“A Place in Time,” Excerpt from Trina Calderón’s essay in the Pump Me Up catalogue
The first bands to play the 9:30 Club were the Lounge Lizards and Tiny Desk Unit. People packed the small black-box room, and the show sold out. That night the club became the official breeding ground for the alternative and progressive music scene in D.C. According to local promoter Seth Hurwitz,
“It was the true alternative culture downtown in Washington. That was when the word alternative really meant alternative.”
The spontaneity, style, and integrity of the scene helped create the unique experience in the rundown Northwest neighborhood. “Back then it was super sketchy. This was way before any one had any thoughts of developing. It was just an old funky part of D.C. with funky old stores. D.C. was all pretty much black at this time. The location was famous for being around the corner from Ford Theater. In fact, legend has it that John Wilkes Booth escaped through the basement of what was the 9:30 Club. It was frontier land, nobody went in there with the idea that this was gonna be big someday, there was no master plan at work,” says Seth, who booked The Fleshtones as his first show at the club and later took over ownership with Rich Heinecke in 1986.
FLASHBACK: Anyone remember these halls?
In the eighties, two very different genres of music were alive and well in D.C.: Go-Go and hardcore punk rock. The former was characterized by a continuous groove, the latter by a screaming voice, but both felt at home on the stage at the 9:30. Other bands that played the early days included Chuck Brown, E.U., Rare Essence, REM, The Go-Go’s, X, The Slickee Boys, Tony Bennett, Devo, Urban Verbs, Black Flag, Government Issue, and Steel Pulse. The club soon became known for hosting cool new bands, and some nights Dody even turned down bigger acts like the Police and Prince because they already had their lineups booked and wouldn’t make concessions based on profits. It was important to Dody, and later Seth and Rich, to keep the spot genuine and saturated with a lot of different genres.
The club was very special to the locals and to the many musicians who played there. It had a sense of danger and, as Seth describes it, the distinctive the smell of “cigarettes, beer, and when air conditioners don’t work right.” The city even ran a contest to name the smell. Back then, D.C. was a hotbed of local talent, bands that were proud to be from D.C. Although many never gained national recognition, they were lifelong natives, and staying in D.C. and playing at the 9:30 was a badge of honor. Bands such as Trouble Funk, Razz, and Fugazi were true hometown heroes that often played the 9:30.