Walking through Washington, D.C. is akin to walking through a museum. You’d be hard-pressed to find another city in the U.S. that’s colored more vividly with history, be it the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, the ceaseless light of the Eternal Flame, or the literal homestead of democracy that is the White House. But the city’s rich history extends beyond textbook fodder and tourist attractions. It also exists in its proud and thriving music scene, at the center of which stands a venue that has fostered and nurtured countless bands large and small over the course of 34 years and two locations.
The 9:30 Club isn’t just another cavernous dungeon through which bands aimlessly drift in and out night after night. It’s the nucleus of the DC music community and an institution that’s widely recognized as the gold standard of rock clubs. While so many rock clubs fall haphazardly into the “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” category, the 9:30 Club, from its humble origins catering to the city’s bustling punk community to its current standing as a world-class rock venue, always strived for something different.
When other venues thumbed their noses at all-ages shows, the 9:30 Club opened its doors to kids. When other venues were overlooking so-called “alternative” acts, the 9:30 Club were early supporters of many bands that would eventually give rise to the alternative rock boom of the early ’90s. The 9:30 staff consistently positioned itself ahead of the curve, and it continues to do so today.
So, how did they get here? We reached out to a handful of artists, writers, club owners, and DC insiders, as well as 9:30 Club staffers themselves, to get the full story behind one of the most celebrated rock clubs in the U.S.
In the Beginning…
The Atlantis Building circa 1920
By 1980, the DC music scene was being overrun by young bands clamoring for a place to call their own. Too young to attend or play shows at many of the city’s venues, Dody DiSanto and her husband, Jon Bowers, started the 9:30 Club, which hosted some of the city’s first all-ages shows.
Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi, founder and owner of Dischord Records): The 9:30 Club was in a building that had previously been a restaurant called The Atlantic. The Atlantic did shows. It was a punk venue. I’d never been there. I was a punk kid playing basements and garages. Nobody was paying attention to us at all, so none of us took anything particularly seriously.
Cynthia Connolly (Photographer, former talent booker at DC Space, co-author of Banned in DC): Banned in DC really references that time period when people weren’t able to get club shows. There weren’t very many clubs anyway. A lot of the shows were in churches or church halls and then houses in the very early ’80s because there wasn’t any space to perform in. And of course, the Bad Brains, if you listen to their song [“Banned in DC”], they were banned in DC. That’s where it came from.
Henry Rollins (Black Flag, Rollins Band): [Before the 9:30 Club], there was The Bayou, which was okay if a bit anonymous, just a big box. The Ontario Theater was a movie theater where bands played. We would go, of course, and see the Cramps, Stranglers, Bad Brains, Buzzcocks, Clash, Gang of Four, Police, Damned. We saw a lot of shows there, but they never sounded all that good. DC Space was a good place for a show, and we had some great times there. Madams Organ, while it lasted, was pretty amazing, but you knew it wasn’t going to last.
Connolly: There wasn’t anything happening in downtown DC except for some amazing old businesses that actually had lasted from the ’50s and were still there. And then (there was) the 9:30 Club, Ford’s Theater where Lincoln got shot, DC Space, and then some furniture stores. But it was all in buildings that hadn’t been renovated. They were sort of using these spaces as they were from the ’50s or ’60s, so they had this sort of lonely feeling. It was a pretty interesting time.
Dante Ferrando (Owner of Black Cat club): I remember when they first opened, they did a promotion where they handed out buttons that you put on your jacket. They had the 9:30 logo on them. It was less of a strict concert venue and more something for the entire DC scene. They would have theme parties and bring in truckloads of sand. DJs were an integral part of every show, and there was always a video component. So, there was a lot going on at that point.
Will Eastman (DJ, owner of U Street Music Hall): If you look at the calendars they have in the basement Backbar going back to 1980, you can see they’ve placed DJ events side by side with live music from the beginning. It’s part of their DNA.
Connolly: There was an article in January 1981 in the Washington Post about the Teen Idles, and I had seen that because my mom was trying to move to DC and she subscribed to the Washington Post. When we moved in April of 1981, I was like, “I’ve gotta find who these people are.” So, I found them. It was Nathan Strejcek, Dan Ingram, Ian MacKaye, and Jeff Nelson. I found Dan Ingram and Nathan Strejcek in Georgetown and that same day met Ian MacKaye, who worked at the Georgetown Theatre.
I ended up becoming friends with them instantly and helped Ian do the layout for the first Minor Threat single and was just involved with the whole punk music scene there. Of course, I ended up going to the 9:30 Club and making fliers for shows that were at the 9:30 Club that my friends were doing.
DiSanto’s willingness to work with younger bands paired up well with the venue’s booking agent and future owner, Seth Hurwitz, who had an ear for music and an eye for bands who occupied the fringes of the DC musical community.
Seth Hurwitz (Co-owner, promoter 9:30 Club): I was on the radio, and I interviewed a promoter, and I got a job with him. He had a theater, and he gave up that theater, then I made a deal with that theater direct. I just copied what he did. I started talking to bands just like he did, and the only ones who would talk to me were the alternative guys who were being ignored by the bigger promoters. Around the same time that I started, the original 9:30 Club started. Ian [Copeland] needed a place for me to do stuff for really small bands, so the Fleshtones were the first band that we did at the 9:30.
Connolly: [Seth] embraced a lot of different genres of music because he loved music. That’s probably why the 9:30 Club is considered to be one of the best clubs. His love and passion for music was built into the 9:30 Club that exists today.
Hurwitz: My dad was a computer programmer who worked for the government, but he had this alternative side to him. He used to take us to see Fellini movies and eat Japanese food. He always encouraged me to challenge myself. That was kind of ingrained in me, so the idea of going to this club where there were strange-looking people and music that I didn’t quite understand made sense. That was obviously the place that I needed to go. So, when I started booking at the 9:30 and it became time for me to become custodian of that, I felt like I was in charge of nurturing and preserving that. I never got a tattoo or a piercing or funny hair or any of that, but it was all still very exciting to me, and I loved it and respected it. I wanted to keep it going, and that was the challenge.
Rollins: Some of the best shows I have ever seen or played were at [the 9:30 Club]. As a fan of the place, I thought Dody ran the venue very well. Otherwise, the venues were more bars that had a small stage whacked into the corner almost as an afterthought. It was cool to see a band like The Cramps in such a small space and watch Lux roll around on the floor.
MacKaye: The early Black Flag shows there were just phenomenal. Black Flag’s first show there was epic, just such a good show. It was exciting for us. Dead Kennedys were great. I’m not really a list maker. But there have been a lot of experiences I’ve had at the 9:30 that were really profound. There were really great shows.
Connolly: One of my favorite shows at the 9:30 Club, I think it was July 1981, was Minor Threat, G.I., and Youth Brigade. It was a moment where we made fliers and fliered the show, but we were kind of wondering who the hell was going to come to this. Our friends were coming to this, but then all these kids from New York and Boston came and somehow they had heard about the show. To this day, we still don’t know how they heard about the show. I suppose somebody from Dischord might have written a letter to somebody, but we don’t know how they found out about the show. Again, there was no Internet. I guess it was by telephone. They all came down from Boston, which is a really long drive, eight or nine hours to DC, to go to this show. It was then we realized that whatever this punk thing was, it was way bigger than we had any idea. That was an amazing show.
Ferrando: I only worked [at the 9:30 club] for coat check for I think two seasons. Basically I had some friends who worked there. Alec MacKaye worked in the pizza kitchen, and I knew a couple of other people who worked there. It was a fun job because it was fairly autonomous. There was the huge catacombs of the basement, and they didn’t really care what you did with it. There was this tradition where whoever was doing coat check could do whatever extra sort of sideline thing they wanted to do. I used to sell records. I had a bunch of the old Dischord Records stuff up there. It was an easy job. You got to talk to and hang out with people who did go to the club regularly. If they were bored or the show wasn’t that great, people would come downstairs and hang out. It was basically a bar with booze in the basement.
MacKaye: When 9:30 Club first opened in June of 1980, it wasn’t all ages, so we were immediately like, “Fuck that place.” We were underage, and at the time, the band that I was in, the Teen Idles, kept getting banned from venues. These places that we called new wave venues couldn’t deal with the punk stuff.
Hurwitz: As far as all-ages shows go, I always thought that was the way it should be. I never understood the legality of excluding younger kids anyway. If you go to a restaurant, they serve liquor, but people of all ages go there. I never understood why people assumed it would be against the law to let kids in because a place served alcohol, so eventually we just [made everything all ages].
Ferrando: The all-ages show was completely integral to the DC scene at that point and time. The drinking age at the time was 18, but the bulk of the scene in that early Dischord era was really young. The old guys in the scene were guys like Ian (MacKaye) and Henry (Rollins), and they were like 18 or 19. But most of the other kids were 16 or 17, and others like me were 13 or 14. If the 9:30 Club hadn’t been all ages, our scene wouldn’t have been on the map, really.
Rollins: The 9:30 was a great thing for the local music scene. It gave bands from out of town a place to play that wasn’t too big but still held plenty of people. So, if there was an act that wasn’t exactly huge, they had a place to play and from that, we got to see some great shows.
Eastman: I first visited the old 9:30 Club in 1994, for a Velocity Girl show. I was in town searching for an apartment for an imminent move to DC and a friend introduced me to Archie Moore and the Velocity Girl gang. A news program was there filming b-roll for a segment about “youth sexuality.” I remember a lot of jokes being made about that.
MacKaye: I saw the Bad Brains play there. There were a lot of great gigs there early on. It was kind of cool to have a venue that specialized in the sort of music we liked.
Ferrando: People liked the shows and appreciated them, but our crowd was kind of a pain in the ass. They were punk shows, they didn’t make much money at the bar, and some of the people in the scene were a little reckless. There were always some people from outside the punk scene who didn’t have a good understanding of punk rock shows who were super aggressive. It was like, “Oh, I’ve heard about slam dancing.” Then there’d be fights because they’d cause problems, and people would be thrown out. So, I don’t think they were particularly easy shows for 9:30 to do. I definitely remember them making the decision at one point to not do any more punk shows. I remember a bit of a plea from our music scene to keep doing them.
Connolly: It wasn’t economically viable for clubs to do punk shows in the early ’80s. Dody, who was owning [the 9:30 Club] at the time, took a chance on doing it.
MacKaye: The Teen Idles used to do shows at Mabuhay Gardens (in San Francisco). The Mab had a method for letting kids into shows. They would put Xs on the hands of kids who were under the age of 18, which was the legal drinking age at the time. When we got back to Washington, we went to the 9:30 and said, “Hey, we want to do shows. We’re not going to drink. We’ll put Xs on our hands, and if you trust us then I think we can pull this off.” We were eventually able to do shows, which was great. It was a really amazing thing for us to be able to do that.
Ferrando: Dody held a meeting about it during the day. She asked a whole bunch of people from bands in the punk scene to come talk to her so they could figure out what to do. It was sort of this big brainstorming session. We said, “We don’t make any money. Just let us do shows in the afternoon.” So, we ended up doing matinees.
Rollins: For me, the most memorable show was the Teen Idles last show in November of 1980. It was the end of a band that I had seen almost every show of.
MacKaye: The last show that the Teen Idles ever played was the first ever kid punk show on November 6, 1980. That was the first time that any of us actually got to play the 9:30. Dody was interested in the kids here. In 1981, things were really taking off here, like the punk/hardcore scene. We went to Dody and said, “We want to do punk matinee shows.” CBGBs sort of did the same thing a few years later, but it was the same concept. We did the shows, I booked them, and we policed ourselves for the most part.