The legendary Spadina venue has just been sold for a reported $3 million, with its new owners promising to return the club to its late-‘70s glory days. But in this edition of her nightlife-history series, Denise Benson looks back at the people and parties that kept this Toronto landmark alive during its leanest years.
Who else played/worked there: It would be impossible to list all of the key bands, DJs, bookers, and promoters who played a role in The El Mocambo’s story from 1989-2001. Along with rock and roots music, there were goth and glam shows, hip-hop showcases, and even the occasional rave. Punk band The Sinisters played numerous Halloween shows. Hip-hop supergroup Gravediggaz made its Toronto debut at the El Mo in 1994, while Canadian hip-hop icons including Choclair, Rascalz, and Kardinal Offishall introduced their “Northern Touch” collaboration in the same room a few years later.
Video: Aldo Erdic
The seeds of Hot Stepper Productions’ long-running soul-funk monthly, Bump N’ Hustle, can even be traced to 464 Spadina. BNH mastermind Carlos Mondesir got his event-production career started there in 1995 after soundman Courtney Ross “roped me into” promoting the weekly Soul Sundays.
Working with DJ Curtis Smith and tutored by Ross, Mondesir learned to book bands and produce live shows.
Flyer: courtesy of Carlos Mondesir.
“It made me a far more versatile promoter, coming from a DJ-focused club world,” says Mondesir, who brought performers including k-os, Jacksoul, Medeski Martin & Wood, Arcee and Fatski, Blaxam, Jukejoint, and Camille Douglas to the El Mo’s upstairs stage.
“There was an obvious history of soul and blues at the club, but we were into an updated soul style fused with new beats. My first gigs with DJs like Paul E. Lopes, Mike Tull, Jason Palma, Vancouver’s Luke McKeehan, and Atlanta’s DJ Injex were all there, too.”
But there are two DJ-driven events that will forever be synonymous with The El Mocambo in the late 1990s through to 2001: Davy Love’s Blow Up and Will Munro’s Vaseline (later renamed Vazaleen after threats of legal action from the namesake skin-care manufacturer).
DJ/promoter Davy Love’s incredibly popular Saturday weekly was “all about British pop music from the 1960s through 2000s,” says the man himself. ”We played indie, underground, massive sellers, and the way-out stuff, too.”
Davy Love at the El Mo. Photo: courtesy of Davy Love.
Blow Up ran for more than 10 years at almost as many venues, including two stints at the El Mo. His first was in 1996; he would move the night, which drew more than 500 well-dressed, fiercely loyal followers each week, back to the venue in 1998 because he liked its new owners and vibe.
“Lamin and Jim are two of the nicest, most honest, straight-shooting guys I’ve ever dealt with in clubland,” shares Love, who also encouraged Dan Burke to come work for them.
The crowd at Blow Up. Photo: courtesy of Davy Love.
“I also loved the venue, and its down-and-dirty history. I saw many shows there when I was a teenager. The El Mo will always be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll landmark in this city; it was the perfect place for Blow Up to thrive. It had just the right amount of seediness and rock ‘n’ roll-ness that appealed to both the pretty, rich kids who were out to rebel against their parents and the downtown working kids/art students who spent all their cash from their minimum-wage jobs on Saturday nights.”
Love was joined by DJs Duncan Rands, Adam Gorley, Johnny Culbert, and the duo of Trevor Young and Darrell Joseph a.k.a Bangers & Mash (“which was which, we never knew”). Bands, including Stars, performed live before the party got underway. Welsh band Super Furry Animals guest DJed, partied through the night (“It went on till the cleaners came in at 10 a.m. the next day”), and later asked Love to remix their 2003 single “Hello Sunshine.”
The celebs who frequented Blow Up were not limited to musicians.
“We had Will Ferrell and Janeane Garofalo dancing and drinking it up one night, and Dave Foley came many times,” spills Love. “So many famous faces were through Blow Up at the El Mo, but it was never a big deal to anyone. They were just having fun like everyone else.”
After all, the main attraction was Blow Up’s music, which blasted out of a powerful system set up for live music.
“The sound system was amazing,” Love extols. “It was a massive stack of speakers that boomed throughout the room. You could actually feel the music hit you, it was so loud.”
Meanwhile, artist Will Munro, along with a wonderfully motley crew of queers, would gather downstairs, monthly on Fridays, for Vaseline.
Dan Burke, who’d been tipped off to Munro by members of The Deadly Snakes (“they were the cornerstone of my local band alliances,” he says), gave Munro the chance to launch his queer-rock extravaganza in January of 2000.
“Will sure knew what he was doing!” exclaims Burke of the DJ/activist who lost his battle with brain cancer in May of 201o. “The first Vaseline drew over 200 people, and it soared from there. It was a fabulous experience working with Will. He was like the United Nations of gay people. What a diverse crowd.”
The Vaseline crew (clockwise from left): Tawny LeSabre, Will Munro, Bennett Jones Philips, Zoe Dodd, and John Caffery. Photo: courtesy of John Caffery.
“Vaseline was our fantasy event that actually materialized,” says Miss Barbrafisch, the metal-loving DJ who was a Vaseline resident from the start. “It was rockers, punks, metalheads, and misfits, weirdos of all stripes and genders. It was inherently informed by the identity politics of the ’90s, but without the anger. Vaseline was positivity and perversion and great music and great people. Once a month, the outsiders had a clubhouse.
“Vaseline was magical during the El Mo years,” she continues. “The entire historicity of the venue as a distinctly rock venue was a constant reminder that we didn’t need to compromise our musical perspectives.”
“Compromise” is a word that will never be associated with Vaseline.
“Peaches played the first Vaseline ‘Shame’ party,” recalls Kids on TV’s John Caffery, who first graced stages as a go-go dancer there, shaking it up alongside Coco LaCreme at Munro’s behest. “Peaches also played beats when Will pulled a rainbow flag out of his ass.”
That same June 200o Vaseline also featured guest DJ Miss Guy, of Toilet Boys fame. Other early guests included Vaginal Davis, Kembra Pfahler of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, and Cherie Currie, a former member of The Runaways who played live in June 2001, backed by a band of Toronto musicians.
Caffery—who was also game to be involved in Vaseline “stage antics like Bobbing for Butt Plugs, Cock Sucking contests, and Drag Queen Roller Derby”—feels passionately about this night that proved so popular it outgrew the El Mo’s small downstairs room, moved upstairs, and would later go on to pack Lee’s Palace.
“Vaseline was transformative for me, and created this massive shift in the way I perceived Toronto nightlife and the queer and trans community,” he says. “I started to think of clubs as a place to be creative, fuck shit up, and challenge public norms rather than simply a place to drink with friends. It also broke down a lot of the silos I saw within the community, with the bears, punks, leather women, and goths all partying together.”
Blow Up, Vaseline, and Dan Burke’s overall programming shifted the public perception of The El Mocambo. It may have been physically worn, but new audiences meant the club was solvent again.
“By 1999, we were making money,” states Burke. “In 2000 and 2001, we were a highly viable enterprise financially.”
Burke—with the help of Love, Munro, William New and countless bands who played benefit shows—even managed to raise the $22,000 required to fix the El Mo’s landmark palm sign in 1999. It was later damaged.
Photo: courtesy of Davy Love.
What happened to it: As has been well documented, 464 Spadina Ave. was sold to Abbas Jahangiri in 2001. His vision put the brakes on the Burke-led rebirth. Burke went out with a two-floor show on November 4, 2001. He also put up a fight and was famously handcuffed and evicted by police afterwards. Burke has long since booked for The Silver Dollar and, occasionally, at The Velvet Underground.
In his 11 years of owning the El Mo, Jahangiri both nurtured and took away. Though plans to transform the upstairs into a dance studio never fully materialized, his renovations reduced the floor—once The El Mocambo’s heart—to a shadow of its former self.
Still, thanks largely to the booking efforts of Yvonne Matsell—who worked under Jahangiri’s direction for the past decade—the club did stay afloat while featuring shows in the refurbished ground-floor room by the likes of Julie Doiron, Patrick Wolf, Holy Fuck, La Roux, and People Under the Stairs. DJs were also more welcome than ever, with dozens of dance parties bringing house, funk, techno, drum ‘n’ bass and more to the two floors. Jahangiri recently decided to sell the building in order to devote his time to missionary work.
New co-owner Grosso has already made it clear that his El Mocambo will return to the rock and roots-music focus of earlier decades. He has referenced The Rolling Stones repeatedly in interviews while expressing sentiments like “we want to bring great rock ‘n’ roll back to the city.”
Grosso also raised many eyebrows by stating flatly that he won’t feature hip-hop. It’s an odd, and questionable, sentiment at a point when the influence of hip-hop is so pervasive across all contemporary music.
“I think Sam has a preference to roots-geared genres,” offers Matsell by email. “After all, he has made the Cadillac Lounge into a successful venue that gears itself to those tastes. He does know that there is some really good hip-hop out there, so perhaps his comment was more off the cuff. Time will tell.”
Matsell, who continues as the El Mo’s main talent booker, tells me that the current priorities are fixing the neon sign, adding air conditioning and proper heating, renovating the bathrooms, and more.
“The upstairs room will be changed to look like when the El Mocambo was having its heydays in the ’70s.”
The reno process is being documented by posts to The Original El Mocambo Tavern Facebook group, where band listings are also found. The El Mo is currently open for shows Thursday through Saturday. Expect a re-launch party come spring.
Although Matsell emphasizes that “I will still book local and upcoming artists; that has always been a mandate in all the years I have been booking clubs,” there is concern that Grosso may just be dwelling a little too heavily on the El Mo’s past.
“I wish Sam the very best,” offers Jeff Cohen. “His other venues are wonderful, but what that venue needs is to reach out to local promoters and book the best new bands in North America, not talk about who played there some 40 years ago. No venue today can survive without being focused on new music, lest it be an oldies club or a generic folk or blues club.”
“I would tell Sam and his partner to embrace the history of the building, but don’t dwell on it,” echoes Enzo Petrungaro. “Make some of your own!”
“Don’t limit your options—you may not have as many as you’d like,” says Mondesir.
That said, one El Mocambo alumnus is eager to return. Davy Love, now owner of The Bristol Yard restaurant, will host his 18th-annual Blow Up Holiday Party there on Dec. 15.
“I booked it the very same day I heard that Sam bought it,” he says.
Thank-you to Miss Barbrafisch, Carlos Mondesir, Dan Burke, Davy Love, Enzo Petrungaro, Jeff Cohen, John Caffery, William New, and Yvonne Matsell for contributing. Thanks also to Amy Hersenhoren, Dave Munro, Jonathan Ramos, and Stuart Berman.
Read the entire Then & Now series exploring Toronto nightlife history here at The Grid. Feedback can also be shared at Denise Benson’s related Then & Now Facebook page.