9:30 Club: the hardcore venue that hosted the president

The famously stinky Washington DC music den, now 35 years old, was a crucible for the local hardcore scene – and even hosted the Clintons

“How many times have I been to the 9:30 Club? Thousands,” says Ian MacKaye, frontman of Minor Threat and Fugazi and founder of Dischord Records. MacKaye first stepped foot in the club in July of 1980 to see a Bad Brains show and has been a regular, both onstage and off, ever since. This year, the 9:30 Club is celebrating its 35th anniversary, marking the occasion with a party (a three-day World’s Fair exhibition) and a big book – a 264-page oral and pictorial history of the club called 9.30 – the Book.

The scrapbook-like history features interviews and memorabilia from some of its most well-known patrons (Dave Grohl, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Fall Out Boy) and staff members eager to share their memories about the club that helped define a generation – and then somehow kept going.

The 9:30 Club was founded back in 1980 by Dody DiSanto and Jon Bowers, who opened the venue inside a space previously occupied by the locally infamous Atlantis club. (“The Bad Brains have a song called At the Atlantis,” explained MacKaye.) The new club took its name from its address in an ignored stretch of downtown Washington DC. “My fondest memories of the 9:30 Club take place at its original location at 930 F Street. It was an olfactory wonderland of sweat, beer, clove cigarettes, and of course, the Smell,” said Scott Crawford, director of the documentary Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington DC, referring to a notorious aroma variously compared to cigarettes soaked in Lysol and the bottom of a garbage man’s shoe.

The stretch of downtown Washington DC where the club was located was far from cool, populated by liquor stores, wig shops and famously aggressive rats. Its location did have its perks, though. “I remember being stoked about being in the alley back there,” said Neil Fallon of the band Clutch. “One end had the FBI building, on the other end is Ford’s Theater where Lincoln got shot and in the middle is the load-in for the club. In hindsight, it was a really unique location.”

“That was my first out of town of show,” said Fred Armisen, who played there with his band sometime around 1988, and later for a Portlandia live show. “DC had a really respected punk scene and I had heard of the club because Bad Brains played there. It was kind of legendary. We went down and opened for Government Issue. The alley was really gritty and dirty and I thought ‘Oh that’s real punk’, because I was a suburban guy.”

The 9:30 Club quickly became a stopover for alternative bands getting airplay on college radio like Simple Minds, the Go-Go’s, Violent Femmes, and 10,000 Maniacs. REM even played a battle of the bands with another band called REM – the winner of the competition got to keep the name.

In the early days though, the 9:30 Club was perhaps best known as a space where local bands like Bad Brains, Teen Idles, Nation of Ulysses and Rites of Spring, as well as DC’s sui generis go-go scene, could play. “There was a pretty significant punk underground hardcore scene in Washington that was growing and at some point the woman who ran the 9:30 Club, Dody DiSanto, took notice of that and she took an interest in that and us and wanted to work together,” said MacKaye. “She opened the venue up.”

“One of the first shows I saw was in June or July of 1981 with three punk bands that Dodi booked – Minor Threat, Government Issue and Youth Brigade,” said Cynthia Connolly, author of Banned in DC and former booker for the other downtown DC venue, DC Space. “What stood out about that show is that it sold out and it was there that we realized that this kind of music was reaching a larger audience than we could ever imagine.”

DiSanto also allowed the younger members of the city’s nascent punk and hardcore scene into the club, instructing the door to draw giant black x’s on the hands of anyone under the age of 18 (the legal drinking age at the time). It was a suggestion that came from MacKaye and his band Teen Idles, who had seen it done at a club in San Francisco. The black x’s eventually became a hallmark of the straightedge hardcore scene. “I don’t think there’s another scene in the country that has that and it’s because of this agreement between the 9:30 Club and the punks,” said MacKaye. “They gave us a shot and no one ever abused it.”

The 9:30 Club became a place for the members of the city’s arts and music scene to hang out. “At the old club, we were such a tight-knit group of people, it was like a clubhouse more than a club,” said Donna Westmoreland, who started working at the club in 1990 as a bar manager, and is now the head of IMP, which owns the club and books acts for other venues. “But it was a club that anyone that wanted to be a part of it could join.”

Adding to the clubhouse vibe was the space’s layout, a strange L shape which allowed bands and fans to mingle in the long hallways. It was almost always over capacity, too. “I saw Jesus Lizard at the old 9:30 on the Liar tour. You can’t believe how overpacked it was. There must have been over 300 people and it was 199-capacity,” said Travis Morrison of the Dismemberment Plan. Despite packing them in, however, the club always lost money, and when DiSanto and Bowers divorced the club was sold to current owners Seth Hurwitz and Rich Heinecke. By that point the club was an integral part of the fabric of the city and the surrounding suburbs, and was a necessary stopping point for music fans and touring bands. “Everybody has their story about their first show at the 9:30 Club,” said Westmoreland.

“In 1991 I played at the 9:30 club for the first time,” says Moby. “I was opening up for the Shamen, and even though I was the opening act going on as people were walking in to the club, I felt so amazed to actually be performing on stage at one of the most hallowed and legendary clubs in the United States.”

That’s a sentiment reflected again and again by bands who played there. Clutch played their first show at 9:30 opening for Sub Pop’s Love Battery. “As far as I was concerned at that time we had made it as a band. I’m sure there were other clubs people wanted to get into, but that was top of the shelf for me,” says Fallon. “Going backstage there as a band was thrilling.”

“It really felt like stepping on hallowed ground to finally reach that 9:30 stage as a player,” says John Dugan, drummer for the band Chisel (led by Ted Leo) and a former editor at the Washington DC City Paper. While many musicians have memories of playing the club (and Chisel played there a lot), Dugan also has fond memories as a journalist when venerable New York Times writer David Carr ushered a group of young reporters into the aftershow for the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1998. “[Carr] negotiated our way in and we saw the show of a lifetime… solo Michael Stipe, Pulp and Radiohead. Magic,” says Dugan.

A new home

Under the leadership of the new owners, the 9:30 Club started to thrive, but it also started to outgrow its already packed location. When the Black Cat, a new club catering to smaller bands opened, the 9:30 Club decided to make its move. At the beginning of 1996, 9:30 Club moved to a larger and more traditional space at 815 V Street NW, where its been for the last 20 years. Fittingly, go-go band Trouble Funk helped close out the old space, while the Smashing Pumpkins played back-to-back shows to inaugurate the new one. “The old space was what it was: the floors were rotting and smelled like cigarettes,” says Connolly. “The new space really elevated it.”

“When we moved to a new space it really became about the music,” said Westmoreland. “People who worked there were no less committed but there was a lot more to accomplish in the course of the day when you go from 200 capacity to 1,200.”

One of the ways that the club was able to hold onto its position as a venue for both local acts and national touring bands is that it has a flexible-size venue. “With the stage on wheels and the sound and lights on tracks, we can do smaller shows and keep it really intimate when a band is on its way up – or maybe on its way down – it can feel like it’s playing to a sold out room,” says Westmoreland.

“The remarkable thing is that when the club moved it maintained its mojo,” said Clutch’s Fallon. “There’s some aesthetic that they were able to translate from that small club to whatever it is now.”

“I don’t think of it as a club anymore, I think of it as a venue,” said MacKaye. “I think it’s one of the best, if not the best run venue in the country – and I know a lot of tour managers who would agree with me.”

Of course it wasn’t just go-go acts and punk bands that made the 9:30 Club a landmark. The Beastie Boys, Justin Timberlake, Bob Dylan and Radiohead have all played the club, and back in 2001 the Clintons rented the space out for a private party. The 9:30 Club is now one of the most attended venues of its size in the world. “Everybody knows the 9:30 Club,” said Armisen.

For its 30th anniversary, Henry Rollins hosted a show where the Foo Fighters played alongside 9:30 Club mainstays like Clutch, MacKaye’s new band The Evens, Ted Leo, Trouble Funk and the Slickee Boys. Now, as it celebrates its 35th year, with a book to document its past and one eye on the future, it’s clear that the 9:30 Club is no longer just a nightclub, but an American music institution.


Melissa Locker

The GuardianTramp

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