Brendan Mullen: The Taste Maker
L.A. Weekly, January 27, 1989
by Robert Lloyd

Toward the beginning of Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization, a documentary film about Los Angeles punk at the start of this now-waning decade, Brendan Mullen stands on a hill above Cahuenga Pass, Hollywood behind him, and theorizes. As the proprietor of the fabled Masque, the city's first real punk-rock club -- that is, the first venue to have an organization and attitude consistent with that of the music -- he's been called upon more than once to explain the underground. It's a subject he knows well, having been the scene's Ted Mack -- its Ed Sullivan, even, accidental impresario to the loud-hard-fast generation -- and one upon which he was once a tireless theorist, having contributed regularly to the acerbic fanzine Slash.

Now it takes a bit of persuasion to get Brendan to hold forth on an earlier self and a gone world, and although he'll opine broadly and assertively once he gets started, it's with some concern that he be taken neither as a motive force nor as an expert. Even in The Decline, discoursing on boredom, bad air and beats-per-minute, he provides a visual countertext of downward glances and why-ask-me shrugs. He was "there," he avers now, merely as "a janitor," at best a facilitator, of something bigger than himself. "If it hadn't had been the Masque," he says, "it would've been somewhere else. It just had to come to pass."

And so it's remained, this custodial posture, through all the rooms and bands and openings and closing that have come after up to this present commission booking Club Lingerie, the city's most catholic nightspot. Rock, punk, folk, funk, rap, jazz, blues, country and all imaginable combinations, permutations and corruptions thereof -- by unsigned comers, big-label stunners and ancient wonders of every age and fortune -- come under its roof.

Scots-Irishman Mullen arrived here ahead of punk, in the mid-'70s. The Masque, which operated from 1977 to 1979, the Wonder Years of L.A. punk and new wave, grew quite casually out of a 10,000-square-foot, several-room rehearsal space Brendan had been running downstairs from an alley off Cherokee Avenue south of Hollywood Boulevard. Its regular tenants included at one time or another X, the Go-Go's, the Dils, the Motels, the Skulls and the Controllers, who became the first band to perform at the Masque -- which, like nearly everything surrounding early punk, began as a party. "I asked them where did they play," recalls Brendan, who had popped his head in on a Controllers rehearsal, "and they said, 'Nowhere.' So I said if they wanted to play there that weekend, I'd build a stage. And they brought down a bunch of their cronies, and that was that."

The rent paid on the rehearsal rooms subsidized the performances, and made it possible to run shows without charging a cover and to put on stage pretty much anything, a luxury neither open to nor sought by the few other venues that had any dealings with the new music. "Anybody who could put together three chords could be in a band in 20 minutes and onstage in half an hour, and no matter how horrible you were, you were cheered on until you got reasonably adept playing or able to write songs," says Brendan, who played drums "avocationally" in the "house band," Arthur J. and the Gold Cups. "The bands booked themselves. All I did was try to keep it open."

The main pressure he had to resist on that account was applied by the city through the Fire Department -- though never, as might have been expected, by the police. "The police were our buddies at the Masque. They thought it was the cutest thing, the Hollywood Division 6, and when they came to close it down finally, the sergeant was apologetic: 'I hope you realize that this isn't a police decision; we're only here as back-up.' It was never the police. We had a 'play ball with us and we play ball with you' type of thing. No drinking on the sidewalk, no minors, no drugs -- those kind of ground rules. I used to let them in free; they just thought it was the wildest place to bring a date. It caught them short the first time they came down, because somebody had put on the walls something like 'Kill long-haired hippie pigs,' and they were the ones who were used to being called pigs. And all the punks had short hair and a fetish for uniforms, so there was this bizarre empathy between some of my employees and the cops; one of them tried to talk Sting Ray from the Controllers into joining the force."

A New Masque, more traditionally organized (audiences paid, bands got paid), followed at a nearby location, along with numerous shows produced at rented large halls ("all those places where they have those wretched dance clubs now"). "If I hadn't had a good understanding with the cops, I couldn't have managed all those rental-hall shows. That fiasco at the Elks Lodge -- the Elks Lodge Riot [March 17, 1979] -- was because the promoters didn't go out and communicate. The cops got the wrong impression and information -- it was a different police division -- and, I mean, somebody could have been killed."

After a short stint bringing Masque bands into the Whisky a Go Go, Brendan went to work in 1982 "as an independent contractor," booking Club Lingerie, an association that has continued with various side trips (notably to the Variety Arts Theater) until this day. He still prides himself on a good relationship with the police, while the Fire and Building & Safety departments remain anathema, having a few years ago halved the club's legal capacity (which a long series of accommodations has slowly built up again).

Other things have changed, however. "It was all so primitive and Dark Age back then," says Brendan. "There were no booking agencies. Everything's pretty scientific these days. Every act, every weird left-field band, has its place, its market, from the Universal Amphitheater down to the Lingerie. More sophisticated business people have come into it; it's no longer freewheeling, like in '82 or '83, when you could say, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to have this act?' and then go after them and cut some crazy deal.

"The club scene is at saturation; there's a room to cater to every level of band. The people who are saying the scene is dead, it's because they're too old -- they don't want to go out anyway. The days of getting scraped off the walls of the Whisky or the Masque six nights a week -- and then the party afterwards -- you can't do it unless you're 19 or 20. It's younger people, awkwardly trying to be sexy and going out for the first time, who keep things vibrant.

"We're intergenerational now; there's a new place already that caters to people who've been through the punk scene and who now want to sit down an watch a show -- King King at La Brea and Sixth. That's a quiet room, and they want to deal in blues and jazz and who knows what."

If there's a problem in clubland, according to Brendan, it's not so much the quantity of venues as the quality of the town that contains them. "It's so heavily 'industry' here," he says, "That every room that starts up, there'll be A&R reps doing the rounds, and bands wondering, 'Will we get signed?' as opposed to a scene just developing. I don't know whether it can ever happen again, that naturalness, that innocent energy, that sense of unlimited possibility. I don't know where it would come from."

Brendan's own approach has necessarily matured since his basement days. "I try to stay away from bands that are still rehearsing in public. I try to present things that might be a little bit more developed. Here's a person who works a 40-hour week, who goes in, buys the beer, who buys the ticket -- 'cause in the middle of all the mayhem, there have to be some people who are actually paying for this. He might be some guy trying to take his girl out for a date. So he doesn't want to go to some crummy club, be humiliated by the doorman, made to look like a chump in front of the girl he's trying to impress -- and after all that, have the band turn out to be completely horrible."

What's remained constant is Brendan's attitude of demurral -- he had to be persuaded there was a reason to interview him, and once interviewed was not at all sure the product would be worth reading -- and his disavowal of any great responsibility for the shape and progress of musical nightlife over this city's last decade, or even in the club where he now works. Brendan sees the Lingerie as no less of "a collective" than the Masque: "I think that the booking shouldn't be an indulgence, some self-indulgent ego trip -- some younger bookers, I notice, are perhaps a little bit bloated with the importance of the job, when essentially all you're trying to do is cater to different people. The Lingerie works by kind of a group approach; it's all networked out. Anyone can set up a show -- I just oversee it. I'm just an old cardboard icon at the Lingerie. If I were just indulging my own taste, there'd be only one gig a month."

Robert Lloyd 1989/2010