The Commodore: Still Fabulous at 85

Opened in 1930, the Commodore Ballroom has been the site of some amazing local history. We look back at some of the legendary shows that made this Vancouver venue into what it is today

Credit: Bev Davies; Vancouver hardcore punk legends DOA

As timeless as the classics performed within

The Commodore Ballroom turns 85 this year and, like any senior, is full of fascinating stories. From glamorously dressed couples dancing the foxtrot to swing orchestras in the 1930s, to plaid- and ripped-jeans-wearing youths aggro-moshing to Nirvana in the ’90s, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Vancouverite who doesn’t have a Commodore memory. Aaron Chapman, author of the new book Live at the Commodore, shares five of his favourite anecdotes about the legendary venue.

On the second floor above a basement bowling alley and an array of street level retail clothing stores, the Commodore Ballroom sits regally perched as the grand dame of Vancouver nightclubs. Opened in 1930, its stage has played host to a who’s who of musical greats from over the years: Tina Turner, B.B. King, The Police, The Clash, Blondie, Nirvana, U2 and, in more recent years, everyone from Tom Waits and the White Stripes to Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

But for Chapman, what’s been equally important to the Commodore’s longevity are the generations of people who have climbed that long flight of stairs to what’s become one of the best-loved music venues in Canada, if not the world.

“We’ve done a great job of bringing the new into Vancouver, but we haven’t always done the best job keeping the old,” says Chapman. “The Commodore is one of those few places in this city that your grandparents went to, your parents went to and you can still go to. That’s rare here, especially because so many legendary Vancouver nightspots from the Cave to the Town Pump have all disappeared – the Commodore, however, has survived and thrived.”

Beyond his role as historian, Chapman also has his own rock-and-roll pedigree. He’s performed with local bands The Real McKenzies, The Town Pants and The Be Good Tanyas – and has played the Commodore over two dozen times himself. Click through the slideshow as we get nostalgic with Chapman as he reveals his five favourite Commodore anecdotes throughout the years.

Credit: City of Vancouver Archives

Hide the Booze

“In the 1930s, the Commodore was called a ‘Bottle Club’ because it didn’t have a liquor licence. The police would stage liquor raids, but when the cops came running through the front door, the doormen would press a buzzer that would alert the band to play Roll Out the Barrel, which was a signal to the audience to hide their liquor underneath the tablecloths. By the time the police got to the top of the stairs, they didn’t see a thing. It’s like something out of Boardwalk Empire.”

Credit: Bev Davies

Punk Revolution

The Ramones’ Vancouver debut on August 6, 1977, was a real turning point for the venue. Nowadays punk rock is just regarded like any other kind of music, but back then it was wild and dangerous. Like the Clash’s North American debut at the Commodore in 1979, the Ramones show is remembered as legendary. It’s also interesting that the graduating class of the first wave of young Vancouver punk rockers (DOA, the Pointed Sticks, the Modernettes) were all in attendance. They would all go off to form their own bands, eventually selling out the Ballroom themselves.”

Credit: Bev Davies

The Debut of U2

“The ‘Cheap Thrills’ concert series was where lesser-known bands, especially from overseas, got their first exposure on a super-cheap concert ticket. It was a great opportunity for both the bands and the audience. Like on March 24, 1981, you could have seen U2 play their Vancouver debut. They were so new, they didn’t have enough songs to play a full set and had to play a couple of songs twice!”

Credit: City of Vancouver Archives

Full to the Gills

“When the Commodore closed for a time in 1996, some of the retail stores beneath it renovated and sealed some of their ceiling vents. It turns out the vents were crucial as they helped the floor breathe. When the venue reopened in 1999, 1,000 pairs of feet hit the dance floor, the air had nowhere to go and some of the doors and windows in the stores below cracked from the air pressure. Who knew the Commodore had a set of lungs?”

Credit: © David Zhang/Zumapress.Com

From the Ballroom to Super Bowl

“The Commodore still gets its share of unforgettable new acts. Katy Perry played her Vancouver debut on January 25, 2009, at the Commodore when she was just an emerging artist, and now she’s arguably the most popular woman in pop music. Musicians are onstage one night at the Ballroom and on another night you see them playing the halftime event for the Super Bowl. That’s the Commodore for you.”