For James Young, Max Crawdaddy and the rest of the Cherry Bar crew.
Cherry Bar - Let It Rock!
I completed this article in December 2016, for publication in Sounds of the City (Issue #3) which is due soon. So with the 11th annual Cherry Rock festival just around the corner (Sunday 7 May 2017) I thought it would be a timely move to include the piece here.
As soon as you walk down AC/DC Lane, in the Melbourne CBD, it’s as if you’re transported to another time, another place. The commotion of the city is behind you and there’s the pregnant lure of rock and roll magic. The surrounding brick walls are adorned with all manner of street art and then when you enter an inauspicious doorway you’re enveloped in a charmed world where anything is possible.
Apologies if that reads like one big fat string of clichés, but that is exactly the feeling I get whenever I make my way into Cherry Bar. Despite its basement locale and moderate capacity – or maybe that’s exactly why – Cherry Bar is an almost perfect rock and roll environment and hosts some of the best music in the world. With a small stage against the back wall bands set up and play every night. The sound resonance in the room is remarkably good, and it’s almost an optical illusion with the layout that the place looks noble even with 30 people in it.
I don’t have to continue with the superlatives because I can let the proprietors blow their own trumpet. At the website the introductory material reads like a master class in advertising copy writing:
“Cherry is pretty much the best rock n’ roll bar in the world.
Cherry Bar was founded in late 1999, today it is owned by founding partners Jim Bourke, Lazy Pete and James Young.
Cherry is the only business located in world famous AC/DC Lane Melbourne (off Flinders Lane and between Russell and Exhibition Streets) right in the heart of the Melbourne business district. A jewel in the junk heap or maybe an annoying boil on corporate arse cheeks?
Despite its modest 200 capacity Cherry is an internationally famous late night street rock n’ roll bar. Quality local acts play live (always finishing by 11.30pm), then DJs keep the joint jumping till the wee hours.
Cherry has become the destination for local, interstate and international bands to descend upon and party after they’ve finished playing live themselves. We don’t need to name drop. You never know who you might meet at Cherry.”
As a one-time Triple R presenter and well-known ultra-fan of The Rolling Stones, co-owner and band booker James Young has a passion for rock and roll. He introduced live entertainment to the venue and since then the Bar has settled into a regular weekly routine of such events as Cherry Jam (open mic night) on Mondays, Cherry Soul on Thursdays and Cherry Blues with Max Crawdaddy on Sundays. There’s also Cherry Rock held once a year in the laneway (Sunday 7 May 2017).
AC/DC Lane was originally known as Corporation Lane. Since the 1890s it has hosted all manner of businesses, from being an arrival point for Cobb & Co coaches to being a part of the fashion and textile industries for East Melbourne. In the 1920s, Corporation Lane housed the YMCA’s military stores. Corporation Lane was re-named AC/DC Lane in October 2004. At the ceremony a pipe band played ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock And Roll)’ and the Lord Mayor, John So, proclaimed “As the song says, there is a highway to hell, but this is a laneway to heaven. Let us rock”.
Over the years Cherry Bar has faced a number of challenges, such as the fire in offices above (June 2008) that effectively shut down the venue for seven months while the roof of the building was replaced. Then there was the development of a residential apartment block right at the back wall that threatened the bar’s very existence. Nevertheless, the proprietors rose to the challenge and some positive changes have eventuated. Read on...
In conversation with James Young.
It was recently the 10 year anniversary of your involvement with Cherry Bar, do you want to take us back to the origins of CB?
James Young: Cherry Bar was started in December 1999 by three partners, the best known member being Billy Walsh, one-time drummer for the Cosmic Psychos. It was a very successful underground bar at that stage. It wasn’t hosting live music, it was just a late night bar that would sometimes play the whole of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album and that was unheard of in those days. That was in Corporation Lane in the city.
Then about 11 years ago I sold my advertising agency and I was 39 and for the first time in my life I’d come into a bit of money and I decided to buy into my favourite bar in the world, just to make sure I could get in (laughs). I’d been responsible, alongside Music Victoria CEO Paddy Donovan, in getting the name of Corporation Lane changed to AC/DC Lane. I’m glad that I saved the smartest advertising and marketing idea of my life for myself. When you’re the only business open in AC/DC Lane and you’re a late night rock and roll bar, that street sign becomes your permanent advertising campaign for locals, those in regional areas and international visitors. I do think it’s important that tourists are taking photos of the street sign but because of Cherry Bar, we’re kind of bringing that street sign to life with live local music 365 nights a year.
It’s definitely the perfect location. Did you instigate the booking of the live bands?
Yes, I did. The bar was only open Wednesday to Saturday originally and we noticed that people often arrived after midnight cause we’re open till 5.00am. So the idea of putting on bands between 8.30 and 11.30pm seemed like a logical thing to experiment with and it was no surprise that it worked immediately. Bands had started to ask if they could play, probably off the back of being involved in the first Cherry Rock music festival, Cherry Rock 007. We held a music festival in the lane and also inside the bar and to this day I’m happy because we had our 10th anniversary of the Cherry Rock festival in May and that continues. I think we latched onto a survival model for music festivals which is having a modest size at an affordable price and putting on great local bands. I suppose I’m lucky because I pick all the music and I pick it for myself and I hope that 1000 other people share my interest.
Take us through some of the challenges you started to face with the live music, the changes in demographics and development in that part of the inner city.
Well the biggest change, and the biggest issue facing music globally, is that established live music venues are being threatened by and indeed closed down by new residential developments. It’s almost impossible now to open a live music venue, unless you’re inside a casino unfortunately, so the live music venues that we’ve got we need to protect them, these are the universities for our live musicians and they contribute enormously to their city, both creatively, socially and economically. So it’s very important to defend our live music venues. Unfortunately, until the recent legislation passed in Victoria, the law was immediately on the side of the developers and live venues were being closed down on the spot which was very unfair
In Cherry’s instance we’d been trading for 15 years and we had a complaint from the 108 Flinders residential development. With 12 floors and 108 apartments we were instantaneously going to be in the wrong because the balconies of the north facing apartments pointing up AC/DC lane were going to be no more than 10 metres from the back stage of Cherry.
We pro-actively and expensively acted on the sound attenuation audit on what was going to be required for our venue to be compliant. We discovered it was going to be a $100,000 operation to double brick the entire back of the building, not just our basement, and then double glaze every window that Cherry had, to create double door entrances and replace all the doors with purposely built sound proofed doors. We recognised that was the money we had to spend. So we turned to the only people you can rely on, the public, to cover some of the costs and we ran a Fringe Music Crowd Funding campaign for the sound proofing of Cherry Bar.
We started a 12-week campaign and in a staggering result, in the space of less than 24 hours we were oversubscribed and had raised $53,000 and had to close down the successful campaign. Which goes to show you two things: 1) how incredibly important the issue is to the public, to defend their favourite live venue; and 2) I think it shows the good will that people had towards the Cherry Bar and its live music stage.
With all that good will we were able to attract that money and also a degree of momentum and attention towards the bar. That led to me being involved, with Paddy Donovan and a whole bunch of other people, in getting the Victorian government not just talking about live music venues but introducing some really important legislation around the concept of Agent of Change. The Agent of Change principle makes sense to any person on earth; for example, if you’re the developer building an apartment block right up to the face of a live music venue, then you’re the person responsible for the change in the environment thus the person responsible for the consequences.
And it had an instantaneously positive effect.
Absolutely, and it was very satisfying to have had that work done and to know that we are 100% compliant. We haven’t had one single complaint since we had the work done and, what’s more, if anyone does complain we can show them the form confirming that we are completely in the right and that we don’t breach which is really important. The only thing I would say is that I do miss those days of standing in AC/DC Lane with the live music blasting out of the windows into the streets because I think it made the city alive. I think that was a beautiful thing and it’s a pity that to be compliant and to survive we had to sacrifice that beautiful element, and now all our live music sound is incubated within some very impressive double glazing. We continue with Cherry Rock in AC/DC Lane, but that’s just one Sunday once a year in May.
There have been a number of international bands come through and play and you’ve had a lot of visitors. Who was the most surprising international visitor to Cherry Bar?
Okay, I’d probably have to go with Axl Rose from Guns N’ Roses. His bodyguard told me that he hadn’t stayed at one venue for 5 and a half hours in 12 years. There’s a good side and a bad side to that story. The bad side is – and I still get a laugh out of this – so the juke box was playing ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’ and one of his little gofers went and pulled the plug out and I said ‘what are you doing?’ and he said ‘Oh Axl doesn’t do Creedence’. Fuck, who doesn’t do Creedence? It was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard but in some strange bizarre way kind of cool as well.
And the good part was that I got to have a chat with Axl. I could have easily talked to him about Guns N’ Roses but I just said ‘ah, how good is Elvis?’. I had one of the best 30 minute conversations I’ve ever had with anyone. We forget that, despite the fact that he’s a strange little man, Axl is one of the great front men of all time but he just wanted to talk about Elvis.
Well of course that begs the question James... I’m only guessing that one of your aspirations is to have Keith Richards walk into Cherry Bar?
Absolutely. That’s something that Brian Wise, Max Crawdaddy and I have been trying to make happen. And we were so honoured to have Chuck Leavell, The Rolling Stones’ keyboard player and music director, do his only side show for the entire On Fire tour of The Rolling Stones. And you know we had hoped, that being a night off for the rest of the band who were only staying around the corner, that we got an appearance from the band. It didn’t quite pan out that way but we got Tim Reith the saxophonist and the show from the great man Chuck Leavell and that was sensational in itself. But one can continue to dream...