Features

The Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Nation’s Capitol

By the

March 22, 2001


The smell seemed to stick out most clearly in people’s minds. It was “not unpleasant,” said Ryan McCormick, and “lingered on clothing.” In fact, he kept the T-shirt that he had worn to a Toasters’ show in the old days on his bedpost for years, to fill his room with the aroma of rock and roll.

No one would have guessed that the 9:30 Club would have grown to become what it is today, judging from its inauspicious debut. Tiny Desk Unit played the opening night in 1980 in the Atlantic Building at 930 F Street, marking the beginning of what has become a DC institution.

A BRIEF HISTORY

The club began at a most opportune time. The nation’s growing frustration with disco and empty pop music of the late 1970s produced the climate that would lead to the resurgence of rock music in the 1980s. Leading the way in this charge was punk, a genre that had emerged only recently onto the national scene. Washington would become a locus for punk rock over the 1980s, with bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat leading the way in the emergence of DC Hardcore (in shorthand, harDCore), a new style of punk that was increasingly angry and political. The bands that formed this new movement found a home at 930 F Street, and the 9:30 Club went on to national fame.

In the collective memory of the DC music community, the old 9:30 Club has been elevated to the kind of legendary status accorded venues like CBGBs in New York, Fillmore West in San Francisco and Lounge Ax in Chicago. Everyone seems to have a different memory about the old location, but most recall its peculiar odor. Many of the early patrons remember it fondly, as McCormick attested to. The smell seemed “a combination of smoke, beer and a cramped, sweaty crowd,” according to Josh Fedeli, but club patrons were somehow drawn to it. The fascination, however, was not universal. Ed Poole, writing a review in Indie-List of the January 1st, 1996 Yo La Tengo show at the then-recently minted new venue at 815 V Street, offered this as a critique.

“Anyone who has been to the old 9:30 Club will tell you that it was a cramped dungeon with nonexistent sightlines. ‘Well, yes,’ I can hear you say, ‘but all of the history! The classic shows from the era when harDCore was king! If these walls could only talk!’ Yeah, sure. If those walls could talk they would say: ‘Why the fuck does this rat-infested hellhole smell like a two-week-old gym sock stuffed inside a fat guy’s armpit?’ Let it go?it was just crappy joint in a shitty neighborhood?although you sure could get a good deal on some quality wigs down there.”

So although opinions may be divided on the venue’s charm, no one disputes the fact that the original 9:30 Club came to be known as one of the best venues for the new breed of rock music during the 1980s. During that era it certainly became the focal point of DC rock and harDCore. The club played host to a range of bands that would go on to become the shining lights of rock during the coming years; R.E.M., Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 10,000 Maniacs, the Smashing Pumpkins and countless others played on the low stage at 930 F Street. The ambience, if you could call it that, was legendary. Urban legend holds that the club was filled with rats, showgoers were knee-deep in sewer water, and the beer/sweat/clove cigarettes smell couldn’t be washed out of clothes. A pillar ran through the middle of the crowd, obstructing the sightlines like Poole mentioned. But the people kept coming back. A religious fervor developed for the venue. One man claimed to have stolen a white metal sign that hung above the door of the old club around the time it closed, with the words “Dis is da place” written in black magic marker.

THE FANS

Such love for the club is not uncommon; DC seems to have a Kiss Army-sized band of devoted “nine-dirty club” followers. Long-term patrons of the 9:30 Club seem to have had their share of remarkable experiences within its walls. Two men attending the They Might Be Giants show this past Saturday certainly took the cake for interesting histories involving the club. One claimed to have met his girlfriend there; the other claimed he had lost his virginity in the bathroom. If these events don’t signify an establishment’s general ability to satisfy the customer (beyond musical fare, of course), it is hard to say what would.

Many stories from other D.C. fans had a familiar feel?being puked on, being felt up, being approached/hit on in a shocking manner and so on. Tim Murphy, a 9:30 Club regular for many years, will never forget when he was vomited on at a Gomez show. At a They Might Be Giants show last year, Kevin Welkos, another regular, recalls (with the assistance of his friends) drinking until he passed out in a back corner of the venue. After the show, his companions for the evening walked to a nearby after-hours club, hoping to find him. Upon returning to the club, they noticed Welkos being deposited out front by an especially surly-looking bouncer and helped him get into a cab. Believe it or not, this story is a common one; solicit people for entertaining stories involving themselves and the 9:30 Club, and variations on this plot line abound.

Extended relationships with the 9:30 Club are also apparently quite common. A young woman claimed to have begun her relationship with the club at age 15, when she began sneaking into the F Street venue with a fake ID. She has been a Club regular ever since. Another young woman noted that her regular 9:30 Club attendance was preceded by her mother’s many visits.

Regarding memories of the Club’s more rockin’ moments, GWAR concerts are a breed all their own. For those not in the know, GWAR is a band notorious for their fake-blood soaked punk-rock show, which consists mostly of on-stage dismemberment of mock celebrities interspersed with quick songs on inane topics. At this year’s GWAR show (on Halloween, no less) Payton Jos? fondly remembered watching as a man dressed in full costume as the Easter Bunny “got his ass kicked” in the mosh pit. Another patron remembered attending a GWAR show in 1998, during which the band was shooting a video. Taking maximum advantage of the plentiful extras for said video that evening, the band apparently requested that everyone in the venue lie down on the ground and look as if they had all been killed.

On the theme of shows of questionable quality, Eric Bolstridge recalled seeing Goat Boy open for They Might Be Giants some years before. After the front man for Goat Boy ripped his shirt off in an apparent attempt to impress the front row, they expressed their disappointment with his physique by all sitting down. The rest of the club must have agreed that the band sucked, because they soon followed suit. The seated crowd proceeded to chant “They Might Be Giants” over and over until Goat Boy left the stage. Other tales of bad shows abound, but few involve this degree of disgust; apparently, most crowds are satisfied enough to at least remain standing.

THE NEW CLUB

On Dec. 31, 1995, after nearly fifteen years at their original F Street location, the Nightclub 9:30 moved nearly 15 blocks north to their present location at the intersection of 9th and V Streets. By all accounts, the new location provides an altogether more pleasant experience. As concertgoer Christopher Dunne of Arlington remarked, “[At the old club] it was hard to see, hard to hear and hard to breathe; here you can do all three of those things much more easily.”

The new 9:30 Club certainly offers a great deal more space and more flexibility. The stage and lighting can be moved to handle audiences as large as 1,200 that the old club could not. As a result, the new, larger 9:30 Club has been more successful at drawing more prominent national acts. Popular alternative acts like Matchbox 20, Foo Fighters and the Dave Matthews Band have played the club in recent years, alongside the more esoteric acts like Roni Size, Magnetic Fields and Yo La Tengo.

However, some have reservations about the club’s new higher profile. Carlos Coral says of the new incarnation, “they’ve gone a little more upscale, and you have to pay $20 a hit now to see some of the big name stuff right now. You used to be able to catch an independent or original show here; that’s really not the case anymore.”

Most 9:30 patrons, however, seem happy with the club’s bookings. “They get really big bands in here that otherwise wouldn’t play in such a small venue, because it has such a history,” said a concertgoer from Alexandria.

While the size of the club and the magnitude of the talent increased with the move up to V Street, to most patrons, the old Club’s atmosphere remains. “It’s just a more intimate setting than going to the MCI Center to see a show,” says James Cubeta of Burke, Va., “I don’t like to go to arena shows anymore, so I’d rather come here and see a show.”

Even today the harDCore legacy remains. “I grew up hearing about Fugazi playing out here all the time, and it’s a pretty cool place. It’s known nationwide, and it’s a pretty important place as far as music goes,” says Jesse Rano of Utah.

The atmosphere is often quoted when people discuss what they like about the 9:30 Club. Though, when it was asked if there was a particular type of music that is best suited to the 9:30 Club, the answers were suitably varied.

Todd French of Greenbow, Md. prefers punk music at the 9:30 Club; “It’s such a small venue, you can get right up in everyone’s face. That’s what you want to do, you want to be right on the speakers, you want to be right in their face.”

Another 9:30 regular had a differing opinion; “When they have acoustic-type bands the sound is better, because when they have very heavy metal-type bands all you can hear is guitar, you can’t hear the vocals.”

To many 9:30 Club patrons, not only does the atmosphere make it a special place to see live music, but the general thoughtfulness of the staff stands out as well. Indeed, the staff defines the 9:30 Club experience.

“I really like the bouncer (referring to bald, imposing 9:30 employee Josh Burdette). He’s here every time I come here. When I think of the 9:30 Club, I think of that guy right there,” remarks French.

Others praise the club’s efficiency, such as D.C. resident Renee Van Slate. “As someone who works in arts management, I know people come in and know what they want, they are watching their band and they have their particular desires” said Van Slate. “The 9:30 Club does a great job dealing with the mass public.”

Some find the security a bit overbearing; said one concertgoer, “the security on hand seems to get a little rowdy, especially with the harder shows, they seem to take it upon themselves to police the crowd too much.”

Most, however, had nothing but praise for the staff. In fact, Josiah Webbey of Arlington finds the security to be more hands-off than overzealous. “A friend of mine jumped on stage while Save Ferris was playing and gave the bassist a big kiss. Anywhere else she would have had her ass kicked in like twenty seconds, but she had enough time to jump off the stage and get back in the crowd,” Webbey said.

An often under-noticed aspect of the 9:30 Club experience is the liberal policy towards underage patrons. “I really like that you can get in here if you’re not old enough to buy alcohol, I really like the hand-stamping thing” says Ian Venator of Riva, Md. At many clubs, liquor laws prevent clubs from admitting those too young to drink, regardless if they come for music and not the liquor. As a result, the 9:30 Club’s all-ages policy, rigorously enforced by hand-stamp, is appreciated by music fans of all ages. [explain how the 930 is able to have this policy when liquor laws prevent others. DC thing?] As Jamie from Alexandria says, “a lot of the young people in the community can come out and check out a really good concert and not have it be a drinking kind of community.”

The 9:30’s national profile has been on the rise in recent years. With the move to the larger building, and the corresponding high-profile bookings, many national acts look to the 9:30 Club as the premier venue of its size in the Washington area. Also adding to the club’s national reputation are several live albums recorded there; Matthew Sweet recorded his Son of Altered Beast EP at the club in 1994, and late last year, Luna released Live! recorded in part at the Club. HBO uses the club as one of its primary locations for the taping of its Reverb live music show, and Billy Idol will be shooting his VH1 Storytellers concert at the 9:30 in May.

The move to the new site has largely changed the 9:30 Club’s role in the local music scene. While at one time, the club was able to provide a venue for local artists to develop, things have changed since moving to V Street. Local bands without national exposure rarely make their way to the head of a 9:30 bill these days; the task of nurturing local bands has now fallen to clubs like Black Cat and Nation.

Coral adds, “I know from people who are in local bands, it’s sort of like the local equivalent of hitting it big. If you can play the 9:30, then that is actually worth something. The old 9:30 Club was just a place to play, it was just a place to go and stuff like that. Nowadays, it’s a lot more.”



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