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"This," proclaims the rough-looking guy sitting on the stool beside me, "is the only real rock bar left in the world." Normally, I'd chalk that up to hyperbole, but the thing is, this is no mere barfly. This is Ian Fraser Kilmister, known universally as Lemmy, the leader of the seminal hard rock band Motörhead.

Photographs of patrons of the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Boulevard in Los AngelesMany of the patrons that have passed through the doors at the Rainbow Bar & Grill have been immortalized on (photographic) film.

Now 67 years old, Lemmy looks much the same as when Motörhead formed in 1975: sweeping sideburns, black Stetson, Iron Cross medallion dangling around his neck. Since he moved to Los Angeles in 1990, the Rainbow Bar & Grill has been his local, a place where he unwinds over video poker, Jack Daniel's and the occasional bad joke. ("I put spot remover on my dog. Now he's gone.") His obsessive fans, two of whom are seated nearby, clearly know this. Unable to contain himself, one of them blurts out, "Lemmy, I love everything about you, man." Lemmy looks the kid over and smiles thinly. "You know," he says in a thick English accent, "you might want to think that over."

Like Lemmy, the Rainbow seems undiminished by time. For decades, this unassuming West Hollywood spot – blood-red booths, walls plastered with gold records and band promo shots – has been a meeting place for rock royalty, hosting everyone from Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper to John Lennon. Although it's not a live music venue, it anchors the fabled rock clubs that line L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard, a.k.a. the Sunset Strip – the epicentre of the hard rock and glam metal explosion that swept the world in the 1980s.

Sunset Boulevard, Los AngelesCruising along Sunset Boulevard.

Walking along the 2.4-kilometre Strip (it seems short, considering its place in pop culture), I find it hard to fathom that just a few years ago the area was far from rocking. Until recently, clubs relied on a pay-to-play scheme, where bands had to pay upfront to be included on the bill – just one of the factors that sparked a decline that could have easily become a death spiral. Later at the Rainbow, Nic Adler, co-owner of the legendary Roxy Theatre, tells me, "In the 1990s, you could have played soccer in the middle of the street." Not anymore. Sure, the spandex and the big hair are gone, but the street is bustling. And the live music venues are picking up steam again, with clubs cross-promoting one another through social media and, since 2008, hosting the annual Sunset Strip Music Festival, which last year drew 15,000 partiers. When I pass the outdoor patios of Sunset Plaza's restaurants, they're packed; the upstairs terrace at Katana, a trendy Japanese joint, is hopping; and over at Eveleigh, a popular bar and restaurant, the polished cocktail crowd is spilling out onto the sidewalk. I think as I embark on a few nights' clubbing to find out if the Strip is still rocking.

Rock dancing at Whisky a Go-Go Sunset Strip Los AngelesRockin’ and rollin’ at Whisky a Go-Go.

WHISKY A GO-GO

Arguably the most storied of clubs on the Strip, Whisky a Go-Go is known for many things, not the least of which was suspending go-go dancers in cages from the ceiling in the 1960s. A genuine rock bar, it's showcased some of the genre's most fabled acts, from the Who and the Byrds to the Doors, the Kinks and the Police. (And those are just some of the bands that begin with "the.")

When I arrive, it's a full-on metal fest. I'm frisked at the door, then press my way into a crush of fans. The soaring ceilings and eardrum-bursting sound system seem tailor-made for tonight's bill. After ordering a Scotch – what else? – I make my way toward the VIP booths along the back wall. Moonsorrow, a Finnish band, descend a staircase, fake blood streaming down their faces and chests. "We play epic pagan rock!" shouts the singer as the group plows into a high-energy metal tune. The lead guitarist whips his hair around so frenetically that, in sympathy, my neck begins to hurt. The whole thing might be comical except for this: Moonsorrow are simply excellent, as tight as any "golden era" unit.

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ARTS & CULTURE     CALIFORNIA     LOS ANGELES     MUSIC     NIGHTLIFE    

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