Denver’s Musical Past

Denver’s Musical Past

With the City Series, TIDAL investigates the local music scenes of U.S. cities. Enlisting the expertise of a locally-based music writer, we explore the past, present and future of music in each town. We begin in heart of the American West, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, with a musical history of Denver, Colorado. 

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“During one of their 1981 stops, I had my associate Chuck Morris take the boys for some sightseeing and he took them to Red Rocks. Clayton remembers that they were blown away by its beauty and that they were all thinking that someday, they’d play there.”

Thus wrote the late concert promoter Barry Fey, in his book Backstage Past, recalling a historic moment in his long association with the Irish rock band U2.

Two years later, U2 would play Red Rocks Amphitheatre in the pouring rain, a show immortalized in the concert film U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky. Recorded on June 5, 1983, the torrential performance was a watershed moment for a band trying to prove themselves to a U.S. audience, now respected as one of the biggest live acts on the planet.

Set between two massive naturally occurring sandstone monoliths, Red Rocks held its first concert, a 25-piece orchestra, in 1906 – the venue later purchased by the City and County of Denver. It has become one of the most famous music venues in the world, with historic performances by the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and notable recordings by the likes of Neil Young, Steve Martin, Oasis, Dave Matthews Band, and Mumford & Sons. A venerable natural attraction for artists and music fans alike, Red Rocks is an apt symbol, if not a house of worship for a state that reveres nature and music in equal parts.

U2 recorded their iconic concert film Under a Blood Red Sky at Red Rock Amphitheatre in 1983. Their performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was also played frequently on MTV. (Photo: Greg Wigler/Denver Post)

Founded in 1858 as a mining town, Denver’s history has been shaped by repeated cycles of boom and bust ever since. The development of its music scene has followed similar patterns.

With the most recent boom coming about due to the legalization of cannabis for recreational use effective January 1, 2014, Denver has seen the largest influx of visitors and residents since the mid-1990s. This rapidly growing urban population has given rise to an unprecedented culturally minded class, with a creative community match. Pulling ahead of surrounding states like Kansas, Wyoming and Utah, Denver, Colorado can be regarded as the cultural capitol of the landlocked West.

Often seen as a town with a healthy appreciation for EDM, jam bands and Americana, Denver has a long tradition of underground music where multiple aesthetic threads have run for decades. While groups like The Lumineers, Flobots, The Fray, Big Head Todd and The Monsters, String Cheese Incident, DeVotchka, Pretty Lights and India.Arie have attained a well-deserved level of fame outside of Colorado, the roots of that music run deep into a milieu far more varied and interconnected than is apparent to the casual observer.

Beginning in the 1920s, Denver played host to most legends of the jazz era. Legendary bar, El Chapultepec, was regularly played by Chet Baker and Stan Getz, to name a few. Ella Fitzgerald, a friend of owner Jerry Krantz, used to drop by and listen to the music from her car. Frank Sinatra was known to hang out at El Chapultepec as well.

In its heyday El Chapultepec was a hangout for Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. (Photo: Westword)

Preeminent jazz guitarist Bill Frisell spent his youth in Denver, attending East High School and studying guitar under local legend Dale Bruning, which he calls a ”very crucial time in my life.” Frisell occasionally returns to Denver to play with his mentor, most recently for his 45th high school reunion. “Now that was a time warp,” he recently told TIDAL.

The old jazz clubs still stand along north Welton Street in the Five Points section of the city, even though The Roxy now hosts more Juggalo bands than jazz and Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom now generally showcases jam bands and electronic music.

During the 1960s and 1970s, folk and bluegrass began to enjoy a revivalist popularity in Denver, as it did in various pockets of the United States.

Harry Tuft founded the Denver Folklore Center in 1962 and it proved to be a locus for promoting and fostering folk music of all kinds, even to this day in its South Pearl Street location. Its early formal connection to non-profit cultural institution Swallow Hill Music has meant that country, folk, blues and jazz have had a long, healthy presence in Colorado’s musical DNA.

Given it’s natural beauty and folk-friendly music scene, it should come as no surprise that Townes Van Zandt, who lived in Colorado as a young adult, or that John Denver, who changed his name in reverence to the city, would hold onto a certain affection for the place that would translate into some of their songwriting. The latter’s tune “Rock Mountain High” was inducted as Colorado’s second official state song in 2007.

Also in the ’60s there was a wave of psychedelic and garage rock to mirror what was sprouting up in California, Texas and elsewhere. The Astronauts were a noteworthy surf rock band while Lothar and the Hand People, The Fabulous Raindrops and Eight Penny Matter were important psychedelic acts.

Morton Subotnik, inventor of the synthesizer, attended  the University of Denver in the late ’50s and early ’60s while playing in local orchestras. He also befriended a young Stan Brakhage, the famous experimental filmmaker who grew up in Denver.

In December 1975, Jim Nash and Danny Flesher opened Wax Trax! Records in Denver, which swiftly brought punk rock to Colorado in a meaningful and accessible way.

The record store-turned-label, eventually moved operations to Illinois where the it became the center of Chicago’s booming underground scene, but the original Wax Trax! shop remains a treasured institution for Denver vinyl collectors. Richard Girladi of the Sun-Times wrote, ”As important as Chess Records was to blues and soul music, Chicago’s Wax Trax imprint was just as significant to the punk rock, new wave and industrial genres.”

Founded in Denver, Wax Trax Records would become a fixture to the punk scene in Colorado and Chicago. The original shop is still a popular stop for vinyl aficionados. (Photo: city-data.com)

The first Colorado punk band is often said to be The Ravers for whom future Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, a Boulder native, was a roadie. A small punk rock scene developed around bands like Jonny III, The Profalactics, Cells and other acts featured on the 2009 compilation, Rocky Mountain Low, flourished for a handful of years. The punk scene continued, along with a long, divergent line of underground, alternative and experimental communities.

Around 1980, Dave Licthenberg relocated to Denver from the East Coast and co-founded an avant-garde music project called Walls of Genius. Later in the decade he started performing more of his outright pop and punk songs and performed under his stage name, Little Fyodor. Concurrently, Mike Johnson was putting together the first incarnation of Thinking Plague, an art-progressive rock band in the vein of Henry Cow. Meanwhile, composer Bruce Odland performed over twenty “music sculptures” at the Denver Center for the Performing arts while playing with Bruce Odland Big Band, an avant-jazz project that included then- and future-Denver jazz legend, Ron Miles.

The 1980s in Denver saw the foundations of much of the music that has come from the city and surrounding areas thereafter.

Founded in 1978, bluegrass band Hot Rize met while working and hanging out at the Denver Folklore Center. The project flourished in the then-popular resurgence of bluegrass and country music as embodied by local festivals showcasing such music including the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Hot Rize brought its own mixture of flavors to its songwriting in addition to performing standards and has enjoyed an international following.

Hip-hop also has a relatively long history in the Mile High City with the Eclipse program on KGNU running consistently since the late ’70s. The first big rap crew in Denver in the mid-’80s was Legion of Doom whose Brother Jeff headed Brother Jeff’s Cross Cultural Café around the turn of the century. The rich history of that ’80s hip-hop scene and its impact on the current era is well-documented in Baay Musa’s 2010 documentary Soulz of the Rockies.

The 1980s Denver punk scene, distinct and separate from that of the 1970s, had a champion in local promoters Tom Headbanger and Jill Mustoffa.

Punk acts from the era include the now legendary The Frantix, Rok Tots, Urban Leash, Bum Kon and Dead Silence. Perhaps the most influential act out of that milieu that reached a relatively wide audience was The Fluid, whose garagey post-punk sound and charismatic performances made an impact not only with local audiences but well outside of Denver, especially in the nascent grunge scene in Seattle. The Fluid’s 1991 split live single, “Candy,” with Nirvana’s “Molly’s Lips” is now an expensive collector’s item.

After Denver punk act The Frantix broke up, bassist Matt Bischoff, drummer Garrett Shavlik and guitarist James Clower began playing as Madhouse, later renamed The Fluid with the addition of Rick Kulwicki (guitar) and John Robinson (vocals). With their 1988 release, Clear Black Paper, they were the first non-Seattle band to sign to the Sub Pop label. (Photo: Sub Pop)

In the ’80s there was no distinct separation between punk and Gothic rock, which would come to be called “alternative rock.” So bands that today would be called Goth were able to play in the punk scene as well. Your Funeral was a dark, all-female post-punk group that helped lay the foundation of Denver’s original alternative scene. Soul Merchants, which included legendary Denver recording engineer, Bob Ferbrache, was short-lived but exported local influence as well.

The second half of the ’80s and the early ’90s saw the rise of what might considered the alternative rock scene in Denver. The 40th Day garnered a great deal of local popularity with its unlikely blend of dream pop and hard rock, while Jux County drew an audience with an unusual mixture of punk, country and funk.

In 1987 what could be argued as the most influential bands of the period formed. The infamous Warlock Pinchers kicked off in Boulder and its irreverent rap and punk songs reached an international audience. Their genius for pranks and creative mayhem are the stuff of local legend.

Twice Wilted started in Greeley, Colorado and introduced intensely energetic, gloom-inflected, atmospheric psychedelic music to Denver through playing in clubs and in more or less pioneering the regular warehouse shows where members were living. This was the band that the more arty types rallied around, as well as godfather to the space rock and post-punk groups of later years, having established the premise that one didn’t need to fit into a pre-existing rock genre to have a viable project. Twice Wilted also set the precedent for creative types throwing regular shows at warehouse spaces in and around Denver.

Denver Gentlemen amalgamated old timey folk, country and dark post-punk to create the kind of vibrant Gothic Americana that is often-mistaken for the sound of the entire scene. The group initially included future members of 16 Horsepower and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and the aesthetic enjoyed popularity in the U.S. and Europe.

By 1991 the next major stream of local music came into being when The Apples in Stereo formed out of its members mutual interest in The Beatles, The Beach Boys and ’60s garage psychedelia.

Frontman Robert Schneider had remained friends with future members of Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control when he was living in Ruston, Louisiana. Founding the Elephant 6 Collective, that creative constellation went on to produce some of the most innovative and compelling pop music of the ’90s, yielding at least one undisputed pop masterpiece in Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, recorded and partly written in Denver. Modern indie pop, while not born in Denver, certainly has roots in the Mile High City.

Punk rock and post-hardcore thrived in the ’90s with acts like Angel Hair, Cavity, Pinhead Circus, Five Iron Frenzy and Four representing very different sounds. Sonny Kay of Angel Hair started GSL Records and began to release some of the most interesting, experimental records in the American underground. When Angel Hair split some of its members started the synth-inflected The VSS and set a new standard for what was acceptable in punk rock.

Along with Neutral Milk Hotel and The Olivia Tremor Control, Denver’s The Apples in Stereo founded the storied Elephant 6 Collective.

Noise music has been a part of the Denver and Boulder underground since the early ’80s with Walls of Genius, NON and Architect’s Office. In 1994 the current godfathers of Denver noise, Page 27, started when high school friends John Gross and John Rasmussen started collaborating. In 2009, Gross was involved in organizing Denver Noise Fest, one of the biggest conventions for noise and associated musical expressions in the country.

Throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the Denver scene’s place on the national stage was still relatively small.

Suffice to say, few of the Denver acts that played the city on weekly basis were headlining Red Rocks. This eschewed the development of a now long-standing tradition of house shows and various DIY spaces and art gallery performances in Denver.

The most famous DIY venue in the city was the now-defunct Monkey Mania, which started putting on shows in November 1998 and effectively closed its doors in early 2006. It had ties with like-minded scenes like that of Fort Thunder in Providence, Rhode Island and The Smell in Los Angeles. What can be seen as its successor is Rhinoceropolis opened in 2005. Both venues have been home to some of the great underground and up-and-coming acts of the 2000s, including HEALTH, Dan Deacon, Future Islands, Matt and Kim, Indian Jewelry and White Mice.

2002 was the year the scene started to rapidly expand, with new venues opening up at regular intervals and if not sticking around at least the spaces largely remaining places to see shows. These include The Hi-Dive, Larimer Lounge, The Skylark, The Meadowlark, 3 Kings Tavern, Mutiny Information Café, Carioca Café, Deer Pile, Syntax Physic Opera and The 1up Colfax, to name but a few. The quantity of quality bands also seemed to explode, with many musicians not dropping out but joining several projects at the same time.

Since the turn of the century a handful of Denver bands went on to great success, raising the bar for what could be possible, at least in the pop world, for a band from the middle of the country.

The Fray, for instance, started in 2002 when Issac Slade’s and Joe King’s respective bands broke up and the two decided to join forces to create a new band that eventually went on to great international fame and success. But the beginnings wasn’t so auspicious and the myth that the group never played local shows before having a hit single is largely exaggerated.

“From 2002 to 2004, we played the hell out of Denver until everyone got tired of us,” said singer Issac Slade in a 2012 interview with Huffington Post writer Mike Ragogna. “After that, we got a record deal and put a record out in 2005. Things started heating up in 2006, and being on Grey’s Anatomy doubled everything that we had done. After that we sold a bunch of records, we played a bunch of shows and here we are.”

After trying to make it in New York CIty, Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites moved to Denver where they met cellist Neyla Pekarek and formed The Lumineers. Their self-titled debut has been certified Platinum in the U.S. and Ireland. (Photo: David Lee)

That may not be the path for other commercially successful acts like OneRepublic, The Flobots and The Lumineers but it does illustrate how a band from Denver could play many largely forgotten local gigs and with the right connections, the proper material, and the drive to succeed could become a recognized pop band.

For everyone else, which is to say most Denver musicians and songwriters, those successes haven’t translated into an immediate spotlight as of 2014. Separated from the Pacific West by the Rocky Mountains, and from the East by the Great Plains, Denver has been blessed and cursed for its geographic isolation, which has both incubated its growth and stunted its influence.

But the rate at which acts from various corners have made a splash outside of Denver has increased dramatically, with more bands coming out of the city, as well as flowing in. Now more than ever, though it has been said so often before, it seems to be a matter of time before Denver is recognized as a city producing interesting music of a sterling caliber.

Stay tuned for the next installment of the City Series: a guide to the Denver music scene today. 

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Tom Murphy is a native of Aurora, Colorado. He is currently a freelance contributor to Denver-based alternative weekly magazine Westword. He has written for Gutter Bubbles and Cairn, as well as writing about music for The Onion. When not writing or exploring unusual places around Denver, he plays guitar and synth in experimental ambient band Pythian Whispers. He’s currently working on a history of underground music in Colorado, tentatively titled High Plains Underground.

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