In L.A.'s Suburbs, a Mini-Empire of '80s Bars
Photo by Danny Liao
Inside the Hully Gully in Downey on a recent Saturday night, the big 1980s pop hits don't do as well as the cult ones. There's a lot of love for Afrika Bambaataa's influential track "Planet Rock" and Gucci Crew II's Miami bass jam "Sally, That Girl."
Nothing, however, picks up the energy like "Anything, Anything (I'll Give You)," a frantic rock tune from Dramarama.
Singer John Easdale's voice grows with frustration, culminating in a cry of, "Give you anything you want!" That's when DJ Steven Andrew — his porkpie hat and thick-framed glasses lit up by the glow of his MacBook — drops out the vocals. In unison, the crowd screams the next line, "Hundred-dollar bills!"
Los Angeles' love for '80s music never died. Even in the grungy dregs of the mid-1990s, you could easily find DJs who eschewed Beck for B-Movie.
Today there are '80s-centric events across the county, from Blue Mondays in Hollywood to the Breakfast Klub in Rosemead. That's in addition to the numerous indie, goth and other genre-specific parties that rely heavily on music released in that decade.
In the communities of southeast L.A. County and the San Gabriel Valley, there is an '80s scene that is nostalgic not just for the music but for the Los Angeles of that era. This is the '80s as heard on radio stations like KROQ and Power 106, fueled by backyard parties, roller rinks and amusement park events. At its core is a crew of DJs like Andrew, along with venue owners and promoters who keep the nostalgic parties going seven nights a week.
With his short, dark hair, black glasses and black shirt, Danny Sanchez doesn't look like the King of the '80s. But the 44-year-old Orange County native helms a growing mini-empire catering to music fans still hungry for an era when Depeche Mode haircuts ruled and kids with weird taste in music were called "KROQers."
Sanchez is the promoter of Club Addiction, the '80s extravaganza that takes place at Hully Gully on Friday and Saturday nights. He's also one of the owners of New Wave Restaurant and Bar, a Bellflower venue that has taken L.A.'s '80s obsession to new levels.
In the back room of New Wave, which he opened with his niece and nephew in 2010, Sanchez is surrounded by '80s album covers, many from his own collection: The Smiths, The Specials, Madonna. "I've seen from watching shows like Bar Rescue that you shouldn't go with a theme," Sanchez says. "I think I proved them wrong."
New Wave hosts nightly, '80s-themed entertainment. Dramarama, Berlin and Missing Persons — the actual groups, not cover bands — have graced its stage. Singer Clive Farrington, of When in Rome, comes here to chill. Customers can play Pac-Man for free while sipping on a Richard Blade Rum Runner, named for the former KROQ DJ. Hungry Smiths fans can munch on a "Meat Is Murder" veggie burger.
Sanchez's new-wave obsession began in 1982, when his sister took him to see Thompson Twins with openers OMD. The 12-year-old Anaheim native was immediately smitten.
At the Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet (then known as the La Mirada Swap Meet), where his parents have sold various goods since the mid-1960s, a teenaged Sanchez set up turntables and a mixer in his mom's cosmetics booth and played for hours at a time. Crowds loved it. He quickly became an in-demand local DJ, playing junior and senior high school dances. Eventually, he played his own prom.
Back then, some of Sanchez's friends laughed off his ambition to be a nightclub owner. But after spending the '90s DJing at Orange County bars and clubs, that's what he did. At the dawn of the new century, he began promoting a party called Club Addiction. The '80s-centric party celebrates its 15th anniversary in June.
After a decade of Addiction, Sanchez stumbled upon an old Lakewood Avenue bar in need of a new owner. That became New Wave Restaurant and Bar. More recently, he spread his reach outside of L.A., teaming with a friend to open That '80s Bar in Montclair and Totally '80s Bar and Grille in Fullerton.
The vibe changes from venue to venue, Sanchez says. But at New Wave, the KROQ classics are big. Multiple Smiths/Morrissey tribute bands have drawn well, and bands that were in heavy KROQ rotation back in the day, such as Dramarama, have played there multiple times.
"It's not what I expected at all," says Dramarama's Easdale, who lives in nearby Whittier, about playing at New Wave. "It was really friendly, really nice. ... Everybody was singing along."
The most universally '80s it gets at New Wave is on karaoke nights. KJ Jay Tando, who has been with the bar since 2012 and hosts karaoke four nights a week, says Journey's hit "Don't Stop Believing" is a go-to song. "Every night someone has to sing it, and every night someone has to destroy it," he says.
But, that's not all you'll hear onstage. Tando, who's originally from Seattle, has an expansive collection of karaoke tracks that digs deep into works from the alternative bands of the era. Of course, anything originally sung by one Steven Patrick Morrissey is big — "There's a reason they call it Moz Angeles," he says — as is Oingo Boingo.
The dance nights, mixing alternative rock with the disco-inflected sound of Hi-NRG, are where the parties really start to sound like Los Angeles. That's a credit to the DJs on Sanchez's rosters, who are clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the decade's musical output. Listening to Steven Andrew's sets, it's hard to believe that he was born in 1982.
At the end of the 1990s, Andrew was a Catholic school kid in Long Beach with a newfound love for raves. He really wanted to DJ house music, but building a record collection was outside of his teenage budget.
A few years earlier, Andrew's uncle, a DJ himself, died and left behind a bountiful collection of Hi-NRG records. Andrew used those to teach himself how to mix. He figured out how to beat-match club hits that were then more than a decade old, such as "Danger" by The Flirts and "Living on Video" from Trans-X.
Once Andrew got started, he couldn't leave the '80s. By the early 2000s, he'd gravitated toward the electroclash world, where artists such as Ladytron and Fischerspooner were mining '80s influences for contemporary sounds. Eventually Andrew headed down to the Hully Gully for a dose of the new/old sound and a chance to pass out his mix CDs. Ten years later, he's still playing Sanchez's parties.
The 1980s may be a decade but it's something of a scene, too. Like other scenes, trends change. Andrew says there was a time where he could play lesser-known synthpop acts, such as Camouflage, or Soft Cell tracks that aren't "Tainted Love," and people would love it. These days, that's not the case.
His big hits right now — aside from "Anything, Anything" — include "Valerie Loves Me" by Material Issue and "Goodbye Horses," the Q Lazzarus cut memorable for its appearance in The Silence of the Lambs. On the Hi-NRG tip, crowds tend to go for artists like Tapps, Lime and Stacey Q. The unifying thread is that these songs were popular with L.A. audiences back in the day, too.
Andrew wonders whether his bag of hits would go over well in the Midwest: "Would they rather hear Kenny Loggins' 'Highway to the Danger Zone?'"
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