Richard’s on Richards: A Retrospective

Richard’s on Richards, the long-standing nightclub and music venue at 1036 Richard’s street, was reduced to rubble in late July. The demolition of the iconic Vancouver building, which saw everyone from Black Flag to Killing Joke to the New Pornographers in its 40 year history, is a sad loss for the Vancouver music scene.

Fans of the venue will remember how the intimate, circular space with its signature brick interior, open dance floor and balcony offered one of the best settings for live shows in the city. Its closure was an event that had been anticipated for three years, since Aquilini Investment Group, the Vancouver-based investment company that owns the Canucks, bought the building in 2006. When the wrecking ball finally came, the news that yet another cookie-cutter condominium development would be replacing the beloved building did not come as a surprise.
The loss of Richard’s on Richards has music fans and industry professionals in mourning. I spoke with Aaron Chapman, Vancouver writer and musician with Bocephus King and the Town Pants, about the history of Richard’s on Richards and the state of live music in Vancouver.

According to Chapman, the space was originally made up of two buildings, garages for the Leverington Auto Dealership and Sports Car Club in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The buildings were bought by local ballet and drama enthusiast David Y.H. Lui, who opened a theatre under his name in 1975. When this theatre closed in 1979, it re-opened as an all-ages punk club, the Laundromat, in December 1980. Although the Laundromat was only open for a single year, it witnessed a pivotal time in the punk scene, hosting now-legendary hardcore bands Black Flag, 7 Seconds, Subhumans, and local favourites DOA.

Punk veterans remember the year of the Laundromat fondly, but unfortunately, ownership was again transferred in the ‘80s, and the club swiftly transformed from anarchist punk hangout to glossy yuppie nightclub. The venue was christened Richard’s on Richards, and it became a slick cocktail bar that routinely attracted celebrities and athletes. “It was the era of Miami Vice pastel clothing and cocaine,” says Chapman, adding that “rumours abounded that … the Roto-Rooter man had to be called in once a month to clean the coke straws out of the plumbing.”
The bar remained a place for beautiful people, Top 40 cover bands and expensive drinks until the early ‘90s, when tastes changed yet again, and two major Vancouver music clubs closed. The Town Pump shifted from live music to DJ sets, and the Commodore Ballroom shut down for three years. It was during this period that Richard’s made a name for itself as a live music venue.
Throughout the ‘90s and into this decade, it hosted a wide variety of bands, and one would be hard pressed to meet a music fan in Vancouver who didn’t have a good memory of a show at “Dick’s on Dick’s”. Its intimate setting meant that it tended to favour indie groups with smaller audiences, but it also saw the birth of many big names, including Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, The Black Eyed Peas, TV on the Radio, and Sufjan Stevens. The raised stage, upper balcony area and circular layout meant that it provided excellent sight lines, a significant advantage over other venues.

“All of the best shows we played in Vancouver were at Richard’s on Richards,” says Nimish Parekh, former Capilano University student and trombone player for local favourites Five Alarm Funk. The band played the final show at Richard’s on July 19th, which saw the group so energetic that timbales player Carl Julig attempted to crowd-surf on a large inflatable red couch and wound up in the emergency room with a dislocated shoulder. Despite this painful experience, Julig and the rest of Five Alarm Funk are sorry to see the historic club go. “There isn’t any place like it in Vancouver,” Parekh explains. “There’s the Commodore Ballroom, but that’s larger and owned by a big company, Live Nation, so ticket prices are higher.”
Now, all that is left of Richard’s on Richards is a hole in the ground. If you are curious about why the Aquilini Investment Group took three years to demolish the building after purchasing it, the reason is that they still had to secure one other property on the block. According to Chapman, this was a house that had been occupied by an elderly woman and her cats for over 50 years. She repeatedly refused to sell the property, until an Aquilini representative showed up on her doorstep with flowers and an offer of six million dollars. Finally, Aquilini could begin construction.

However, all is not lost. The owners of Richard’s transferred their liquor license to the former A&B sound location on Seymour Street, and construction has already begun on a new venue there. Those who remember the cramped aisles of the record store, with its narrow staircase and small upstairs area, will likely be impressed by the new space. It is going to be a massive 30,000 square feet, with three different floors, a beautiful brick interior, and will contain some decorative details salvaged from Richard’s: a wrought-iron railing from the club’s staircase and balcony, stained glass windows and several chandeliers.

One of the owners of Richard’s, Vince Alvaro, has promised the space will include two large dance floors, two art galleries occupied by the Presentation House from North Vancouver and the Belkin Gallery from UBC, and a large unisex bathroom with its own dance floor and bar (seriously). Renovations have cost $3.7 million to date, and the still-unnamed space is shaping up to be unlike anything else in the city. “It’s a very art-oriented nightclub,” Alvaro has said. Live music will be relegated to weeknights, while the weekends will be devoted to DJ sets and dancing.

It seems that the new space will be nothing like Richard’s. There are a few venues that may be able to replace it as the premiere venue for live music in the city, including The Venue (formerly the Plaza) on Granville, and the Rickshaw Theatre on Hastings, which is a massive converted movie theatre that offers an all-ages ground floor and a balcony area that serves drinks.

However, the future of live music in Vancouver is uncertain. The Cobalt, arguably the major punk venue in the city, has been given notice to evict by the end of the month. The loss of this venue will be a serious blow to the punk scene, which has been repeatedly forced underground due to a lack of legitimate venues. Hoko’s Sushi Karaoke Bar, a small venue run by an endearing couple in the Downtown Eastside, is no longer allowed to host live music as of late August. The city claimed that the restaurant was violating its Food Primary license when inspectors attended a karaoke event at which the patrons did not order food and a beer was found on stage.

Then there came the news last month that the owner of the Biltmore Cabaret, Zak Pashak, was moving to Calgary. “I would say it is a lot harder to run a bar in Vancouver,” he said, as the enforcement of strict safety and capacity regulations repeatedly challenged the Biltmore’s business. In particular, the city shut it down for exceeding maximum capacity in August 2008. As for the future of the Biltmore, Pashak has not stated whether he will sell the bar or continue to oversee its operations at a distance.

Many cite the overcrowding of the “Granville Entertainment District” as part of the problem, as the bulk of the liquor licenses in the city have become concentrated in a small area of downtown. New venues face greater opposition than ever, due to noise, congestion and law enforcement issues that have arisen from the Granville Street project. Liquor licensing continues to be a major problem for new venues, as acquiring a license can take months or even years, and requires cooperation from neighbouring businesses and residences.

According to Aaron Chapman, Vancouver has always had a problem creating and maintaining live music venues. “Had it not been for Chuck Davis and a few level headed people in the 1970s, they would have torn down the Orpheum,” he says. “After Expo 86, there was a lot of land left over to develop … Encouraging residential development downtown seemed like a good idea. [The city] slowly pushed out the clubs.” This trend has limited the growth of the Vancouver music scene. “The closure of Richard’s on Richards, and venues like it, means simply that there are less places to play for musicians in Vancouver. You need these venues to foster a scene.”

Not only do we need spaces for local bands to thrive, but we also need them to attract touring bands. Chapman explains: “In Vancouver, we have small live music clubs with 200-300 capacities like The Media Club, Railway Club, and the Plaza, but then nothing until the Commodore Ballroom, which can hold over 1000 people. A lot of promoters can't afford bringing bands to town and take a chance on filling the Commodore, but they can't make enough money putting the bands in the smaller rooms …Thus, there are a lot of bands that don't even bother coming to our apparent ‘world class city’.”

It can happen anywhere – even CBGB in New York shut down in 2006. Yet Richard’s on Richards joins a long list of nightclubs that have closed in Vancouver in recent years, including the Starfish Room, the Town Pump, the Marine Club, Graceland, and the Savoy. The continuing loss of live music venues is an unfortunate trend in this city. When the debris is cleared and another condominium complex arises at 1036 Richards, a part of Vancouver’s cultural life will have been lost.

Laura Kane

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