Whisky A Go Go: LA’s Temple of Rock

Whisky A Go Go LA photographed by Robert Landau.

It is late in the summer of 1966, and house band The Doors are playing a medley of keyboard-led jazz and blues numbers to a bustling audience at the smoky, dim-lit Whisky A Go Go. The band, however, is without lead singer Jim Morrison, who is at that time in his LA hotel room experimenting with psychedelic drugs. The bar’s owner is furious at the band and insists they find Morrison before the second part of their set begins or risk not being paid. They do so, and drag Morrison back to the Whisky A Go Go to complete their set.

For the first few songs, the band is able to hold everything together despite Morrison’s intoxicated state. But out of nowhere, Morrison insists the band unveils a new song, “The End”, an unconventional, psychedelic rock song currently 10-minutes in length and not much practised by the musicians. The other members of the band refuse Morrison, but Morrison stubbornly insists. The song starts well, with Morrison’s Shaman-esque dancing transfixing the crowd who, in response, mirror his slow, intertwining hand movements. The song slows towards the middle, and from somewhere within his psychedelic state Morrison summons a new, improvised piece of spoken poetry.

“The killer awoke before dawn. He put his boots on…”

The crowd, waitresses, the scantily-clad house dancers all stop and stare, hypnotised by the words of this wild, long-haired, unkempt singer-poet. Morrison goes on to tell a dark, mysterious and controversial tale pivoting on Oedipal themes that leave each and every spectator gob-smacked before inducing a wild bacchanalian frenzy of music and dancing once he has finished his piece.

When the four young members of The Doors walked off the stage of the Whisky A Go Go later that night, they were instantly sacked by the venue’s manager. But this night would go down as one of the most famous nights ever to take place at the venue, with The Doors themselves going on to become one of the most influential rock groups in music history. It was at the Whisky A Go Go where Morrison first gleaned inspiration for the iconic frontman he was to become when watching Van Morrison perform. In addition to The Doors, the Whisky A Go Go has provided a crucial platform for bands including Alice Cooper, Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, and The Byrds (who sometimes opened for The Doors). In later years, the Whisky hosted a multitude of Seattle-based grunge groups including Soundgarden and Mudhoney in the early ‘90s, while that same decade also saw Guns N’Roses and System of a Down granted opportunities to play the Whisky in the early stages of their careers.

First opening in 1964 and taking its name from the world’s first ever discothèque in Paris, the Whisky A Go Go is situated on Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Strip. It has since become a cherished fixture on the Strip and a crucial hallmark of LA’s rich musical heritage. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, the venue has resisted recent changes to accommodate the tourism industry to retain its reputation as LA’s world-renowned temple of rock. Until this day, the Whisky continues to provide a critical launch pad for rock bands in their early development.

Words by Liam Roberts. Image property of Robert Landau.

Sarah Atkinson

Sarah Atkinson

Writer and expert