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The Casbah Goes Hollywood

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The Casbah Goes Hollywood


In 1977, Casablanca released Get Down and Boogie (1977), a two-sided compilation that featured a variety of artists from the label, including the newly formed Chocolate City imprint and the distributed Oasis label. Billed as “38 Minutes and 47 Seconds of Continuous Play”, the album simulated the experience of hearing the songs segued together in a club. The set emphasized the dance-driven side of the roster: Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Roberta Kelly, Blacksmoke (formerly Smoke), Parliament, Jeannie Reynolds, and South African singer, Margaret Singana.


The sleeve holding the record indicated a new development in Casablanca’s business ventures. Scrawled across the top of the album cover, which featured an enlarged version of the company’s desert scene logo, in blazing red lettering: “Casablanca Record & Filmworks”. Neil Bogart brought Casablanca into the Hollywood game. After building a massively successful independent music company from the ground up in a short span of time, Bogart transferred his talent to another industry. “Neil wanted to get into film”, Cecil Holmes explains. “He was friendly with Peter Guber. Peter, at that time, was heading up Columbia Pictures. He had some big job there and then he went independent. Him and Neil put together the deal for Casablanca Record and Filmworks”.


By the spring of 1977, Casablanca Record & Filmworks announced its first project, timed for the then recent phenomenon of the summer blockbuster: The Deep, a thriller starring Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset, and Louis Gossett, Jr. The accompanying soundtrack featured the theme, “Down, Deep Inside” sung by Donna Summer and co-written by Summer with legendary conductor, John Barry. “I went to his house several days and we sat down and came up with a lyric and then we went in and recorded it”, Summer remembers fondly. “John Barry was wonderful to me. He was very mentoring”.


The Deepsoundtrack, which also featured “Disco Calypso” (recorded by Beckett and also released on his own album of the same name) was among the first releases to sport the elaborate new label design. The Casablanca Record and Filmworks logo, replete with a purple horizon, towering Moroccan architecture, film crew, and camels, was arguably the most striking label of the 1970s. Its vibrant colors and fantastical backdrop are just as alluring now as 30 years ago.  It remains a colorful memento of a time when thought, care, and creativity were encouraged in label design and artwork, a time sadly rendered obsolete with the advent of the digital music listening experience.


Robert Rodriguez Remembers… Painting the Casablanca Record and Filmworks Logo


Henry Vizcarra worked for Gribbitt, a company that art directed and designed all of Casablanca’s album covers with the exception of KISS. He recalls commissioning Los Angeles-based illustrator Robert Rodriguez to paint the new Filmworks logo. “His use of rich color and light was exactly what I wanted the art to feel like”, he explains. “The idea came from the original letterhead where one only saw the palm trees and the buildings. Then the film company came along and we simply pulled back from the scene a little more, and now you saw the lights, the crew, and everything. Done”. Rodriguez shares his recollections about the process of adding cameras amongst the camels:


I knew Henry Vizcarra personally from just being friends before he called me to do the Casablanca logo. I had just gotten back from a trip to Europe and Morocco. I spent a month and a half in Morocco and I took tons of photographs. I also drove out to a place called Vasquez Rocks. There’s this Moroccan fort where they filmed Gunga Din (1939) with Cary Grant and it’s still there. I went out there and I took pictures of that. I used all of the references. I was real inspired and I wanted to do some stuff because the city (on the label) was kind of plain and I would have to exaggerate stuff and make it more like what I had seen in Morocco. I couldn’t change that very much. I do remember that there was something about keeping the general silhouette of the town. It was one of those things like, “We have to relate to the old logo but let’s jazz it up a little bit”.


Because it was the changeover to Filmworks they wanted to show that they were doing film as well as what they had been doing. (It was like they were filming Casablanca!) There’s no recording in there…but there’s a microphone! The funny thing, though, was there was nothing going on in the scene, which I always thought was kind of strange. There were the people filming but there’s nothing there inside the gate.


I think in the beginning there was talk of putting something inside the gate, but that was taken out of the equation so I wound up with a design that focused you on the archway, with no payoff. That was what bothered me so much about the empty courtyard of the city. I think originally they were going to have a movie crew outside and a band inside. Then decided that they didn’t want it to be identified with any particular act, so they left it out.


It’s painted in acrylics and colored pencils. A lot of it is airbrushed but with acrylic paint. I wanted more texture on it. I didn’t want it to look like a slick airbrushed painting so that’s why the city and the people are mostly acrylics with Prismacolor pencils on top of them. The purple shadows are acrylic.


The way I used to do it is I would paint everything in acrylic and then I’d go on top with the Prismacolor and sort of smooth it out a little bit more because the acrylics tended to be a little rougher. At that time, I would do the drawing on a piece of illustration board. It’s kind of a textured board. I know the sky was airbrushed. I always airbrushed the skies because they were so big. The painting itself was probably about 20x30 because that’s the size board comes in. I might have done that. There was a lot of sky so with an airbrush it can cover all that area quickly. I’d spray in the colors and spray in the sand. For the sand, I probably took a sponge and did sort of a sand-texture and then smoothed it out with paint on top of that. Knowing how long things used to take in those days, it was probably a total of about three weeks.


I’d call my style back then “stylized realism”. Basically it was realistic but there was always some style to the way it was done. It wasn’t photographic realism. I used to get a lot of work, probably still do, because people would say, “The client wants to use photography but we really don’t want to do that so your stuff is realistic enough yet there’s some style to it”.


I like that I was part of such an important record company!


Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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