Welcome to the Club: An oral history of D.C.'s 9:30 club on its 30th anniversary

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

On May 31, 1980, a Worcester, Mass., jazz-punk band known as the Lounge Lizards performed at 930 F St. NW, in decaying downtown Washington. The opening act was Tiny Desk Unit, a local new wave group. Don't worry if the names don't ring a bell. Just know that they made a little bit of history that night in the sweaty, peculiarly shaped, black-walled club on the ground floor of the century-old Atlantic Building: It was the very first concert at the 9:30 club, which would become one of the most famous, successful and celebrated live-music clubs in the United States.

The 9:30 club instantly became Washington's primary venue for alternative music, just as alternative was beginning to blossom. R.E.M., Simple Minds, Modern English, A Flock of Seagulls, the Go-Go's, Violent Femmes, Cyndi Lauper and 10,000 Maniacs played there, as did seminal bands from Washington's hard-core punk and go-go scenes. The funky club in a forgotten section of town became a station of the cross for ascending bands working outside of music's mainstream. Let the Bayou in Georgetown have the spawn of REO Speedwagon; the 9:30 club's bookings included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day and Nine Inch Nails, making for a pretty impressive alt-rock yearbook.

The 9:30 operated in the 1880s-vintage building at 930 F until it moved, at the beginning of 1996, to an exponentially larger space at 815 V St. NW. Since then, its following and reputation have continued to grow: The landmark venue has been named Nightclub of the Year four times by Pollstar, and it regularly tops that industry journal's annual list of the top ticket-selling U.S. clubs.

With the 9:30 turning 30 next month, here's the tale of the storied club's roots, told by some of the people who lived it.

Dody DiSanto, 9:30 club founder:

In 1979, my husband, Jon Bowers, was buying property downtown, and the Richardsonian architecture of the Atlantic Building really struck him. It was primarily an investment in a style that really tickled him. He was also an enormous music enthusiast, and there'd been a club there called the Atlantis. He and his brother, Henry, got excited about opening a club in that space, and they asked me if I would consider booking it. I got drafted to go to a meeting with John Paige and Mark Holmes, who had been producing shows with new bands on independent labels, and there was this spontaneous explosion.

John Paige, former concert promoter: At that time, the major promoters like Cellar Door considered all the new music -- new wave, punk, no wave -- a joke. These groups were really good, and nobody was bringing them to town. They thought nobody liked the music. I didn't intend to be a promoter, but I wanted to see these bands. So we started setting up new wave concerts anyplace we could, like Gaston Hall at Georgetown University. We brought XTC, Devo, groups like that. I compare it to the Renaissance. There was this huge energy waiting to break through. It was looking for a focus and a place, and Jon and Dody had the building that had housed the Atlantis back in the [late '70s].

Ian MacKaye, D.C. punk-rock icon: The Atlantis was a legendary place. The Bad Brains have a song called "At the Atlantis" -- it's them talking about their ambition to play there.

Robert Goldstein, guitarist for local new wave stars the Urban Verbs: Paul Parsons owned the Atlantic Building [before Jon Bowers] and had opened the Atlantis in a space that used to be a used-furniture store. But the only bands he was getting were glam-rock bands you could see anywhere in the suburbs; nobody was coming downtown to see them. The club wasn't going anywhere. I knew there were a number of new bands that had a ready audience but no place to play, and in very early '78, we needed a place to rehearse. So I offered to book them at the Atlantis in exchange for practice space. Parsons let us have the basement to rehearse, and I booked the club for a couple of months.

Roddy Frantz, Urban Verbs singer: There was clearly something starting to happen. I lived in the Atlantic Building on the seventh floor, and I remember looking out my windows at F Street and seeing a big old Ford LTD station wagon and these blond guys getting out and loading their equipment by themselves into the Atlantis. It turned out it was The Police.

Paige: But the whole punk/new wave community boycotted the Atlantis because they were treating musicians and the audience very poorly.

Goldstein: We'd already gone to New York to record when the boycott thing happened. The club closed and the building got sold, and that's when Dody and her husband got involved.

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