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From East To West And Thinking Outside The Box: John Hollingsworth on his time as Cherry Red A&R

From East To West And Thinking Outside The Box: John Hollingsworth on his time as Cherry Red A&R

From East To West And Thinking Outside The Box: John Hollingsworth on his time as Cherry Red A&R

John Hollingsworth became Cherry Red’s A&R man after the departure of Mike Alway in the mid 1980s. His two most significant signings for the label were the new wave pop band Red Box and their polar opposite; Yugoslavian avant-garde group Laibach. Both acts enjoyed success over long careers, and in the latest blog John gives us an insight into his time with Cherry Red. From gossip columns and styling tips to candlelit manifestos, read some of the tales around these fascinating acts.

I’d managed to blag my way into a junior position at Cherry Red in 1984 mainly thanks to Mike Alway, who I’d met at Snoopy’s, the venue in Richmond. Mike was putting on cool acts like Young Marble Giants and Prefab Sprout. We chatted after the show, and he must have liked the cut of my jib because he gave me his number. I began pestering him, popping into the office with cakes, answering phones, hanging out in the pub opposite…and it worked!

I’d been promoting gigs at Kingston Polytechnic where I was completing my humanities degree. I was slowly learning the ropes of how the music business worked and was in a terrible band called The Strong Silent Types (a sub Cabaret Voltaire fuzz of distortion). Mike actually paid for us to demo a track for the Perspectives & Distortions compilation, but we didn’t make the cut.

 I remember getting the call from Mike Alway vividly. A life changing moment for an ambitious 24-year-old hungry to make it in the music business. My heart almost jumped out my chest as I was given the news that I was needed to help him out at the office full time.

I almost walked out on my first day when Mike sent me to get some office keys cut and added “while you’re there get my shoes repaired John!” Fortunately, I swallowed my pride and after a few soothing words from owner Iain I spent the best part of a year learning all aspects of the industry from both of them.

From record mastering to record plugging, press duties and of course A&R, I loved every minute of my time in that Kensington office, perched on the very top floor above the Redan Recording studios and directly above Daniel Miller’s Mute Records. My girlfriend from Tokyo would sit with her gang in the studio reception watching Top Of The Pops with artists like Kajagoogoo and Asia. After we’d all go to the pub opposite, then to shows or for a curry down the road at the famous Khan’s restaurant.

 

The procession of characters tramping up those stairs was endless but the one who sticks out most was Simon Fisher Turner. A child TV actor and teen pop star, Mike employed him in a consultant / A&R capacity, and he’d convinced Iain and Mike to issue an LP by Pierre Boulez – which took Cherry Red in another brand-new direction with his ambitious compositions …something the label have done consistently over last 40+ years.

When Mike left Cherry Red, I was given the chance to fill his considerable shoes by Iain and took over the A&R duties. I began looking for acts and was clear I wanted my own groove, one that was markedly different to that of Mike’s acoustic pop. My intern from New Jersey, Kerry McCarthy found the Red Box guys, who walked in off the street with a finished killer single produced with some gusto by Phil Brown. Everybody agreed this stood a good chance of being a hit.

 The main songwriter and front man Simon Toulson-Clarke was a charismatic star in his own right. We hired a plugger to get their debut single “Chenko” to radio, and it went down well with the folks at BBC Radio 1 and Capitol in the first week alone.

Thanks to all the exposure, Red Box packed out the Marque club sporting cropped hair and Polish Fireman’s jackets from Lawrence Corner (my first attempt at styling). They looked and sounded great – all for £50! I remember the bass player Rob Legge refused to get his hair cropped, even when I sat in the barber’s chair myself and shaved my head to show my dedication for the project!

 Within a few weeks the band had offers of major deals, and Seymour Stein at Sire (the man behind Madonna, Talking Heads and The Ramones) signed them on a split deal with WEA for Europe. All too soon the band had left Cherry Red and I was soon to follow. I moved over to WEA to take over A&R work on the LP and help Seymour Stein when he visited the UK on the lookout for talent. David Motion would go on to produce the bulk of the Red Box LP with some of the mixing duties to polish up the hits done by Chris Hughes (Tears For Fears) and Phil Harding (PWL).

I’d met David when we were students had helped him get a job at an 8-track studio call The Ark that was built just under the Beggars Banquet shop in Kingston. I was a fan of his own band The Home Service and to my surprise he walked into my student flat (after I sent a fan letter)! We became firm friends,  with him helping out on production of the demo for Mike Alway’s compilation LP that never made it onto the final release. He went on to have success with Strawberry Switch Blade and others. He was an up-and-coming Trevor Horn-type – complete with red framed glasses and braces!

 My life and career now took a totally different direction working at Warner Brothers/Sire but I always regretted leaving the warm embrace of Cherry Red and the independent sector for the choppy shark filled waters of major record life.

I do clearly remember the second single at WEA, “Lean On Me” blaring out of a builders radio on my way to the Maida Vale tube station on my way into work on morning. This single went Top 5 that month, helped by a unique video I’d had a big hand it getting made with future star directors Vaughn and Anthea (who did most of Robbie Williams videos & many Levi commercials).

This in turn started my interest in film and video production, a process that far outweighed my interests of the recording studio and so I began the drift to express myself through the visual medium.

During lockdown last year I found an interview on the Cherry Red TV channel with Simon talking about the whole Red Box experience and I was flattered to be mentioned twice as a major creative influence and aid in his career. He never mentioned it to me while were making the videos and records for all those years, but watching online in 2020 it made me cry as I’d thought my efforts had been taken for granted.

 Another of the Cherry Red canon that I had a hand in was the Slovenian avant-garde noiseniks Laibach. According to their manager Ivan it was my girlfriend Hiro that alerted me to the rare talents of these Eastern European musical nomads.

I remember her being almost catatonic with shock after the show as we met outside the Diorama venue in Regents Park. I must have been at a different show, and we’d agreed to meet there. I missed the concert but found Hiro outside recovering with other people and that’s when I met Keir and Si from Last Few Days, the band they had been on the Occupied Europe Tour with. This was the final show and it caused quite a stir in avant-garde circles with some great reviews by Chris Bohn at the NME and Dave Barker at Sounds.

 After being hooked up with Ivan thanks to Keir and Si, the group came to the office to play some rough mixes they’d recorded in Slovenia. Three of them arrived in smart military gear and short, cropped hair. They looked so skinny I bought them bags of chips and chocolate bars! There we were, munching away to a soundtrack of teutonic menace with beats – I fell in love with them immediately. There was a sense of style and personality there that was almost as important as the music. They looked great just standing in a room, likes bands sometimes do – The Clash, U2, The Beatles etc –  natural but with a touch of harmless menace.

The band invited Iain and I round to their squat in Haverstock Hill on Hampstead Heath. They were guests of Irish artist/ film maker Johnathan Langran and we enjoyed a vegetarian meal surrounded by candlelight as Iain read their manifesto.

After the meal we walked down Hampstead Hill. The whole evening had cast a spell over us and we agreed to help them finish their LP and issue it on my new imprint East West that I’d just started for left field music on Cherry Red.

This was right at the end of my tenure at Cherry Red. One last bit of press I generated was in the NME “gossip column”. I managed to convince Roy Carr that the band had traded in the cash recording advance for cattle and were moving them across Slovenia to get a better price and thus a better studio once resold. I could not believe they had gone with it and sat reading it over and over on the tube home with a huge smile on my face! My own harmless version of “fake news” floating around the globe on the back pages of a 1985 NME.

I only met the Laibach guys one other time outside the Bloomsbury Theatre after anther sellout show I just managed to catch the end of as I’d been in the studio with Red Box. We embraced outside the main entrance as they posed for photographers. The last of the sun was fading as I was introduced to various people as a “brother who’d helped them first in London,” and although I felt I was given too much credit for the little I’d done I felt like I was part of their family.

It’s never too late to thank somebody so thanks Mike, Iain, Simon, Kerry and Juliet for giving me some of the best times of my life.

– John Hollingsworth, London, 2022