Remembering the Washington Coliseum
by Richard O'Connor
 

Howard Theatre, Club Labaron, Panorama Room, Northwest Gardens, Maverick Room, The Paragon Too, Ebony Inn, and Cheryís:  all among the legendary venues from the 70ís and 80ís for live Go-Go.  But the one place that best personified the gritty street edge of the music and its fans is none other than the Washington Coliseum.

Back in the early 80ís, during the Coliseumís Go-Go heyday, there was no "three in the morning at the Pancake House."  Youíd better believe that you were still at the Coliseum and probably would not be going home until five or six in the morning.  If you still had some energy after that, you could drag your tired butt to the McDonalds on New York Avenue.

This was Go-Go at its best.  Now before you youngins get offended, Iím not talking about the way the music sounded.  We  can argue that point another time.  Iím referring to the size and magnitude of the scene.

Back then, there was no shortage of halls, clubs, and schools that opened their doors to the D.C. funk style.  Work for bands was plentiful.  Shows for fans were cheap.  So cheap - just five dollars - that you could easily afford to catch two shows on a Saturday night.

The Coliseum featured Go-Goís at least once a month.  Usually a battle of the bands variety with Chuck Brown, EU, Trouble Funk, Rare Essence and upstart bands such as The Mighty Peacemakers, Petworth, Ayre Rayde and Class.

Few remember the Coliseumís orgins and how it came to be the Go-Go hot spot of its time.  Built in the 1940ís and known as U-Line Arena, it was Washingtonís premiere venue for hockey, basketball, rock concerts, the circus and professional wrestling.

Small as it is by todayís standards, it was typical of most arenas of that period with a seating capacity of around 6000.  Big arenas such as Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden were domes by comparison.

Itís hard to believe that the old building, now used for parking garbage trucks, was a vital part of Washington D.C. culture.  For a brief period, U-Line was home to an ABA basketball team - originally called the Capitals - the site of wrestling matches promoted by the original World Wide Wrestling Federation - run by Vince McMahonís father (for you wrestling junkies like me).  The Beatles also played at the Coliseum when they hit D.C. on their U.S. tour.

Without doubt, its death nail came in the early 70ís with the completion of the Capital Center in Largo (itís not really in Landover) Maryland.  The brand new state of the art arena, complete with the worlds first video telescreen and a seating capacity of close to 20,000, made the old Coliseum obsolete.  It quickly fell into disrepair and had great difficulty in drawing any events.  Those looking for an alternative to the Capital Center were frightened off by the deteriorating condition of the building and itís neighborhood, and took their events to the D.C. Armory.

Cheap rent, large size, decent acoustics, and a true inner city location that was accessible to everyone made the Coliseum a perfect location for early Go-Go shows.  By this time, however, it was suitable for little else.  Toilets barely worked and the place looked as if it hadnít seen soap and water in over a decade.

You had to be hardcore to survive these all night Go-Goís.  Walking into the Coliseum was like stepping into a scene from The Warriors, or Escape from New York.  It was a different world altogether where rules from the outside just didnít apply.  Suburban bamas were better off waiting for the Back to School Boogie or one of those other Capital Center Shows.  This was strictly for city folk.  And God help you if you stepped on anyoneís foot.

A fight or two would break out during almost all of the intermissions.  In the days before everyone carried guns, this was actually one of the entertaining aspects of the show - as long as you didnít get caught in the middle.  You could actually see a guy get chased from the back of the Coliseum, to the front of the stage, and back again where he would finally get a sound whippiní - old school style.  Who needed Saturday morning wrestling when you had Saturday night Go-Goís.  And the bands played on without so much as a pause.

Coliseum shows simply cranked the best (although some old heads will argue to the death that the Howard Theatre was the spot).  If you didnít get there until 2 AM - no problem.  There was still plenty of show left.  Trouble Funk or Rare Essence was probably just arriving from one of their earlier shows anyway.

The last Coliseum shows were in the mid 80ís - around í86.  Complaints from neighbors, the growing use of guns, and the spawning of a new drug culture slowly closed many doors that had previously been opened to Go-Go culture.  Furthermore, many promoters who got their start doing Go-Goís moved on to bigger things and never looked back.

Today, the old Coliseum stands as a monument - or eyesore - to many bygone eras.  If those walls could talk, I bet they would say that Trouble Funk Ďoutcranksí those sorry Beatles any night of the year.  Maybe itís just me, but a parking and storage facility for garbage trucks just isnít a fitting retirement.

 

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