January 11 is the anniversary of the opening of the Whisky a Go-Go, where The Doors served as house band in 1966 until proprietor Phil Tanzini fired them after the debut performance of the “Oedipal section” of “The End.” The Whisky remains one of the most famous venues in rock history, alongside landmarks such as The Fillmore in San Francisco, CBGB’s in New York, and The Cavern in Liverpool. We republish this 2014 Doors Examiner piece to mark the date.
While Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek were making their way to the UCLA film school, on January 11, 1964, the Whisky a-Go-Go opened its doors and plunged into rock history. The Whisky, as it came to be known, very quickly rose in prominence on the Sunset Strip and within the music industry, becoming a model and influence for discotheques across the USA.
Founded by Elmer Valentine, Mario Maglieri, and Phil Tanzini, The Whisky had to spell its name without the ‘e’ in whiskey because Los Angeles city zoning laws didn’t allow clubs to be named after alcohol (The Whisky constantly had problems with the city and for a while had the name “The Whisk?”). The Whisky quickly gained a reputation for having high-profile acts such as Johnny Rivers, whose breakthrough hit was “Secret Agent Man,” the theme song for the TV series “Secret Agent“.
In between Rivers’ sets, a DJ named Joanie Labine, the first DJ at The Whisky, played records in a booth that was suspended to the right of the stage. During one of Rivers’ sets, Labine was moved to dancing and the concept of the go-go dancer was born. Soon a ‘uniform’ of the go-go dancer also evolved: a girl wearing a short, fringed skirt and high, white boots. Go-go dancers began appearing in nightclubs and discotheques across the country. During his tenure at The Whisky (a one-year contract), Rivers recorded the album “Johnny Rivers Live at The Whisky a Go-Go,” and The Miracles’ song “Going to a Go-Go” soon gave the nightclub a national reputation.
Drawn by Rivers’ success, The Whisky became a destination for up-and-coming bands to try to make a name for themselves. Groups such as The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Rascals, The Byrds, The Turtles, Otis Redding, Love, Captain Beefheart, The Mothers of Invention, and Alice Cooper were soon performing at The Whisky. The Whisky was also the destination for hip young movie stars such as Steve McQueen and Paul Newman who could be found dancing the night away.
During the 1966 Sunset Strip riots (which were immortalized in the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth“), the efforts of city officials to close The Whisky made it the focal point of the skirmishes between the protestors and the police. Other bands also paid homage to The Whisky in song, including Mötley Crüe in “Down at the Whisky” and Arthur Lee in the song “Forever Changes.”
The Whisky was not only a breeding ground for Los Angeles bands, but a destination for a lot of British bands such as Them (who played with The Doors on June 2, 1966), Cream, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix (The Jimi Hendrix Experience should probably be considered an English band because Hendrix had to go to London before he was discovered by The Animals’ Chas Chandler, and he and Hendrix put together The Experience), The Kinks, and The Who.
The Whisky continued to feature bands through the ’70s and, as new genres of rock came into being, The Whisky was at the forefront of emerging genres such as New Wave, Punk, and Heavy Metal with bands like The Runaways, X, Quiet Riot, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, The Germs, The Misfits, Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, and The Police.
During the ’80s, The Whisky fell on hard times as the punk bands faded from the scene, and The Whisky closed its doors in 1982. In 1986, however, The Whisky reopened. Gone were the go-go dancers, DJ booth, carpeting, and downstairs booths, and what remained were the stage, a concrete floor, and a bar at the far end of the room. The Whisky remains open today and still features up-and-coming bands, looking to find their niche in rock ‘n’ roll history like The Doors did in the summer of 1966.
In January 2014 The Whisky celebrated its 50th anniversary with a series of special concerts featuring bands like Fear, Dramarama, X, Robby Krieger and his Jam Kitchen (Krieger’s jazz-influenced group), Buckcherry, Fear Factory, Martha Davis and the Motels, Uli Jon Roth, Jack Russell’s Great White, Faster Pussycat, Jetboy, and The Bangles.
Note: There is a competing date of January 16, 1964 for The Whisky opening, but after further research January 11, 1964 date is the correct date. It is the date The Whisky says they opened.
Originally published January 11, 2014 for the 50th anniversary of the Whisky a Go-Go. This article appears in “The Doors Examined”.