Monday, January 18, 2010

807 Montgomery, San Francisco-Roaring 20s May 1967

San Francisco always prides itself on being cutting edge, and it favors The New over everything else. This was never truer than the psychedelic 60s, when the eagerness to see bands trying new things often exceeded the bands' ability to do anything new. As far as music went, however, 60s psychedelia was part of a change of interesting if not always memorable entertainment options in San Francisco.

San Francisco's principal entertainment district for white people had always been the North Beach area, the heart of which was on Broadway and Columbus. The Beat Poets had found a home at City Lights bookstore in the 1950s, and cutting edge jazz was the order of the day. The jazz musicians themselves played (and often lived) in the Fillmore district, but North Beach had the best paying gigs. By the early 1960s, the happening music in North Beach was Latin jazz, where San Francisco was a critical outpost. While a very distant second to New York City, of course, San Francisco had played a surprisingly important role in Latin music, and a very important role in jazz as well. While the jazz scenes in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago (and probably Detroit) had more great players, San Francisco was a great incubator for new jazz talent. Throughout the 1950s, San Francisco had been a source of new entertainment for the country, with comedians, folk musicians, jazz and Latin musicians breaking out of the North Beach clubs.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, the early 1960s North Beach club scene came to be dominated by Topless dancers. The most prominent of these (haha) was Carol Doda, the first and for some time only Topless dancer to use silicon implants, who appeared nightly at The Condor. Soon almost all of North Beach had followed suit with topless revues of different types. By 1965, except for a few jazz clubs, almost all the North Beach establishments featured topless dancers.

Topless clubs were an evolution of the existing circuit of Burlesque clubs, which had existed on the West Coast but in a sort of underground fashion for many years. In the 1960s, they came out into the mainstream as Topless clubs. While the attraction of a Topless club was women dancing with their tops off--just to be clear about it--they generally featured a floor show with some combination of musicians, comedians and costume to go with the dancers. Topless clubs were considerably less raunchy than today's Strip Clubs, although it was a somewhat more innocent time. By the 1960s, going to a Topless club was a racy thing for urban adults to do, like going to an R-Rated movie today (which did not in fact exist at that time), but still respectable.

When the Jefferson Airplane started The Matrix in 1965, some blocks away from North Beach, they were establishing a very different kind of entertainment than what was currently available (as I have discussed previously). By 1967, while Topless clubs still ruled North Beach, there were Topless clubs up and down the El Camino Real and San Pablo Avenue on both sides of the Bay, so suburbanites hardly needed to drive into the City for it. San Francisco is always looking for the next thing, and by 1967 what was happening was psychedelic rock. What had been an underground phenomenon in 1966 was wide out in the open by the next year, and the North Beach clubs immediately picked up on it.

The ad above is for a club at 807 Montgomery Street (one block from Columbus and two from Broadway) called The Roaring 20s. Their calling card was a naked girl on a swing who, indeed, swung over the entire building. The club had briefly gone away from Topless in 1966, but had rapidly returned. From looking at the ad (in the May 6, 1967 San Francisco Chronicle) its clear that they have borrowed the iconography of the Fillmore posters, with the wobbly letters and the promise of a light show. Their house band at the time was a group called The New Salvation Army Banned, a Haight Street group who had been playing there almost every night since at least March.

On Sunday, May 14, The Roaring 20s had a special event, promoted in that day's Chronicle (above), The Artists And Models Bal Masque. The blurb helpfully points out that tickets will be available to the public. Another listing says that the Jerry Hahn Trio (a jazz group) and Notes From The Underground (a Berkeley Folk-Rock group) would also be playing.

The New Salvation Army Banned eventually released two albums on ABC, under the name Salvation. For struggling rock bands, Topless clubs were fairly good gigs, if not exactly something to write home about. A band who wanted to work out on "Smokestack Lightning" with some modal jamming was free to do so as long as the drummer kept the beat going, and no one in North Beach cared if your hair was long or if you smoked pot (well, as long as you shared). In cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver (that I know of) many psychedelic rock acts got their start keeping the beat behind topless dancers, and then cheerfully left that out of their resume when they got better known. I'm fairly certain that a band like NSAB, with a seven-nights-a-week gig, could skip out for a Fillmore gig when it was available, and show up later in the evening to finish out the night, so it didn't impede any progress.

Many tourists who came to San Francisco, whether from the suburbs or from out of town, were just looking for some fun, and probably merged the idea of Topless dancers and braless hippies anyway. A number of other North Beach clubs followed the lead of Roaring 20s. Most prominent in the Chronicle ads was a club called Goman's Gay 90s, which was run by an old showbiz family who had run a Vaudeville-type review at the club for many years, although they had 2am weekend rock shows. In April 1967, they caved in and went modern.

Goman's Gay 60s invokes a whole series of images, all of which are in fact incorrect, since "Gay" as a metonymy for homosexuality was not in common usage (if at all). the club was purposely inverting the previous name, and borrowing the psychedelic motif with the light show. No doubt many light show operators got their starts at Topless joints like these as well, although the half-life of light shows was very brief. Goman's Gay 60s did not advertise bands, so whatever combos played there were probably pretty raw, but with musicians moving to San Francisco every day, it was a paying gig.  For the club, it gave visiting tourists a chance to get both of San Francisco's entertainment attractions with no cover charge.

Ironically, however, another effect of the Fillmore and Avalon was to reduce Broadway's role in the San Francisco entertainment spectrum. Up until the mid-1960s, entertainment in The City equaled Broadway, but afterwards it was spread all around downtown and the nearer neighborhoods. Broadway remains an important neighborhood for nightlife in San Francisco, but hardly the only one.

update: it appears that soon after the New Salvation Army Banned moved on from The Roaring 20s to greener pastures, their residency was taken up by a band called West Coast Natural Gas, newly arrived from Seattle. For a description of the experience, see here.

(807 Montgomery became the rock club The Orphanage for awhile in the 1970s. Currently neither 807 Montgomery or 345 Broadway appear to feature entertainment venues)


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. When the Initial Shock first landed in SF they had a hard time getting paying gigs so they worked North Beach in the Fall of '67 as the Chosen Few (simultaneously while playing the Straight and ballrooms as IS!)

    Sez drummer BK, "The North Beach clubs we played included the Roaring 20s, Carol Dodas, and the Condor Club and the Gay Nineties. The Gay Nineties featured The Hippy Love Fest in between our sets. This was a guy and girl on stage that looked like hippies that went through the Bumps and Grinds for all the tourists that came in. "

  3. The factoid about the Chosen Few is an amazing detail. Doubly funny because it was (I think) the former name of the Flamin Groovies.

    I think a lot of groups played Broadway joints back in the day, and would just as soon write it out of their own histories.

  4. The Initial Shock also did a lot of sef publicizing to get their name out. There are a number of posters, handbills and buttons that look like they should be advertising particular shows, but are simply advertising the band. This was reasonably unusual at the level they did this.

  5. right Corry!, one of the former name of the Flamin Groovies was The Chosen Few from 1965 to 1966. They started as The Kingsmen, then became The Capetown Singers, then became The Chosen Few, then became The Lost and Found (with that name they played at Fillmore Auditorium on May 20-21, 1966) and finally they became Flamin Groovies.

    PS: Michael Wilhelm of The Charlatans confirmed me that his band played there at Roaring 20s as house band for six weeks during circa March-April 1967, before The New Salvation Army Banned.

  6. SF was lousy with Chosen Fews it seems! There was also the pre-Act II/Family Tree 45 on Autumn.

  7. right Erik! There was The Chosen Few pre-Family Tree that you mentioned above and also there was another The Chosen Few from Simi Valley that released two 45s on 'Liberty Records'.

  8. Asian Chrome and Synthetic Man or something like that...

    And those are just the California ones!

  9. Whether or not all those groups were Chosen, it appears they were not Few.

  10. I was in West Coast Natural Gas and indeed we were the resident band at the Roaring 20's on Montgomery in late 1967. I started playing there when I was 17 years old.