Rock and roll, as AC/DC famously put it, ain’t noise pollution. Nonetheless, it’s best performed and experienced indoors with a killer sound system and some choice brews on tap.
Hence the evolution of rock venues from school dances and VFW Halls in the 1950s to psychedelic ballrooms and repurposed nightspots in the ’60s to the essentially still-enduring version a modern rock club arising in the ’70s.
Officially dedicated heavy metal gathering places don’t exactly date back to the dawn of the music itself (which would be the February 13, 1970 arrival of Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut). Still, as it’s the one form of rock above all others driven by its devotees’ shared passions, heavy metal clubs were inevitable and, in short order, they forever changed the world.
In the 21st century, virtually major city and countless smaller burgs worldwide boast heavy-metal-themed bars, clubs, party spaces, after-hours joints, record stores, restaurants, and even food trucks. We love them all. We also acknowledge that today’s abundance of headbanging hang-out choices was built on the grueling struggles and tough times endured by an elite array of metal venue pioneers throughout metal’s developmental stages. Such places are, very much, the stuff of legend.
So come on and join us now in throwing a full-horns-up salute to the top 10 most legendary heavy metal clubs of all time.
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Who Played There: Metallica, Slayer, Alice in Chains, Misfits, Black Flag, Lita Ford, Hawkwind, Overkill, Gang Green, Suicidal Tendencies
Why It Ruled: A confluence of Boston’s college-connected bohemia and Southie-adjacent roughneck rock-and-roll, the Channel dominated the city’s hard-and-heavy scenes throughout the 1980s.
Utilizing a monster sound system designed by industry legend Dinky Dawson, radio DJs from WBCN spun platters and broke fresh sounds in between cutting-edge acts. Early on, new wave defined the Channel, but as the decade wore on, metal, punk, and hardcore sounds took over with mosh pits uniting revelers in slam-bang abandon.
Location: Birmingham, England
Who Played There: Napalm Death, Amebix, Extreme Noise Terror, DRI, MDC, Antisect, Heresy
Why It Ruled: Heavy metal itself comes from Birmingham, England. Actual metal-making plants and foundries dominated the city for decades, and they seemed to exert a (super)natural influence on the Birmingham residents that invented heavy metal music. These pioneers include Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and both Robert Plant and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin.
A decade-and-a-half after heavy metal’s initial forging, then, Birmingham begat a new, more extreme, and somehow even more terrifying version of the form. Grindcore, a singularly savage synthesis of thrash, death metal, and hardcore punk, exploded up from the city’s molten soul, with a dynamic scene lashing out all over the planet from the upstairs room of the otherwise nondescript Mermaid pub.
Led by Napalm Death, the Mermaid hosted heavy metal’s most extreme boundary-blasters, where UK locals such as Amebix, Extreme Noise Terror, and Heresy attracted touring marauders, particularly American hardcore battalions on the hugely influential order or DRI and MDC.
Location: Seattle, Washington
Who Played There: Guns N’ Roses, Metal Church, Melvins, Soundgarden, Butthole Surfers, Tad, Circle Jerks, Green River
Why It Ruled: Gorilla Gardens proved crucial to Seattle’s alchemy of punk and metal into grunge, as the venue offered two separate shows on two distinct stages each night. Oftentimes, one area showcased punk, while the other featured heavy metal. Those twains ended up meeting quite a bit smack in the middle.
So popular was Gorilla Gardens among the competing (but soon to be unified) hard rock scenes, that when fire marshals attempted to close the club for being too crowded before a show in 1984, a quick-thinking employee grabbed a chainsaw and blasted through a wall to create some on-the-fly room extension. It worked.
That level intensity of Gorilla Gardens flared up more than once, but never more memorably than on November 26, 1985, when police and firefighters attempted to shut down a show by L.A. hardcore loons, the Circle Jerks. While a wild blizzard raged outside, punks and headbangers joined forces against the authorities. It turned ugly—but also kind of awesome—when club patrons came upon a delivery truck nearby that was open and loaded with bricks. Yow!
The Rainbow/The Roxy/Whisky-a-Go-Go
Location: West Hollywood, California
Who Played There: Everybody
Why They Ruled: Although three separate and distinct entities, the Rainbow Bar and Grill, the Roxy Theatre, and the Whisky a Go Go nightclub all thrive within a buzzed stumble of one another on the Sunset Strip.
Each still bustling, still essential outpost figures monumentally in L.A. rock history and, together, they function as the Unholy Trinity of ’80s metal’s most sacred ground: the Sunset Strip.
Location: Detroit, Michigan
Who Played There: Slayer, Gwar, Nile, Death, Sacred Reich, Saxon, Entombed, Agnostic Front, GG Allin
Why It Ruled: In keeping with its proud role as the Motor City, Detroit in large part manufactured American heavy metal’s earliest models in the form of Alice Cooper, the Stooges, the MC5, and Grand Funk Railroad.
From the hardcore-heavy and thrashtastic mid-80s until the alt-metal and grungfied sounds of 1994, Blondies supplied Detroit with an ideal heavy metal showroom: loud, nasty, built for speed, and able to withstand even the most insane impact.
Location: Toronto, Canada
Who Played There: Rush, Triumph, Helix, Saga, Cinderella, Skid Row, Killer Dwarfs, Lee Aaron
Why It Ruled: The Gasworks began life in 1968 as a small rock venue with a bowling alley upstairs. It ruled as a go-to destination for both up-and-coming local acts and bigger names on tour, establishing its rep as one of the most fun and frantic places to enjoy a show. In keeping with Canadian tradition, beer figured big-time in Gasworks’ formula, with the club becoming famous for serving quarts of suds to happy concertgoers.
With the advent of hair metal in the 1980s, Gasworks largely evolved into the Sunset Strip of the North. It was Canada’s glam club above all—where the land of the moose met the bands of the mousse.
Most memorably to non-locals, Gasworks is where Wayne and Garth go to bang heads in 1992’s original Wayne’s World movie. It’s a joyful fact that turns said upon finding out that the club closed permanently just a few months later, thereby necessitating Wayne and Garth to party on elsewhere for their 1993 sequel.
Location: West Hollywood, California
Who Played There: Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, Poison, Warrant, Faster Pussycat, Quiet Riot, Odin
Why It Ruled: Housed in the same superhumanly high-haired Sunset Strip row that contains the Rainbow, the Roxy, and the Whisky, the smaller and now long-defunct Gazzarri’s actually outranks those three still vibrant brand name institutions in sheer metal might for a spiked fistful of reasons.
First, proprietor Bill Gazzarri was a dandified, 1930s-movie-mobster-type character who maintained that schtick through the psychedelic ’60s, when the Doors were his house band, on up to the high grunge era, when his club shuttered in 1993.
Secondly, Van Halen made Gazzarri’s their own during their run-up to superstardom, blowing minds and amplifiers alike as the nightspot’s mid-to-late-’70s house band.
Finally, Bill Gazzarri and his club became the number-one breaker of future big-time talent during the Sunset Strip’s hair-metal heyday. This particular moment is immortalized in Penelope Spheeris’s 1988 documentary masterpiece The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Bill’s moment introducing the band Odin, wherein he chants the name as though it’s just one syllable, stands as one of the film’s absolute highlights.
Location: London, England
Who Played There: DJ Neal Kay, Iron Maiden, Saxon, Samson, Angel Witch, Praying Mantis, Nutz
Why It Ruled: The Bandwagon, technically, was the back room of the Prince of Wales pub, a largely unremarkable Kingsbury establishment that, in 1975, found itself reinvented as heavy metal’s most dynamic points of detonation.
After answering an open call to come spin records, a gregarious, mightily mustachioed West End disc jockey named Neal Kay set up shop at the Bandwagon and busted out his favorite hard rock albums. Plugged deeply into England’s ready-to-explode extreme music scene, Kay mixed Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple tracks in with newly emerging artists. Fans rapidly flocked to Kay’s nights at the Bandwagon, which quickly took on the mantle of “London’s Only Heavy Rock Disco.”
In time, Neal Kay’s Heavy Metal Soundhouse, as it was eventually called, attracted nightly sell-outs, with denim-and-leather-clad fans toting paper guitars with them to play along with the songs.
By the turn of the decade, the Soundhouse featured the latest records and, eventually, live performances by the likes of Iron Maiden, Saxon, Samson, and other key upstarts in the revolution that came to be known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
Location: Berkeley, California
Who Played There: Metallica, Slayer, Exodus, Testament, Possessed, Death, Death Angel, Bad Brains
Why It Ruled: When fervent new strains of punk and hardcore smashed their way out of the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1980s, Ruthie’s Inn was there. From the Bad Brains to the Dead Kennedys, the club welcomed brash, brave acts, and its staff always kept an eye out and an ear open for freshly percolating new variations on rock’s hardest and heaviest forefronts.
As a result, Ruthie’s Inn served as both the Petrie dish and birth place of Bay Area thrash, when local heavy metal bands absorbed punk’s furor, velocity, and self-determination to throttle out an entirely new genre known, appropriately, as thrash.
Chief among the form’s breakthrough battalions were hometown heroes Metallica, Exodus, and Testament, each of whom utilized Ruthie’s as a home base while building their armies, perfecting their attacks, and finalizing their plans for world conquest.
Attracted by those Bay Area masters, thrash bands from all over the globe beat their paths to Ruthie’s, turning it into a mecca of headbanging bliss.
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Who Played There: Metallica, Kiss, Guns N’ Roses, Slayer, Motörhead, Megadeth, Anthrax, Twisted Sister, Jane’s Addiction, Soundgarden, White Zombie, Overkill, W.A.S.P.
Why It Ruled: Before L’Amour became known as “The Rock Capitol of Brooklyn,” it opened as a disco in 1978 in roughly the same area as the dance club where Saturday Night Fever was filmed. As you might imagine, at that moment, it was one of many such nearby venues.
In short order, L’Amour announced Wednesdays as “Rock Night,” with disc jockeys led by DJ Alex Kayne spinning hard-and-heavy records and, in time, local bands taking to the club’s stage to play live. It didn’t take long for disco-saturated Brooklynites to embrace L’Amour as a rock venue in general, and a heavy metal club in particular.
Rapidly, then, the warehouse-like, hunk-of-cement building on a side street in a decidedly non-eventful corner of the Brooklyn neighborhood Bensonhurst began hosting both the hugest heavy metal stars on earth and proving to be a star-making venue where up-and-comers on the verge of mainstream mega-success would play just before they got famous.
In addition to A-plus-list metal acts, L’Amour also regularly hosted punk and hardcore shows. It grew so popular that a spinoff venue, L’Amour East, opened in Queens. When that, too, took off, L’Amour Far East was established in Commack, Long Island.
Following a decade-and-a-half of nonstop triumphs, L’Amour stumbled toward its eventual end in the early 1990s, with several closings and re-openings throughout the decade. In 2009, a Staten Island L’Amour existed briefly.
The roster of acts to grace L’Amour’s stage is unparalleled anywhere in the annals of heavy metal. Still, the most important aspect of the legendary venue’s history has to do with how one pronounces its name. Say it like the locals always did: it’s not “La-More,” it’s “La-MAWZ!”