"For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings;"
WS. -- The Life and Death of Richard the Second.
For me, the King’s Head Inn is a shadow of a memory. Mentions from my older brother. A small flicker in the corner of my eye, seen in passing: a one-story building. Brown and white with Tudor styling.
Photos of the signage reminds me of old-timey “English” typeface—the kind reserved for illuminated manuscripts and newspaper headlines. Something about the name, the look . . . Heck, the feel of the place seemed special. But I never attended a concert there. It's only in the past year that I discovered how distinct and significant this place was to Norfolk.
I set out to write a quick historical piece. I expected to type a few words into Google and find a treasure trove of historical nuggets to excavate. Imagine my surprise when I got only a handful of results, nothing of enough substance to write a real story.
Well, damn. This wasn’t going to be easy.
I had to dig deeper.
Blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughn's show at the King's Head lives past him. He died in a helicopter crash a month and a week over ten years later, on August 27th in 1990.
6 months later:
This grew into a full-on expedition. A journey. Phone interviews. E-mail correspondence. Trips to the Norfolk Public Library’s archives. Hunts on YouTube. Documentary viewings. Listening sessions.
And I get it now.
The King’s Head Inn, as a brick-and-mortar building, is buried somewhere under the Ted Constant Convocation Center at 42nd Street and Hampton Boulevard. The list of bands who played in this hole in the wall reads like a legendary retelling of history of rock and roll.
All famous—and infamous—venues have their start. Before the King’s Head was a music venue, it was more than likely a meeting place, or just a plain bar. A Virginian-Pilot article from 1967 announced elections for the Norfolk Area Human Relations Council and named the meeting place as the King’s Head Inn. Sam Martinette, a former server at the King’s Head in the ‘60s and '70s, recalled in a 1999 Virginian-Pilot article, “Many nights I worked at the King’s Head, starting as a waiter in the fall of ’68. We were commission salesmen, paid a nickel a beer, a quarter a pitcher. That was before music came, even before windows.”
In its first iteration as a music venue, the King’s Head was owned by Dave Sherry. Sherry, along with his son-in-law John Evans, ran the King’s Head from approximately 1971-1988. During that time, the venue established itself as a mainstay for live music and local shows. Tony Lillis, who spent a spent a self-described “fair amount of time” at the King’s Head from 1979 up until it closed around 1996, called it “the premier venue for traveling bands around the country, including The Nighthawks (DC), Skip Castro (Charlottesville), Roomful of Blues (Rhode Island) . . . many others.”
The States. This was part of Cox Cable's then featured series: "Radiovision" -- filmed at Rogues in Va Beach. Not the King's Head, but you get a decent sense of what the band sounded like here.
A 2000 Virginian-Pilot article identified a band called The States, who claimed they were “the first band that created the scene at King’s Head Inn where you had to get there early or you didn’t get in.” That seems like a tall order. Can anyone verify?
The outside of the venue was singular. It “had that awful Tudor exterior, think Busch Gardens, that was so popular in the late '60’s and early '70’s. But the marquee was great . . . and they had decent parking,“ said Debra Persons, a long-time patron of the King’s Head and a prominent fixture in the Hardcore Norfolk scene. That exterior was what caught my eye as a kid, and it would keep that look, as far as I know, until its last day.
Inside the bar, it seemed to be anything goes. Lillis recounted, “Back then the drinking age was 18, so college freshmen on up were hanging there for ‘Dime Time,’ which were dime beers starting at 8 . . . and the price went up every half hour. We would lay one dollar on the table and buy a whole tray of beers.” Sean R. Epstein, another former patron of the King’s Head, commented, “King’s Head Inn was the epitome of a bar booking rock and some garage more than anything from about ’80 to ’89.” Mitch Kirshner, on a Hardcore Norfolk Facebook post, wrote, “The King’s Head was one of those legendary dives that by the ’80’s was booking just about anything. Bob Gurske ran the sound . . . he did a great job and would always fill me in on the latest Norfolk gossip. Sometimes there was one light, more often than not there were none.”
Lillis remembered several memorable shows during that time period: “People danced on the small dance floor and there were epic shows. One time the guitarist for Skip Castro, while playing, walked out on to Hampton Blvd . . .walked out of the building . . .and people followed him out, beers in hand. Roomful of Blues had a horn section that would march through and play while people followed and danced behind them.” I have a lot of concert memories, but the thought of a beer-fueled conga line following a musician out the venue’s door and dancing down Hampton Boulevard would surely be a sight to behold.
The Thin Lads ruled the roost of post-punk Norfolk, spawning a host of bands from its roster over the years. Veer Magazine's Jeff Maisey was a member. The genre has resurged of late, someone ought to release whatever remains of their recorded catalog -- the kids at Charlie's these days would eat it up.
Combine. A prog-punk trio that did quite well here. They're receiving a lifetime achievement nod at this year's Veer Music Awards.
As the '90’s inched closer, however, the venue’s clientele began to shift. Persons recalled a “weird atmospheric thing” as the driving difference between King’s Head Inn in the ‘80s versus the ’90’s. “Punk/new wave was taking off in a huge way,” Persons said, “but the majority of people still wanted to hear country rock or classic ‘normal’ rock and roll, so the two groups would use the same bars, and sometimes share the same crowd.” Lisa Duke echoed that sentiment on a Hardcore Norfolk Facebook post, commenting that she was there from about ’88 to ’93, the audience was usually “a strange mesh of college kids, military, VB transplants on slow nights at the beach, and of course the bands. On any given day or night you would find yourself with the strangest mix of people—and it was good.”
“Those older people, the those hippies and weirdos from the first days of rock n’ roll weren’t coming out to shows anymore, for the most part,” Persons said. “It was a new young audience who had never experienced that special time.” That young, new audience would set the standard throughout the '90’s and ignite the Norfolk hardcore scene.
The audience wasn't the only thing changing as the ‘90s crept in. A June 1991 article from the Virginian-Pilot identified George Almyrantis as the new owner of the King’s Head stating that he had bought the bar in the summer of 1990. However, Shirley Barnard, George’s significant other at the time, disputes the Pilot’s account. For a short time, she said, the King’s Head was owned by Andy Zoby. He had purchased the bar from the Sherrys in 1989. Barnard bought it from him during the first days of 1990. After buying it, she said, “I went home and told George, ‘I just bought the King’s Head!’ His reply was, ‘What?! What are you, stupid?’” Barnard affirms that she essentially ran the King’s Head from 1990 to 1994. Regardless of who owned and ran the venue, they planned to feature Greek food specialties and live music. The article further elucidated, “College kids mostly hang in bars down the strip, closer to the University, while his clientele is mostly in their late 20’s and up, mostly old-timers.” Another Pilot article from 1991 described the massive overhaul of the King’s Head interior. The outside held onto the original Tudor exterior, but the drastic remodel completely transformed the space inside.
Epstein said, “Previously, the bands played with their backs to the street,” but the Pilot article described the change as a massive improvement: “the stage is now nestled into the Hampton Boulevard corner; it’s deeper than the earlier against-the-wall jobbie and opens up the place for dancing, lounging, and hanging out.” Persons said it was a “great stage, barely raised, as I recall.” Barnard recalled that the walls were pink and black: “pepto-bismol pink with splats of black paint.” She also described the floor as “black and white checkered.” Persons remarked that the black and white tiled floor was “infamous.” There was a wraparound bar in the corner, a raised area with tables and seating in the back, and a game room in the rear with pool tables and more seating. “It was quieter than the main room,” Persons said, and often “stayed as busy as the dance floor.” On a busy night, former bouncer David Lewis said, the place would be packed. “There was a capacity of 250,” he said, “but 800-plus would fit in.”
Barnard talked about how she and others would watch Beavis & Butthead, drink, and play pool until at least 4am -- sometimes until sunrise. She mentioned, “We hung out with one band like that, and they slept on the pool tables since they had nowhere to stay.”
One of the founders of Sludge metal, Buzzoven, from out of N. Carolina. They were renown for the chaos of their live shows and often played the King's Head..
And don’t get any former patrons started on the bathrooms. “Filthiest filthiest f-n bathroom on the planet—UGH! sickening,” Irish Willis Peele wrote on a Hardcore Norfolk Facebook post. She continued, it was “worse than CBGBs or anything I've seen in other countries.” Apparently, this wasn't an issue exclusive to the King's Head, and this conversation spawned a debate on which venue had the most appalling restroom facilities. Debra Persons chimed in, speaking of Dominic's, “. . . The scariest trek there was when GWAR was on stage....” Peele continued, “Yep —add theatrical bodily fluids to the ever-present toxic mix of urine, feces & used tampons ya had to wade through." Mitch Kirsner countered with his own reminiscence, "Creepiest bathroom I ever saw was the N'sect club right before they closed. There was projectile vomit on the wall!"
Terry Steel, who got involved with punk rock in the early ’90’s and attended many King’s Head shows, remembered one show where the bathrooms overflowed. “They had terrible problems with their toilet backing up,” Steel recalled. “It would not be a big surprise to have the dance floor filled with toilet water. No one really seemed to give a shit. I remember falling on my face plenty of times and sliding through that nasty ass water.” The shows wouldn’t stop so the floor could be cleaned, either. “The show must go on,” Steel laughed.
The Waxing Poetics were another enormously successful local band who headlined the King's Head quite often.
And the show did go on—for another six years. In comparison to the time Dave Sherry ran the venue, six years might not seem like much. But somehow, in that short time span, the King’s Head became known as one of, if not the, epicenters of the punk and hardcore scene. Lewis, the former bouncer at the King’s Head and founder of Lucifer and the Crackwhores (“The name alone brought people out,” he laughed,) said he remembers Norfolk as welcoming. “Virginia Beach, if you didn’t know the right people, they didn’t want to know you,” Lewis said. “Norfolk was like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ Norfolk had the music scene, all the punk and hardcore. Virginia Beach had Sublime.”
He remarked that as a person of color, he was unique—the Norfolk scene didn’t have many people of color—but he found it inclusive. He detailed an evening where he and a Filipino friend were outside the King’s Head talking, and a group of Richmond skinheads showed up. “These guys were talking some racist shit to us,” Lewis said, “and we were like, ‘Hold that thought for a minute!’ We went inside the King’s Head and told people about what was going on outside. And they all came out and it was like the U.N. You had these racist sons of bitches from Richmond and we all came out —black, white, whatever—and it was great.”
Jawbreaker recorded an early in their career record at the King's Head. They're coming to the NorVa not long from now. keep one eye on our music calendar if you're interested.
Joshua Riley, on a Hardcore Norfolk Facebook post, wrote, “Back in the early '90’s I used to go to the King’s Head for shows. I was 15 when I started. The owner George (the grape ape) . . . would usually let me in after presenting some initial resistance, as long as I didn’t drink inside. Saw a long list of bands that I can’t remember but a few of them were, The M—80s, the Wonder Twins, and Buttsteak. Was always a wild ass scene for me due to my age. I was a delinquent at that point anyway and the whole thing was just intoxicating. Also George’s Mother made the best lasagna. They used to have lunch specials. And that pinball machine ate many of my life hours.”
Barnard recalled an instance in which a band was booked to play, and when the band arrived and saw the venue, the lead singer walked up on the stage and said, “Look at this shit-hole.” He then kicked a nearby empty beer pitcher across the room, like a football. However, Barnard continued, “later George’s mom made cabbage wraps with a Greek sauce—we also gave them cases of beer—and the band and the crew were impressed. They were so happy when they left, and the lead singer wrote me a heartfelt apology.”
The King’s Head was more than a place to hear local music. “Mid-90’s hardcore was a lot different than it is now,” Steel said. “We were all these outcasts and misfits, and we all gathered together for the same thing.” He went on to describe it as a “communal vibe—excitement in the air.” Persons describes the atmosphere as “Smoky, as that was allowed in those days, dark, mysterious, like anything was possible. The way all good dive bars feel.” In Person’s documentary, Hardcore Norfolk, interviews capture this communal spirit. “The '90’s were great, at least here,” Todd Owens mused in the documentary. “The audience was more into the band—into the show—than there to be seen.” That communal vibe didn’t just extend to the audience, either. “A lot of bands liked [The King’s Head] for the atmosphere,” Lewis said. “You wouldn’t be judged. No one would judge you there.”
As with the previous generation of King’s Head music, this generation had some memorable shows. Persons says, “I remember seeing the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who I hadn't heard of prior to their show. Anthony was famous for hiding his, at the time, long hair and slowly revealing it....first the big rasta hat comes off, then after a while the baseball cap that was under that, and all that blond hair starts swinging wildly around. They were also know for playing with an athletic sock over their privates, but they didn't try that in good ole' Virginia!” Lewis fondly remembered one night that “Clutch and Helmet pulled up in front of the bar, came in, and hung out. We had a private show —food and music. We hung out till morning.”
If you listen to the right people and keep your eyes open, you'll find that the memory of the King’s Head is still alive and kicking.
I received a through, full-blown music education of the Norfolk hardcore scene while researching this piece, and I would give anything to see Antic Hay or Buttsteak live. Holy crap.
I couldn’t find much information about the venue’s end. A Virginian-Pilot article dated March 1995 declared that “with the recent closing of the Nsect Club and the Peppermint Beach Club, King’s Head Inn can finally realize it can pack the house with all ages shows. Finally. But you never know with these things, so enjoy it while it lasts.” That article served as some kind of omen, because a 1996 Pilot article says the venue was sold to Kimberley and Jeff Sniffen, who converted it to a coffee shop called Old Dominion Coffee Company. The coffee shop would not last long— a 1998 Pilot article mentioned ODU's plans for a new convocation center. The business owners in the path of that arena, among them the Sniffens, were worried about displacement.
Clearly, the growing presence of Old Dominion University nearby and the prime spot on which the former King’s Head building sat were instrumental in the building’s demise. In 1999, a lone statement from Martinette sums up the King’s Head fate: “It was almost dizzying to watch the old King’s Head Inn being torn apart.”
Gone, but clearly not forgotten.
The Candy Snatchers. Probably the greatest punk band our area sent out into the world. They just reunited for a show at the newly launched Elevation27 in Virginia Beach. This recording may be one of their last shows there before the Inn was torn down.
Corrections: Several members of the Hardcore Norfolk Facebook group have pointed out that Mr. John Evans was the son-in-law of Dave Sherry, and not his brother-in-law as the article originally stated. We have corrected this line to reflect that info.
We listed the Ramones of having played the King's Head, due to the corroboration of two folks who told us they attended that show. We cross referenced the dates they gave with Setlist.FM and the Ramones Wiki and determined that it was possible and therefore decided to include them in the bands mentioned as playing. However, other recollections deny that the band had played anywhere other than the Boathouse after their show at ODU in the late 70s. When we went back to check one of our sources had pulled their post with the information. As a result we decided to strike it from the list. Equally contentious is the claim on Setlist.FM as to whether the Ramones played Friar Tucks in 76. Many point ot the ODU show as being the first time the band came here and a watershed moment for punk in our city. I can after extensive research, not find another point confirming those shows either -- but who knows? The claimed dates would have been less than six months after the release of their first record. Something in me loves the idea of them playing at Tucks and no one knowing who they were at the time. -- the editor
Ramones Correction Part II:After further research we've determined that the Friar Tucks they played in 76 was in Connecticut and not Norfolk. That would make the '78 ODU show their first Norfolk appearance.
Addendum: After our initial publication, onetime owner of the King's Head, Shirley Barnard reached out to us after previously unsuccessful attempts to speak with her regarding the research that went into this story. The piece has been expanded with updated paragraphs to reflect her input. Editorially, we would be remiss without pointing out the massive influence Barnard exerted on the early days of Norfolk's post-hardcore scene through her extensive work booking bands at while managing the legendary venue. We are grateful for her input and legacy.