Situated on a dusty corner of Sunset Strip, the Whisky a Go Go is a piece of living music history. No other venue on LA’s notorious rock block can lay claim to so many legendary performances. It powered LA’s music scene for over 50 years and introduced an entire generation of music - from The Byrds and Buffalo Springﬁeld to Frank Zappa and the Doors – to the rest of the world.
An ornate Parisian-themed discotheque in Hollywood seems like an unlikely place for the golden age of LA rock, but nothing about the Whisky was ordinary. From its glitzy beginnings to its hair metal heyday, we’re tracing the history of one of the most storied clubs in America.
Opened by Elmer Valentine, a former Chicago cop, he would go down in the pantheons of music history for launching the careers of some of LA’s biggest icons and creating the template for rock clubs around the world. Capitalizing on the void left after all the big name artists decamped to the desert to play the big rooms of burgeoning Vegas instead of local nightclubs, Valentine’s club put the Strip back on the map of cultural consciousness in more ways than one.
Since its opening night in January in 1964, the Whisky was a hit, with Johnny Rivers playing his Southern-fried brand of rock, rhythm and soul to a crowd of Hollywood stars while female DJ’s shimmed in cages above the dance floor – effectively unleashing the ‘go-go craze onto America.
The club was sold out virtually every night with stars like Cary Grant, Johnny Carson and The Beatles holding court in its tufted red booths. Valentine's idea to have female DJ's spin the latest hits between live sets created the accidental phenomenon. With no space on stage, he erected a glass-walled cage for the scantily clad DJ to save space (or so the story goes) and her spontaneous oscillations led the audience to believe it was part of the act.
Rivers’ residency led him to become the Whiskyʼs star attraction for the first year of its existence and where he would record his hit record, Johnny Rivers at the Whisky a Go Go, in May of ʼ64. Future music mogul and co-owner of the Roxy with Valentine, Lou Adler, produced Rivers' live Whisky album and would become the invisible force behind the club’s star-making magic. Valentine recognized Adler’s ear for talent and enlisted him to help book the club in its early days.
“Once the Whisky started to happen, then Sunset Boulevard started to happen”, Adler told Vanity Fair. “LA started to happen, as far as the music business - it blew up”.
Thanks to the rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon happening on the Strip and the novelty of go-go girls, the Whisky quickly caught the attention of the national media, with a Life magazine write-up and Jack Paar broadcasting an episode of his weekly variety program from the club within months of opening. Soon enough, the Whisky effect led the ‘go go’ look to becoming standard on every single television variety show in the 60s.
While acts like Johnny Rivers and Billy Lee Riley first set the stage at the Whisky, Adler and Valentine started to book more sophisticated folk-rock and psychedelic garage rock acts in late 1965 - ostensibly establishing Los Angeles as the seat of American pop in the 60s. The Whisky was not only the hub of the burgeoning local scene, it also played host to up-and-coming touring acts like Led Zeppelin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Velvet Underground, Cream, the Who, the Animals, the Kinks and countless others. When there wasn’t a big name in town, Valentine also instituted a policy of showcasing local acts in the house band slot that included Love, Buffalo Springfield, and the Doors, just to name a few.
The club soon became the hub of this remarkably fertile scene and the main hangout for such influential local bands as the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Frank Zappa and the Mothers. It became a scene more than a place, where fans and musicians intermingled, new groups could experiment and the “freaks” flocked to the shows.
As famed Columbia Records producer Terry Melcher told Vanity Fair, “The Byrds were the catalyst- they brought all the kids to the Strip. They took the Dylan songs, we electrified ʼem and rock ʼnʼ rolled ʼem, and kids came from everywhere. It just happened. One day you couldnʼt drive anymore.
The Byrds were also responsible for getting better acts at the Whisky, like Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, says Domenic Priore, author of Riot On the Sunset Strip: Rock'n'Roll's Last Stand in Hollywood. Before they played the Whisky, the Byrds were the house band at Ciro’s just up the Strip. Their residency not only drew the Hollywood elite, but Mr Tambourine Man himself came and played with them on stage. After that, Priore says, “the Whisky goes to Jim Dickson (The Byrds’ manager) and says 'You’re taking away all of our business, how do we get this better type of group in there'? The Mothers was one of the first groups in late '65 to start playing the Whisky, and then you’ve got Love, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield and now all of a sudden there’s real juice at the Whisky”.
As Zappa points out in his autobiography, “In 1965, there were only 3 clubs in Hollywood that meant anything in terms of being seen by a record company: the Action, the Trip and the Whisky a Go Go”. Zappa and his band filled in for Johnny Rivers while he was out on tour and became the face of the LA freak scene.
As the venue's name implied, Valentine often insisted the bands play music for dancing, but Zappa played by his own rules. On one occasion, the group played a medley of ‘Help I’m A Rock’ and ‘El Monte’ for a solid hour while nobody danced. They may have pissed off Valentine, but the performances there secured them a record deal, a wife for Zappa (Gail Sloatman was a secretary at the Whisky) and an iconic song. You can hear Zappa brag on ‘Bwana Dik’ how fans “flock to write my name on the toilet walls of Whisky-A-Go-Go”.
An equally but less documented important band on the scene was Love. “Here in LA in the 60s, this cross-pollination started happening” Priore tells uDiscover. "There’s folk on one side, jazz on the other side; what if we put them together? And then you get the band Love during Forever Changes". The band’s chaotic stage shows and wild blend of garage-punk, lounge music and psychedelia, help sustain the scene started by the Byrds. After catching their act one night, Doors drummer John Densmore remarked, “After experiencing Love, I knew I had a ways to go before being hip” in his autobiography, Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors.
The Whisky was also the setting for the Doors rise to fame, as they took on house band duties in summer of ’66. During their short tenure, the band opened for everyone from Van Morrison's Them, The Chambers Brothers and Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Poetically their run was cut short after Jim Morrison performed his obscene Oedipal rant in ‘The End’ and the band was banned from the venue.
That same summer, tensions were reaching a boiling point as police and local merchants were none too pleased with the “freak” scene developing on the Strip. After the city announced it was going shut down a number of venues to clear out the crowds, so began a series of “riots on Sunset Strip,” the inspiration behind Buffalo Springfieldʼs famous song, ‘For What Itʼs Worth’.
In order to stay open, hold onto his liquor license and keep the police off his back, Valentine had to ban psychedelic groups and went strictly 21 and up. Call it progressive booking or savvy business tactics, either way the Whisky was one of the first venues to integrate, booking all R&B acts through 1967. The marquee included everyone from The Temptations, to the Four Tops, Martha & the Vandellas, Sam & Dave, Jimmy Smith, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and most notably in 1966, Otis Redding.
While audiences were more familiar with the smooth, choreographed Motown style of R&B, Redding represented something entirely foreign to a West Coast, predominately white audience. As the first major Stax/Volt act to perform on the Whisky’s stage, he blew everyone out of the water with a blast of horns, electrifying backing band and performing at a faster pace than thought humanly possible. His historic three-night run was recorded on Otis Redding: Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings – making him a huge crossover success to mainstream audiences and introducing him to the emerging counter-culture of the 60s.
Like any scene worth its salt, it had an expiration date. The Whisky lost a little of its “juice” in the late sixties, instead of being the nexus for the next big thing coming out of LA. It stayed opened primarily as a premier venue for bands passing through town like Led Zeppelinʼs first US tour with locals Alice Cooper as the opener in 1969 and Cream in 1967 .
“Dancing was essential to the form of music that was happening in the 60s and then in the 70s, people weren’t really into dancing so much, and were more into sitting there and getting blown away by stadium rock – like Emerson Lake & Palmer and Yes” says Priore.
As the popularity of stadium rock continued to dominate the 70s, the Whisky struggled and eventually closed in 1974. Just as the golden era of LA pop started to fade and the Whisky’s fate was in jeopardy, along came punk and new wave to the revitalize the struggling club. Elmer Valentine once said “you could roll a bowling ball down Sunset Strip and not hit anybody” in 1971. That quickly changed when the venue reopened in '76 and punks choked the sidewalks, flocking to shows by homegrown acts like X, The Screamers, the Berlin Brats, the Quick, The Go-Go's, The Germs, The Bags, The Mumps and others.
Valentine also recruited the Runaways manager Kim Fowley to help book the club and his “New Wave Nights” soon gave way to high profile acts like Blondie in early ’77. Like the early shows of Love, these performances are now part of local lore, with Debbie Harry ripping a wedding dress during ‘Rip Her to Shreds’, or crawling around and panting like a dog during ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, with Joan Jett on stage.
LA’s native punk music scene was thriving and the Whisky was on a hot streak, booking everyone from XTC and Dead Kennedys to even The Jam ,with none other than Johnny Cougar (pre-Mellencamp) as an opener. Just as riots had almost brought down the Whisky in the 60s, the Black Flag riot in 1980 served as a bookend to the end of the chaotic punk scene on the Strip.
After closing its doors in 1982, the punks moved east and resettled downtown. Swapping out studs for spandex, the Whisky once again found itself at the forefront of another youth movement when it reopened in 1986, this time as the breeding ground for the hair-metal scene with bands like Guns N' Roses, Poison, Van Halen, Mötley Crüe and next generation of testosterone-fueled hard rockers.
Glam was the flavour of the decade and the decadence of the 80s and the hair metal scene is what still lingers in the club today. While the Whisky played host to some traveling grunge acts in the 90s, it was no longer the launchpad for local acts. Valentine eventually sold his interest in the club in 1990 and today the Whisky is in the hands of Lou Adler’s son, Nic Adler and Mikael Maglieri, son of the former club manager Mario Maglieri. The namesake go-go dancers and tufted booths are long gone, but the Whisky retains much of his original layout and still plays host to legacy acts like The Bangles, X and The Blasters. If you ask someone what were the best years at the Whisky, their answers may differ wildly depending if they’re a former freak, punk or headbanger.
While the strip has been colonized by corporate offices and boutique hotels, the scent of lost weekends remains. You just have to stand on the corner of Clark and Sunset and breathe it in.
For more songs that shaped LA rock, follow the ‘From Haight-Ashbury to the Sunset Strip’ playlist.