Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Kissing Plus
Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.
Humphrey vs. Neil Bogart
Now, the Rest Is About Neil
When Neil Bogart approached Warner/Reprise about a distribution deal for his label – he’d named his label “Casablanca” after the famed town in the Warner movie – Neil had a special kind of deal in mind. Simply put, Neil’s Warner deal could be summed up this way: “I’ll handle the promotion. All of it. Just do everything I ask for.”
Other signings, whether label deals or single artists, had always included Warner/WEA handling the promotion-packaging-ads, the big time stuff. But Bogart was determined to make those decisions for his own acts. He believed he should set the ad schedule, handle disc jockeys, hire indy promoters, put up billboards. His way.
Neil was that kind of dynamo. #1 on Billboard’s Dynamos chart.
In the years before his arrival at WBR, Neil Bogart had made big sales splashes with genres like “bubblegum pop” music for labels like Cameo-Parkway and Buddha (where Neil got known as “The Bubblegum King” for cute, teen-singles acts like 1910 Fruitgum Company.
Later on, disco singles by Donna Summer and eventually The Village People [that disco sextet dressed up as, say, an Indian, a steel-worker, a cowboy, and every macho one with a mustache and muscles, all singing “Y-M-C-A”].
At age 30, he had more record business marketing savvy than anyone ever born in Brooklyn. His hair had become a three-inch halo o’er his head. Joe Smith described Neil Bogart’s business style as “If some people start running through rooms naked, Bogart’s out there first with a song called ‘The Streak’.” And, Joe added, “And could they spend money!”
Casablanca Is Born
Neil Bogart wanted his own label now, liked calling it Casablanca (after the movie starring his non-relative, Humphrey Bogart), and so – on Nov. 1, 1973 – Casablanca ended up being “distributed” by Mo Ostin/Warner Bros. Records.
Casablanca Records had its own label space in Los Angeles. Neil started with three of his long-time record business colleagues: all of them hot promoters: Cecil Holmes (R&B promo), Larry Harris (artist relations and LP promo), and Buck Reingold (Top 40 promo). All of these guys also knew how to spend, in ways that Warner Records suddenly found stunning.
Bogart fought for promotion, telling anyone “We run record promotion the same way you run an army going to war. You have to have a plan. You have to know where to advertise, when you’re going after certain stations, and when you’re going to buy ads on those stations. You really run a whole war game.”
Bogart put out, believed in, sold, and crammed down audience’s throats his medium: singles. And as he put it, “we just let those albums follow along.”
This was utterly different from Warner/Reprise’s approach, which entailed less cramming and more smooching, via heartfelt albums by singer-songwriters like Neil and Joni and Sweet Baby James.
The deal made with Warners, in late 1976, the Casablanca-WBR deal started ho-hum, with a few R&B singles that had little market appeal. Inside the Burbank Warner home, Casablanca was just one of those off-campus oddity labels.
Then, Bogart signed a group that had his kind of Extreme Hum to it.
Kiss Signs Up
Kiss already had its album, named Kiss, ready to go. First, Bogart wanted to introduce the group to his new distributor, Warner Records. As well as to the rest of “Hollywood.” Not over lunch, but at one wild banquet.
Kiss member Gene Simmons put it this way: “Casablanca bet the store on a new act who didn’t write singles, didn’t sing about heartbreak or love, and didn’t look or sound like the Partridge Family… Whatever it cost, he went for it. He set the Night of All Nights in Hollywood, of all places.
February 18, 1974
Executives at Warner Records got in-the-mail invitations to another evening out, this one courtesy Casablanca. We drove over to the Century City Plaza Hotel (big, new) that evening, to hear this next band in our lives perform. We were dressy. Our wives were along this evening. Everyone, band, labels, were “coming out.”The invite we got set it up this way:
Times are tough. The only things left are Victor Laszlo and the underground band KISS. Bring someone you trust and join them at the last outpost of freedom, Rick’s Café Americain (Los Angeles Room) Monday, February 18, 8:30-11 pm. Got it, sweetheart? Rick will have his gaming tables running, and nothing is going to stop him.
Feel lucky. Want to forget the bad times? If you can take it so can he. The time is the early 1940s – so Rick wants you to dress accordingly.
That evening at the Century Plaza, we and 200 other guests chummed our way through cocktails. We got auto-lucky at the roulette tables, then found our dinner tables. The room was set up Moroccan, complete with a live camel. Dick Clark showed. Alice Cooper showed, and did best at the roulette tables. Then, shortly after the shrimp was served, the ceiling lights dimmed and the curtain hiding the stage was raised. We stared our eyes out.
Kiss on Fire
On stage, Kiss was a-wiggle. Their faces vivid more black-and-white make up, more than worn by a sixty-year-old madam. The band began its fervent play. The drummer whacked away as he and his drum set were levitated up six feet above the band.
Neil Bogart kept eyeing the crowd, his eyes of hope. On stage, Kiss’ drummer’s drumsticks exploded, sparks of fire. The lead singer blew fire out of his mouth, whack. Two red fire engine lights spun around fast atop the amps.
Fire fire fire.
The only thing wet was lead singer Gene Simmons’ tongue, which seemed to poke like a python, seven inches out of his mouth. Our shrimp cocktails were neglected.
Alice Cooper, watching this “next generation” act at this all-time party, summed up Kiss-on-stage this way: “What they need is a gimmick.”
The band wailed loud, smoke poured forth, but the crowd was underwhelmed by Kiss. People were coughing, running out.
WBR executives drove home, as if it’d been just one more evening. And they’d had to miss “Monday Night Football” for this? The band’s music had not got to them. And the party, it was so over the top.
The next morning, those execs’ jobs were the same: to move all WBR’s product, whether it was Debby Boone or the Fugs. It’d be back to Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, but not just singer-songwriters. Warner already harbored Jimi Hendrix and Alice Cooper, so we could be also considered a label able to promote outrageous acts that burned guitars and wore make up.
Kiss Album Released
Ten days after the party, Casablanca issued the Kiss album on February 18, 1974.
Warner set the label’s tone for the label’s first audience, most often stores and radio. In Warner’s weekly promo letter, Circular, publicist Bob Merlis put it this way:
The band comes on strong and we we’re struck with the fact that KISS play like the demons they resemble (rather than four villains from a vintage Batman comic). Their music is the hardest of hard rock – macho glitter, if you can get through the apparent ambiguity. Some call it thunder rock…
Their repertoire is 100 percent up-temp killer stuff… a kind of mood music, if you happen to be in the mood to blow up buildings or wreck cars.
When Kiss’ first album came out, it sold some but not enough to please anyone, especially Neil Bogart.
To push it, Neil and crew hung out inside WBR, sitting outside offices, waiting, insisting upon video, artist development (ads). Air play!!!
He and his small crew hung out for hours within WBR. I’d come into the office at 9 a.m. and hear my secretary (Jeanie) tell me “Neil Bogart’s waiting to see you.” Hear it again and again. Push-push. We need more.
Neil Bogart, true to his genes, felt need for a Kiss single. Nothing on the LP would do. He decided on a tune that would cut it.
Kiss’s first single got called, you might guess, “Kissin’ Time.” It was a re-do of a Bobby Rydell late fifties single. To have Kiss re-record a peppy pop hit like that, the group hated it. Neil loved the idea, and desperately wanted a hit. He told Kiss he’d drop them from Casablanca if they wouldn’t record “Kissin’ Time.” So, they did it.
Come on Charlotte
Wake up San Diego, Milwaukie, Miami
Put your two lips together and kiss
We're kissin' in Cleveland, and Cincinnatti too
Way out in Chicago, I'll tell you what to do
They party all over, even in St. Lou
So baby get ready and I'll be kissin' you
Oh, oh, 'cause anytime is kissin' time, USA So treat me right, don't make me fight And we'll rock and roll tonight
When Warner’s Miami promotion man Eddie Pugh started off the single by holding a radio station contest called “The Great KISS-Off,” he became a Casablanca hero. Faster than herpes, Casablanca spread Kiss Offs across America.
We're kissin' in Dallas
And Philly's goin' wild
So let's Kiss Atlanta, ho
You know we'll make it smile
We love the women
Way down in Tennessee
So baby come on now and start a-kissin' me
Neil led the spreading. Thirteen cities, then winners in each market getting flown to Schaumburg, Illinois, for the finals. Then winners to appear on the Mike Douglas Show.
Malls across America set up love seats in their main courts. There couples would get lip-locked in a continuous kiss-around-the-clock, ‘til the last couple remained. The winning couple (named Vinnie Toro and Louise Heath) stayed lip-locked for about 116 hours straight (with five minute breaks for food and bathrooms).
“Kissin’ Time” went to #83 on the singles chart.
Warner staffers got the “Kissin’ Time” messages, over and over: publicity! In New York, when Kiss was to perform (still in all that makeup), publicist Bob Merlis arranged press photographs for the quartet while the four’s faces lay hid under hot towels at the Georgette Klinger facial salon.
Casablanca … everywhere.
Fire-breathing lead singer Gene Simmons recalled “All of a sudden we’re fucking our brains out every single day of our lives, doing 210, 230 shows a year. It was ten months on the road, four weeks back to make a record, then fly back out.”
Kiss’ Paul Stanley put it this way:
“We’re the McDonald’s of rock. We’re always there to satisfy, and a billion served. . . . I remember one time my parents came to see us at Madison Square Garden, and there I am on-stage playing game-show host to eighteen thousand people, and I’m wearing tights and high heels and playing with a guitar between my legs, stroking it. I remember saying to myself, ‘My God, my parents are out there absorbing this. They’re watching eighteen thousand people watching their son, and their son is in makeup and high heels, and he’s jerking off a guitar’.”
Kiss Bugs Burbank
A year after Kiss’ Casablanca deal, the P&L statements were writ in red ink. Despite Kiss and “Kissin’ Time,” Neil had over-spent WB’s investment money. Casablanca was in the hole. Neil had asked Mo for more, and Mo had agreed: $750,000 more, as a loan for Casablanca to be repaid to Warner.
One of the label’s promo trio, Buck Rheingold had taped WB’s promotion department’s weekly mass phone call to all Warner’s field promotion staffers. This weekly call was known as the “Promo Hot Line,” and during the one he was taping, Rheingold heard WB’s promo head Gary Davis tell his troops to give more attention to WB product than to the distributed labels, Casablanca included. Major goof, on tape.
Hearing about it, Neil went nuts.
When Bogart faced Mo Ostin with this, Neil wanted out of this deal. Warner execs admitted it had been said. Both men felt like ending the Casablanca-Warner deal. Ostin, embarrassed by Davis’ gaffe but now relieved to end this deal-beyond-human-control, Mo agreed to let Bogart take Casablanca elsewhere, assuming someday, as Neil had promised, he would repay Casablanca’s $750,000 indebtedness to Warner.
(Which he did.)
-- Stay Tuned
Where Are They Now
Neil Bogart: After severing the label deal with Warner, Bogart set up his own new home office on the Sunset Strip. He signed a new deal with Polygram (50% for $15 million) in 1977. Then, in 1980, PolyGram bought out the other 50% and pushed Bogart out of Casablanca for what it viewed the label’s over-spending and accounting irregularities. In 1982, age 38, Bogart died of cancer.
Kiss: The act went on. Counting solo albums in 1978, they have come up with 28 gold albums; sold over 40 million albums in America (and 100 million world-wide). Of the original line-up, two have been steady members of Kiss: Paul Stanley (vocals and rhythm guitar) and Gene Simmons (vocal and bass guitar). Their reunion tour (1996-1997) made them the top-grossing act of those two years.
Humphrey Bogart: In 1957, after appearing in 75 films, Bogart died in Los Angeles. He was 57 years old. He never lived to hear “Kissin’ Time.” He later was ranked as “the greatest male star in history” by the American Film Institute.
Alice Cooper: Alice hit his biggest sales in 1973 with his Billion Dollar Babies album. He stayed on WBR until 1983. By 2011, he’d issued 26 albums in all kinds of music styles, including mini-styles like industrial rock. He’s recalled still as the artist who “introduced horror imagery to rock’n’roll, and whose stagecraft transformed the genre.”