The rock club.
It’s loud, often cramped, low-lit, with sweat beading on the walls. It’s perfumed with a whiff of spilled beer, filled with cigarette smoke (and other smoke besides) and the frisson of sexual excitement. The shrieks and yells of the crowd co-mingle, and bodies press together, sometimes meaningfully as the music blares.
Through the decades, not much has changed on this score. And yet in some of these little clubs, and in larger theaters and auditoriums too, legends have emerged. This isn’t just about some of the acts that have risen to greatness while treading the boards of these locations, although that certainly isn’t to be dismissed.
But in this case, it’s about the venues themselves. As rock history has developed, many of these places have been transformed from simple places of business, mere bricks and mortar, and into cultural nexuses that resemble something more transcendent, closer to Valhalla, to Mount Olympus.
So, when it comes to rock music, where are these places of power from which the musical genetic material of all we love about rock music today sprang forth? Well, here are 10 such places, 10 temples of transformative song, that have so altered our world as music fans, and as citizens of planet earth, that they have become as legendary as the gods and goddesses that emerged from out of them. Take a look.
Where: Matthew Street, Liverpool, England UK,
Who: The Beatles, The Searchers, Gerry & The Pacemakers, et al …
Why: The Cavern Club was a central hub of beat groups in the early to mid ’60s. It was here that the Beatles and future manager Brian Epstein first met, an event that would take the band out of Liverpool and into EMI recording studios. It would also provide the short term benefit to all groups in the British “provinces”, showing the nation that London wasn’t the only city in Britain to produce interesting, and even world-changing music. The Merseybeat sound was crafted here, having a knock-on effect on how guitar bands all over the world would operate for the first half of the 1960s.
The Cavern’s fame as a unique venue attracted performers of all kinds during the rest of the 1960s, including bands from London, and beyond. Guitarist Ron Ashton and friend and bassist Dave Alexander saw the Who at the Cavern in the mid-60s while on holiday in England. The seeds of the band they’d help to form, the Stooges, were beginning to germinate. In 1973, The Cavern Club closed. But, it opened again in a new location in 1984, completely reconstructed and restored in every detail, just across the street from it’s original location on Matthew Street. You can visit it today.
Further Listening: The Beatles “Some Other Guy”
2. Café Wha?
Where: Greenwich Village, New York City, USA
Who: Bob Dylan, Fred Neil, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, et al.
Why: Café Wha? typified the coffeehouse scene in Greenwich village by the early 1960s, and a key point on the map that provided a breeding ground for the ’60s folk revival, for Beat poetry, and for cutting edge comedy all under one roof. It was from here that a young Bob Dylan was taken in by the singer-songwriter crowd there, given free burgers and fries in the kitchen, provided with places to sleep by patrons and fellow performers, and otherwise allowed to flourish even before he made his name as a recording artist.
It was here too that an obscure guitar player and former paratrooper called Jimi Hendrix was discovered by former Animals bass player Chas Chandler, who took him to London and fame. In his early days before his record deal with Columbia/ CBS, Bruce Springsteen worked out his musical apprenticeship at the Café Wha? with his teenage band, The Castiles. Like the Cavern Club, Café Wha? is an active venue today after having been closed for a time, and then re-born as a hub for live music of all kinds under its original name.
Further Listening: Jimi Hendrix Experience “Hey Joe”
Where: Harlem, New York City, USA
Who: James Brown, Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight, King Curtis, Aretha Frankin, so many others …
Why: This venue was, and continues to be, a center of culture for African American performers of all stripes, from actors, to comedians, to musicians. James Brown recorded his landmark live album here in 1962, a record that changed soul music, and had influence on many rock bands as well. Many of the architects of 20th century popular music played here, and the mechanics of pop music as it relates to the blues were engineered here at the Apollo. That includes rock music quite handily.
The importance of the Apollo Theater as a key platform for some of the most incomparable musicians the world has ever seen, and the vitality of its role in the development of soul music and other strains of R&B cannot be measured. You can visit the Apollo Theater today, where you can still catch Amateur night on Wednesdays. This is an event that dates back to the 1930s, and has introduced artists as diverse as Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Lauren Hill.
Further Listening: James Brown “I’ll Go Crazy”
Where: Clark and Hilldale Streets, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, USA
Who: The Byrds, Love, The Doors, The Mothers of Invention, et al.
Why: A hub of the L.A rock scene, the Whisky A Go Go was where a major trunk of a durable and evolving rock family tree took root from the mid-60s until the present day. It would be a stalwart location for major acts touring from the UK as well, tying their music to that being made in America. This brought musical continents together, pushing the music to another level as audiences began to grow to epic proportions along with it.
The bands who would play here starting from the ’60s onward in particular would be the progenitors of electric folk-rock, raga-rock, jam rock, funk rock, hard rock, prog rock, and American glam rock that would filter into music of all kinds being made in the ensuing decades, including the 2010s.
Further Listening: Love “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale”
Where: Park Avenue South, New York City, USA
Who: The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith Group
Why: Once a visual artist’s haven when it opened in 1965, as soon as Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe made the scene, rock bands followed by the late ’60s. The Velvet Underground would play their last shows as the original quartet at Max’s. The burgeoning glam rock and glitter rock scenes emerged here, popularly characterized by the New York Dolls who would eventually provide the template for punk rock later in the decade on both sides of the Atlantic.
Other artists that were not a part of that scene also played here, including the aforementioned Springsteen, along with Tim Buckley, Tom Waits, Odetta, Bob Marley & The Wailers, and many others. David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Richard Hell were all regulars. Debbie Harry was a waitress there.
Max’s closed for a time when the glam era began to taper off. But, by 1975 the New York punk scene was beginning to flourish, and it opened again. Television, Devo, The Cramps, and the early trio incarnation of Talking Heads played at the re-opened Max’s, among many other acts. The original location of the venue closed in 1981.
Further Listening: The New York Dolls “Personality Crisis”
6. The Fillmore(s)/The Elite Club
Where: Fillmore Street and Geary Boulevard, San Francisco, USA
Who: The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Credence Clearwater Revival, Big Brother & The Holding Company, et al.
Why: If the Whisky A Go Go played a role in the development of the L.A rock scene, then The Fillmore Auditorium held things down for the burgeoning Bay Area scene, as well as bringing the countercultural movement into the eye of the mainstream in the mid-to-late 1960s. The venue is associated with legendary rock promoter Bill Graham, and the posters for each show created for the venue.
As the hall’s popularity increased, Graham expanded by buying a new space up the street and dubbing it “Fillmore West”. Further to that, Graham opened an East Coast chapter in East Village New York, dubbed The Fillmore East, hosting concerts and live recordings by The Allman Brothers, Neil Young, Derek & The Dominoes, and Miles Davis.
All the while, the original Fillmore location flourished under a new name, the Elite Club, which would continue into the ’80s, and host yet another West Coast rock scene, embodied in shows by Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys, and Bad Religon among others. After Bill Graham died in the early ’90s, The Elite Club/Fillmore location was retrofitted after having been damaged in the San Francisco earthquake in 1989. It reopened in 1994 under the Fillmore name. Now associated with the development of psychedelic and jam rock scenes in the ’60s and’70s, plus the hardcore scenes in the ’80s, the Fillmore is now beyond a venue; it’s an institution.
Further Listening: The Grateful Dead “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl (live at Fillmore West)”
Where: Bowery at Bleecker Street , New York City, USA
Who: Television, Blondie, Ramones, Talking Heads, The Dead Boys, et al
Why: Established in 1973 by owner Hilly Kristal as a venue intended for country, bluegrass, and blues performances, the tiny storefront location soon attracted the burgeoning punk bands of the mid-70s era that would change the course of pop music for decades to come. It was a central point for bands just starting out to practice their material and work out their sometimes-shaky instrumental chops on the crowd, and to learn from each other as a community.
But, it also became a staging ground for various visiting bands to launch low-budget club date tours in New York City. Years before they played Shea Stadium in 1983, The Police played CBGB initially to an audience of under ten people. Talking Heads referenced the club by name in their song “Life During Wartime”.
After years as an active venue, catering particularly to hardcore punk bands in the ’80s and ’90s, CBGB closed for good in 2006. Patti Smith, Blondie, and The Dictators were on hand to see it off. Like many other venues on this list, CBGB has lived on as an aesthetic, a sort of musical shorthand, even if the venue itself no longer exists. The iconic CBGB awning currently resides in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Further Listening: Ramones “Teenage Lobotomy”
8. The 100 Club
Where: Oxford Street, London, UK
Who: The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, The Clash, Siouxie & The Banshees
Why: The 100 Club started as a seminal jazz club that hosted major figures in ’40s swing music (Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong all played here), and was key in the development of domestic trad jazz scenes in London. But, by the ’70s, it had morphed into a nerve center for British punk rock, kicking off with the Punk Festival in 1976. The sounds to be heard in the 100 Club would have an influence on new wave and post-punk into the late ’70s and early ’80s. Like CBGB, The 100 Club would also host visiting American bands making inroads into Britain.
After punk died down as a movement post-1977, the jazz crowd, and the Northern soul crowds would be re-introduced in the ’80s and up until the present day. Reggae acts, ’90s Brit-pop bands, and pan-cultural folk music would all have a place in the 100 Club as well. Through the decades, the 100 Club would be a popular venue for surprise or “secret’ gigs for acts like The Rolling Stones, Blur, Paul McCartney, and many others. Priding itself on an “open-minded music policy”, and after some financial difficulties, the 100 Club is an active music venue today, and still thought of as the spiritual home of British punk rock.
Further Listening: The Sex Pistols “Pretty Vacant”
9. The Haçienda
Where: Whitworth Street West, Manchester, UK
Who: New Order, The Happy Mondays, The Fall, the Stone Roses
Why: Bringing the funk and the disco pulse into post-punk indie music; this all happened at the Haçienda. It was a venue set up by Tony Wilson of Factory records, band manager Rob Gretton, and New Order as a means of creating a scene that hooked into dance club culture, which was a growing concern in the city of Manchester. But also, what happened at the club would be attached to their efforts to evolve their post-punk sound more in line with house music.
A young Madonna, performed at the Hacienda in 1984, her UK debut. But, it would be the native talent that would make the most impact. Today, modern bands that mix rock instruments with dance beats owe the baggy and “Madchester” scenes a nod of thanks. Unfortunately, the drugs (of which there were many) that helped to define the scene, also proved to be its undoing. You can sample the Haçienda vibe, and learn more about its history, by seeing the film 24Hr Party People which traces the club’s rise and fall, all the while connecting it with a wider importance in the development of British popular music overall.
Further Listening: The Happy Mondays “24 hr Party People”
Where: Second Avenue at Blanchard Street, Belltown, Seattle, Washington, USA
Who: The Posies, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney
Why: The Pacific Northwest had always been a hotbed of musical talent, with something of a hard edge from Portland’s The Kingsmen of “Louie Louie” cover version fame, to The Sonics’ “Have Love Will Travel”, to Jimi Hendrix’s tribute song “Spanish Castle Magic”, named after the Spanish Castle, a Seattle rock and R&B venue that pulled together a number of strains of music that largely ignored stylistic and cultural barriers. By 1991, that scene had exploded again, with even more ingredients thrown into the mix. And it was on the stage at Crocodile Café, a beloved and central venue, that some of the leading lights of what would be called the “grunge” scene would appear.
The actual musical content of “grunge” is hard to pin down, pulling as it does from hardcore punk, to power pop, to heavy metal. But, the range of musical styles that the “grunge” scene represented was featured at the Croc as the music was becoming internationally known. The venue continued to thrive until 2007, when it closed rather abruptly. But, it re-opened in 2009 under the more streamlined name of The Crocodile where it exists today, still offering a wide variety of musical talent that largely ignores genres in the classic Pacific Northwest tradition, and serves hot pizza in the back.
Further Listening: Nirvana “About A Girl”
As large scale as a show at Madison Square Garden, Shea Stadium, or some sports arena named after a telecoms firm may be, it must be remembered that it was largely in independently owned holes in the wall that the greatest impact on the evolution of rock music was made. This is not to mention that the idea of community between bands, and between bands and their audiences, created a vital alchemy that helped to fuel long term careers, and far-reaching musical traditions that can be heard in the music of bands today. And this is only 10 of them. Many, many others just as worthy are not included here.
How many venues out there right now are breeding the next wave of life-changing rock music? How many are endangered of being closed? What happens if we continue to mistake vital community gathering points like the venues listed here as mere piles of bricks that stand in the way of progress? There have certainly been many here in the Vancouver area that are no more, recently; Richards On Richards, and The Waldorf Hotel,
In an era of large scale music venue buy-outs, small-scale venue closures, and ticketing monopolies, I think this is a worthy reminder of what had come before, and what we could be missing out on in the future.
But meanwhile as we contemplate the implications of this, what venues should be included in the above? What local venues in your area do you think might qualify? Tell me all about it in the comments section and otherwise,