A brief history of the El Mocambo
There are some music-related events that will forever live in a city's memory. Even Toronto has had its fair share, including one in particular that took place at the El Mocambo Tavern on March 4th and 5th, 1977 involving a nondescript band billing themselves as "The Cockroaches." If this is starting to sound familiar amidst all the hoopla surrounding The Rolling Stones' much-ballyhooed 50th anniversary, then you probably have an inkling of the legend that was those secret club shows.
Oh, if the El Mo's walls could talk, especially the rickety ones that feel like they're closing in on you as you carefully make your way upstairs...just imagine the stories they would have overheard over the years. Like Keith Richards' heroin bust a few days earlier. Or about Ronnie Wood and Margaret Trudeau. But I digress — the Stones were among the many players that helped grow the multilevel venue's reputation as a go-to destination for musicians looking to make an impact in North America, let alone Toronto.
If any place in our fair city could be considered a monument to rock and roll, it's the queue of punters that have consistently formed under the El Mo's 65+ year-old neon palm tree sign identifying the joint's location just south of College on Spadina. I also don't think it's the craziest thing to suggest that it is the closest Canadian equivalent to the forever-worshipped CBGB's in New York.
The pedigree is certainly there.
August 3rd, 1978 - Debbie Harry and Blondie bring sex and disco swagger to town while teasing their soon-to-be released breakthrough Parallel Lines. October 25th, 1978 - Shortly after defending their theory of "de-evolution" on Saturday Night Live, Devo donned their yellow jumpsuits for a weeknight Toronto appearance to the delight of Mohawk-sporting punks everywhere. July 12th, 1979 - Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky Ramone make a case for the building having proper air conditioning with a perspiration-inducing set of three-chord thrashers, a luxury El Mo concertgoers are still waiting on (but new ownership promises it's coming!).
December 9th, 1980 - Four unassuming, stylishly coiffed Irish lads play their first-ever concert in T.O., in support of their debut recording Boy. I am of course referring to the one and only U2. Bono especially had quite the look going on, arguably influencing A Flock of Seagulls down the line. September 26th, 1981 - Duran Duran were yet another ensemble that used this downtown club setting as a coming-out party of sorts, introducing themselves to an entirely new audience. In addition, they represented one of the last vestiges of the melding between New Wave and pop at the el Mo, as the still-hot concert spot began to transition primarily towards more rawer-sounding, bluesier acts.
February 20th, 1982 - After fleeing from the messy breakup of her former all-girl group The Runaways, Joan Jett storms into the El Mo on the strength of two albums with killer anthemic title tracks, "Bad Reputation" and "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." February 10th, 1983 - Steven Van Zandt takes a short break from his E Street Band duties to front a solo project, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. His work with Bruce Springsteen may now be a fixture on classic rock station Q107, but back then, it was CHUM-FM who did a live broadcast of Van Zandt's Toronto tour stop.
July 20th, 1983 - Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble burn down the proverbial house with searing blues guitar that leaves tongues wagging, thirsty for more "Texas Flood." Sadly, Vaughan died in 1990, but his status as an all-time great will live forever thanks to the release of Live at the El Mocambo the following year. But don't think people with international passports are the only ones to have won over crowds on either story, which currently have capacities of roughly 400 bodies each. July 2nd, 1987 - The then relatively unknown Tragically Hip travel down the 401 from Kingston to redefine Canadian rock, playing rowdy versions of tracks from their eponymous EP like "Highway Girl" and "Last American Exit."
I'm not sure if I buy that the El Mocambo has been hosting live music since 1850 as claimed on their web site. I do however believe new owners Sam Grosso and Marco Petrucci, proprietors of the successful Cadillac Lounge and 99 Sudbury, respectively, when they say the venue will be restored to its former glory. The old boy definitely needs more than a simple splash of paint to brighten up an edifice that experienced its darkest moment when the doors at 464 Spadina Avenue were briefly closed in November of 2001.
The Cult were the last big headliner before this unfortunate incident, with former Hamilton resident Ian Astbury specifically requesting a gig on October 29th, 2001 so it could go out with a bang. But like rock music itself in the 21st century, the El Mocambo has persevered, and it's not like anything significant hasn't happened there since its acknowledged heydays. Some of my fondest personal "El Mo-meries" have occurred fairly recently, like when Dine Alone Records took over both floors for its Canadian Music Week showcase on March 23rd, 2012, featuring a Rolling Stones-worthy surprise from The Sheepdogs.
And during North by Northeast a few months later (June 14th, 2012 to be exact), post-alternative distortionists A Place to Bury Strangers not only blew everyone's eardrums, they blew minds with their performance art that included guitarist Oliver Ackermann trying to piece a hole through the main level's ceiling with his already-battered instrument. Or maybe he was just helping kick-start the much-needed renovations.
Whatever cosmetic changes Grosso and Petrucci make to reflect their sense of tradition going forward, they seem committed to returning the venue to its former glory. The iconic neon sign has been restored, and work continues on the interior to update amenities like the bar area and sightlines to the stages. They aren't the biggest or even all that impressive, but the el Mo's twin stages have acted as valuable launching pads, not only vaulting emerging talent from one floor to another, but onto bigger and better things.
Writing by Gilles LeBlanc.