Thank God Rush Wasn’t Better Looking in the 1970s
One of the interesting things to come out of Larry Harris’s 2009 book about Casablanca Records, And Party Every Day (Backbeat Books), is how close the label came to signing Rush. Harris, the company’s managing director, said he flew to Toronto in 1974 at the recommendation of a colleague to see if the band was a good fit for the label, which at the time was known mostly for its up-and-coming rock act, Kiss. Harris wasn’t that impressed with the band, especially with its looks, and took a pass, opening the door for Mercury to swoop in and snap them up. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Harris says he regrets not signing the band, but it’s probably a good thing he didn’t. Despite what it did for Kiss, Casablanca did not go on to become a major force in rock music; it went on to become a major force in disco, and you have to wonder what that would have meant for Rush’s career. More importantly, Casablanca went on to become the poster child for music-industry excess during the 1970s. It treated all of its major acts like carnival shows. This was the label, after all, that put everything it had into a band called Angel, perhaps the first hair-metal band and whose only real claim to fame is that it served as the inspiration—pods and all—for the band satirized in This is Spinal Tap
Based on Harris’ account, so much of what it did for Kiss, Donna Summer, The Village People, and its other acts had little to do with music; it had to do with spectacle. Indeed, it was the visual appeal of Kiss that the label cared about. That’s why the label’s chief, Neil Bogart, would push the band to come out with an album every six months. Whether the music was good or not was beside the point; there just needed to be new product to promote while the band was hot.
So secondary was the quality of the music that The Village People didn’t even sing their own songs live. They just lip-synced (with the exception of the lead singer). Milli Vanilli just got caught.
It’s hard to imagine what the effect on Rush’s music would have been had it become one of Casablanca’s artists. Would Neil Bogart have pushed the band to pump out a record every six months? Would it have spent lavishly right out of the gate to turn Rush into a spectacle like it did Kiss and Angel? Would the label’s Hollywood cocaine culture affected the band’s integrity?
Probably not. The band is pretty strong-willed. It’s hard to imagine Neil Peart glad-handing with Neil Bogart in his Hollywood Hills mansion. Geddy Lee getting escorted into one of the private rooms in Studio 54? Alex Lifeson swapping ideas with Angel about incorporating pods into the stage show?
It’s funny, but it’s also sad. Casablanca imploded in the mid-1980s, a victim of it’s own excess. Even Harris jumped ship eventually. The label is now just a logo owned by one of the big record companies. Bogart passed away at the age of 39, his company already disintegrated by then.
Casablanca was like a once-hot music act that peaked and then self-destructed within the space of a decade. Had Rush been lashed to that rocketship, its career surely would have been much different. In the end, the band would probably have come through okay, its integrity intact. But what a distraction. As it was, Mercury left them alone to pursue their artistic vision. Maybe they didn’t get much in the way of promotional support early on, but that’s a small price to pay to get left alone, which is something I bet some of Casablanca’s artists wish they would have gotten.
Kudos to Harris for penning (with some editorial help) a highly readable history of Casablanca. The book is a remarkable page-turner and Harris’ candor is refreshing. —Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
From the publisher of Rush Vault:
Rush: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Excellence
Great book, read slowly to fully enjoy it
“A very in-depth conversation from Rush’s start to the present. It is not a lot to read. You probably won’t rifle through this in a single sitting, and the author will likely challenge a lot of your interpretations of many of the songs. But more than worth considering the impact on Rush lyrics far beyond Rand and Aristotle. Pick it up.”—Alan L. Emery