The Epicenter of the 1980s Alternative Music Scene in DC
When the Atlantic building at 930 F Street NW was completed in 1888, it was on the cutting edge. Designed by James Hill Green, the supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, its eight stories made it the biggest commercial structure in the District and one of the first to feature a passenger elevator. Inside, the Atlantic Building had two big assembly rooms, which made it the location of many important public meetings, including one in 1889 at which the National Zoo was founded. In 1890, the top floor served as the headquarters for President Benjamin Harrison's inaugural committee. The Washington Post hailed it as a "handsome" building.
In the decades that followed, the Atlantic — one of the last tall structures in the city to be built with only masonry walls, rather than a steel inner frame — gradually was overshadowed by newer, flashier modern buildings, and it became a largely-forgotten bit of the District's architectural history. That is, until the 1980s, when the building achieved a different sort of notoriety as the epicenter of the District's alternative music scene.
The metaphorosis of the Atlantic actually began in the late 1970s, when the building's then-owner, Paul Parsons, who made his money mostly renting out office space at rock-bottom prices that started at just $75 a month, got the idea of starting an elegant restaurant in the building's basement. At the time, F Street was down on its heels, and the restaurant — where Parsons sometimes dined with his dog sitting at the table — didn't last long. But about that time, guitarist Robert Goldstein and singer Roddy Frantz (brother of Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz) formed a band called the Urban Verbs, and needed a place to rehearse. As recounted in Mark Andersen's and Mark Jenkins' 2001 book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk Rock in the Nation's Capital, the musicians worked out a deal with Parsons. He converted the restaurant into a club called Atlantis, and the Urban Verbs played there for free in exchange for their practice time.
The first punk show at the Atlantis club, on Jan. 27, 1978, featured the Urban Verbs, the Slickee Boys and White Boy. But the punk bands' rowdy fans, who vandalized the restrooms and rearranged the tenants' names on the building's directory, quickly got on Parsons' nerves. A year later, he folded the Atlantis. "I get a knot in my stomach every time I think about it," he told the Washington Post in 1979, in an article entitled "The Strangest Place in Town." "They were going to tear the place apart."
But that same year, the building passed into the hands of local developer John Bowers and his wife Dody, who were a bit more adventurous. Dody Bowers, an artist and dancer who studied at the Corcoran and the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, were eager to turn the basement space into the equivalent to New York City's CBGB's and the Masque in Los Angeles. "There was a scene trying to happen here and elsewhere for such a long time that by the time it happened, all we had to be was receptive," Dody Bowers explained in a 1990 interview. The Bowers joined forces with some other like-minded visionaries — Bill Warrell of District Curators, which operated the art loft-club d.c. space, and John Page and Mark Holmes of Interzone, a company that produced experimental concerts and video programs. Concert producers Seth Hurwitz and Richard Heineke of IMP soon also became integral, and eventually bought the club in 1986.
The first show at the 9:30 Club, on May 30, 1980, was opened by a local band called Tiny Desk Unit, whose keyboardist, Bob Boilen, later became the longtime director of the National Public Radio program All Things Considered. The Lounge Lizards, a then-hot New York-based experimental punk-jazz fusion band headed by saxophonist John Lurie, were the headliner.
The cramped, L-shaped space — which legally only accommodated 199 patrons — quickly became a venue that attracted a host of famous names ranging from LA hardcore pioneers Black Flag to Cyndi Lauper to REM, whose March 1983 performance presaged their emergence a few years later as stadium rock superstars. The club also once hosted a spoken-word performance by hipster novelist William S. Burroughs.
The 9:30 Club also provided a home to local music legends such as Minor Threat, whose singer Ian MacKaye later founded Fugazi. This video clip of Minor Threat's June 1983 show conveys some of the club's irreverent, improvisational ambiance.
Another local band that played in at the 9:30 Club in the mid-1980s was Dain Bramage, whose teenage drummer, Dave Grohl, went on to become part of Nirvana and to found the Foo Fighters. "As a kid growing up in the D.C. punk rock scene, your first show at the 9:30 club might as well have been Royal Albert Hall or Madison Square Garden," Grohl recalled in a 2010 Washington Post article about the 9:30 Club's 30th anniversary.
While Grohl and other young people saw the 9:30 Club as a tremendous creative influence, in a city that was more accustomed to blue blazers than blue mohawks, the media establishment wasn't quite sure what to make of the place. In 1983, then-Washington Post feature writer Lloyd Grove described it as "a bit of downtown Washington awash in the New Wave," replete with exotic characters clad in biker jackets and "a blond fellow in black [who] moves aimlessly through the crush, meeting all stares with his false-lashed baby blues." While acknowledging the range of musical genres from reggae to Jazz that the 9:30 Club showcased, he also noted that "it's fairly cheap — usually a $5 cover — but it's also almost unrelievedly, crashingly loud."
One of the 9:30 Club's distinctions was that no matter who played there, they always could say that they had attracted a standing-room-only audience, because there wasn't any seating at all in the main room, though there were a few tables in the back bar area. As Warrell explained in a 1990 interview, the deliberate omission of seating — inspired by New York clubs such as Danceteria — was intended to keep the patrons dancing and edgy. "That's part of the appeal, and also why a lot of people stay away, Washington being a comfortable kind of city," the promoter said.
The 9:30 Club's rising prominence helped to make the once down-on-its-heels neighborhood around it into a trendy enclave, but inevitably, the affluence that follows artists tends to drive them out. The original club closed in the mid-1990s and relocated to a roomier space at 815 V Street N.W., where the shows are still standing-room only.
The music website Consequence of Sound offers this oral history of the 9:30 Club. The Atlantic itself was largely demolished in the mid-2000s, though the facade was preserved as part of a new building. Skyscraperpage.com offers some pictures of the transformation.