For a club with a capacity of only 500, the Whisky a Go Go holds a stadium’s worth of rock & roll history.
The Whisky’s widescreen legacy runs from ’60 folk-pop and psychedelia into ’70s punk and new wave, through ’80 heavy metal and hard rock and ’90s alternative. In 2006, it became the first venue inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (A year before Van Halen, one of many Southern California stars who cut their teeth at 8901 Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood, was inducted.)
The Whisky opened in 1964. Early this May, Mario Maglieri, owner of the Whisky a Go Go and the equally storied Rainbow Bar and Grill, died at the age of 94. Tributes from large-font rockers poured in on social media. Guns N’ Roses guitar legend Slash posted on Instagram, “Lost dear old friend Mario Maglieri today. Owner of Rainbow Bar & Grill & The Whisky, he kept RnR alive in Hwd. We will never forget you. RIP.”
With so many historic performances having taken place at the Whisky, it’s a challenge to narrow down the 10 most legendary. But we like challenges, so here they are.
Jan. 5, 1969
As raw as Led Zeppelin were when they played the Whisky, the nascent band were already exuding dynamics and metallic magic that would later help them fill multiple nights at the Forum. The band played three nights with a young Alice Cooper's band opening. The first of these performances, Jan. 2, was only Zep’s fifth show in the United States. The Jan. 5 show has been immortalized via bootleg live recordings, with drummer John Bonham’s kick drum, guitarist Jimmy Page’s wah-wah and singer Robert Plant’s bluesy wail high in the mix. Songs performed included numbers from Zeppelin’s self-titled debut, including “Daze and Confused” and “Babe, I’m Going to Leave You,” as well as covers of songs by The Yardbirds (“For Your Love”) and Garnet Mimms (“As Long as I Have You”).
Aug. 21, 1966
The Doors usually ended their sets with their snaky epic “The End.” But on this night, frontman Jim Morrison, who'd missed the first of two sets that night because he was at the Tropicana Hotel tripping on LSD, wanted to play it earlier in their performance. The rest of the band obliged. Deep into the song, Morrison began a dark, hypnotic vocal ad lib that would become the song’s hallmark, but it was performed for the first time this night. Time stood still inside the Whisky. Waitresses stopped serving. The go-go girls stopped dancing. Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore followed their Lizard King, backing the singer with jazzy improvisation. Finally, Morrison finally belted out an Oedipus Rex couplet about killing his father and fucking his mother. The Doors finished their show, their first after inking with Elektra Records, but got sacked from their Whisky house-band gig immediately afterward.
April 23, 1977
Early 1977 was an eventful time at the Whisky for New York new wave act Blondie. In mid-February, the band played a series of shows with “American Girl” jangle-rockers Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers opening. Bassist Dee Dee Ramone was in the audience for at least one of those shows and the following week his band, punk torpedoes The Ramones, would open for Blondie. But April 23 was extra special. The Runaways guitarist Joan Jett hopped onstage with Blondie to play covers of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.”
Sept. 29, 1994
Sometimes shows become legendary because they’re spectacularly great. Sometimes it’s because they’re spectacularly messy. Brit-pop bad boys Oasis played their first U.S. show at the Whisky; unfortunately the band had been up doing crystal meth for days. Comically captured on video and included in the excellent 2016 Oasis doc Supersonic, a setlist mixup resulted in the band playing different songs at the same time. Singer Liam Gallagher offered un-charming lout-isms between songs. There are some sparks, though, including a snarling “Cigarettes & Alcohol.”
Dec. 31, 1977
Of all the ways to ever ring in a New Year’s Eve, seeing Pasadena supernovas Van Halen slay the Whisky as 1977 turned to 1978 is surely near the top. As evident in bootleg audio recordings, the band were, to borrow one of their song titles, “On Fire.” Van Halen were still a couple months from releasing their mighty eponymous debut LP. But the quartet delivered songs that would end up on Van Halen, such as “I’m the One,” with a machine-gun precision that hints they would soon end up ruling high-school parking lots everywhere. The band also played potent originals “Here's Just What You Wanted” and “No More Waiting,” which remain unreleased, as well as future Van Halen II thumper “D.O.A.” And, oh, to have been in the Whisky that night to hear then-21-year-old Eddie Van Halen’s universe-rearranging guitar showpiece, “Eruption.”
Feb. 14, 1982
After Mötley Crüe sold out a three-night stand at the Whisky in 1982, bassist Nikki Sixx was so excited he phoned his grandparents. “You’re not going to believe it! We sold out three nights at the Whisky. We fucking made it,” Sixx said on the call, as told in glorious Mötley memoir The Dirt. To which his grandfather replied, “Made what? Nobody even knows you are.” Little did Grandpa Sixx know rock fans would soon know Mötley Crüe very well. On the final night of Mötley’s Whisky triptych, the band ripped through gutter-glam cuts from their enduring debut LP, Too Fast for Love. “That was one of the highlights of our career," Sixx told L.A. Weekly in 2011 of those '82 shows “We didn't see what was coming next.” Their Whisky buzz set the band on course for future stardom on sophomore LP Shout at the Devil.
April 8, 1966
Singer Otis Redding played seven sets over three soul-sweat-drenched days in 1966. This was before his hot breakthrough turn at 1967’s Monterey International Pop Festival. His Whisky performances were first culled for 1968’s In Person at the Whisky a Go Go, released after Redding died when his plane crashed into Lake Monona on the way to a gig in Madison, Wisconsin. All of Redding’s seven Whisky sets were later collected for THE aptly named, six-CD 2016 box set Live at the Whisky a Go Go: The Complete Recordings. The opening April 8 set got off on the good foot with a relentless “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and culminated with an ecstatic, horns-goosed cover of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” with Redding howling during an accelerating vamp like a tent-rival preacher.
Sept. 4, 1967
Nearly two month before future classic-rock nugget “Sunshine of Your Love” would be released on the Disraeli Gears album, Cream performed the song at the Whisky. A bootleg recording captured Eric Clapton’s Marshall amp wallop, Ginger Baker's drum knots and bassist Jack Bruce’s nuanced lines. Almost 50 years later, it’s a thrill to hear Clapton doing a fuzz-freak guitar solo instead of the accomplished but mannered playing of his later years. Clapton's playing back then put the "power" in power trio.
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Dec. 7, 1989
Two months after Mötley Crüe took a break from arenas to play the Whisky to celebrate chart-topping new album Dr. Feelgood, a young Seattle band's set hinted that rock was about to take a left turn, as Soundgarden brought their slow-motion, Sasquatch metal to the Whisky. The grunge band opened with a steel-belted cover of The Beatles' “Come Together” and worked a bit of The Guess Who’s “American Woman” into their corkscrew screamer “Hands All Over.” The show also ran through Sabbath-in-combat-boots originals like “Hunted Down” and “Big Dumb Sex” before concluding with winking covers of comedy rockers Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” and Cheech & Chong’s “Earache My Eye.”
Guns N’ Roses
Aug. 23, 1986
On this night, GNR’s classic Appetite for Destruction lineup debuted two songs live that would later become hard-rock classics: bandanna love anthem “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and junkie wiggler “Mr. Brownstone.” That night, Axl, Slash, Duff, Adler and Izzy also played another new tune, “I Ain’t Goin Down,” for the first time. The latter song remains unreleased on an album but surfaced on the soundtrack for Data East’s 1994 Guns N’ Roses pinball machine.