On January 16, 1964 — 50 years ago today — a small club on the Sunset Strip opened its doors for the first time. The Whisky A Go Go was an incubator for bands like the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Frank Zappa.
With a seating capacity of just 500, anything goes attitude and signature go go dancers, the Whisky became one of the most important clubs in Los Angeles. But as the Sunset Strip changed, so has the way business is done at the Whisky. KPCC's Kevin Ferguson reports.
"Rock and Roll history" is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but the Whisky a Go Go has earned it, according to music critic Steve Hochman.
"The history of it is singular, certainly in Los Angeles and arguably in the U.S. it's one of the iconic clubs in the major music capitals," said Hochman.
Mikael Maglieri owns the Whisky a Go Go now, but in 1966 he was just 15 years old and a busboy there. His dad, Mario was the manager.
"I worked there anywhere from well, usually about seven days a week, but at least six days a week," said Maglieri. "And on my night off, my father would tell me not to come there. I didn't belong there!"
Maglieri is more than willing to share stories of what he's witnessed at the venue: hearing Fleetwood Mac play to an empty room, seeing John Lennon throw a tantrum over a waitress, serving Janis Joplin drinks the night she died.
A Sunset Strip Hot Spot
In the late 60s, West Hollywood's Sunset Strip was a seedy part of town, but a safe place for the counter culture to thrive. Bands that are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now would perform for each other back then. Where police officers, city councilmen and parents saw crime, drugs and decadence, the bands saw community.
"Back in those days, you had the record companies that were supporting the groups, they didn't have sound checks, the bands came in and rehearsed," said Maglieri. "I mean, The Doors were the house band, Chicago was a house band, War was a house band, that played for like months on end until they got discovered."
After a decade or two of business, music changed on the Sunset Strip. Folk Rock and Psychedelia gave way to punk, new wave, and eventually metal. Gradually, the Whisky changed, too. It was no longer a club for new talent to smooth out the rough edges. Playing there meant your band had accomplished something.
"The Whisky always represented kind of the iconic club of the Sunset Strip. And I had a very strong awareness of that," said Susana Hoffs, who grew up dreaming of playing venues like the Whisky
In the early 1980s, Hoffs posted a flyer at the venue looking for other women willing to start a band with her. Eventually she found them and Susanna got her wish to play at the Whisky a Go Go. The band called themselves The Bangs, but you might know them better by their later name, the Bangles:
"It really did feel like we had arrived when we got our gig at the Whisky," said Hoffs.
The Pay-To-Play Model
More bands played the Whisky: Metallica, Nirvana, Hole, Guns and Roses, but in the last decade or so, even though LA music is as vibrant and successful as ever, the venue's role has declined. Sunset Strip isn't as gritty as it once was, Starbucks and clothing stores now line the streets.
Starting in the '90s, the Whisky a Go Go adopted a new model for booking talent. Many of the bands that play there are given a set amount of tickets to sell on their own. If they don't raise enough money, they can't go on.
Often, these bands are young and inexperienced — some call it "pay to play," the venues consider it a pre-sale. Call it what you will, veteran musicians in LA generally avoid it.
Best Coast is one of most most successful acts to come out of Los Angeles in recent years. Bobb Bruno plays guitar for the band.
"All those places on the Strip, that was kind of the rap they had, 'Oh, they're all pay to play now.'" he said.
Bruno grew up watching Van Halen play there on TV, listening to X's live album at the Whisky, but it was a different place back then. Bruno's played shows in LA for almost 20 years, and he's been on stage at the Troubadour, the Coliseum, the Wiltern, Walt Disney Concert Hall, etc., but never the Whisky.
For bands like Best Coast, they played house shows and at venues in neighborhoods like Downtown, Echo Park, Silver Lake.
"If you have like an audience where you feel confident you can actually sell that amount of tickets they give you, then I don't see any problem with it," said Bruno. "But if you're just starting out, it seems like maybe just kind of work your way up playing smaller places and getting a fan base before you attempt to… it seems like you just kind of get over your head in that situation."
According to music critic Steve Hochman, the move to pay-to-play venues is a definite "scene killer."
"It just feels like everything is artificial there. And, you know, it's great for the bands to need to have the initiative and go out and get people to come in and see them and be able to support it," said Hochman. "You know, ideally you want them to be able to that without having to try, that they already have a following. That would be the best way to do it, but the bands that already have a following don't need to do pay to play."
Surviving A Changing Music Scene
Mike Maglieri Jr., Mikeal's son, manages and books bands for the venue now. He estimates a little under half the shows they do now involve pay-to-play bands. He says he isn't wild about the practice, either, but the Whisky needs it to survive, and the Sunset Strip isn't the same place it was.
"After the '80s invasion the scene kind of died down, so there wasn't just a following of just people who would come here every night. So we had to do something to just insure that the room would get filled up," said Maglieri Jr. "I mean, it's a big capacity room, and you put five bands on there, and nobody draws...it's not worth it for us to open the doors. Just insurance and staffing and liquor and everything together, yeah, it's very high. And it's not easy, and it costs us a lot on a daily basis to keep the place running."
Maglieri Jr. also says the Whisky tries to find headlining bands that will draw more fans out to the venue, and that the goal is to make it worth it for the bands playing.
Susanna Hoffs, from the Bangles still loves the venue, and no matter what happens at the venue today, she'll always have the memories:
"I always see the Whisky the exact same way that it was in the '60s and then in the '80s. I can't imagine it any other way," she said.
You can see Susanna and the Bangles live this Saturday, at the Whisky a Go Go, they're doing 50th anniversary concerts all month long.