The New Bubblegum
May 17, 1977
Casablanca Record & FilmWorks Headquarters
8255 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, California
Casablanca president Neil Bogart was talking to me about a new project he wanted us to get into. We would be getting the official pitch in a few minutes, and he was pacing around my office giving me the details on the band and prepping me for the meetings that would ensue. He mentioned the players, but all that stuck in my head was the list of characters he described: guys dressed in leather, a construction worker, a cop, and some cowboys and Indians. "Great," I thought, "I'm now a casting director meeting with an overcaffeinated Hollywood producer."
These guys weren't cops or cowboys any more than George Clinton was an outer-space pimp. They were a newly created group who called themselves the Village People -- a half-serious, half-tongue-in-cheek parody that had been assembled by two French producers and their novice New York music attorney. The producers, Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo, had been creating music in Europe for years with a modicum of success, but they were now concentrating on the US. They brought with them to our meeting a young lawyer named Allen Grubman, who was about to make the first deal of his long and storied entertainment career.
Morali and Belolo had recently relocated from France to New York in
hopes of making their entry into the American music scene. Morali (who
was openly gay) and Belolo (who was straight) started hanging out at
Manhattan's hot nightclubs, and they noticed that many patrons showed
up dressed in character -- as cowboys, or Indians, or what have you.
They hit upon the idea of creating a band comprised entirely of such
characters; they were so taken with Americana that they wanted each
band member to represent some aspect of the American dream -- or, at
least, the American dream as interpreted by two Frenchmen living in
Greenwich Village. They figured that the act would have a built-in
audience in gay nightclubs. But where to place them?
The two had picked up on Casablanca's maverick approach to the music biz, and they were impressed that we'd developed KISS and Parliament, two fairly out-there acts that many of the major labels wouldn't have looked at twice (remember that the Warner execs had initially hated KISS, telling us that the band should lose the makeup to be more palatable to the music-buying public). Morali and Belolo knew their vision for the Village People was likely to be met with ambivalence or derision if they pitched it to the likes of Capitol or Columbia. But with Neil they felt they'd found the perfect match. It didn't hurt that we'd broken the disco genre wide open with Donna Summer, either.
So, they flew out to LA to meet with Neil. As they walked into Neil's
office, I saw that both Henri and Jacques were very cosmopolitan guys
with a flair for fashion. Morali was energetic, flamboyant, and a bit
prissy -- definitely the salesman of the two. Belolo tended to hang
back, was more subdued, and was the business force behind the project.
After we exchanged some pleasantries, they got right to their pitch.
They played us a recording of the Village People. The album, which was
maybe twenty minutes long, was already a complete package, including
artwork. This was a strong selling point for us: Casablanca would only
need to manufacture and market the record; and with the cover done, we
were already halfway home as far as marketing went. If the material was
good, this would be an easy sell.
Neil immediately loved it,
but he decided to let me put it to the "Casablanca test" first. This
consisted of playing a song at such a high volume that everyone in the
entire two-story building would hear it. If people came running to find
out what it was, we knew we had something. I played the record at
ear-splitting volume, and the office quickly filled with people from
sales, promotion, and PR -- everyone was attracted to the music. Neil's
eyes were glowing, and we both sensed that this crazy idea had the
makings of a monster. The album cover was the cherry on top: we were
the label of KISS, Parliament, and Angel, so this group of guys dressed
as leather fetishists, Indians, and construction workers was right up
our alley. We got it!
Neil sat down with Allen Grubman and
signed the group on the strength of the finished album. We'd yet to
meet or speak to a single member of the band, and we wouldn't for
several months. The guys were cast members more than musicians or
singers (though each could carry a tune), and the idea was for them to
be entertaining, not create great music. None of us paid attention to
the fact that the Village People and their vibe were blatantly gay.
Frankly, not only did we not pay attention to it, but we didn't even
realize it. Their music was so energetic that it demanded your
attention. I don't think it was possible not to like it. But anything
more than a five-second glance at the band revealed an array of obvious
references to the homosexual lifestyle, which was the foundation of so
much disco music.
This aspect of disco never bothered Neil or me. Again, the Village
People's best songs were so catchy--you were instantly pulled into their
hook-laden melodies, and that's all that mattered. This is precisely
how (and the irony is laugh-inducing) many fundamentalists who regard
the homosexual lifestyle with contempt can dance around shrieking
"Y-M-C-A" at the top of their lungs along with the Village People,
happy as clams, oblivious to any subtext or message. Great melodies
hide lyrical meaning, which is why a song like Bruce Springsteen's
"Born in the USA" can be considered a pro-American anthem when it's
nothing of the sort.
With the addition to our roster of the
Village People, disco became Neil's new bubblegum. Not everyone at
Casablanca was unaware of the sizable homosexual presence in disco
culture, and a fissure grew between the disco and rock contingents. As
our disco department expanded, a few homophobes in the company -- mainly
in the pop department -- began to reveal themselves. They mostly kept
their mouths shut, but Neil and I could feel the tension. Some of them
would refuse to shake hands with a person (an artist or a fellow
employee) who was gay, or even breathe the same air. A few snide
comments were made in meetings, but it never went beyond that.