Whisky a Go Go in the 1970s

In the late 1960s, a small club opened its doors on the corner of Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, California. Known as the Whisky a Go-Go, the club became synonymous with the rising rock and roll scene of the era, hosting iconic bands like The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Byrds and single artists like Janis Joplin. While Mario Maglieri, Elmer Valentine, and Phil Tanzini, founders of the club had wanted to name it The Whiskey, the Los Angeles city laws prohibited clubs being named after liquor, so they settled for The Whisk in the beginning, then The Whisky, without the ‘e’. The club opened with a concert by Johnny Rivers with Joanie Labine playing records and dancing in a suspended booth to the right of Rivers’ set. This gave birth to the idea of introducing go-go dancing in the club. Soon a particular kind of costume emerged, where go-go dancers would wear a short flared, fringed skirt and pair it with white knee-length boots, a trend that rapidly spread across discotheques and clubs in and around California.

Whisky a Go-Go largely influenced club goers in adopting freestyle dancing. All the booze and upbeat music made dance movements more spontaneous and steps suddenly weren’t important, grooving to the music was, living at the moment was. It was that time in history when people were at liberty to interpret the music and express it through their body. Whisky a Go-Go propelled an entire generation to progress so much that rules conforming to music and dance were broken and there was no going back from there.

But all good things come to an end. By early 1975 this famous Sunset Strip club was on the rocks. The same record labels that had been a huge influence in promoting Whisky a Go-Go as a platform for rising artists shifted to conducting tours across the country and buying slots at stadiums. Times were changing and the newer crowd demanded hipper clubs, so California saw the rise of places like Roxy and Starwood. Competing with every big and small rock and roll club in Hollywood during inflation became quite a challenge for Whisky a Go-Go. Valentine conceded defeat and turned the club into a disco before finally closing its door. By 1976, the nation’s premier rock club was lost in oblivion.

Valentine, however, could not give up on Whisky a Go-Go. He hatched a somewhat audacious plan with Marshall Berle, the club’s former spirit manager. Together they approached LA’s music entrepreneur Kim Fowley with the idea of hosting the burgeoning new wave and punk artists instead of commercially successful performers who were already backed by record labels. Kim Fowley of course loved the idea and by summer of ’76, new wave and punk travelled from London and New York straight into the heart of LA. By fall next year the punk movement was shaping into something concrete and although it was a far cry from how it had already shaped up in New York, it was beginning to show increasingly on LA’s street fashion. It all started with jeans and leather and a little bit of glitters but soon shifted to tattoos and piercings but before LA could reach there, Valentine resurrected Whisky a Go-Go with The Quick, Venus and the Razorblades, and Van Halen—watching teenagers fill the club every night. Once again, Whisky a Go-Go became the most popular platform to bring forward a new wave of rock in LA.

By February the following year, Whisky a Go-Go featured Blondie, with Tom Perry and the Heartbreakers in a multi-day stand, the club’s highest profile act till date. Then a few months later the newly formed punk quartet, the Germs went onstage. That night was unlike any other the club witnessed. Vocalist Bobby Pyn baited the guests to hurl food at them and everyone else and so they did—pickles, mayonnaise, fried beans. The morning after looked like there was riot in Sunset Boulevards most renowned Whisky a Go-Go!

The club suffered another setback in the early 1980s and remained shut for a good number of years. But in the mid-80s, the glam metal artists of the era once again paved Whisky a Go-Go’s path to glory. It’s been a long journey since then but the historic nightspot still stands, housing countless local and international artists all year round in the shadows of its former greatness, while also awaiting another new wave in rock.