Witnessing Rock & Roll History at the 9:30 Club: 13 Amazing Shows - by JCE

(editor's note: Much of the staff here at Pencilstorm has worked day jobs and played in rock & roll bands nights & weekends for most of their lives.  (There were/are no trust fund babies in the likes of Watershed, The Twilight Kids, Bava Choco and Armada.)  Many of those jobs were in retail and in service industries.  Nowadays - here in the comfort of Pencilstorm - we don't work nearly as hard, and essentially take a lot of December off work to concentrate on gigs.  So, we're gonna take this opportunity to: 1) Burn off some blogs that we never managed to fit in anywhere earlier in the year, beginning with today, JCE's excellent memoir of Washington D.C.'s 9:30 Club.....  2) Maybe rerun some of our favorite Christmas-related blogs of earlier years.....and  3) Relentlessly promote the December gigs of our friends & Pencilstorm associates.  Read on, and stay warm.)            


I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia.  As soon as I was old enough to drive, I would go to Georgetown to haunt record stores and to visit a punk boutique called Commander Salamander.  Commander’s as we called it was like our version of London’s Sex shop where the Sex Pistols were born.  More importantly, I would go to clubs like the Bayou, Desperado’s, Madam’s Organ, The Gentry, Columbia Station and the Psychedeli to see live rock n roll.  And oh yeah, there was a little club called the 9:30 Club.  Maybe you’ve heard of it…

The Nightclub 9:30 opened on May 8, 1980 at 930 F Street, NW in Washington, D.C.  The club has since relocated and remains a world-renowned establishment, but nothing will ever compare to the old 9:30.  It’s famous for its smell, it’s poorly placed column right in front of the stage, its horrible bathrooms and its long entrance hallway.  But it’s mostly famous for the bands that played there, and I saw quite a few of them.

You could go toward the back bar and find a place to sit, but for a view of the stage you had to stand.  But there was this huge window to the left of the stage.  If you got there early you could get the windowsill.  I like to stand at shows, not sit.  But the thing is, if you got the windowsill, you could sit and have a beer, and when the band came on, you could stand on the sill and see over everyone.  It was 20 feet from the stage, it was a perfect view.  I used to love to get that spot at the club.  Here are a baker’s dozen of shows I saw from the windowsill that have some great rock n roll history, at least in my opinion.  

1.     Tommy Keene with R.E.M.  Yep, that would be R.E.M. from Athens, GA opening for local power pop hero Tommy Keene (who I still like better than R.E.M.).  When I saw this show, I didn’t even know who R.E.M. was.  They had just recently cemented their name, claiming the rights to it from a local D.C. band who was also known as R.E.M.  According to the 9:30 Club book that is now out, the two bands agreed to each play a set and the best band would keep the name.  The D.C. version heard the boys from Athens play and they knew they were going to need a new name.  They became Egoslavia (ughh, they definitely lost big time on that one).  Anyway, I saw a great show by R.E.M. early in their career, and Tommy Keene was always spectacular.

2.    The Go Go's. You can laugh if you’re not a fan, but the Go Go’s started out punk, and even though ‘Beauty and the Beat’ had just been released when I saw this show, they were still pretty edgy and I really liked them.  Jane Wiedlin played a mean guitar, and she and Charlotte and Belinda were all looking great based on my view from the windowsill.

3.    The Professionals. This is one of my favorite bands all-time.  Steve Jones and Paul Cook were doing their best work with this post-Sex Pistols band.  These guys were heroes to me, so I’m just glad I saw them.  I do have to admit though, the show was so loud my ears were crackling and the music didn’t seem too crisp or clear.  Without a doubt, it was the loudest show I ever saw, period.

4.    Tru Fax & the Insaniacs with Jason & the Nashville Scorchers.  Tru Fax was a popular D.C. band that I loved.  I’m sure I saw them close to 30 times.  On this particular evening, the opening band was Jason & the Nashville Scorchers, before they later dropped the ‘Nashville’ and just went with Jason & the Scorchers.  They are one of my favorite bands now, but I had never heard of them at the time.  Their version of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was so amazing that night, I can’t even describe it.  Warner Hodges on guitar was something special. 

5.    Johnny Thunders with Black Market Baby.  Black Market Baby were stalwarts of the D.C. punk scene and they made a perfect opening act- hard rockin’ and sloppy.  Johnny came out and played a great set of mostly Heartbreakers tunes, like “Born to Lose,” “Chinese Rocks,” and “One Track Mind.”  I’ve read so much about Johnny and his inability to hold it together when he was all strung out all the time, but on this night, Johnny Thunders was just fine in my eyes.

6.    Black Flag with S.O.A.  For those not versed in harD.C.ore, S.O.A. was State of Alert which was fronted by Henry Garfield.  Henry put on a show that was pretty impressive, at least as far as hardcore punk.  Black Flag came over from California and brought the West Coast punk penchant for violence with them.  Boots and chains were flying everywhere and blood was definitely spilled in the pit.  Legend had it that Black Flag was so impressed with Henry that they put him on the bus, he changed his name to Henry Rollins and became the lead vocalist for Black Flag that night.  That’s not actually true. He did go out to California to join Black Flag shortly after this show however and he did change his name.

7.    Mother Love Bone.  I forget who opened this show.  If you’re not familiar, Mother Love Bone was one of the rising bands from the Seattle grunge scene.  Their singer, Andrew Wood, was spectacular.  Unfortunately, he took his own life shortly after this show and was later replaced with Eddie Vedder.  The band became Pearl Jam and the rest, as they say, is history.  If you never listened to Mother Love Bone, check them out.  I so much prefer Andrew Wood.  I have never understood the love fest for Pearl Jam or Eddie Vedder.

8.    Simple Minds.  Early in their career, Simple Minds had a record called ‘Life in a Day.’  It was an excellent record.  Forget all the more pop styled hits you’ve heard, ‘Life in a Day’ was really good.  I don’t know what year it was, but on my birthday, my sister asked me what she could take me to do to celebrate.  So of course I said, “let’s go see Simple Minds.”  I’m really glad I did.  They were great, and it’s a memory I cherish, as I lost my sister way too early.  She had no idea who Simple Minds even were, but she was always game to try new things.

9.    Dead Boys with Obsessed.  You may or may not have ever heard of the Obsessed.  They later became a 3-piece doom metal band that absolutely sucked, but at this time they were fronted by Vance Bockis, who was one of my favorite punk/metal vocalists of all time prior to his death a couple of years ago.  With Vance in the band, they were astounding to watch, clearly taking influences from Iggy and from Stiv Bator.  I wonder if Stiv watched the openers on this night.  Anyway, it was Stiv and the Dead Boys.  That’s history being made as far as I’m concerned.

10.    X.  This was early X.  The Los Angeles record had just come out on Slash Records.  I couldn’t wait to see the band, because they seemed scary, dark and dangerous back then.  It was a great set. Exene got kicked and they had to quit playing for a minute while order was restored.  It was punk rock!

11.    Mother May I with Adam West and someone I don’t remember.  The 9:30 Club had a lot of nights where it was 3 bands for 3 bucks.  On this night, I discovered Mother May I, a band I love.  They got the major label deal, they made a record, they got dropped, they plugged on for awhile…  you know the story.  If you don’t know these guys, you should check them out.  Very comparable to Watershed, but they gave up way too soon.

12.    Dead Kennedys.  On tour supporting one of the greatest punk records ever, “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.”  Jello Biafra…  That’s all I need to say.

13.    The Dickies with Lou Miami & the Kozmetix.  There’s a long story behind this one, but I’ve gone on too long already.  The Dickies are just fantastic.  They played the theme song from the Banana Splits, which was my favorite TV show when I was little.  If you’re in my age bracket, you probably remember.