The Last Days of Disco
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.”
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.
That last record would put Casablanca on the music map. “I remember sitting with Neil at our first office,” Harris says, “and we were talking dance music. Trudy brought us those three Moroder albums, and even then we didn’t choose Donna as the hit!”
But then Bogart threw a big party at a rented house on Sunset, where, according to Harris, he accidentally invented the 12-inch mix: “I don’t remember the occasion — although we never really needed an excuse to party — but, as usual, there was no shortage of drink, weed, coke and the like. At some point, someone bumped into a turntable, bouncing the needle back to the beginning of the track and turning a four-minute song into an eight-minute song. Everyone loved the experiment. I don’t know why, but they clearly did. The record was ‘Love to Love You Baby.’ ”
The next day Bogart called Moroder in Munich and requested an extended mix of the sexy jam, prolonging Summer’s orgasmic throes to a disco-friendly duration. “We started noticing a lot of club play out of Miami,” explains Harris, “and then, of course, once we saw the writing on the wall, we took advantage of that.”
While Summer was becoming the world’s first disco diva, Bogart’s long-term gamble on KISS started to pay off, with the one-two punch of massive hit record Alive! and the single “Beth.” Another of their long-shot acts, Parliament, was about to become a funk powerhouse with Mothership Connection. Overnight, Casablanca was so successful they were running out of credit with the record plants to meet the retailer and customer demand.
If Bogart took to success and its excesses as if he had been preparing for it all his life, it was because he had. Suddenly, it was the Bicentennial and the label he had conjured out of thin air had the country’s top disco, rock and funk acts. Bogart and his operation ran on a steady diet of office sex, pot deliveries, ’ludes and the decade’s favorite wacky dust. “I don’t believe we at Casablanca did more drugs than people at any other company,” Harris writes. “The difference was that at Casablanca, the executives, not just the employees, did the drugs.”
From his new Sunset Strip headquarters, Bogart started to dream up a vast entertainment conglomerate, involving movies, television, books and even an art gallery set up for Summer’s husband. The Casablanca movie division, headed by Peter Guber in partnership with Columbia, was involved in the production and distribution of The Deep, Midnight Express and Foxes.
Casablanca’s high point was 1977, thanks to the box-office success of The Deep, continued hits by Summer and KISS (though both acts were always trying to leave the label for more conventional operations), and Meco’s “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” (from subsidiary Millennium), which became the biggest-selling instrumental in music-biz history.
Flush with success, Bogart began signing acts, especially disco, at an alarming rate. Most of them were either busts or one-hit wonders — those are the ubiquitous Casablanca 12-inches clogging 50 cent bins at every used-record store around the world.
One exception was a peculiar act Bogart and Harris signed in 1977. Two Frenchmen came to their Sunset office with an album of disco-soul; they wanted to release it through Casablanca. Their concept was a combination of KISS and Donna Summer: a theatrical act involving costumes and characters, with a strong disco beat and black vocals.
“All that stuck in my head,” writes Harris, was the list of characters the Frenchmen described: “guys dressed in leather, a construction worker, a cop, and some cowboys and Indians.”
Harris was initially skeptical about this Village People project (“These guys weren’t cops or cowboys any more than George Clinton was an outer-space pimp”), but Casablanca released their album and the group became another megastar international franchise.
“For some strange reason, though,” laughs Harris today, “it took forever for people to figure out that the Village People were gay. The gay community did right away, but the straight community and the radio stations didn’t.”
Casablanca continued to grow, and the bizarre behavior increased. Bogart appeared as a comic book character in Marvel’s “Dazzler,” and insisted upon doing some embarrassing TV promos for KISS albums, in a tux (they endure on YouTube). Eventually he had to sell part of the company to European conglomerate PolyGram; the deal made him and Harris very wealthy but subject to oversight.
While Bogart amused himself with philanthropy and fund-raisers for politicians, Harris continued to party at Studio 54, where he would fly in order to entertain the record-charts editor for Billboard magazine. The book contains detailed evidence of the chaotic manipulation of the music charts in the wild days before computer scanning. This fell mostly under Harris’ purview, and he offers fascinating insight on what these legendary “promo men” did back in the day. “How many people were doing blow and how many were being blown?” he writes. “The race was too close to call.”
Bogart’s apotheosis was perhaps the 1978 film Thank God It’s Friday, based on his original idea, which brought together Casablanca’s stable of disco stars and almost-stars (and a young Jeff Goldblum as a romantic lead) for a love story about the magic of clubbing. The label rented the L.A. version of Studio 54, a cavernous dancing den called Osko’s on La Cienega at Burton Way, and filmed Bogart’s fairy tale of disco land. “If that sounds like an expensive and lengthy commercial for Casablanca,” writes Harris, “that’s exactly what it was.”
Unfortunately — though its soundtrack did great business and Summer’s “Last Dance” won a Grammy and the Oscar — Thank God It’s Friday was pummeled by the Saturday Night Fever juggernaut.
By early 1979 the backlash against disco had grown massive and ugly, fueled by a market saturated with substandard product and by the insecurities of hard-rock fans who wanted the spotlight back on guitar bands. Casablanca, unavoidably associated with dance music, was one of the targets of the antidisco campaign. After Donna Summer and KISS left for bigger labels and more lucrative contracts, and PolyGram wanted greater accountability from Bogart, Harris realized the gig was up and quit a year before the conglomerate ousted the colorful label founder.
Bogart left Casablanca in 1980 and died two years later of lymphoma — at 39. “This guy lived a life that most people don’t come close to,” Harris says. “He contributed and did so much — 35 years later people are talking about making a movie about his life.”
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