KissFAQ: The KISS solo albums were released in September 1978. Prior to their release, how would you describe the overall health of Casablanca Records?
Larry Harris: (pauses) Interesting question. Really good. Lot of hits, tons of hits.
KF: In doing some research, I came across an article in a May 1977 issue of "Billboard" in which Bill Aucoin mentioned the idea of the KISS members doing solo albums. And I also understand there was a proviso regarding solo albums in KISS' record contract that was signed in late 1976. Larry, when do you recall the solo albums becoming a topic of conversation around the office?
LH: To be honest, I don't remember the date, it was so long ago. It probably initially came up in typical conversation about when the next album would be. What I do remember, which I talk about in the book, was Howard Marks coming in -- and Aucoin may have been there too -- and telling us that the guys weren't getting along very well. And possibly one way to get more product out in the street and stop them from breaking up would be solo albums.
KF: Yes, you mention that Bill Aucoin implied that the band would break up if the label refused to release four solo albums. Were the label's hands essentially tied into going forward with the project?
LH: Well, it was either that or taking our only big rock act -- because everybody else we had was either R&B, disco or comedy -- that we started the label with and having them disintegrate. So we really had no choice in the matter if we wanted them or hoped that they would stay together.
KF: You mention that the label "hated" the idea of the solo albums and that you did your best to "stonewall" Aucoin.
LH: Well, the contract called for any album that came out as KISS, whether it was [a] regular [studio album] or solo [album], first of all we had to pay $500,000 up front for it and we had to also guarantee that we would ship 500,000 copies of an album. And we had to spend $500,000 in advertising. So that meant a lot of money. Aside from the fact, although each band member was pretty well-known to their fans, they weren't the greatest musicians in the world, even though we made people believe they were.
KF: Well, I'll go one further. In 1978, were KISS fans really pining for a Peter Criss or Paul Stanley solo album?
LH: I don't think any fans cared about the solo albums from any of them. The whole magic of KISS was this cartoon group that we built up through "Circus" and "Creem" magazine. "Rolling Stone" hated them. But we had built this image of this group, of Ace being a great guitar player. He wound up on "Circus" magazine's poll. I talk about it in the book how we filled out all the forms at the office to get them to be considered great musicians. But I don't think there was one critic out there that thought that at the time. And the other thing with KISS was it was the magic of the show. And where was the show related to these four solo albums? I mean, what was going to happen? Was Peter going to go out and just do drum solos somewhere? Or would Ace stomp around the stage and fall over by himself?
KF: According to your book, Neil Bogart initially thought to release a total of 2 million solo albums, which equated to half a million for each album. But Howard Marks balked by quoting that KISS' contract stipulated 1 million of each album needed to be pressed. I'm no lawyer, but if one solo album counted as half an album in the record contract, wouldn't it be possible that pressing half the normal total would have been permissible?
LH: I have no idea. I don't remember that saying that in the contract, or do I remember memorizing the contract 40 years ago (laughs). Neil was a gambler. And Neil felt if he was going to do this kind of investment -- which was all that advertising per album -- he was going to go for the throat. He wasn't about to say, "I'm afraid to do it." That wasn't his style.
KF: Understood. But did Neil ever show any hesitance, maybe at the beginning?
LH: Howard Marks had a large influence on our company because he was a very smart guy and he helped Neil negotiate with KISS on a few levels when we were having some difficulties with them. Howard also made a fortune from KISS. From the $500,000 for each album in advertising, Howard wound up with 15 percent of that, aside form whatever else he was making with the band. So it behooved Howard for this to happen. I remember there was initially some reluctance about putting out four albums at one time and the cost involved but I think once Neil realized that it was either the group breaking up or this happening, he embraced it.
KF: No band had ever done a project of this scope before. Was there an appeal in terms of Casablanca boldly going somewhere no label had gone before?
LH: Yes. That was fascinating for Neil. He loved doing shit like that.
KF: For your part, you mention that the specter of the four KISS solo albums was "very troubling" to you. Larry, why did you have such a strong premonition from the get-go? Did you think the project was doomed from the start?
LH: No, I thought it was doomed once I heard the albums. I mean, I embraced it because Neil embraced it. What was I going to do, was I going to fight him on it? That made no sense. You know, [KISS] normally did sell a million or 2 million albums on each release, so there was a little comfort there.
KISS solo album advertisement that ran in the Sept. 9, 1978, issue of "Billboard" magazine.
KF: In your book, you mention that Neil "eventually embraced" the idea of shipping 1 million copies of each album. Ultimately, more than 5.3 million KISS solo albums were shipped. Did the label actually believe that all of these units could be sold?
LH: Well, with the amount of advertising we were spending on television and radio and newspapers and everything, yes. We actually shipped more than we planned to. But that's the way the orders came in when we went to some of the big distributors and told them about the advertising that we were doing and how we were backing it up. And we wanted to make a lot of noise on the level of "this is the biggest initial shipment of records ever."
KF: Was there a general targeted timeframe to move all of the units of the initial shipment?
LH: No. We weren't that scientific.
KF: The solo album advertising campaign was equally unprecedented, totalling some $2.5 million. There was $1.2 million spent on ad buys in various media. There were bus and subway ads, and billboards in New York and L.A. There were digital ads for Times Square. There were sampler LPs and pre-recorded interviews sent to radio. There were elaborate press kits and a 4-pack plastic bag. In hindsight, did the campaign border on over-saturation?
LH: If we could have pulled a hit out of each album -- which would be hard to do -- then it would have worked. But it shocked us all that the only hit out of any album was Ace's.
KF: So that was a definite surprise when the lone hit from the four albums came from Ace Frehley?
LH: Yeah, it wasn't a huge hit, but it was a hit.
KF: Gene and Paul's singles stalled in the 40s. In your book, you recount some shenanigans in terms of how the "Billboard" charts were formulated. Were any "schemes" considered to help push their solo singles?
LH: The schemes got them to go to No. 40.
KF: And from there, they were on their own?
LH: They weren't selling. Nobody wanted to play them, they sounded terrible. None of them had a great song on it. Since "Beth" was so big, we were at least hoping that Peter's album would do better.
KF: Interestingly, each album was backed by one single each, except for "Peter Criss." There were two singles from Peter's album, with the second being "You Matter To Me," a song with a definite disco flavor. Neither of these singles charted. Do you recall why there were two singles released from Peter's album?
LH: (pauses) I don't remember why.
KF: It just seems odd that there would have been two singles from Peter's album, because his is considered to be the poorest selling of the four.
LH: You could be right. I honestly don't remember which one sold the best. None of them sold well. I mean, if we sold 200,000 of each, it would have been a lot.
KF: As you mentioned in your book, the promotion of the KISS solo albums really got the attention of the music industry. Was Casablanca on the receiving end of any sort of formal backlash?
LH: No, the backlash, if there was any, came from radio. In those days, there wasn't any MTV. It was radio, you didn't have other outlets.
KF: Were there any considerations to put out a second set of singles from the other three albums to continue the promotion of the albums into 1979?
LH: No. At that point, it was kind of like a death knell. We had blown our wad on advertising and there were displays in every store, huge displays and stand-ups and all that crap you mentioned we made, and the record stores weren't going to keep them in there forever. It has a certain life.
KF: KISS had filmed promotional videos for songs as early as 1975. Were promotional videos for the solo album singles ever considered?
LH: Well, the problem would have been, this is KISS. So that would have meant taking their makeup off, and that wasn't happening yet. It would have been very hard to put a video out and they wouldn't be wearing their makeup. It wouldn't make any sense if Peter did a video with him in his cat makeup. And in a lot of cases, it was a different kind of music too.
KF: I don't mean to propose a glib question, but why didn't these albums sell? Is it as simple as the music contained within the grooves just didn't appeal to the masses?
LH: Absolutely. Their fans didn't even like them.
KF: And here's another angle to the previous question: In reconsidering the idea of solo albums, was it really practical to expect fans to buy four KISS solo albums?
LH: Well, we never thought that every fan would buy every album. I don't think that ever entered our consciousness. We really thought out of the four there'd be a couple of songs that would generate some sales. But the music just wasn't there. And Ace's hit, it wasn't even written by Ace.
KF: That's right. It was written by Russ Ballard. Larry, is it possible to approximate how much money the label lost on the KISS solo albums?
LH: The KISS solo albums brought the label down. PolyGram, who was our distributor and owned half the company at that point, were totally pissed off at us. And it started PolyGram looking at us much more carefully than they were and checking our books closer than they used to. It was just a drain of so much money and what they considered to be a major mistake -- because we also had to take the records back -- so besides all the money on advertisting and production and whatever, we had to take all this stuff back, which cost money.
KF: You mention in your book that PolyGram eventually sold the lion's share of album returns to discount retailers and flea markets. But this was this accomplished unbeknownst to Casablanca or the band?
LH: Yeah, I also have a feeling, if I'm not mistaken, that their contract called for the fact that we couldn't sell [their albums] that way.
KF: Of course, that would be the subject of a lawsuit brought on by KISS against the label. Larry, in 1979 there was a serious downturn in the U.S. economy, which affected the entire industry, let alone Casablanca. That year, the $4 billion a year record industry experienced a 11 percent drop in sales. In an alternate universe, say the initial shipment of 5.3 million KISS solo albums sells out. If this happened, would prospects for Casablanca have been different?
LH: Well, disco was huge. And the Village People and Donna Summer and Parliament were still selling well. We had the Studio 54 album then, which did well. We had Robin Williams' first album and Rodney Dangerfield, which did very well. We were still selling a lot of records. But we took a huge hit with KISS. Where previously we would have all the disco stuff selling well and KISS selling well, KISS was taken out of the equation and we just had a big hole there from all the money we had committed. And it also made everybody believe that KISS was probably over. It really did backfire on that level. Where at one point, this band could do no wrong, all of a sudden it was, "Woah."
KF: KISS moved on with 1979's "Dynasty." That album spawned the hit "I Was Made For Lovin' You," which had a strong disco influence.
LH: Which caused a backlash as well.
KF: Yes, that didn't seem to agree with hardcore KISS fans. So it seems the solo albums really started a snowball effect for the band, because from that point they inched downward until they finally took off the makeup in 1983.
LH: Yes, the originals eventually did break up.
KF: Say you were allowed to have a mulligan with the solo albums, and you could go back and change some things. What would you do differently to make the project successful?
LH: I don't know that anything could be done differently. At that point in time, we had no say in what their albums sounded like. Initially, the first two or three years we were working with them, we could make them do stuff. You know, like we made them do "Kissin' Time," or [we'd] kick it back in the studio and say, "No, change this." But at that point, they were so big they had their own industry going. They were selling KISS dolls by that point and all that merchandise -- they had the KISS pinball machine and all that stuff. So I don't know that anything could have changed. Looking back on it and guessing, we couldn't have put out only 200,000 or 300,000 of each album, that wasn't an option. The only option would have been that we held the line at 4 million albums or held the line at only spending $2 million on advertising. Again, Neil was a gambler and if he was going to gamble on something, he went in full force. He didn't back off. It's like when PolyGram bought half the company, the deal was that they would buy the other half of the company for five times his earnings after five years so Neil's attitude was, "OK, we're going to spend their money to try and make the earnings as big as possible." Instead of playing it safe and saying, "Oh OK, so we'll only make X millions of dollars profit and we'll get this much money after five years," Neil said, "No, we're going to make X, Y and Z profit so we really get some huge money out of PolyGram after five years." He wasn't conservative on that level, at all.
KF: Whenever I talk to people who worked in the industry at the time about the solo albums, it's seems they are something of a punchline. You know, kind of like the "they shipped platinum and returned double-platinum" line.
LH: That started with us with the Johnny Carson album. When we left Warner Bros. and went independent, we shipped 750,000 copies of Carson's album supposedly and got back a million. But that's the way the industry worked, if you bought two albums, you got one for free. That's how they did the discounting and sales report. On KISS, it wasn't shipped gold and got back platinum. We shipped platinum and got back platinum.
KF: Years later, there are KISS fans who love the music contained on the four solo albums. In your view, what is the ultimate legacy of the solo albums?
LH: I think the legacy is that this was the shining example of the excess that Casablanca had in various areas.
KF: A couple of final questions. According to a report in May, a financier has been secured for "Spinning Gold," a film in which Justin Timberlake is set to portray Neil Bogart. Larry, are you involved with the film in any capacity?
LH: I worked with them a little bit on the script. And they're using some of the background from the book in the movie. But aside from that, I'm not involved in any major way.
KF: Do you know anything about KISS' involvement at this point?
LH: Well, they'll be involved somehow, I don't know exactly how. But you have to keep in mind that the movie is a Neil Bogart bio pic and it starts at Buddah Records. It doesn't start at Casablanca Records. While they'll be involved and have KISS in it, there's also going to be a lot of stuff about Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield and the old song "Put Your Hand In The Hand" from the Buddah days, because Casablanca was really an outgrowth of the four people who ran Buddah Records. KISS will be a part of the movie but again so will Donna Summer and Parliament. Neil became famous initially because of bubble-gum at Buddah and all the hits we had in the R&B field, you know Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, the Isley Brothers, and Gladys Knight. We had so many hits on that level. And Casablanca got its biggest fame because of the disco stuff. We put out so much disco. So we'll see how it all winds up. With movies, even if the script is written, it changes if the director wants to do something different. But at this point, does KISS get 10 minutes of the film, or six minutes of the film, or 15 minutes? I have no idea.
KF: With the star power of Timberlake, do you think this film stands a chance at making some noise?
LH: Well, Timberlake form everything I've seen, everybody really thinks he's a good actor. And he's embracing this because it's a serious role. Most of his [previous] parts were light and funnyish, with relationship stuff with women. This is going to be a serious role for him. He's not singing and dancing in this. He's being an actor. And I think he's so big right now, a lot of people are going to be curious to see if he can pull it off.
(KissFAQ thanks Larry Harris for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)
About Larry Harris:
Brooklyn-born Larry Harris began working for Buddah/Karma Sutra Records in 1971 as the local New York promotions representative. In 1973 he joined his cousin Neil Bogart in founding Casablanca Records, ultimately ascending to executive vice president and managing director in 1976. Harris left the label in 1979. In 2009 he published "And Party Every Day: The Inside Story Of Casablanca Records," the definitive, first-hand look at the label's remarkable story. Today, Harris resides in Seattle.