For four seasons, the brash and imposing Jon Taffer has brought the famous exclamation “Shut it down!” into homes on a weekly basis thanks to Spike TV’s Bar Rescue. The world renowned bar consultant has spent the last 30 years owning, managing, flipping and fixing bars to such a successful degree that he has it down to a science; but the reality TV star actually got his start in the music business — first as a musician, then a booker and then eventually running some of the most important live venues in rock & roll history. He ran the legendary Troubadour during the height of the Los Angeles punk movement in the late Seventies and started Pulsations, the monster dance club that brought Studio 54 vibes to West Philadelphia in 1983. As the 100th episode of Bar Rescue approaches, Rolling Stone talked to Taffer about the wild and woolly days of hardcore’s dawn and disco’s decadence.
Harry Nilsson Vs. the Punks
When I was running the Troubadour there was this transition from the classic singer/songwriter Jackson Browne types to bands like Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys and Fear. Those are just some that come to mind. Oh, and Adam Ant! The Fear fans wanted to “crush” the Ants. These guys hated each other. Sort of reminiscent of the hip-hop scene today. There were times the pit would get out of control during Dead Kennedy or Fear shows. I remember Harry Nilsson coming in and getting into it with the punk crowd. He was there all the time drinking brandy Alexanders. He used to call them “milkshakes.”
When it came to booking these acts I have to say Doug Weston [Troubadour owner] was the one that had this genius about him. He gave Elton John his start. He had an amazing ear. When I would go to his house he would get 50 to 60 tapes, not cassettes, reel-to-reels, in the mail every day. He would sit and listen to every tape. In those days you had no videos to look at. He would book these bands based on these tapes, and I got to tell you, he was gifted at being able to take a garage band and visualizing them on stage at the Troubadour.
The new coming scene like the Knack, and that clean-cut alternative type of rock & roll was also starting to happen. With the hair cuts and the matching suits. Very different than the Dead Kennedys. [Laughs.] The Knack was an amazing craze in L.A. Listen, I’ve spent thousands of hours in nightclubs and have heard hundreds of bands in my day. When the Knack played “My Sharona” — this was before it was on the radio and they weren’t signed yet — the place went absolutely fucking nuts. People were standing on tables. Something about that bass line. It just drove the room. That energy translated to that record and they went gold in 13 days. The Knack were a very, very powerful band and you got to understand when they came in all the punk stuff was still going on. There was an amazing conflict within the scenes. I was there one night and Bruce Springsteen even sat in with them!
When I took over the Troubadour the kitchen was flooded and the club was too broke to fix it. It was so bad that we took these pallets and we placed them on the kitchen floor so we could walk above the water. [Laughs.] So we coordinated this big 25th anniversary event and we got everybody to come back from the old days. George Carlin came, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne. We made a huge amount of money that month and were able to fix the plumbing. I remember Stevie Nicks had an incident that night when she wasn’t on the guest list and was unable to get into the door. That was very memorable.
Pulsations was the brainchild of a gentleman named Leon Altemose. If you do a little research on Leon you’ll find that he was a non-union builder in Philadelphia, which is a union town. The guy had to have remote starters on his car because they would blow up them up. They threatened his family. 60 Minutes did a huge story on him. He was this anti-establishment guy and he wanted to build the greatest nightclub in the world, and I believe we did it. We had a robot custom-built for us by International Robotronics in New York. Its name was Pulsar and it was skinned to be an alien. It got so popular that they had a clone built for Rocky IV. Pulsar would come out of a spaceship and dance with the crowd every night. The spaceship was 27 feet in diameter, pulled about 600 amps and had 70 lighting systems on it. It would fly over the crowd on an I-beam track and come down over the dance floor. The doors would open, dry ice fog would dump out, bright lights would come on sort of like that scene in Close Encounters, and this $400,000 robot would appear to levitate out of the ship onto the floor. It was a really remarkable thing. Pulsations: It was the greatest nightclub in the world and I am honored to be a part of that history.