Whisky a Go Go: The First Real American Discothèque

After all these years, the Whisky still rocks

When you drive by the Whisky a Go Go these days, you will still see a band van out front getting ready to load in for that night’s gig. That’s because the Whisky is still an active, relevant part of the Sunset Strip. It’s all ages, all the time, they serve great food, a valet lot makes parking easy, and you never know who you might see hanging out there. Simply put, the Whisky still rocks. Just like it did way back when.

In the Beginning

The Whisky has been called the first real American discothèque and it’s one of the most famous rock ‘n’ roll landmarks in the United States. It first opened January 11, 1964, in an old bank building that had been remodeled into a short-lived club called the Party by a former Chicago policeman, Elmer Valentine. The Whisky a Go Go opened with a live band led by Johnny Rivers and a short-skirted female DJ spinning records between sets from a suspended cage at the right of the stage. When the girl DJ danced during Rivers’ set, the audience thought it was part of the act and the concept of go-go dancers in cages was born. Rivers rode the Whisky-born “go-go” craze to national fame with records recorded partly “live at the Whisky.” The Miracles recorded the song “Going to a Go-Go” in 1966 (which was covered in 1982 by The Rolling Stones), and Whisky a Go Go franchises sprang up all over the country.

In 1966, the Whisky was one of the centers of the Sunset Strip police riots. The club was harassed repeatedly by the City of Los Angeles, which once ordered that the name be changed; claiming “whisky” was a bad influence.

Photo Courtesy of Vintage Los Angeles.

Helping Shape the History of Music

The Whisky played an important role in many musical careers, especially for bands based in Southern California. The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Love were all regulars. The Doors were the house band for a while — until the debut of the controversial “Oedipal Section” of the song “The End” got them fired. Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention got their record contract based on a performance at the Whisky and Jimi Hendrix came by to jam when Sam & Dave headlined. Otis Redding recorded his album Live at the Whisky there in 1966.

Many British performers made their first headlining performances in the area at the Whisky, including The Kinks, The Who, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Roxy Music and Oasis. The Whisky was a focus of the emerging New Wave and punk rock movements in the late 1970s, and frequently presented local acts as diverse as The Germs (which recorded its first album there), The Runaways, X, Mötley Crüe and Van Halen, while also playing host to early performances by the Ramones, The Dictators, The Misfits, Blondie, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, XTC, The Jam and Japanese doo-wop musical group Rats & Star.

The Rebirth

The Whisky fell on hard times once the first flush of punk rock lost steam, and closed its doors in 1982. It reopened in 1986 as a “four-wall,” a venue that could be rented by promoters and bands. Although a few booths remain on the perimeter, the interior has mostly been transformed into a bare, seatless space where the audience stands throughout the performances. Against this new economic backdrop, a number of hard rock and metal bands, including Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, rose to prominence in the 1980s. During the early 1990s, the Whisky hosted a number of Seattle-based musicians who would later be dubbed “the godfathers of grunge,” including Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney, The Melvins, and 7 Year Bitch. Today, after more than five decades, the Whisky remains an important part of rock ‘n’ roll history along Sunset Strip.

Updated from the original article written by Chris Epting

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