British Columbia

Vancouver musicians remember the Railway Club

The Railway Club, which first opened its doors in 1931, announced its closure yesterday. Many Vancouver musicians remember it fondly as a focal point of the community, and the stage where they first cut their teeth.

Downtown club a hangout and career milestone for Dan Mangan, Joe Keithley and more

The neon sign at Vancouver's Railway Club. A Facebook post on Wednesday from club management said the legendary music establishment was closed "effective immediately." (Paul Joseph/Flickr)

"'Hey, let's go hang out.' 'Who's playing?' 'Oh, I don't know, we'll see when we get there.'"

Joe Keithley, frontman of Vancouver punk rock mainstay D.O.A., recites a conversation he's had countless times about Vancouver's legendary Railway Club.

The club, which first opened its doors in 1931, announced its closure Wednesday. Many Vancouver musicians remember it fondly as a focal point of the community and the stage where they first cut their teeth.

Joe Keithley (D.O.A.)

Joe Keithley (centre) with his wife and then-Coun. Jim Green in 2002 as Green declared December 21, 2002, to be "D.O.A. Day." (Bev Davies)

Though D.O.A. never formally graced the Railway Club stage, Keithley played upward of a dozen solo shows there over the years.

He often held "garage sales" where he would literally bring things from his garage — often D.O.A.-related — to sell as he played. He recounted a memorable experience at one such show with the late Jim Green, a Vancouver civic icon. Green had declared December 21, 2002, to be "D.O.A. Day."

"In the middle of the show, Jim sort of barged his way up onto the stage in his inimitable fashion, and then unrolled this scroll with the city seal on it and started reading it off," Keithley said. "'Whereas D.O.A. did this, whereas D.O.A. did that' — there was about 10 different things on the proclamation. I got presented that at the Railway Club."

Dan Mangan

Dan Mangan says getting to play his first gig at the Railway Club was "a huge deal. I was so excited."

Dan Mangan has come a long way since his days of working at the A&B Sound  that used to be just down the street from the club.

"Getting my first gig at the Railway Club was a huge deal. I was so excited," he said. "It's a really unfortunate bummer."

One of the club's unique features was a model train that ran around the upper levels of the room.

"I remember in between songs — you know, the lull, tuning, banter or something — the rickety sound of the wheels of that little train running around your head," Mangan said. "There'd be a pause in the music and you hear like a 'reeh, reeh, reeh,' and the little crickety-crack of the train set, like something out of Mr. Rogers. That sticks out in my head."

Maya Miller (The Pack a.d.)

Maya Miller of The Pack a.d. (left, drumming) says there was a lot to remember about the Railway Club: including the awkward floorplan. (Rebecca Blissett)

The first time the Pack a.d. played the Railway Club was for CiTR Radio's long-running battle of the bands, Shindig, in 2006. Though the band didn't win, they went on to sell out the Railway Club themselves as headliners.

"People were lining up down the stairs and out on the street to get into a show, which as an artist is a fantastic feeling," she said. "And we also made money for the first time ever."

Miller said the venue's somewhat awkward floor plan made it particularly memorable.

"Playing is one thing, but to be crammed in there trying to get a sight line — it's almost impossible, but it's almost kind of part of the thrill."

Grant Lawrence (The Smugglers, CBC Radio 3)

A poster for Grant Lawrence's band The Smugglers for a show at the Railway Club in 1994. (Supplied by Grant Lawrence)

Grant Lawrence described the Railway Club as a "who's-who room" of the Vancouver music scene. Even after playing shows in other clubs, musicians (and their hangers-on) often found themselves at the Railway Club after everywhere else had closed for the night.

"It was that kind of living room-type atmosphere that I think Vancouver will really miss," he said.

Though yesterday's closure notice was sudden, Lawrence said the Railway Club had been in decline for a number of years. A change in management may have been a factor, but Lawrence also pointed to a broader demographic and cultural shift that seems to have eroded the club's audience that was so vibrant in the 80s and 90s.

"The thing that you have to remember is that the Railway Club went through many incarnations, because it's been around for 85 years," he said. "So something went really wrong in the last 10 years, because the audience had [continuously] replaced itself generationally over 80 years."

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