Rock clubs are frequently noisy, smelly, dark and cramped…and we wouldn’t have it any other way! Music history is born out of these crowded and smokey venues, where tomorrow’s megastars are today’s opening act, struggling to be heard over a drunk dude’s repeated request for “Free Bird.” The recent film CBGB paid tribute to the eponymous NYC rock spot, which gave us dozens of timeless bands before closing in 2006. This got us thinking of some other incredible joints that have earned their spot in rock mythology. Read on to see our picks for the 10 most legendary rock clubs of all time!
10. Cafe Wha?
Location: 115 MacDougal St., New York, New York
Who Played There: Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Paul & Mary, The Velvet Underground
Why It’s Awesome: First and foremost, this place was a folk focal point, a central hub for the coffee shop scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Anyone a little off-kilter had a home here, including beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, ground-breaking comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Woody Allen, and guitar-wielding troubadours of every flavor. In fact, a young singer named Bob Dylan made the Wha? one of his first stops after arriving in New York City, where (according to legend) he was offered a free burger and allowed to play his songs and pass the hat to scrape together some money.
The Dylan connection is enough to make the Cafe Wha? a landmark, but he’s far from the last icon to emerge from the small cellar stage. In 1966, Animals bassist Chas Chandler was captivated by the wild guitar stylings of an ex-paratrooper named Jimi Hendrix. Chandler signed on as his manager and took him to London, where Hendrix’s career exploded. And a few years after that, future Boss Bruce Springsteen was earning his stripes in his teenage band, the Castiles. Although it changed management (and names) for a period in the ’70s and ’80s, the Cafe Wha? is still alive and well today.
More recently, a newly reunited Van Halen performed a surprise warm-up gig in prior to their A Different Kind of Truth Tour in January 2012. It’s appropriate considering that the club’s original owner was Manny Roth, David Lee Roth’s uncle!
9. The Cavern
Location: 10 Matthew Street, Liverpool, England
Who Played There: The Beatles, The Who, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Johnny Lee Hooker, The Arctic Monkeys, The Beatles, The Wanted, Adele, The Beatles…
Why It’s Awesome: The Cavern bills itself as “The Birthplace of the Beatles,” and it’s hard to argue with that. The Fabs played a whopping 292 gigs at the venue between 1961 and 1963, using it as a sort of clubhouse while they consolidated their hometown popularity and contemplated bigger pastures. After the Beatles conquered the musical world, this humble former fruit-cellar enjoyed vaulted status as the most famous rock club in the world. The s0-called “Mersey Beat sound” originated in these archways, taking hits from Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, and Cilla Black to America and beyond.
Despite its status as a beloved cultural landmark, the club fell on hard times and closed in May 1973 amid much controversy. The steet-level buildings were demolished and the cellar area filled in with rubble, literally paving musical paradise to put up a parking lot. But luckily for music fans everywhere, the club rose from the dead in 1984, when a replica was built on “75 percent” of the original site, using (allegedly) 15,000 original bricks! Hey, we’ll take it…
Paul McCartney never forgot his debt to the place, and on December 14th 1999 he performed his final concert of the 20th century on the (rebuilt) stage he knew so well. Still glowing from the Beatle-brush nearly 50 years later, the Cavern is an INSANELY popular spot for mega-bands to play surprise dates or pre-tour warm-up gigs.
Location: 315 Bowery, New York, New York (now closed)
Who Played There: The Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, Misfits, Blondie
Why It’s Awesome: The closure of CBGB (full name: “Country, Blue Grass and Blues”) was an event that shamed and saddened many New Yorkers. Hilly Kristal’s gritty club (and notoriously nasty bathrooms) came to define American punk rock in the mid ’70s but allowing rough and ready rockers like the Ramones to get their first stage time. As years went on, the club went through an early ’80 new wave phase (didn’t we all?) before turning into a haven for hardcore punk bands. Despite the changing times and styles, old friends like Patti Smith and Debbie Harry were on hand when the club closed on October 15th 2006, the victim of rising rent costs. “All of Manhattan has lost its soul to money lords,” wrote the New York Post. Yup, that seems about right.
But we’ll still have the memories….and killer video footage!
7. Crocodile Cafe (now The Crocodile)
Location: 2200 2nd Ave., Seattle, WashingtonWho Played There: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, the Posies
Why It’s Awesome: The bands of the early ’90s grunge explosion needed a home base. Enter the Crocodile Cafe, established in April of 1991 by Stephanie Dorgan (future wife of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck), which hosted nearly all the major bands of the burgeoning scene within its stained glassed walls. Even as the plaid fad faded, the club did not- A huge number of alt-rock bands graced the stage over the years, including the likes of Death Cab For Cutie and Neutral Milk Hotel.
The beloved venue closed unexpectedly in December 2007, but thankfully was reopened a year and a half later as simply The Crocodile, continuing to rock out night after night. The secret gig played by post mega-fame Nirvana in 1992 under the name Pen Cap Chew (for 3 dollars!!) is definitely a highlight. Check it out!
6. The Fillmore (West and East)
Locations: (West) 1805 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, California and (East) 525 E 11th St., New York, New York (now closed)
Who Played Here: Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Allman Brother’s Band, Neil Young, Derek & The Dominoes, and Miles Davis
Why It’s Awesome: We got a two-fer! The original Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco was opened by Bill Graham in 1966, where it catered to the psychedelic west coast bands of the time. The ballroom made an incalculable impact on the local music scene, bringing the counter-culture into mainstream consciousness for arguably the first time. A masterful promoter, Graham arranged unparalleled lineups by pitting way-out groups like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and Country Joe & the Fish up against established soul acts like Otis Redding and Chuck Berry, all bathed in brilliant pulsating color from the in-house light show team.
With the success of the venture, in 1968 Graham moved the venue to a new location in a nicer neighborhood, dubbing it “Fillmore West,” and also opened up a twin auditorium in New York City’s East Village known as “Fillmore East.” The pair of clubs had an unparalleled run of amazing acts, giving us some of the best live albums of all time. After becoming disillusioned with the music business, Graham decidedd to close the two venues in 1971. Following his tragic 1991 death in a helicopter crash, his loved ones sought to carry out his final wish and revive the Fillmore Auditorium in its original Geary Boulevard location. The restored venue opened its doors on April 27, 1994 with a surprise appearance by the Smashing Pumpkins.
Sadly, the original location of the Fillmore East is currently a bank branch. But watch this clip from the Allman Brothers’ epic set to keep the memory alive!
5. The Hacienda
Location: 11-13 Whitworth St. West, Manchester, England (closed)
Who Played There: New Order, the Happy Mondays, Madonna, the Stone Roses, the Smiths
Why It’s Awesome: Although conceived as a performance venue when it opened in May 1982, the Hacienda played a vital role in the development of acid house and trip hop music. But it’s live legacy ain’t too shabby either, with unforgettable sets from local bands like New Order, the Happy Mondays, the Smiths and more. The so-called “MadChester” scene took root within these industrial-chic walls, fusing dance-y beats and rave culture with rock ’n’ roll, sketching out the blue-print for the post-punk music that would evolve over the rest of the decade.
Tales of rampant debauchery are common in the club’s story, culminating in the ecstasy-related death of a 16-year-old girl in 1991. Complaints of shootings and assaults also started to surface around this time, leading to intense police pressure. But even with improved security, it was clear that the Hacienda’s days were numbered. In June 1997, the club owners declared bankruptcy and closed the venue for good. The building was razed in 2002, and today a block of apartments bearing the name “Hacienda” stands on its place.
Although the music has long since stopped, the club was immortalized in the 2002 film, 24-Hour Party People. But for a taste of the real thing, peep this vid from New Order!
4. The Troubadour
Location: 9081 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood, California
Who Played There: Elton John, James Taylor, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, Love, Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, Jackson Browne, Neil Diamond, Guns N’ Roses
Why It’s Awesome: If you were a singer/songwriter in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Troub was the place to be. Founded as a folk coffee house in 1957, musicians with a message have been welcome continuously ever since owner Doug Weston opened the doors. While the training ground for a number future icons, Elton John (predictably) caused the biggest splash when he made his star-making American debut in August of 1970. As the decade drew to a close, the Troubadour evolved into a heavy metal haven, featuring visits from bands like W.A.S.P. and Motely Crue. Guns N’ Roses also made their stage debut at the venue, earning themselves a contract with Geffen Records in the process. Numerous live albums have been recorded here over the years, and even a recent documentary, Troubadours: Carole King / James Taylor & The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter.
Even after all these years (and Weston’s death in 1999), the Troub is still beacon for up-and-coming British acts, hardcore punk bands, and acoustic song-writers.
Check out this rare clip from Elton John’s 1970 American debut!
3. Whisky a Go Go
Location: 8901 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, California
Who Played There: The Doors, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Johnny Rivers, Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa, Arthur Lee and Love, Motley Crue, Red Hot Chili Peppers…for a start
Why It’s Awesome: From rock to punk to heavy metal, this place WAS the Los Angeles music scene in the ’60s through to the ’80s! It was a true hive, where youth titans of the rock industry (and other assorted beautiful people) dance, drank and mingled. The Doors served as the house band for a time (before Jim Morrison’s lyrics got them fired), emerging British bands like Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison played crucial early American gigs, and an untold number of live albums were recorded on this stage. Simply put, there is TOO MUCH history in these walls.
Named for the fleeting go-go dancing fad (featuring women dancing in cages), the Whisky has gone on to become one of the most enduring rock clubs on the planet, with bands still clambering to grace the marquee. The interior has changed a bit over the last 50 years, so check out the video below to see what all the fuss was about back in the good ol’ days!
2. The 40 Watt Club
Location: 285 West Washington St., Athens, GeorgiaWho Played There: R.E.M., The B-52s, Indigo Girls, Modern Skirts, Pylon
Why It’s Awesome: Southern rock ain’t just Lynyrd Skynyrd! The fine folks of Athens have been bringing us their very own unique blend of songwriting for decades, but the 40 Watt Club is arguably the first of the Peach State’s world class rock venues. Ironically, it was run on a shoe-string budget for the first few years, with the club earning its name from the single 40 watt bulb that lit the stage! After several location changes over the years, the 40 Watt is still the haunt of choice for arty Athens bands.
Local boys R.E.M. were a fairly permanent fixture, due to the fact that the club is run by Peter Buck’s ex-wife, Barrie. He must have a thing for ladies who own clubs, because another of his ex-wives runs The Croc, number 9 on this list!
1. The 100 Club
Location: 100 Oxford Street, London, England
Who Played There: Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, The Clash, Siouxie & The Banshees, The Damned
Why It’s Awesome: This British bandstand has seen it all. From Amy Winehouse to the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones to the Specials, nearly every major British act (and many non-British) have put in some time at the 100. Beginning life as a jazz and swing club in the 1940s, the venue evolved into UK’s answer to CBGB, hosting the first annual Punk Festival in 1976. The punk aura still clings to the walls (the decoration hasn’t changed since the ’70s), but the sounds have since blended with reggae, folk, jazz, and Brit-pop acts, as well as the longest running Northern Soul all-night raves! Like many spots on this list, it’s a popular venue for mega stars to play “secret” or “underground” gigs to warm up for their world tours. The Stones played a low-key gig here in 1982, as did Blur in the ’90s.
Rumored to close in 2010 due to recurring losses, musicians (lead by Paul McCartney) and fans banned together to ensure that the beloved venue wouldn’t go extinct. Thankfully, it’s still alive and kicking today, over 70 years after first opening its doors!
[Photo: Getty Images]