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A brief history of the El Mocambo

Posted by Guest Contributor / November 15, 2012

El Mocambo TorontoThere 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!).

El Mocambo TorontoDecember 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."

El Mocambo TorontoI'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.

El Mocambo TorontoEl Mocambo TorontoWriting by Gilles LeBlanc.

Photos from the El Mocambo, Ken Schafer, salvi08, Sgeulachdan, Philip Johnson.



scottd / November 15, 2012 at 02:20 pm
What about "Elvis Costello Live at the El Mocambo"? Its considered an awesome live recording of a show that the Globe headlined "Prince Charmless Fashions An Event".
Botch / November 15, 2012 at 02:28 pm
Cool article, appreciate a good history lesson. I had heard about El-Mo hosting some pretty legendary shows back in the day...
mike in parkdale / November 15, 2012 at 04:18 pm
I'm pretty sure the Beastie Boys did a 'surprise' gig there too.

I'm happy to hear that someone like Sam is involved with the project. He's proven that he knows what it takes to run a place like that. Best of luck!
James Gonneau / November 15, 2012 at 04:30 pm
At one time, it seemed "The Phantoms" were just about to burst a little higher:
Dennis P / November 15, 2012 at 09:28 pm
I worked there for 3 years,82-84. Saw not only the above mentioned shows, but many, many more like Bon Jovi, Billy Idol, Midnight Oil, Joe Walsh, Bryan Adams, The Romantics, Tower of Power, War, King Crimson, Mink DeVille, Clarence Clemmons, Buddy Guy, David Johannson, Nils Lofgren, Difford and Tillbrook from Squeeze, Steppenwolf, Mountain, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Jim Carrey, Dickey Betts, Robby Kriger of the Doors, Bill Bruford, Patrick Moraz, Martha and the Vandellas, Stan Getz, and so many many more I can't even remember.

I even met my wife there and we've been married 23 years!!!
John franks / November 16, 2012 at 07:57 am
I passed out in the bathroom drunk once. Wallet and shoes taken.
claire / November 16, 2012 at 01:34 pm
got drunk at the El Mocambo for the first time when I was like 16
Jim / November 16, 2012 at 01:45 pm
Ya I don't know about this "featuring a Rolling Stones-worthy surprise from The Sheepdogs."
Liz / February 10, 2013 at 03:33 pm
George Thorogood and the Destroyers 1978. Everyone was slamming those wooden floors all night long
Liz / February 10, 2013 at 03:34 pm
Stopped to smoke a joint on the way home, not realizing we were on the front lawn of the Addiction Research Center a few blocks north on Spadina. LOL
Grizz McCabe / November 5, 2013 at 08:05 pm
Chubby, Brand X...bouncers throwing guys down the back stairs ...carrying ice in shopping carts across Spadina...carrying amps up the stairs ...buzzers going off bouncers running up the stairs ..Rickyyyyyy. Lots of fun and some gorgeous blonde waitresses..... How about the night these guys got booted and threw every empty hieniken bottle from the garbage against the front doors ...good times and rock'n roll LOL
Gary Brigden / December 9, 2013 at 10:39 am
the ElMo date for U2 was Dec. 8th not the 9th.
Doug McClement / July 26, 2014 at 05:12 pm
I'm pretty sure U2's first Toronto gig was at the Maple Leaf Ballroom on St. Clair Ave. W.
On another note, coincidentally, I was the recording engineer for several of the shows you mentioned: Joan Jett, Miami Steve Van Zandt (both CHUM FM live broadcasts) and Stevie Ray Vaughan (a CHUM-CITY simulcast) and the Dine Alone Records/Sheepdogs showcase a couple of years ago. My company, Comfort Sound Mobile, recorded over 100 shows there in the 80's for Q107, CHUM-FM and CFNY, including Midnight Oil, The Waterboys, Mink De Ville, Lisa Dal Bello, BB Gabor, Clarence Clemons, Steppenwolf, Donnie Iris, Psychedelic Furs, Bryan Adams, etc. before MuchMusic came on the air and killed the live FM broadcast market. Recorded Queens of the Stone Age there a few years ago. Also saw great shows there with Wayne Cochrane & the CC Riders, Tower of Power, and The Runaways.
theodore laurain / July 27, 2014 at 03:28 pm
Seen so many good shows there. How about week long appearances by savoy brown and papa john creach. Who probably had Keb Mo with him. There were many nights of enjoyment there for Me. Thanks You much. I am glad to know You are still going.
Michael / September 17, 2014 at 09:53 pm
I just can't believe that no mention of little river band playing upstairs....I can't remember the year but the same year I saw them in portland oregon...both shows in the same kind of venue....I even remember that they were using the light show from supertramp..i would say 1982ish...if anyone can enlighten me i would appreciate it
Michael / September 17, 2014 at 10:03 pm
Little River Band and more! ..... April 28 - Toronto, Ontario - El Mocambo is all I could find...WHAT YEAR????
OlgaM / September 18, 2014 at 06:35 pm
That's funny, because as I read the arte, I've been listening Love You Live by The Rolling Stones (sides 3 and 4 are El Mocambo sides). One of my all time favorites. "Those whom the bods love grow young".
Wil replying to a comment from Dennis P / September 23, 2015 at 10:00 am
I'm a huge fan of Willy (Mink) DeVille.

I read your article that you've been working here for many years and has seen many bands.
Do you have photos from that time?
A large group of fans search for unpublished photos of Willy DeVille. Hope you can and will help
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