Whisky A Go Go: The Whisky Opened Today In 1964
Standing proud on the Sunset Strip is one of the most renowned rock clubs in history, the Whisky a Go Go. Opened in 1964, the club has played host to some of music's most important acts, from The Byrds to The Doors to Mötley Crüe. The club is so deeply entwined with the DNA of popular culture that even artists like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin asked to see the place when they made forays to Los Angeles from across the pond. Though the building hasn't changed, the Whisky has had its hands in every genre throughout the decades, from punk to metal to psychedelic rock. Things may change, but the Whisky stays the same.
This Los Angeles landmark got its start in Paris
Before the Whisky a Go Go became ground zero for the west coast rock scene, it was a thriving discothèque in Paris. Thanks to the picaresque nature of the American version's original owner, Elmer Valentine, it's not entirely clear how he decided to bring a taste of Paris to Los Angeles. Valentine claims that he started his professional career as a detective in Chicago before getting mixed up with the mafia, and after catching heat for extortion (he was never prosecuted), he fled to Paris, where he saw the Whisky a Go Go.
It's unclear if the Los Angeles Whisky has anything to do with the Whisky in Chicago, although there's a good chance that Valentine drew inspiration from multiple dance clubs of the era to put together what he believed to be the ideal Los Angeles nightclub. On January 16, 1964, Elmer Valentine and his three partners (Phil Tanzini, Shelly Davis, and attorney Theodore Flier) opened the doors of the Whisky a Go Go.
The Whisky spawned go-go dancing
When the club first opened in 1964, it wasn't the rock 'n' roll focal point that it would become in a few short years. The first act to make an impression on the stage was Johnny Rivers of "Secret Agent Man" fame. He played three sets a night at the club, but between his shows, the audience danced to records played by a DJ. The initial DJ was a young woman in a slit skirt who danced as she spun records from a glass booth hanging above the dance floor, giving birth to the go-go girl. Valentine later gushed about the serendipitous nature of the DJ to Vanity Fair:
So she's up there playing the records. She's a young girl, so while she's playing 'em, all of a sudden she starts dancing to 'em! It was a dream. It worked.
In the late '60s, the Whisky could make you a star
After the first couple of years, the Whisky became an important part of the fertile southern California music scene. Bands like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield were regulars at the club, while Van Morrison's Them tore up the stage during a two-week residency in 1966 that introduced Los Angeles to a little band called The Doors.
After impressing the club owners as Them's opening act, The Doors were given their own slot at the venue. The band famously got themselves booted from the club after singer Jim Morrison added the "Oedipal" section to "This Is The End" live on stage. Don't worry, they did okay.
In fact, so many bands hit the big time after playing the Whisky that young people flocked to the Sunset Strip to see the next big thing. Things got so out-of-hand outside the Whisky that you couldn't drive down its street without steering through a sea of young people.
Punk took over the Whisky in the '70s
By the end of the 1960s, the Whisky started running into issues with booking. They couldn't bring in the acts that broke at the venue because they were too big, and their success spawned a ton of copycat venues along the Sunset Strip. For a while, the Whisky was getting help from major labels, but that dried up at the beginning of the '70s. Valentine was forced to turn the venue back into a records-only club for a few years, but in the late '70s, an influx of punk groups helped brink the Whisky back to its roots as a place to break young artists. By booking emerging artists like Black Flag and the Germs, Valentine once again turned a profit and renewed the Whisky's legacy as a place to see new acts.
The '80s were all about glam metal
Aside from being the place to break bands as disparate as The Doors and the Germs, the Whisky is famous for its boom and bust periods. Throughout history, its been hot, and it's been very cold. The Whisky closed in 1982 and only reopened in the mid '80s thanks to an influx of glam metal bands with hair sprayed to the heavens. Bands like Mötley Crüe turned the Whisky into a must-visit club once again, attracting huge crowds that would follow them back to the band's apartment after their gigs. Singer Vince Neil writes:
We played the Whisky, half the crowd would come back to our house and drink and do blow, smack, Percodan, quaaludes, and whatever else we could get for free ... There would be members of punk-scene remnants like 45 Grave and the Circle Jerks coming to our almost nightly parties while guys in metal newborns like Ratt and W.A.S.P. spilled out into the courtyard and the street. Girls would arrive in shifts. One would be climbing out the window while another was coming in the door.
The Crüe paid homage to the Whisky when they filmed the music video for their hit single "Kickstart My Heart" at the small venue. Neil even turns to the camera at the beginning of the video and says "This is where it all began."
The Whisky is in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame
In the early '90s, Seattle bands like Soundgarden were playing the Whisky alongside L.A. weirdos like Jane's Addiction, but the venue was once again on the cusp of closing. Since then, its glory days have decidedly passed, but unlike many of the other clubs on the Sunset Strip, the Whisky lives on. Valentine sold his interest in the venue and moved on with his life, but the Whisky became a landmark tourist attraction, prime for photo ops. The club was even inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, the first venue to receive the honor. Meanwhile, bands are still loading in and playing there today, hoping to catch someone's ear and become the next big thing.
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