Nobody knew it at the time, but a November 1981 punk rock show in at the aging Ontario Theater, in a then-sketchy part of Northwest D.C., was a key moment in local music history, and changed the trajectory of the pioneering all-woman band, The Go-Go’s.
“I remember The Ontario Theater, in Washington, D.C.,” bass player Kathy Valentine told WTOP. “It was a turning point in the kinds of places we were playing.”
After beginning their first tour approximately six months earlier in a white Econoline van, and playing at the original, smaller 9:30 Club in August 1981, by the time The Go-Go’s — Valentine, singer Belinda Carlisle, guitarists Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin, and drummer Gina Schock — pulled into D.C. in November for the Ontario Theatre show, they had graduated to a tour bus.
“We were playing bigger places, and the Ontario was probably one of the first theaters that marked that kind of uptick,” Valentine recalled.
The Ontario Theatre, located at 1700 Ontario Road in Adams Morgan, had opened in 1951, and was nearing the end of its lifespan.
As the 1980s began, future 9:30 Club owner Seth Hurwitz had booked a screening of “Rock and Roll High School,” and a personal appearance by The Ramones.
On Nov. 20, 1981, The Go-Go’s headlined with Joe “King” Carrasco at the Ontario.
“We were playing all the places a lot of our favorite bands had played — you knew this because you’d see the posters or the graffiti on the walls,” Valentine said. “We were really aware we were treading the same paths as The Clash, Blondie and The Ramones.”
The next morning, Washington Post reviewer Geoffrey Himes didn’t equivocate: “Their show, which revived rock’s best instincts, could change rock’s assumptions about gender forever.”
In her soon-to-released book, “All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir,” Valentine details the chance meeting in a club bathroom that led to her joining The Go-Go’s, shortly before their meteoric rise, including the release of their “Beauty and the Beat” album, tour and appearance on “Saturday Night Live.”
“I really was excited to be in Washington, D.C.,” said Valentine, of Austin, Texas. “You grow up knowing all the architecture, and the government, and Supreme Court, and all the landmarks — we were certainly not jaded, by any means.”
Valentine remembered family and friends of drummer Schock, who grew up in Baltimore, packed the tour bus to celebrate the “hometown girl who’s doing great now.”
“There was an excitement to everything — traveling, seeing new places, meeting people,” Valentine recalled of her early visits to D.C. “It was just a great, heady, brash, wonderful time for the band.”
Valentine and The Go-Go’s will join Foo Fighters and others at the inaugural D.C. Jam at FedEx Field on July 4.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that The Go-Go’s first D.C.-area show was at 9:30 Club in August 1981, while the Ontario Theatre show marked a change to larger venues.