"A record-store owner and a circus worker walk into a bar."
It sounds like the beginning to some hipster’s update of a classic (and probably not very funny) joke. In reality, it was the beginning of a partnership that for the past 20 years has inarguably put more underground, cutting-edge and soon-to-be-huge musical acts on more Bay area stages than any other concern.
During that time, No Clubs Productions principals Tony Rifugiato and Dave Hundley have played many different roles — club owners, ‘zine publishers, artist managers, record-label heads, corporate consultants — and each of them has had its impact on the local music scene. But what they’ve done most consistently, successfully and importantly, is put on shows.
Thousands of them. From obscure African jazz to chart-topping alt-rock. From VFW halls to arenas.
And it all started in 1985, when a record-store owner and a circus worker walked into a bar.Rifugiato, the record-store owner, and Hundley, a former advance man for the circus, decided to pool their talents, and try to turn Rifugiato’s sporadic endeavors at local-music promotion into something bigger and better.
Not long after that, Rifugiato’s phone rang; a representative for a young California hardcore band called Suicidal Tendencies was on the line. With barely a week before the show date, Rifugiato and Hundley confirmed the gig. A friend came up with a company name based on Rifugiato’s less-than-satisfactory early brushes with established nightlife, and everyone went to work. And on Friday, Dec. 20, 1985, Suicidal Tendencies headlined the first No Clubs Productions event, inside Ybor City’s Cuban Club.
"That first night was absolutely fantastic," remembers Rifugiato.
Various recollections put the number of fans in attendance at about 700; in any case, No Clubs turned a profit the first time out of the gate. Hundley and Rifugiato were hooked.
What happened then? “The phone started ringing,” says Rifugiato with a laugh, “and it hasn’t stopped since.”
No Clubs found itself plugged into a nationwide network of do-it-yourself promoters willing to find rooms and crowds for those underground bands without the clout, sound or desire to get on bigger stages or into the standard rock clubs.
They hosted now-legendary names like The Circle Jerks, Black Flag and Descendents, and put out records by Bay area punk bands Belching Penguins, No Fraud and Pagan Faith. They moved shows from the Cuban Club’s cantina to its larger outdoor bandshell, and from there to even larger D.I.Y. venues like Tampa’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.
The company moved fairly quickly into augmenting its mainstay punk-rock shows with other fare both more eclectic and more mainstream. Eventually, the desire to do bigger shows drove No Clubs into business with larger, more established promoters like Live Nation.
Through it all, Hundley and Rifugiato continued to foster their relationship with the underground community, and put on wildly disparate shows.
Listening to the principals talk about some of their favorite gigs gives one some idea of the breadth of the No Clubs resume. Rifugiato speaks fondly of the last quasi-intimate Green Day show, held at the Florida State Fairgrounds on the eve of Dookie’s breakthrough, and Hundley mentions Was (Not Was), The Philosopher Kings and Afro-fusion pioneer King Sunny Ade.
In addition to hosting up-and-coming national acts, these two venues gave area original musicians places to perform on both sides of the Bay. Locals often opened for touring bands, and on nights when no nationals played, No Clubs would rent the spaces to area groups, often taking a loss in the process.
Nowadays, some longtime scenesters see No Clubs’ considerable influence on Bay area music as a thing of the past, and newcomers to the community might not see it at all.
But the company still puts on far more than its fair share of shows; the company is just back to doing what it did in the first place — finding rooms and crowds for touring bands that need them.
"We’re not done," says Hundley. "It’s like it’s always been. We book acts. We promote shows. We take shows to a variety of locations. We’re probably doing more shows now than we were before."
"It’s become a business," says Rifugiato. "It’s all about the bottom line all the time, and that’s kind of sad … but as long as everyone is having a good time, it’s still worth doing."