The Town Pump was the last great rock and roll club in Vancouver. Scratch that — If you loved live music, you loved the Town Pump, because every genre of music played its stage, too.
There are, of course, lots of new clubs that have appeared in Vancouver since the Town Pump closed in the late ’90s, but ask anybody who was around when “the Pump” was at its height, it was more than just another bar. For a time, it was the spindle that drove the wheel of the Vancouver music scene…
And that time was when the appetite for original live music was never better in Vancouver.
A time just before the internet when there was little more mystery about bands but their music. It was a time when music mattered. It was a time before you saw bands on stage relying on laptops. Before bad rave music left audiences to watch bad DJs twiddle with pushing play on disposable lyric-less music that was best only danced to and then forgotten with the morning hangover of last night’s ecstasy pills.
The Town Pump opened in 1971 at 66 Water St. in Gastown by Ruben Kopp and Edward Keate. The bar was originally decorated in an Old West frontier style, with a long oak bar, old brass and red drapes. In the 1970s, during the day it catered to a lunchtime crowd — in particular, execs from the nearby Woodward’s building who spent long lunch hours drinking at the bar, returning important calls from the bar telephone. At night, Marty Gillen and his Town Pumpers were the house band, playing top 40 covers.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the Town Pump really came into its own with bands playing original music. A wave of rock and blues acts kicked things off, along with shows by some of the stars of the early local indie music scene from Art Bergmann, Go Four 3, Nomeansno and later Bob’s Your Uncle, Spirit of the West and the Scramblers.
The Town Pump was the place to be for touring Canadian bands to come, as everyone from the Tragically Hip to the Shuffle Demons played their first Vancouver shows at “the Pump” — along with just about every touring rock band worth its salt from Edmonton to St. John’s.
For local bands and musicians, it was the place to play — and if you were lucky to sell it out, it meant you were likely ready to graduate onto bigger rooms like the Commodore Ballroom, and that held true for everyone from Matthew Good to She Stole My Beer. Bands played the sets of their lives there, and some even got signed by major record labels (when those existed) in the notoriously sleazy basement band room where there was surely more cocaine to be found in the dust that vibrated loose from the rock and roll racket upstairs. Hey, it was the ’80s after all.
Some say it was never a pick-up bar like the Roxy — it was always primarily a music bar — but that didn’t mean there was some sex to go with the drugs and rock and roll. Especially in the 1990s where musicians and the public hung out in the front lounge, away from the inner room. The Town Pump became a wonderful meeting ground where the rockabilly folks drank with metal people, Old blues guitarists chatting away with ska musicians, and punks hit on a young Sarah McLachlan. Maybe you were there when Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts filmed a breakthrough video there? Maybe you came to see DSK play but were wowed by Pearl Jam who were the other act on the bill that night? Maybe you were there when Nirvana played the Town Pump, or you told the story that they did so many times you believed you’d made it to that show yourself?
Towards the end, some nights in the place were packed. Other nights it felt there wasn’t enough of an audience to make up a jury. Eventually that hit-and-miss nature of what had become the live music scene in the late 1990s perhaps spelled the end for the Town Pump. That, and that the new genre of DJ music was taking over popular music spelled the end for the club.
But for the better part of two decades the Town Pump played a huge role in Vancouver’s music scene, and played host to some incredible shows. The venue has been closed and vacant for years now. Perhaps it could one day reopen as a live music venue? Maybe those days can’t be captured again? Until then, we have this T-shirt bearing the iconic official Town Pump logo to remember the nightclub by. When seen on the street by those who wear it, don’t be surprised if you get a nod from those who remember when Gastown rocked.
Aaron Chapman’s new book, Vancouver After Dark — The Wild History of a City’s Nightlife, about the history of Vancouver nightclubs of the past, will be published in the fall of 2019 by Arsenal Pulp Press.