By Jeff Penalty
(Originally published in the Swindle "Icons" issue)
It’s easy for any punk rock fan to rattle off a list of musicians who left an indelible mark on the genre, or for any hip hop fan to explain the valuable contributions made by the oldest of the old school artists. But neither genre would’ve progressed to the point we know it today if the artists involved didn’t have one simple thing: a stage to stand on.
Brendan Mullen provided that stage for a long list of influential artists at very critical points in time and, in doing so, unwittingly secured himself a place in music history. He is not one of the shining stars or the beloved martyrs of punk rock or hip hop that you have read about dozens of times, rather he is an unassuming little Scotsman who made the careers of those stars and martyrs possible.
And all he really wanted was a place to bang on his vibraphone.
Brendan is known in punk circles as “the guy who ran the Masque Club,” an infamous practice/performance space in Hollywood that was the lynch pin of the early Los Angeles punk scene. Nearly every L.A. punk band worth remembering played a show there, and numerous bands, including The Dickies, X, The Bags, The Skulls, The Go-Go’s, and Fear, can claim the honor of having played their very FIRST show there.
Brendan found the Masque while looking for a place to practice on his varied collection of percussion instruments, which included bells, gongs, shakers, a vibraphone, two trap drum sets, and a set of tympanis. “After being thrown in jail following noise complaints from a neighbor who lived above me,” Brendan claims, “I was out looking for a storefront, a warehouse, a garage or something…anything where me and my friends could be left alone to blast music really loud and have insane freeform jams.” His search resulted in the leasing of a basement of an office building on Hollywood Boulevard. He rented out the space he wasn’t using “at such rock bottom monthly prices even punk bands could afford them. Within a month or so the basement morphed into a performance space.”
Like punk rock itself, the Masque’s expiration date came around quickly. But before the doors closed for good, the club became a focal point for the local scene and a series of shows would occur there that would provide fodder for the punk rock myth machine for decades to come. Without Mullen and the Masque, it’s difficult to know whether or not the legend of L.A.’s punk scene would’ve ever grown past the city limits.
For two years after the closing of the Masque, Brendan tried his hand as an independent punk show promoter, which left him flat broke and homeless. He managed to beg, borrow, and literally steal his way into a DJing gig at L.A.’s Club Lingerie, during which time he discovered the effect early hip hop records had on the crowd. The amorphous nature of hip hop’s history may allow dozens of people to lay claim to booking the first hip hop show in L.A. county, but Brendan claims to have put on “the first full-spectrum hip hop event NY style—including MCs, DJs, graffiti writers, and b-boy breakers—probably in Southern California. All of ‘em flown out specifically from the South Bronx.” The lineup included Grandmixer DST, Afrika Islam, Mr. Freeze, and Crazy Legs, among others. “The place was mobbed by curiosity seekers. I remember trying to explain that it was sorta like a black version of punk rock, their own D.I.Y. thing […] Nobody was dancing; instead, many at first stood with their arms folded watching Islam and DST DJing, looking at their watches for the first hour or so, saying ‘so when’s something gonna happen?’ I had to go around literally explaining to all who’d listen that in N.Y. hip hop is a dance thing […] but when they started scratching many people just lost their shit.” Also in the audience that night: a skinny 17-year-old named Andre Williams. “To this day I’ll never know how he slipped by our door security,” Brendan says of the underage kid who would later become known to the world as Dr. Dre.
From ’81 to ’92, Brendan served as the in-house booker at Club Lingerie and concurrently devoted time from ’86 to ’88 booking the Variety Arts Center, a 5-story complex in downtown L.A. with “shit happening on every floor on weekends, including film fests, live theater, hip hop/R&B, dance clubs, live rock n’ roll, etc. […] One night the Beasties and Run-DMC jammed together during one of the weekend dance promotions on the ballroom floor—100% spontaneous. We didn’t know they were going to do it ahead of time, otherwise I’d have pulled together better production […] Afrika Islam DJing, hence only one DJ mic from his mixer available, they were just passing it around one at a time.”
Between the two venues, it is certain that Brendan saw more than his share of magic musical moments, and he booked enough bands to compile the Ultimate ‘80s College Radio Mix Tape. Black Flag, Husker Du, Buthole Surfers, Lydia Lunch, Schooly-D, Sonic Youth, Red Kross, Hole, Rudy Ray Moore, Jane’s Addiction, Ice-T, Blowfly, Guns n’ Roses and a zillion more. The list even includes the L.A. premieres of The Replacements, R.E.M., Soundgarden, and The Flaming Lips. Brendan also had the pleasure of booking an opening band for a Bad Brains show that had only played two previous gigs and had just changed their name…to Red Hot Chili Peppers.
With his place in L.A. music history firmly established, it fits, then, that Brendan has also put forth great efforts to document that history. Brendan has co-written several books: “We Got The Neutron Bomb”, a historical overview of early L.A. punk, “Lexicon Devil”, about L.A. punk icons The Germs, and “Whore”, a biography of Jane’s Addiction. As of this writing, Brendan has also begun work on a book about the history of the Masque club, which will include photos and testimonials from those who were there.
You may not know his name, or his face, or the sound of his voice, but Brendan Mullen’s status as an icon was cemented long ago by one simple thing: his ability to be “in the wrong place at the right time…or is it the other way around?”