After experiencing nightlife in New York and Britain, visionary music enthusiast Joe Shanahan channeled that inspiration into the club legacy known as Metro and Smart Bar. The Wrigleyville double venue is one of the city’s premier sources for independent music—from heavy metal at Metro to deejayed dance beats at Smart Bar. As Shanahan celebrates the venues’ 30th year this fall with several special shows, the charismatic owner reflects on what it’s taken to get this far.
You’re an alternative-rock figurehead in Chicago, but people may not realize that Smart Bar, and dance music in general, is just as important to you.
Very true—I was the first DJ [at Smart Bar]. When we first opened, I had the record collection. Pivotal records were, like, ESG, New Order, certainly Talking Heads, Bowie, Iggie Pop on the rock side of things, but clearly house music and electro was also an interesting part of my musical collection and what I sought to bring to Smart Bar, Metro and Chicago for that matter. I’d already spent time in England and in New York, so a lot of my record collecting had begun from those trips. I was going against the grain from what was currently popular on radio. I felt that radio stations like the Loop were sort of meathead music. I remember the whole death to disco thing. I didn’t feel that way. We were trying to find that bridge between what was intelligent dance music that had some rock underpinning—New Order happened to be one of those artists.
I remember being at the Paradise Garage and hearing Larry Levan spin and hearing a Clash song and I was like, this is great. I remember hearing a dub version of the Police’s “Voices in My Head,” and being like, this is even better. My time at the Danceteria, the Mudd Club and Paradise Garage in New York was really influencing me on the idea that music, good music, shouldn’t have had a label. Steve Dahl blowing up records in the middle of a baseball field [in 1979], that became a hate rally against people that liked a certain kind of music. I was very insulted by it. One of the first nights we opened Metro and Smart Bar as an all-building event, Frankie Knuckles was in Smart Bar and [hip-hop DJ] Afrika Baambaataa was in Metro. It made a lot of musical sense and it was a really great crowd of young people: both sexes, black, white Puerto Rican.
What was this place like when you found it?
I had been to the building originally when it was a gay club called Center Stage. I came to see Grace Jones perform here; it was, like, the whole “Pull Up to the Bumper” era. It was a big deal. I ran into Dave Shelton, who became the owner of Medusa’s, and we were both looking at each other going, man, we want to do something like this one day. I remember being in that balcony watching this great thing, and again there was this attention to sound and lights that was unequaled. Right now Smart Bar has a Funktion One system, in a 400 capacity club in America, that’s probably one of the only ones. That began in 1982, because the pursuit of nightlife was not just the right crowd, it was delivering something exceptional, and music needed to be heard in that exceptional situation.
Records began being produced to sound that way. Again, I’ll go back to New Order and “Blue Monday.” I remember when that record came out, it didn’t sound right listening to that record on a home stereo. It sounded great and it was a great song to listen to, but when you heard it on a big system, oh my God, it took you down to your knees. They wrote that song that way. They were dialed in for the club.
Obviously these things are going in tandem, this nice mix of rock and dance elements. It seems like as Metro and Smart Bar evolved, it went that way as well.
You’re touching on something that I think is just a phenomenal link from 30 years ago to today. Think, in the last ten years, how many drummers, guitar players, bass players, are DJs? Almost all of them are. I remember the early days of some of the first bands that were coming through, they were really in to hanging out in [Smart Bar]. They didn’t deejay so much maybe, but they were certainly close enough to the DJ and wanted to see how they were working turntables and working records because they were interested in that aspect of it. Wait long enough and things repeat themselves. I think we’ve seen that transition over and over again. Perry Farrell, before he reintroduced the destination festival Lollapalooza, he was in Smart Bar deejaying on Sunday nights on a somewhat yearly basis. He was really interested in that kind of sound and figuring out how to do it. Even James Murphy—before the LCD Soundsystem, DFA period for him—he was deejaying. I think that’s really pertinent to this conversation. In some way, shape or form, the DJ has always been that important ringleader.
You’ve got a lot of bands that people associate with you through this club; did you find that they were experiencing this place in all of its forms?
Oh yeah. The live-music room has been the place where people come to see a band. But after the show, it all goes downstairs. I remember when Sinead O’Connor first performed here. Later that night she was like, “Hey, I really want to dance.” I walked her downstairs and she was on the dance floor dancing to an MC Lyte song. That’s one of the great things about having the two entities in the same building. Harmoniously, they’ve worked together. If you sit long enough—and I’ve had a front row seat for it, I see it repeat—it still comes back to the communal music experience. That’s what this building is all about, that’s what we’re celebrating this year, the 30th anniversary of this live, communal, community-based experience. Whether it’s local bands or local DJs, they own this. I just keep the wheels on the bus.
Would you call cultivating this shared experience the secret to your longevity and success?
First and foremost it’s the love of music. This might be too rose-colored glasses, but we’re all just really fans of it. There’s a democratic process to it. That’s why we do lots of different kinds of nights and lots of different kinds of styles. Style always takes precedence. That’s one of the things that I’m most proud of. I think the variety and not being pigeonholed into one specific thing, that’s why we’re successful. We’ve become a community of writers, poets, musicians, and we’re looking for those people, for that emerging art that’s coming out.
So, what’s next?
I don’t think our work is done. Especially in this world today, the positive work that music does for culture is very important and not to be taken lightly. I want to hold Rahm’s feet to the fire on this; I want to see this entertainment district that he’s talking about. I want to be around for it, I want to be a part of it. Part of our mission statement is work local and think global. Globally, [acts] find us, and we find them, we want them. Some of the mechanics of running a club is really hard. You don’t see it unless you really look under the hood. It looks all shiny and clean driving down the street, so to speak. It’s one big party and I’m hanging out with Bono and Billy Corgan all the time. That’s just not the case. There’s just so much left to be done. [Both venues are] the marketplace for the disenfranchised. We lead with our taste. The money will follow. It has for 30 years.