Larry Harris’ And Party Every Day: The Inside Story Of Casablanca Records
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If you’re lucky, sometimes you get to live through an important cultural moment. But if you’re really, really lucky, sometimes you get to inhabit the epicenter of an important cultural moment, hooking into something in the process of exploding and riding that lightning as far as it will take you. Record executive-turned-And Party Every Day author Larry Harris experienced something just like that when his fiendishly charismatic cousin Neil Bogart asked him to work alongside him doing radio promotions for the influential independent label Buddah in the early ’70s. But Harris and Bogart’s saga wouldn’t really begin until they left Buddah to co-found Casablanca Records.
We’re attracted to important cultural moments like the Hollywood of the ’70s or the rock world of the ’60s in part because they created so much indelible art. But we’re also attracted to important cultural moments like that because they represent lost Edens where everyone fucked everyone and did shoeboxes full of blow and could fire up joints in the workplace and generally behave in ways that would make Aleister Crowley blush.
That’s much of the appeal of the disco era and of Casablanca Records. In a drugged-out, party-hearty, sexed-up decade, Casablanca was the most drugged-up, party-hearty, sex-crazed label in the business. Considering that the entire industry looked more like a swingers’ retreat than a proper business, that’s really saying something. Imagine an entire industry of Charlie Sheens on a bender. Harris, or at least his publisher, plays up the label’s brazen reputation with a back-cover excerpt that begins, “There was blow everywhere. It was like some sort of condiment that had to be brushed away by the waitstaff before the next party was seated. Cocaine dusted everything. It was on fingertips, tabletops, upper lips, and the floor….”
Juicy stuff, huh? Harris, who co-wrote the book with Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs, feeds into the public perception that you couldn’t open your front door in Southern California any time between 1971 and 1979 without a giant bag of cocaine falling on your head, only to aver that while Casablanca certainly indulged in its share of vices, its reputation for debauchery was greatly exaggerated. That, friends, is called bait and switch: Lure them in with the promise of wild tales and vice, then demur that there really isn’t all that much to say.
Here, for example, is Harris on one Casablanca’s most outrageous acts:
To look at Parliament and their absurd stage show—which eventually came to include an enormous UFO called the Mothership (which would land onstage in a billowing cloud of dry-ice fog) and a giant skull with a glowing four foot doobie dangling from its mouth—you would think there would be a never-ending series of strange Parliament tales to tell. To be truthful, the band was really fun to work with, and aside from a few battles of the kind that typically occur between artists and their record companies, everything went well between us.
If you can’t glean a few colorful anecdotes out of a lengthy professional collaboration with George Clinton, perhaps it’s best not to document your career for posterity. Throughout And Party Every Day, Harris proves that dry, bloodless writing can ruin even the most inherently fascinating subject.
Sweet blessed Lord does Harris have a lot to write about. Early in his career, for example, Harris watched an audition by a group of ugly men with platform boots and ratty glam wardrobes perform elemental bar rock while wearing thin, runny pancake make-up. Harris encouraged the band to put time and effort into both their make-up and stage show and Kiss became one of Casablanca’s flagship artists.
Bogart was as much a character as any of his acts. He was a born self-promoter with carnie blood. He was unencumbered by dignity, self-consciousness, and self-respect. He craved the spotlight. At one point, Bogart tells Harris that if he is seen with enough famous people, he too will become famous. That was Bogart’s ultimate goal: celebrity. If he had to spend his way into bankruptcy to get the Neil Bogart name out there, he’d do so happily. Bogart would have loved the hip-hop era, where record executives and executive producers get to dance around in their artists’ videos (assuming those executives are Diddy).
In the early going, Bogart’s boundless enthusiasm and personal magnetism were just about all that kept Casablanca going as it spent and spent and spent its way to visibility, if not profitability. Harris sums Casablanca up succinctly in two of Bogart’s words: “Profitless prosperity.” For years, Casablanca spent money like Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions. To Bogart, appearance was reality: If it looked like Casablanca was setting the world on fire, then who cared if the company was bleeding money? Bogart wasn’t just intent on figuratively setting the world on fire; during a particularly manic phase, Bogart literally doused a desk with gasoline and set it on fire to illustrate to impressed, concerned, and undoubtedly stoned employees that Casablanca was hot in every sense.
Harris luxuriates in the decadence of an era where executives spent their afternoon strung out on Quaaludes, coked up, or sleeping off a bender, and when having sex with co-workers was considered good business, not sexual harassment. Here’s the thing though; “I was really, really drunk and/or high” is a great opening for anecdotes. “I was really, really drunk and/or high,” however, is not in itself a great anecdote, despite what Harris might think. He does, however, have at least one great stoned-thinking anecdote.
During the flush years, Casablanca had attained such heights that Bob Dylan called the label to see if they might be interested in having him produce some albums for them. Harris was delighted to be in Dylan’s presence and the meeting seemed to be going well until Harris, his judgment clouded with THC, asked Dylan if he produced his own albums. When he replied in the negative, Harris asked him why in the fuck he thought he should let him produce albums for other artists. The answer to that question, of course, is, “Because I’m Bob Fucking Dylan and you’re lucky to be in the same room as me,” but Dylan was put off by Harris’ belligerence and ended up not doing business with the company.
Today, a single giant computer at Clear Channel headquarters determines the playlist for Top 40 radio, which explain why so much of it sounds like it was written and sung by computers. In the ’70s, they had a better system: If a label wanted a song played, it would send an emissary to smoke pot or snort cocaine or participate in a giant, four-city, weeklong orgy with the DJ it wanted to woo. Harris doesn’t see this as payola. In Harris’ mind, anything short of placing a briefcase full of hundreds in front of a DJ or program director and saying, “I will pay you $70,000 dollars explicitly so that you will play Kiss’ new song at least 25 times. That’s what this bribe is for” is just plain good business. In a strange way, I’m nostalgic for the unabashed corruption of radio in the ’70s. Sure, it was a dirty game, but it also felt funky and human and messy in sharp contrast to the antiseptic calculation of contemporary radio. It was somehow more honest about its fundamental dishonesty.
In the mercenary music biz of the ’70s you could bribe or cajole your way into just about anything. Before SoundScan, the Billboard charts didn’t have much to do with actual album sales; accurate counts of how much an album had actually sold (as opposed to how many units it shipped) were damn near impossible to track down. So oftentimes an album’s position in the charts had less to do with its popularity than with the Billboard chart editor’s relationships with labels. Chart positions were a matter of negotiation and flattery; make the right people happy and they’d look out for you.
And Party Every Day only begins to pick up momentum once Casablanca has established itself as the home of disco and the company’s extravagant spending begins to take on a Last Days Of Rome quality. During the early days, Harris is indulgent about Bogart’s fast and loose relationship with the truth. Harris’ attitude toward his cousin runs the gamut from reverence to hero worship. To the author, Bogart is the ultimate showman, the P.T. Barnum of the Studio 54 set. At the apex of his powers, Bogart seems capable of bending the world to his will through salesmanship and showmanship alone. Bogart infected his employees with the idea that anything was possible.
While “anything is possible” looks great on a Successories plaque, it’s not much of a business model. Bogart’s strategy—spend ungodly sums of money on promotion, publicity, and touring in hopes of breaking monster acts like Kiss and Donna Summer—proved unfeasible. Through moxie, hustle, and a keen ear, Bogart created an empire that was actually more of a mirage. Casablanca teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and ruin for much of its duration. It made a lot of money and sold a lot of albums, but was never profitable. You simply can’t stay in business when you spend substantially more than you take in. That’s Economics 101.
The death of disco spelled the death of Casablanca. Yet, like Studio 54, it lives on as an idea, an impossible utopia of sexual and personal freedom, where the races, genders, and classes all united in one nation under a groove, with champagne with cocaine for all. A colorful era like that deserves a livelier book; throughout Party I found myself wishing I’d been reading a memoir by Bogart—who died at 39 in the ’80s—instead of Harris’.
And Party Every Day is nowhere near as much fun as it should be. The first hundred pages are a snooze and too much of the book gets bogged down in the dry details of the music business. But movies that end well have a distinct advantage over those that begin well. The same is true of books, even if And Party Every Day only fulfills its promise in its final third. All I wanted from Harris’ book was a cheap contact buzz from all the decadent doings of rock’s most debauched era, but Harris here performs an act of reverse alchemy, transforming the gold of money, sex, disco, funk, drugs and excess into literary tin. Until it almost redeems itself at the end, Party feels less like an out-of-control disco soiree than a fuzzy hangover.