1980 brought Reagan to the White House and the hostages home from Iran. It also brought Hinkley's assassination attempt on the president and the collapse of the Oil Business. Denver's economy fell hard in '81 and the resulting economic divide created the perfect environment for an alternative culture movement to develop and flourish.
To really get the picture of the times it is necessary to suspend disbelief, and travel back to a time, when there was nothing but open space between Westminster and Boulder, before the internet, cell phones, computers, strip malls, mountain bikes, Major League Baseball, Qwest, 500 TV channels, overt corporate homogenization, and all the other things we've become so involved and overrun with in the information age.
Information travelled slowly, and with more credibility than it does today. This is only part of the story of the musicians, venues, record stores, cafes, and all the supporting characters that made Denver in the 80's real and vibrant scene for music and alternative culture.
The end of the 70's came the rejuvenation of Capitol Hill making it the epicentre for change. Many gays began to move in and restore the hold Denver four squares and Mansions around Cheeseman Park. Cheap rent brought musicians, artists, and creative types back to Capitol Hill and some brave souls even ventured downtown to stake out lofts.
The center and soul of punk, new wave, and alternative culture was Wax Trax Records at 13th & Washington. Duane Davis is the undisputed Godfather of the scene. (Michael Roberts Westword article is an excellent history of the business), so I'll just focus on my experiences. At the time Denver's airwaves were dominated with the dinosaur rock sound of Supertramp, Foreigner, Foghat, Kansas, and Genesis. KAZY and KBPI were paving the way for the arrival of the mullet. Duane had the first punk/new wave radio show, Sunday mornings on KFML, the first song I heard on that show was ≥Transmission" by Joy Division. Hearing the music of Throbbing Gristle, the Pistols, or the Clash was like a revolutionary siren to the disaffected. A lot of people didn't know they wanted something different until they heard it. What the people finally heard was the sound of revolution; and Duane was out in front of everybody blazing a new trail.
Around the same time my friend Bill Dillion had turned me on to records by the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Souixie. That was it for suburban life 13th & Washington became ground zero. We ditched school all the time and Bill drove us in his mom's old Pontiac wagon down to Wax Trax to buy 7" inch import singles and punk badges.
Wax Trax was only the corner store at the time -- CD's weren't invented yet. A person could lose themselves for hours browsing the racks of vinyl. Wax Trax was like a scavenger hunt for clues to the new world. I remember large UK posters of Elvis Costello from My Aim is True, the Sex Pistols ...Never Mind the Bollocks, The Specials, and David Bowie as Aladdin Sane, hanging on the walls and ceiling. Jeff Froyd sat behind the counter, everyone was smoking, he was a rock star, he was Denver's Robert Fripp. I remember seeing Steve Knutson there as well. They of course were the Young Weasels a seminal Denver band.
What Duane accomplished very quickly was to establish Wax Trax as the credible voice of alternative culture in Denver. Punk brought seditiousness and rebellion back to music, and Capitol Hill provided the perfect decaying geography for Denver's scene. What Duane and Dave were doing was creating the archetypal independent record store from scratch. If they hung a poster on the wall it was as if the Wax Trax seal of approval had been given. Over time the layers of posters became part of the character and experience of the store. Wax Trax was a portal for information. The posters were an important part of that communication. Now days when a poster hangs in a record store it's because the space was co-op'd or paid for by a label, not necessarily an endorsement from the shop. They stocked all the available British press; the NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, Kerrang!, and The Face. All of these publications were essential reading, and for many, and an important catalyst for how people were defining their own individuality locally.
In the mid 80's when I began to travel around the country more, I would visit the local alternative record stores and would always be disappointed and quickly realized just how amazing our local record store really was. If it was new Wax Trax had it first. It was a time when words like cutting edge, and innovative were often used in reference to music. Wax Trax was the true leader in making that music available.
If Wax Trax was ground zero, then Ronnie Crawford's Rudely Decadent was a close second. What the Sex Pistols did for society was to draw a really clear dividing line between ancient history and the new world, thus for the first time since the hippies, creating a unique alternative culture. People felt the need to visually separate themselves from the society they hated. Rudely had all the gear, vintage suits, surplus army coats, tux's, paisley, new wave glasses, jack boots, you name it. But more importantly what Ronnie Crawford did was provide another essential environment for the scene to flourish. Ronnie recognized the movement as a social scene and did his best to be the king of it. He was an eccentric and charismatic figure. He always had newest music blaring on the stereo. The Ramones were a constant, I'm sure that the first time I heard "New Life" by Depeche Mode was at Ronnie's store. It seems trivial now, but when you are introduced to something new and good, which is not specific to somebody's marketing plan it creates that seductive rush of knowing you've discovered something cool.
During the early 80's Denver was equal to anywhere in the US except LA & NYC when it came to alternative music, people fashion and lifestyle. Rudely's was a place where many people transformed themselves, found new life in the Reagan era and were never judged. People were always hanging out there, trading ideas, and news while sitting on the sofas in the back and smoking cigarettes for hours. The masses only went to South Broadway to buy Halloween costumes, the other 11 months of the year Rudely Decadent was the catch all meeting place for the freaks that dared to go there own way. Ronnie always knew where the gigs were and the after-hours, he was fundamental to the style of the scene. It was cool to buy stuff at Ronnie's, when his stock got low he'd go two blocks South on Broadway to the Value Village get more stuff, wash it and then hang it on his racks at twice the price.
Both Duane and Ronnie embodied a true punk ethic, by ignoring mainstream conventions and barriers, they followed their passions, and they built something terrific out of nothing.
The first club I went to was Walabi's on south Broadway, and the band was the Young Weasel's. Jeff Froyd was a guitar genius and often sat on a stool while playing, they were chaotic and yet some how managed to make you feel smart for being in to them. If I remember correctly Charlie Brown was the doorman, he later moved to Los Angeles, and was the first manager of Jane's Addiction. Joan Jett played there and collapsed mid-set due to the high Denver altitude. Walabi's was cool because you could get in with a fake ID.
Then came a trilogy of shows that I believe really cemented Denver as a great place for touring bands to play Black Flag, X, and the Dead Kennedy's all played within a relatively short time frame at the original Mercury Cafe. When people talk about the how gross the toilet is at CBGB's (if you've ever experienced it you know what I mean,) then let me tell you the Merc's bathroom was worse. That was part of the charm; it was part hippie theatre, and part punk rock paradise. The fire dept, and the cops were always harassing Marilyn for being over capacity and underage drinking.
Blag Flag at the Merc, Henry Rollins had a broken arm, and mid-set picked a fight with a kid in the crowd that spilled out on to Pennsylvania Street. X was amazing, Xzene and John Doe were intense and pure punk, and Billy Zoom was statuesque and pure Rock-n-roll. I think he played a silver Gretsch Sparkle Jet that night. Somebody correct me if I'm wrong. I didn't see the Dead Kennedy's but I remember there was a lot of concern from the city and the neighbourhood. It's important to realize that the early eighties were not that far removed from a more radically political time in America, and the conservatives viewed punk with the same disdain that they had for the Symbianese Liberation Army. So the Dead Kennedy's and other punk bands were seen as quite threatening, were being completely misunderstood by the mainstream.
Sneaking in the Merc as underage kids didn't last, and then not too long after the Gun Club played there in '82 and then it was gone. I ran into Jeffrey Lee Pierce in Los Angeles on the corner of Sunset and Larabee about a year before his death. We reminisced about the old days and he fondly remembered the Mercury Cafe show as one of the best the Gun Club ever played on tour. He gave me his card, which read Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Trapeze Artist.
URBAN LEASH -- was a band that included John Rumley and Steve? they were genius. They were punk and funk, an incredibly original band. They had great street style, but didn't last long. John is a is now one of Denver's premiere guitar craftsman and sometimes 16 horsepower bassist.
Mau Mau 55 played an amazing show in the basement of an apartment building on 14th Ave, that used to be a girls school. The gig was put on by an eccentric and flambouyant character named Nye Basham. Mau Mau were loud and bashy. They were noise supporting Mike's shear size and charismatic personality. They added a lot to the Denver music scene. Mike Savage now lives in LA and continues to gig with Pygmy Love Circus. I'm not sure if Sheppard (Aviators) is still in the band. I see Mike from time to time driving around LA in big red 70's Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
Church and State, was the Sussman brothers band. They got busted for being underage while trying to pull off a gig at Straight Johnson's on Broadway. I think maybe Andy Monley was in that band too. The Pink was the headliner that night total mismatch bill but that was what was cool about gigs in those days, all the bands were distinctly different from each other, and that was a good thing. The Pink had a song everybody knew and liked about a TV Repairman. The Pink often played with another band called the Astrobeats who were a kind of post-punk-meets Eddie Cochran high energy rock-n-roll thing. They were lot's of fun to get drunk to. Drinking was everything. Drinking and driving was as normal as breathing, everybody did it. Denver was a lot less populated. If you weren't drinking and driving it was because you didn't have a car. The greatest drinker and drive was of course Tom Murray, better known as Thomas Tree, vocalist and drummer of the Trees. A couple of times Tom was so wasted he actually played the gig from seated in a wheel chair. He often sang and played drums at the same time. In the mid eighties came a second wave for alternative bands in Denver, including Acid Ranch, the Electric Third Rail, Jux County, the Soul Merchants and most notably The Fluid. One of the most charismatic individuals on the scene was John Meggitt, he worked at Wax Trax and fronted several bands including Acid Ranch for minute, he was a really good guy and a personality to match. He was the archetypal scene guy, liked by all and he had great musical taste. Acid Ranch started out with John Meggitt as the singer and then a guy called Need Cavanaugh became the singer, Mike Serviolo was another the great Denver guitarist who played in Acid Ranch, he later sit in with Jux County and then the he was a founding member of Elan and then Pil Bug with Maria.
The Electric Third Rail was a Boulder band fronted by a girl named George Gatsiopoluos, they got some attention from labels, and were highly touted by the G. Brown at the Denver post and Gil Asakawa at Westword. For a moment there Denver almost got on the map thanks to the efforts of Ed Pearson and Dolly (everybody knows Dolly, she was the coolest). Ed was an opportunist who raised his own profile on the back many local bands, before eventually leaving to become head of business affairs at Warner Chappell Publishing.
The Soul Merchants were Denver's first Goth band, pulling their influences from Bauhaus, and the Sisters of Mercy. I'm not sure but I think they pre-dated Bloodflower who eventually became the Denver Gentleman and then 16 Horsepower, and then back again.
I must diverge for moment because it's impossible to talk about the Soul Merchants and the Fluid and not talk about "The German House." Located behind the Fillmore which used to be the Mammoth Events Center is a social hall that was for short period of time available for gigs. What a great room to see a band play, clear span open floor with no visual obstructions, and a beer bar in the back. Walking up to the German House on the night of gig you would see 50 people hanging out on the front steps, and then 300-400 people inside completely in to being there. If you went to gig at the German House you were guaranteed two things a great time and new friends. Notable gigs, the Meat Puppets, The Descendents, and of course the Fluid. The Fluid were by far and away the greatest live band to come out of Denver ever. When the Fluid took the stage the first time at the German House, Denver changed and never looked back. John Robinson grabbed the mike dressed like the lizard king but moved and sang like one James Osterberg (Iggy). Garret Shavlick the drummer rolled his eyes back in head and pounded the fuck out of the drums and the thunder that ensued propelled a searing two guitar attack, that produced the first true mosh-pit in Denver history music history. Before the Fluid it was pogo-ing and some slamming. Every time they played The Fluid changed things, they made the world a better place for an hour. Guitarist Ricky Kulwicki was also one of Denver's original skateboard heroes (but that's another website altogether. Anybody remember the Concrete Curl or the ARA (Another Roadside Attraction) skate competitions?
The Fluid were one of the first bands to sign to SubPop, and I think a lot of the Seattle band's really aspired to be like them. It's unfortunate that SubPop has neglected to include the Fluid in their legacy. Garrett came to me once begging and pleading to get a gig for his friends who were also on SubPop, they were called Nirvana he swore they good, this was pre- Dave Grohl, Bleach was just coming out. I promoted two gigs for them. They were more than good. The second was at the end of Bleach with Dave -- Jux County opened. There used to be bootleg video floating around of the first gig. If you have it I'd like a copy. Who knew? The Fluid were always at their best from the first gig to the last, the combination of John, Matt, James, Rick and Garrett, was lethal. They were the definition of chemistry.
THE RAINBOW MUSIC HALL
There are four things that made the Rainbow Music Hall one of the greatest venues of all time.
- Dave McKay
- The Bands
- A stadium PA in a 1000 seater hall
- The Audience.
Yeah yeah Barry Fey, Feyline, blah -- It was Dave McKay, who booked the Rainbow Music Hall and created the events that entertained so many of us. Dave drove an old 60's Volvo and wore flip-flops even in the winter. Dave was a promoter in the image of Mssr. Fey, but he had an extra level kindness, and humanity that most concert promoters lack. In those days kids would sleep out overnight to be first in line at the door of the rainbow for gigs. Dave would always come out check up on everybody, he'd sneak us info about what gigs we're going on sale, or who was thinking of booking. We were just high school kids, he'd let us backstage after every show to meet the artists. I think Dave's still a promoter in Salt Lake City, UT. A genuinely great guy, he loved music and people. Lights out meant joints on.
Here's a list of shows I remember from the Rainbow -- Joe Jackson w/ Fabulous Poodles, The Knack, DEVO, The Cure, Echo and The Bunnymen w/ Billy Bragg, the Ramones (many times), Dave Edmunds, the Pyschedelic Furs, Lene Lovich, the Eurythmics, Peter Tosh, Violent Femmes w/ fishbone, Ministry, The Split Enz, The Pretenders, The Waitresses, Wall Of Voodoo, Gene Loves Jezebel, Atec Camera, Gary Numan, Missing Persons, X, the chilli peppers etc,....
The sheer volume and power of the PA was astonishing, you couldn't leave the rainbow without your ears ringing for days.
But the very best thing about the Rainbow was the people who went there, friendships were made that over the years travelled up venues sizes with the music all the way to Red Rocks and McNichols Arena. Any show you went to you would know people from previous shows, and you always met new people that were into the same music. I think the Rainbow Music hall was the last time it was really about the fans.
Thirsty's -- The Grove - Confetti -- Pirahna room -- Neo -- Rock Island -- 23 Parrish -- Fishdance --Dead Beat Club.
Thirsty's was on Auraria (sp) Parkway across from the Tivoli -- It was 3.2 beer bar that had catered to Jocks, Thursday was New Wave night, it was like a costume party for new wavers, Steve Whittier was rad, he was dressed like Adam Ant, my other friend Spero was a Duranie, some girls dressed like Madonna others like Souxsie, I was into something lame like depeche mode or culture club. It was a really innocent place. The Grove on the other hand was the coolest of the early new wave discos, it was small room maybe 150 capacity on Seventeenth Ave. across from the 7-11 west of Josephine Street. It was 3.2 as well and it was most nights a gay bar but on Tuesdays it was mixed. There was a transsexual DJ named Lily Rose who spun records there. This place had the loud sound system and low ceilings. This is the first place where harder dance music was played Ministry, Gang Of Four, all the Mute Records stuff and then that was mixed with Grace Jones, some of the 4ad bands like the Cocteau Twins, and New Order.
Then came the Piranha Room, when confetti's closed down Marty and the other dude from Confetti opened The Pirahna room a small exclusive discoteque in the basement of the same building behind the Target in Glendale. The furniture was retro-modern...it was nice. It had a theme sort of this razor tooth graphic of a vicious fish grinding it's jaws. I'd have to say this was the wildest bar in the 80's. This place became notorious for sex and drugs, people had bags of cocaine, the doorman sold Ecstasy, which was still unclassified at the time. People drank so much on top of all the drugs. Everyone there was so fucked up, 976 phone numbers had just started and there'd be four or five people in the lobby dialing phone sex, and the other people were fucking in the bathrooms, in the corners, in the parking lot everywhere. It was mad and didn't last long. Neo opened upstairs and that killed the P room. Legendary for Denver.
Rock Island -- opened on Halloween 1985 or '86? The First DJ Tony was the most knowledgeable music person when it came to alternative he had thousands of records. He moved to Denver from Dallas from the Stark Club and Cinema Cafe to DJ at Rock Island -- the first 9 months was musically amazing for a dance club. He was heavily criticized for being too alternative. In those days Larimer was still skid row and other than the Wazee Supper Club and El Chapultapec it's was nothing but drunk Indians and closed store fronts. People had to be begged to go downtown. I promoted three gigs at Rock Island 1. ) The Electric third Rail 2.) The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (out of place but it turned out to be his last Denver gig before he died.) and 3.) Skinny Puppy.
more to come???