Seattle's swanky Olympic Hotel is the improbable site of the local concert debut by pioneering New York punk-rock band the Ramones on March 6, 1977.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 10/07/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20149

On Sunday evening, March 6, 1977, the Ramones make their rockin' Seattle debut in the Olympic Hotel's elegant Georgian Room -- a most unlikely venue for any type of underground youth-culture event. How this epic show came about is a classic tale perfectly embodying the 1970s punk-rock movement's DIY (do-it-yourself) teenage spirit. The Seattle show is but one stop on the band's brief first tour into the Pacific Northwest (Aberdeen and Bremerton are also on the itinerary) and each of those gigs is notable for one reason or another. But that fabled night at the Olympic is perhaps best described by The Seattle Times as "one of the more bizarre rock events of recent times here -- New York's toughest punk band in the ritziest hotel in Seattle" (March 7, 1977).

The Ramones Leave Home

The Ramones -- vocalist Joey Ramone (1951-2001), guitarist Johnny Ramone (1948-2004), bassist Dee Dee Ramone (1951-2002), and drummer Tommy Ramone (1949-2014) -- were a first-generation punk group that had formed in New York City back in 1974. (The band members were not related, but all used "Ramone" in their stage names.) During their first three years they mainly played their hometown, occasionally venturing out for one-off gigs in nearby states like New Jersey, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In April 1976 their debut album, Ramones, was released by Sire Records, a subsidiary label of Warner Brothers. Then in July the group stunned the British rock scene with their abrasive, thundering, minute-long songs at a couple of gigs in London, helping inspire the subsequent uprising that would ultimately yield the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and a million other scabrous punk bands. In August the Ramones made their first foray out to America's West Coast, playing some shows in California.

In January 1977, Sire Records issued the Ramones' second album, Leave Home, and the band was soon back in California gigging a dozen times throughout February. Media coverage brought news that in early March the band was finally going to roar through Washington -- but the venues they'd been booked into were rather dubious: an old-school dancehall in Bremerton that had been revamped as a joint for servicemen stationed at the nearby navy base; a rough-and-tumble timber-town dive in Aberdeen down in Grays Harbor County in Southwest Washington; and a massive Disco Era bar up along old Highway 99 north of Seattle.

March 4, 1977: Natacha's Pavilion

West Bremerton was the home of Natacha's Pavilion (sometimes spelled "Natasha's") at 3536 Arsenal Way, a dancehall that had originally been opened by Perl Maurer in 1934 as Perl's Dance Pavilion. It had survived the World War II years with big-band dances, and then the rise of the 1950s country and western scene and even the 1960s "Louie Louie" era, but in 1971 Maurer sold it to Bill and Natacha Sesko. A bit later the Kashmir Club began presenting BYOB events for sailors from the nearby navy facilities -- an odd situation since those sailors' teenaged dates were also allowed into these private parties. And thus fliers began advertising that on March 4, 1977, two bands would be playing at Natacha's Pavilion: Baby, an otherwise obscure band from Texas that had recorded for Chelsea Records, and our headliners, who were clumsily hyped as being:

"A fast-paced, stripped-down, rock 'n' roll machine, they'll get you where they're going
"In less than one year, they've become one of the most popular touring bands in the World
"Their appearance at the Roundhouse in London brought the audience to it's [sic] feet" ("Kashmir Club ...").

The Ramones rolled into Bremerton from Sacramento, California, with their van pulling a little trailer holding all their gear, and bravely performed that night for a small crowd of beered-up U.S. Navy men (along with their underage dates). As one eyewitness recalled the night, "The opening band was terrible. But then, when the Ramones came on, I think most of the people who were there left -- except for this handful of us who had come over from Seattle" (Hubbard interview).

March 5, 1977: The Rocker Tavern

The Rocker was opened in Aberdeen's old Moose Lodge building at 512 W Heron Street in November 1973 by Aberdeen music veteran Stan Foreman -- the original keyboardist with the area's most successful 1960s local band, the Beachcombers. As Foreman later recalled:

"I bought [the building] in March of '73 and remodeled the place to turn it into a rock n roll bar with seating for 300. It had a huge stage and even a band room, which was unusual for a club rock bar in those days.
"Owning a live music/liquor venue in a town like Aberdeen is always an adventure. It appealed to a crowd that worked hard in the mills and timber industry and played hard on the weekends" ("Rocker Tavern").

Foreman sold the place in 1977, and by 1979 it was recast as the long-lived Sidney's Restaurant & Casino.

But in between, the Ramones roared through. Their road manager, Monte A. Melnick, recalled in his 2004 book On the Road with the Ramones:

"There was one place that we got screwed, though -- some blue-collar lumberjack bar in Aberdeen, Washington. We did our 20-minute, 30-song set, and BAM! It was over before they blinked. The owner stormed out and hollered, 'Are you crazy? You gotta play here for two hours!' There were all these lumberjacks, big guys, who were throwing bottles because we didn't play long enough" (Melnick and Meyer).

The "club management demanded we play some more or we wouldn't get paid, so the band played the same set again. Needless to say, the lumberjacks had no idea what the Ramones were playing" (Wallace and Manitoba). "We snuck out the back door. It was a sticky situation" (Melnick and Meyer). Epilogue: In 1979 the Ramones' entire set from the gig -- including "Loudmouth," "Beat on the Brat," and "Blitzkrieg Bop" -- surfaced on the now-rare At Your Birthday Party bootleg 2-LP set.

March 6, 1977: The Georgian Room

Seattle's nascent punk-rock scene was largely based in the University District, prodded along by some Roosevelt High School kids, and publicized and promoted by a few early local DIY fanzines including the District Diary (later Chatterbox) and Twisted. The latter publication was run by Robert Bennett and the former produced by a couple of teenaged pals, Neil Hubbard and Lee Lumsden, who got their musical news from such sources as New York Rocker magazine.

So that was how -- on about Tuesday, March 1 -- they learned that the Ramones would soon be coming through the Northwest, and they were dismayed to read that the band was booked to play at the Aquarius Tavern located north of Seattle at 17001 Aurora Avenue N in Shoreline. This was exactly the wrong room for a punk show. Since 1970 it had featured hippie bands, then morphed into a disco den, and was recently the proving ground for Seattle's biggest band of the decade, Heart -- but it was certainly no punk-rock venue.

Even worse, it was a 21-and-over room and few, if any, Ramones fans at that time fell into that age category. In 2016, Neil Hubbard recalled:

"We heard that the Ramones were coming and they were scheduled to play at the Aquarius ... And I was under 21, and the place was a bar, so I wasn't going to be able to get in. And most of my friends who liked the Ramones weren't going to be able to get in. So, I just started making phone calls. I called the local Warner Brothers sales office here in Seattle. I said 'I want to call the tour agent. I want to find out who the booking agent is.' And so, I made three or four phone calls and I finally got hold of whoever it was in Los Angeles, and I said, 'You know, we want to see the Ramones, and nobody in Seattle who is into the Ramones is going to be able to get into this show. It's on a Sunday night. In a bar. And nobody is going to be there who wants to see this band.'
"And so the guy told me: 'If you can find a different place to do the show, it's yours.' Well, this was like a week before the show. And I said 'Okay.' And so Robert Bennett -- he'd been producing some local shows -- we got together and said 'Okay, we can make this happen.' So we started calling venues. We called all the different theaters. And we just couldn't find a place that was available. But finally thought, 'Well, okay, the Olympic Hotel is next on the list' and called them" (Hubbard interview).

The posh circa-1924 Italian Renaissance-style Olympic Hotel at 411 University Street in downtown Seattle (later the Fairmont Olympic Hotel) was seemingly the last place on earth that would knowingly agree to host a punk-rock concert. It was a prim and proper bastion of Seattle's social establishment that had in previous decades mainly hosted polite big-band dances and the occasional high-school prom event. But no one explained exactly what type of music, or which band, would be presented there. Instead, Hubbard simply inquired:

"Can we have a dance there on Sunday night March sixth?' And they said, 'Yes, the Georgian Ballroom is available.' And we booked it -- to rent the room cost about $500, and Robert had enough money. He had a poster designed -- it said 'Chatterbox presents the Ramones' -- and printed up within a day or two and we plastered those up all over town, and started selling tickets at [the] Campus Music and Cellophane Square [record stores], and put the whole thing together within a week" (Hubbard interview).

Then, the night of the show arrived and "The people at the hotel were completely stunned, because we didn't tell them, you know, 'Your place is going to be overrun by kids in leather jackets!'" Hubbard later laughed, "We just told them 'We're going to have a live band. We're going to have a dance.' They didn't know that it was like a big punk-rock sensation from New York. I mean, just picture that beautiful lobby and the ballroom's big doors are right there. So the hotel's guests were pretty taken aback by it all" (Hubbard interview).

As it happened, an estimated 400 to 500 kids paid the $5 ticket price and went on to pogo the night away in the grand Georgian Ballroom. Lee Lumsden's poppy-punk band the Meyce (pronounced "mice") -- Pam Lillig (guitar/vocals), Jim Basnight (guitar/vocals), Paul Hood (bass), and Lumsden (drums) -- opened the show, their biggest ever. Their set was a mixture of original tunes and a few fun covers, including a rendition of Marcie Blane's 1962 cutie-pie teen-dream radio hit "Bobby's Girl" -- a song that Joey Ramone complimented Basnight about. Meanwhile, Basnight recalled, "Tommy told me that we were the best band that they'd played with on the whole tour ... and Joey really liked us. Basically they were really friendly and nice" (Basnight interview).

Then the headliners came on, blasting a full-volume set of tunes. Decades later, Basnight enthused:

"The Ramones were just like a powerhouse ... I remember they came out and their sound was, obviously, really tight and really strong. And Joey said: 'This one is for the Meyce!' And he goes: 'You're a LOUDMOUTH baby, you better SHUT UP!' [which was merely the opening lines of the Ramones' classic song "Loudmouth"] and I thought maybe he was talking to me, like I was talking too much and being too much of a showoff during the gig, and I thought 'Oh, my god!' But, you know, Joey was always very friendly to me and he remembered me when I went out to New York. And I ended up staying in his bedroom for about two months altogether when I was out there later that year. I was kinda struggling to find a place to live, and those guys were out touring, so they let me stay there" (Basnight interview).

Basnight dove into the New York scene and, duly inspired, eventually returned home and founded one of Seattle's leading 1970s power pop bands, the Moberlys.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of that 1977 Seattle gig the Ramones got paid their $1,000 fee and Bennett cleared enough profit to be able to buy a new car the following week. So everybody -- except perhaps the staff and guests at the Olympic -- was about as pleased as can be. And thus began Seattle's love affair with the Ramones.

The town would remain enthusiastic about the band's periodic visits over the following years, including memorable gigs at the Paramount Theatre (911 Pine Street) on August 4, 1977, and February 3, 1978; at the Rainbow Tavern (722 NE 45th) in the University District on June 5, 1979, and then the following night at the Norway Center (300 Third Avenue W) with Seattle's Enemy and Tacoma's Stripes opening; at the Showbox Theatre (1426 1st Avenue) on April 18, 1980 with Vancouver, B.C., all-female punk band the Dishrags; at the Eagles Hippodrome (700 Union Street) with Vancouver, B.C., punk band D.O.A. on May 4, 1983; at UW's HUB Ballroom on November 30, 1984, with Seattle's Eagertones; at The 99 Club (15221 Pacific Highway S) on June 23, 1989; at the Paramount Theatre again on August 15, 1990, with Deborah Harry, the Tom Tom Club, and Jerry Harrison; and finally at Seattle's Bumbershoot arts festival in September 1995.

The Ramones were an iconic band that can be credited with sparking the 1970s punk movement and inspiring the formation of countless other garage bands. In 2002, long after disbanding in 1996, the band was finally inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.


Sources:

Peter Blecha telephone interview with Neil Hubbard, September 29, 2016; Peter Blecha telephone interview with Jim Basnight, September 29, 2016; "With Ramones," The Seattle Times, March 4, 1977, "Tempo" section, p. 9; Patrick McDonald, "It's 'Take 25' for Dave Brubeck," The Seattle Times, March 5, 1977, p. B-2; Patrick McDonald, "Redbone: An Original or a Clever Con Man?," The Seattle Times, March 7, 1977, p. A-11; Monte A. Melnick and Frank Meyer, On the Road with the Ramones (London: Sanctuary Publishing, 2004); "Monte A. Melnick's Good, Bad, and Ugly Ramones Gigs" in Amy Wallace and Handsome Dick Manitoba, The Official Punk Rock Book of Lists (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2007), 156; "Kashmir Club Rock & Roll Calendar," flier, February-April, 1977, copy available at Facebook website accessed October 7, 2016 (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10209270492908892&set=gm.979759955478537&type=3&theater); "Rocker Tavern, Aberdeen, Washington," Pacific Northwest Bands website accessed October 7, 2016 (http://pnwbands.com/rockertavern.html).


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