and some letterhead in the name of “Casablanca Records.” They also have an act: four hard-working New York guys who paint their faces like Kabuki cartoon characters and call themselves KISS.

Bogart is the charismatic visionary, a born gambler, hustler and schmoozer whose trust-me face can’t really hide a clear glint of megalomania. His right-hand man is his cousin Larry Harris, younger, hotheaded, and clearly in awe of his mentor relative. Their plan is simple: Use their promo skills — the arcane art of getting a record played by radio DJs, ranked by the trade publications, and pushed by retailers, by whatever means necessary — to run a small label and live large under the California sun until Warner’s money runs out and the plug is pulled or they strike gold.

Long story short: They struck gold, big-time — first with KISS and then, almost accidentally, with disco. Between late 1975 and mid-1979, Bogart, Harris and their normally intoxicated team of talented hedonists ran a huge entertainment outfit, first from a house at 1112 North Sherbourne Drive, just off the Sunset Strip, and then from an office building (with its own billboard to promote the acts) at 8255 Sunset. Both offices, expensively decorated in a kind of Cali-Moroccan kitsch, were infamous at the time, as well as the source of endless tales of excess and debauchery. As L.A. music historian Barney Hoskyns writes, Bogart’s “Casablanca empire was a mini-Babylon built on the artificial bravado of coke euphoria.”

click to enlarge LARRY HARRIS - From right: author and Casablanca Records executive Larry Harris, Cher, Gene Simmons, Meat Loaf, and two music-industry execs, in 1979
  • Larry Harris
  • From right: author and Casablanca Records executive Larry Harris, Cher, Gene Simmons, Meat Loaf, and two music-industry execs, in 1979

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Bogart died in 1982 and, though there has been talk of a biopic for years (it was rumored in 2001 that Gene Simmons wanted to produce it as a Mike Myers vehicle), the actual story of the Los Angeles label he masterminded remained just a series of tall tales and exaggerated drug gossip — until now. Frustrated by the widespread belief in the inaccuracies of books like Fredric Dannen’s Hit Men, which paints Bogart’s company as just an out-of-control frat house, Larry Harris has emerged from his music-industry semiretirement to pen And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records.

“We were young New York guys coming out to L.A.,” says Harris over the phone from Seattle, where he settled in 1988 to start that city’s largest comedy club. “We came out with a New York attitude, trying to change things and made a little noise in the process.”

The book conveys this sense of initial excitement, as this ambitious, wild bunch from the world of larger-than-life characters like Don Kirshner and Allen Klein lands in the supposedly chill, post-hippie L.A. of the Eagles, CSNY and the long-haired ladies of the canyons.

“Maybe L.A. wasn’t as laid-back as that,” Harris says with a laugh. “As soon as we got there, we were taking meetings with film people, Johnny Carson’s lawyers ...”

They were also driving around in a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes, courtesy of Bogart’s unshakable belief that in order to be successful, first you had to look successful. 

But the flash didn’t convince everyone. “We got to L.A. for the first time,” remembers KISS’ Paul Stanley during a recent phone conversation, “and our label was literally in a little house, where a group of old-school promo people — from Buddah Records and other places, who were very gung ho — they’d set up shop. From there it grew into this huge thing.”

Bogart officially launched the label in February 1974 with a massive party for KISS’ debut at the Century Plaza Hotel, which had been redecorated to replicate the Casablanca movie set. But by August things were looking dire — the money was running out and Warner had pulled out of the deal. Bogart gambled on an expensive spoken-word record called Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments from The Tonight Show, which, unsurprisingly, flopped. “The name Casablanca,” writes Harris, “was beginning to feel particularly apt: We were alone in the barren sand dunes of Morocco, and there was no oasis in sight.”

Salvation arrived in an unlikely form: Trudy Meisel, the wife of a German music publisher who had been experimenting with a discotheque-targeted combination of simplified electronic music (four-to-the-bar drum patterns, easier for white dancers!) and black singing derived from soul music. Harris was in the North Sherbourne house office that fateful day in late 1974, when Meisel offered Bogart three records by an obscure Italian-German producer from Munich, named Giorgio Moroder: She had two solo albums of Tangerine Dream–esque ambient rock, and one where Moroder backed unknown expatriate American vocalist Donna Summer.

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