The Punk ‘Mayor’ Of Sunset Strip.
Above Photo: Outside Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in Los Angeles.
I recently watched a great documentary called ‘The Mayor of Sunset Strip’ about the life of Rodney Bingenheimer. When told about this, I displayed my total ignorance about the development of British Punk and New Wave music on the LA and West Coast scene by saying: “WHO?”
Released in 2004, the documentary, made by George Hickenlooper, quickly informed me that Bingenheimer was a radio DJ and “John Peel” type figure in Los Angeles, responsible for breaking new bands and celebrities across the US, especially (for the purposes of this article) British Glam and 1970s Punk and New Wave bands.
Spanning a career dating back to the mid-1960s, Bingenheimer is still a DJ for KROQ radio station.
The parade of people endorsing him or attesting to his role in the music business was impressive – David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Debbie Harry, Mick Jagger, Nancy Sinatra, Cher, the Doors, Johnny Marr from The Smiths, Joan Jett, Courtney Love, Annabelle Lwin (Bow Wow Wow), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Liam Gallagher (Oasis), and many, many more.
The documentary also contained some outstanding footage of 1960s Sunset Strip, as well as a warm and amusing segment of an interview with David Bowie, whom Bingenheimer had introduced to LA in the early 1970s.
A musical lifetime later, he also gave the first US radio airplay to the Sex Pistols and many British Punk bands in the US. Then, yet another lifetime later, he was responsible for breaking The Smiths in the US, then Oasis.
The video contained photos and video of Bingenheimer with Elton John, Mick Jagger, the Beatles, John Lennon, Jimmy Hendrix, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, The Sweet, Andy Warhol, the Sex Pistols, Joey Ramone, Blondie, Iggy Pop, Paul McCartney, Tori Amos, Oasis, and many others – too many to remember.
Bingenheimer got his first break by going for an audition for the band the Monkees, but ended up with an acting role with them in a film instead. He continued picking up celebrity traction whilst living with (and being looked after by) Sonny and Cher. He was given the nickname “The Mayor of Sunset Strip” by Sal Mineo, the actor.
He was well up on early 1970s British Glam rock, and visited England, coming back to open an English Disco in LA, which played music by bands such as T Rex, Bowie, Slade, The Sweet, Marc Bolan and Mott The Hoople. Bowie said Bingenheimer knew more about English bands than Bowie did at the time.
The disco attracted Celebrities like Elton John, Keith Moon, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, The New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, Bowie, even Elvis Presley once turned up there with his entourage.
The disco became notorious for groupies and sex. For Bowie to call it ‘hedonistic’ speaks volumes. He said “I only remember the sex.”
English Disco ended because Bingenheimer didn’t want any part of the looming late ‘70s Disco glamour scene, but by then he’d been approached to start a radio programme on a radio station called KROQ.
Bingenheimer was the first person to play Blondie’s, the Ramones’, The Damned’s, Devo’s and the Sex Pistols’ records on air in the USA, often playing demo tapes he was sent by Punk and New Wave bands.
He hadn’t made much money from all this love of music and his endeavours for the greater good, but his role in creating a space for Alternative music on US airwaves can’t be overstated, according to Debbie Harry.
One person interviewed said Bingenheimer derived a gratitude and energy from his love of music. But still, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him. He obviously wasn’t loaded as he got older. Yet he also displayed a touching compassion for people worse off than himself, including some people who, like him, had come to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune, from broken homes.
He had made KROQ massive in the US but as the music industry changed, and the station went for a different demographic, he slowly got shunted into fewer nights, later hours and smaller studios, ending at Sunday nights on the 12 midnight to 3am slot (which he still does, at the time of writing).
I started off watching the documentary feeling slightly embarrassed and sorry for him in his house full of Celebrity memorabilia, but I ended up being deeply impressed by him and by his role as promoter for British Punk and New Wave bands in the US.
A few years after the documentary was made, I was delighted to see his role in the music business had been finally commemorated with his own star on Hollywood Boulevard.
He didn’t deserve any less.
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