If there’s a characteristic shared by many great rock venues, it’s that they’re rarely about glitz, glamour, or Vegas-style flash. Oftentimes, the best venues have a raggedly dilapidated quality that feels part and parcel of rock music itself. Many great artists served apprenticeships and honed their crafts in such settings, performing on low-tiered rickety stages. With just a couple of exceptions, the legendary venues below prove that shifts in the direction of rock can sometimes occur in the unlikeliest of places.
Whisky A-Go-Go (Los Angeles, California)
The L.A. rock scene was essentially born on the day the Whisky A-Go-Go opened its doors in 1964. Located on Sunset Strip, the club served as the breeding ground for such acts as Alice Cooper, Buffalo Springfield and The Doors. As its name implies, the club also spawned the relatively short-lived phenomenon of go-go dancing. The Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and countless other pioneering bands made their southern California debut on The Whisky’s stage.
The Fillmore (San Francisco, California)
No venue had a greater impact on ’60s counterculture than the original Fillmore did. A focal point for the psychedelic movement, the venue achieved notoriety not just for the musicians who appeared there, but also for an ambiance built around strobe lights, light-show projections, and, of course, its famous posters. Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd were among the notable artists who bolstered their paisley reputations by playing The Fillmore. Such diverse artists as Otis Rush, Miles Davis and Otis Redding performed there as well.
CBGB (New York, New York)
Founded in 1973, CBGB was originally intended to be a showcase for its namesake blend of country, bluegrass and blues. Instead, the venue quickly became an incubator for the burgeoning American punk scene and the new wave movement. Blondie, The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, and Patti Smith are among the elite artists who honed their skills in front of CBGB audiences. Fittingly, Smith staged the final concert at the venue, performing there just prior to its October 2006 closing.
40 Watt Club (Athens, Georgia)
Many rock fans think of southern rock as a stylistic niche limited to The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Black Crowes, and other bands of similar ilk. More than any other venue, the 40 Watt Club demolished that stereotype. Since opening in 1978, the unassuming structure has served as a musical laboratory for the likes of R.E.M., Indigo Girls, B-52s and the late Vic Chesnutt. In addition to being a must-stop for virtually every alternative band who tours through the South, the 40 Watt is currently home-base for Drive-By Truckers, Of Montreal, and other bands that comprise the thriving Athens scene.
Max’s Kansas City (New York, New York)
Founded in 1965, Max’s Kansas City was originally a gathering spot for such legendary artists and writers as William S. Burroughs, Roy Lichtenstein, and Willem de Kooning. Andy Warhol was a regular as well, which is how the Velvet Underground came to perform their final shows there in 1970. Max’s went on to become home-base for the ’70s glam scene, with Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and the New York Dolls putting in regular appearances. The venue later became a cradle of punk, and in fact Sid Vicious staged many of his notorious post-Pistols solo shows on Max’s stage.
Marquee Club (London, England)
The Marquee Club’s place in rock history was assured on July 12, 1962, when an upstart band called The Rolling Stones took the stage for their first-ever live public performance. In subsequent years, the venue’s small stage was graced by the likes of The Who, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin and the original Syd Barrett-led Pink Floyd. Perhaps most famously, David Bowie chose the venue as the setting for his Ziggy-era “1980 Floor Show,” which was broadcast to American audiences on The Midnight Special in 1973. During the ’80s, such notable bands as Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, and Metallica played the Marquee as well, sometimes in the form of surprise appearances under assumed names.
Cavern Club (Liverpool, England)
Liverpool’s Cavern Club was originally founded as a jazz venue, in 1957. Thanks to Britain’s skiffle craze, however, the club soon began staging “lunchtime sessions” that featured burgeoning skiffle acts, including an upstart band called The Quarrymen Skiffle Group led by 16-year-old John Lennon. Long story short, by mid-1961 England’s Merseybeat scene was in full bloom, with The Beatles at its center. To this day, many who saw The Beatles play at The Cavern during those years say those performances were the band’s best-ever.
First Avenue and 7th Street Entry (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
First Avenue’s main stage was memorialized forever as the place where Prince and the Revolution performed their searing music in the film, Purple Rain. Indeed, throughout the ’80s, the Purple One often tried out new material at the venue. Meanwhile, First Avenue’s sister venue, 7th Street Entry, served as a breeding ground for The Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum and other Minneapolis-based bands. One wonders if the Midwest alternative explosion would have occurred at all were it not for this cornerstone venue.
Crocodile Café (Seattle, Washington)
Opening its doors with little fanfare in April 1991, this legendary venue quickly became prime stomping ground for the burgeoning Seattle music scene. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains headed the all-star list of grunge bands who took “the Croc’s” stage as up-and-comers. Even as the grunge explosion tapered off, the venue remained a favorite site for alternative acts, with such notable groups as R.E.M. and Sonic Youth including it as a must-stop on tours through the Northwest.
Apollo Theater (New York, New York)
Though the Apollo Theater is not commonly thought of as a rock venue, rock music would likely have a much different sound were it not for the performers who honed their skills there. An incubator for the likes of Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and The Isley Brothers, the venue correctly asserts its claim as the place “where stars are born and legends are made.” The wide range of talent that graced the Apollo Theater’s stage is evidenced by two legendary acts who, early in their careers, won amateur contests presented at the club. One was The Jackson 5. The other? Jimi Hendrix, in 1964.