924 Gilman

An in depth look into the non profit punk collective that changed the world.

Photos by Kailee Correll

Deep in the neighborhood of West Berkeley, sandwiched between an auto repair shop and a Krav Maga studio lies a sacred piece of punk rock history known as 924 Gilman Street. It was home to the East Bay punk scene in the early 90s, and bands such as Green Day, Rancid and Operation Ivy all got their start at 924 Gilman. The venue functions primarily as a non-profit organization: all profits from a show are either put back into the club’s operational budget or donated to other organizations of their choosing. The club also hosts benefit concerts for various injustices around the Bay Area.

Outside, the brick walls only hint at what lies within. Through the doors, the black walls are barely visible, covered with stickers, signs and intricate graffiti drawings. On one side of the room, printed in small black letters, there is a list of all the bands that have played a show at the venue.

In a far corner the performing bands go through sound check one by one and club members mill about, chatting with one another and band members.

Once the soundboard is ready to go, the first band is onstage and the lights go out. There’s a split second of silence and then it’s gone, replaced by the beat of the kick drum. Shortly after the bass line joins in, the guitar follows and the amps are turned up to the max.

By the time the vocals join the sound the whole club has their heads bobbing in time to the music and a circle mosh pit forms. The thrill of the music goes to your head and soon you can’t hear yourself think. But that’s all part of the punk club experience.

The venue’s small size is a symbol of the closely knit community of 924 Gilman. The bands on stage and audience members have an unexplainable special connection. The stage, two feet off the ground and inches away from the hands of enthusiastic fans, is the only degree of separation.

Punk rock music, Gilman’s main genre demographic, branches off from late 60s rock. In 1984 Tim Yohannan, founder of the punk rock magazine Maximum Rocknroll and music enthusiast, wanted to create an open community where punk bands could perform in an intimate venue without dealing with the usual media promotions.

After learning about the concept behind 924 Gilman, Victor Hayden, fellow music lover who wanted to open a punk club, approached Yohannan and the two started looking for buildings suitable for their vision. Their dreams came to life when they finally stumbled upon 924 Gilman Street.

Photos by Kailee Correll

It took two years of planning and remodeling. All of the work  to get the club up and running was done by volunteers. Starting from its conception in 1984 to the final day of inspections on the road, the completion of 924 Gilman was nothing but uphill. Local Berkeley residents came together to help construct and design the club. On New Year’s Eve, 1986, 924 Gilman got the city’s final approval. The first show played that evening, just a few hours after becoming a legal venue.

Ever since that performance 924 Gilman became an unstoppable force, attracting more local punk music lovers and bands. Bands like Operation Ivy and Rancid got their starts playing to their friends in the club. One night, three East Bay kids played one of their first shows opening up for Operation Ivy. Their name at the time was Sweet Children – but later changed it to Green Day.

The history of hosting well known bands regularly exposes new punk music lovers to the club. Bands who want to reveal their music to a bigger crowd also gravitate towards performing at 924 Gilman.

“You hear about Green Day and 924 Gilman,” Daniel Austin, lead singer of Die Young, said.

The idea of creating a DIY space was to have all ages collaborate and support each other’s ideas. This is also demonstrated through 924 Gilman being a non-profit organization.

“Get what you can and contribute what you can to the community,” Austin said.

924 Gilman relies on the support of club goers and volunteers to stay running. The organizations notoriety has given them a lot of an endless stream of supporters to make sure the business stays afloat.

In September of 1988, 924 Gilman had to close its doors due to vandalism, financial problems and an expired building lease. An attendee had fallen and broke his arm in a mosh pit, resulting in a $16,000 settlement that put a pause on 924 Gilman’s success. Yohannah published a eulogy stating that 924 Gilman should be remembered as a fun place for people to come and collaborate on art and music.

The volunteers who used to work as the staff worked together to bring back the life of the club, and essentially created a “new club” in the same location where the old one stood. Yohannan was not personally connected to the new 924 Gilman.

The resurrection of the club also brought on a few changes, such as a slight entrance fee raise, and the addition of a professional security guard. All bands booked were done through the staff volunteers.

924 Gilman is akin to a mekkah for punk music history. Music lovers from far and wide come to visit it and stand in the spot that so many of their favorite bands got their start in. But the club also stands as an archetype for musical social justice.

Photos by Kailee Correll

The punk ethos does not appeal to popular and mainstream culture. This is why the model of 924 Gilman works so well; they are only trying to get enough money to stay afloat.  

Beginning as a non profit, they created a space where outcasts from their communities could congregate and ceremoniously throw their bodies around to the tunes of their peers. This group of outcasts soon became the bands who would shape punk music in the 90s and early 2000s.

This history is the kind of occurence that should be repeated, but for some reason there hasn’t been a club like it since. There are some non-profit clubs sprinkled throughout the US but none of them have the rich history or musical identity that 924 Gilman has.

Gilman might have just been the right mix at the right time for these kids, but what’s stopping this from happening again? There are certainly a lot of angry kids hiding out in the suburbs, so the demand for a fresh music scene must be high. The lack of similar clubs to 924 might also be a result of the declining state of live music clubs in favor of festivals, which has coincided with the rise of playlists on Spotify instead of albums as a form of music listening.

924 Gilman has a gripping story behind it and continues to provide a space to those who choose to partake in the experience. While more and more clubs are closing down, Gilman stands as a beacon in the darkening landscape of live music.