Casablanca, the disco-centric label that ruled the '70s with campy brio was founded and run by Neil Bogart, a flamboyant character who combined a Berry Gordy-level eye for talent with P.T. Barnum's genius for showmanship. Yet rubberneckers could be mistaken for assuming the label was run by a sentient bag of cocaine. It embodied the concept of "profitless prosperity": spending so much money on drugs, lavish parties (Casablanca sometimes seemed to be a party company with a sideline in music rather than the other way around), and theatrics that no matter how much money it took in, it almost never turned a profit, either on a yearly or quarterly basis.
How could a label that had Parliament-Funkadelic, KISS, Donna Summer, and Village People in their prime consistently lose money? Well, for a man whose innate gift for spotting talent earned him the nickname "The Man With The Golden Ears," Bogart also had a remarkable gift for getting behind insane stunts that backfired spectacularly. For example ...
#5. Village People's 1981 New Romanticism Album: Renaissance
KISS was not the only flagship Casablanca act that attempted to dramatically change its image and persona with comically inept and disastrous results. When disco was at its peak, the label's identification with the form was a huge commercial asset: Casablanca was disco, and disco found its most enduring and important home at Casablanca.
Then disco went from being the most fashionable and successful genre around to being fatally un-hip and out of fashion. The genre endured a backlash of the intensity and passion seldom seen in pop music, exemplified by Chicago DJ Steve Dahl's disastrous "Disco Demolition Night," where, shockingly, an ambiguously homophobic and xenophobic stunt designed to appeal to the anger and prejudices of drunken, angry Southsiders somehow backfired and resulted in ugliness and a near-riot.
In its bid to distance itself from the disco label that had previously been both an identity and source of pride for the company, Casablanca tried to reinvent one of its core disco acts, Village People, as Duran Duran-like New Romanticism. As was often the case, there was a method to Casablanca's madness. Disco and New Romanticism had a lot in common. They were both queer-friendly and trafficked in gender ambiguity and unabashed androgyny. And they both embodied the theatricality that Bogart adored so much both in his acts and in his own behavior as one of the most flamboyant music moguls around.
Case in point, check out the collar on that plaid shirt!
But Village People's attempt to reinvent itself to avoid the dreaded "disco" tag worked about as well as KISS's attempt to be serious art-rockers, and for very similar reasons. Village People's pop anthems are staples of such bastions of heterosexual masculinity as sporting arenas and Navy ships (where we can only assume that "In The Navy" plays on a constant loop") because their hits were catchy as hell, with melodies that embedded themselves deep into the psyches of listeners the first time around, then stubbornly refused to leave.
Renaissance, in sharp comparison, was sorely lacking in the brash pop craftsmanship that defined Village People at its best, and the group's attempts to cultivate a slightly more butch, more masculine ...
(But still pretty queer.)
... image was about as unconvincing as you might expect. And abandoning the archetypal costumes the group wore in its heyday (cop, Native American, etc.) for way too much makeup and hairspray only underlined how much the group relied on its bevy of silly gimmicks.
When Renaissance proved a predictable flop, a disheartened Village People stopped trying to change with the times and reconciled itself to its fate as a novelty act doomed and cursed to perform "YMCA" and "In The Navy" to half-bored crowds at state fairs throughout this great land for posterity.
#4. Village People, Bruce Jenner, and Steve Guttenberg Star In Can't Stop The Music
Renaissance was not Village People's first flop. Unlike KISS with The Elder, the group was able to realize its cinematic ambitions and star in its very own big-screen vehicle, but the group, and Casablanca, probably wish they hadn't. For reasons that remain mysterious, producer Allan Carr (a Bogart-like huckster whose signature flop involved producing the Academy Awards that infamously featured Rob Lowe duetting with an actress playing Snow White) tapped ancient actress Nancy Walker, better known to audiences at the time as Bounty paper towel pitch-woman Rosie, to direct a fictionalized biopic of Village People called Can't Stop The Music.
This all makes sense so far, right?
Carr, fresh off the success of Grease, wanted to reunite with Olivia Newton-John, but she turned down the female lead to star in Xanadu, which at least had the consolation of great Jeff Lynne songs. So the film ended up casting Valerie Perrine opposite Olympian Bruce Jenner and a pre-fame Steve Guttenberg, who played a songwriter modeled on Jacques Morali, the man who created and molded Village People.
Like Renaissance before it, Can't Stop The Music represented a very strange attempt to dial down the queerness of these gay icons for the sake of appealing to the broadest possible audience while still remaining unmistakably gay. To that end, the frontman of Village People in the film has a girlfriend and, in an extraordinary coup, Carr arranged for the Milk Council to pony up a small fortune for some of the most egregious product placement this side of Mac And Me in "Milkshake," an elaborate production number designed solely to showcase the wonders of milk.
It's unclear why the Milk Council thought a Village People musical would be the best possible vessel to disseminate its message, but it's possible that they, like so many people involved with Casablanca, might have been hitting the white stuff a little too hard, and we're not talking non-dairy creamer.
Can't Stop The Music was conceived while disco was hot and released when it was ice-cold, but it's hard to imagine it being anything other than a surreally misconceived flop no matter when it was released. It didn't help that Carr seemed less concerned with telling a compelling story than he was with ensuring that Guttenberg wear the shortest possible shorts without exposing his penis and testicles in the process. Not surprisingly, the movie bombed and the film more or less spelled the end of Jenner and Village People's acting careers, as well as Walker's career as a director, but it should be noted that Carr succeeded at least in the sense that Guttenberg's shorts in the film are, in fact, very, very short.
#3. KISS's 1981 Concept Album, Music From "The Elder"
One of Casablanca's signature acts and a group that perfectly embodied Bogart's sideshow-like approach to pop music, KISS never had much use for music critics. Bassist Gene Simmons was particularly vocal in his contempt for what he saw as the bespectacled, ink-stained wretches who had the audacity to criticize KISS as a glorified bar band that lucked into a cheesy gimmick that happened to resonate with the general public.
Yet there must have been some part of Simmons and company that craved respect, because in the early 1980s the group decided that if those critically revered knuckleheads in The Beatles and Pink Floyd could release massive concept albums, why shouldn't they?
Because they're KISS?
To that end, the group concocted a fuzzy narrative of self-empowerment equally indebted to Joseph Campbell's writings about the centrality of myths to Western culture and cultural narratives and a half-remembrance of watching Ralph Bakshi's Lord Of The Rings, about a young man groomed for a singular destiny in a fantastical world.
The group recruited Pink Floyd's The Wall producer, Bob Ezrin, to work on the project, which they hoped to turn into a multimedia spectacular, complete with a motion-picture adaptation. That explains the album's bizarre, borderline-nonsensical title: Music From "The Elder."
If the album had been followed up with a movie, that title would make perfect sense. Audiences would know that the album contained music from the movie The Elder, but when no movie was forthcoming it was difficult to know exactly what the "from" was supposed to represent.
Are you The Elder?
Was it supposed to represent that the album was "from" at least the two members of KISS who bothered to make substantial contributions to it, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley (as usual, drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley were a little too consumed with being crazy and drugged-out to make more than a token assist to the album)?
Hey, cat makeup doesn't apply itself you know.
Or was it supposed to mean that the album came "from" Gene Simmons' bottomless ego and matching capacity for self-delusion?
Understandably, confused fans ignored the album, whose pompous, orchestral brand of theatrical rock lurched about as far from KISS's comfort zone of party anthems and beefy bar rock as humanly possible without being free jazz or John Cage's 4'33". Then again, considering what happened when the Beatles' concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was turned into a movie, that might be for the best. Actually, the cinematic Pepper's was so crazy, coked-up, and misconceived that it's hard to believe that Bogart and Casablanca weren't behind it.