Cherry Red Records began operations in 1978 as a fledgling independent label under the guidance of Iain McNay. However Cherry Red itself began seven years earlier as a promotions company, and tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the first show – Hawkwind and Skin Alley performing in Malvern on the evening of 3rd July 1971.
Cherry Red Promotions was the earliest iteration of the company, and this is the story of their journey from promoting gigs to releasing records. From Black Sabbath to Judas Priest, The Damned to The Jam, Van Der Graaf Generator to The Fall, read Michael Heatley’s fascinating take on those times (with a full gig listing) and how the circle completes by 2021.
“Lemme get at ’im!”
That angry shout might have been ringing in Iain McNay’s ears when he had the audacity to unplug Motörhead in mid performance at the Winter Gardens, Malvern, two weeks before Christmas 1979.
The now CR chairman had taken his life in his hands to ensure the decade of gigs Cherry Red Promotions had staged in the Worcestershire town continued. They’d kicked off in July 1971 with Hawkwind, coincidentally the group Motörhead’s Lemmy would use as a springboard to fame.
Iain has survived to tell the tale – as has Richard Jones, another of the three-man team that wrote the Seventies social calendar for the youth of Great Malvern. Will Atkinson, who named the venture by borrowing the title of a Groundhogs song, passed away in 2010. But, decades ago, it was the combination of the trio’s talents that gave Cherry Red Promotions lift off.
“It worked extremely well,” Richard recalls. “I designed the tickets and posters, the distribution, collected all the money. Will looked after the equipment and people on the night and Iain took care of the finances and contractual side.”
London-based McNay was an accountant working for an American film company and shared a house in Surrey, with art student Jones – who, most weekends, returned to the family home in Malvern.
Third man Atkinson had started the Sidewinder disco before linking with Jones’s Krishna light show and promoting gigs at Lansdowne Youth Club. Bands included Blossom Toes, Free, Spooky Tooth and a local outfit featuring soon-to-be Led Zeppelin stalwarts Robert Plant and John Bonham. (The Band of Joy, as they were known, played their final gig in a local quarry, an outdoor show that’s gone down in legend.)
As the youth club only held about 80, activities moved to the Winter Gardens, an impressive building with a glass frontage and terrace as found in many a spa town. The management had airs and graces to match, and it was a question of keeping them sweet, strictly observing the curfew and making sure indiscretions from bands or audiences were hidden from view. A naked man ‘idiot dancing’ at a Lindisfarne show was par for the course…
Black Sabbath – who filled the Winter Gardens to its 1,200 capacity thanks to hit single ‘Paranoid’ – and Chicken Shack were among the attractions that made money for the youth club. But it was increasingly concerned about the level of financial risk, while Sabbath’s name caused mutterings of “immoral earnings”. The booking of Black Widow, another ‘Satanic’ band, was the last straw.
Enter Iain McNay. “We didn’t know anybody with money,” said Will. “Iain at least knew about money, and I’m pretty sure he was earning more than us!”
Cherry Red Promotions opened for business on 3rd July 1971 with a gig by Hawkwind and Skin Alley, plus the Sidewinder disco. “We had absolutely no idea what was going to happen,” McNay, then 24, now admits. “We didn’t know whether we’d attract 100 or 1,000. But 600-plus turned up and we turned a small profit.”
Tickets priced at 60p were, Winter Gardens stalwart Stuart Davis points out, good value. “We were getting bands in a small town… They’d have had to go to Birmingham or Bristol, thirty-odd miles away, and in those days many people didn’t have cars.”
Bands received a guarantee of £3-500 against 60% of door takings – today’s norm is 80. The locally sourced support band could expect a nominal fee, while hall hire cost around £100.
Next up was Uriah Heep, about to release breakthrough chart album ‘Demons And Wizards’. They sold more advance tickets than Hawkwind – but, when support act Trapeze, fronted by future Deep Purple member Glenn Hughes, won a standing ovation and an encore, Heep required half an hour’s sweet-talking to play.
Wolverhampton band Trapeze had played the gig for £60 as opposed to Heep’s £200 and were rewarded by a better-paid headlining gig. Other outfits from the general area to grace the Gardens stage included the early Electric Light Orchestra, Wizzard and Steve Gibbons.
A 50 per cent break-even meant the right bands had to be chosen. Profits went back into the business, but the Winter Gardens were less than forthcoming when it came to improving facilities: when three-phase power became an industry standard, Cherry Red had to pay.
By January 1973, when the Strawbs played Malvern, gigs were occurring twice a month. They were heading for Number 2 with ‘Part Of The Union’ and were guaranteed a £1,000 fee. Iain McNay personally stumped up £600, so the extra few hundred bodies crammed in that night can be excused.
Tickets were available from the venue and record shops, but as time went by an unofficial sales network emerged. A batch of 50 tickets would be allocated to a couple of girls’ schools and, when sold, the vendors would get in free. “We had a fair number of teenage girls who would turn up with ticket money and maybe have one or two drinks too many,” Richard admits, adding: “We exercised a certain amount of responsibility and oversaw them getting back home. When I look back, I wonder if you could actually do that now…”
The tickets and posters he designed have become sought-after rock memorabilia in the same way as Friars, Aylesbury. A newsletter was started in the middle of the decade, while a record stall, Bubbles – run from the Cherry Red flat in Wells Road and present at the concerts – would make invaluable contacts in the distribution world.
The advent of new wave and punk in 1976-77 meant audience and artists were becoming more of an entity. And this suited Richard Jones. “It had started off interesting with Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies, but I wasn’t as interested in the rest. When ‘76-77 came along a lot of new, exciting bands blew me away. It was a new lease of life.” Up-and-coming Aussies AC/DC played in February 1977, and ‘schoolboy’ Angus Young on the shoulders of bare-chested Bon Scott caused such a stir they came back in October. Black Sabbath were in the audience this time to check out the competition!
But along with the energy and excitement came an aggressive undercurrent: Strangler JJ Burnel had an altercation with an audience member, wielding his bass in mid-song, while Generation X’s Billy Idol reportedly punched a stage invader. Security chief Bill Pritchard recalls Dave Vanian of the Damned putting his hand through a window in anger backstage, “and we had to bandage him up. My brother was ill and after the gig I had to take him to casualty, where the Damned singer was sitting…”
Siouxsie and the Banshees, with Robert Smith from the Cure filling in on guitar, were a musical highlight of 1979, but Richard had to condemn some post-gig ructions in his next newsletter. “Some of you people are so stupid! All of us here tonight should be united in one cause, not fighting each other” he said of an incident that was reported in the local press.
Certain gigs booked during this period became legendary, even though they didn’t happen. Blondie and the Ramones were two, while the SPOTS (Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly) caused a difference of opinion. Iain McNay insisted the Winter Gardens would have to be told, and when manager Glen Kilday said “There’s no way I can allow that, I’ll lose my job,” the undercover gig was off.
Richard Jones recalls the Clash being booked, only to find the date ‘clashed’ with a local teenager’s birthday party. “We should have paid her to have it somewhere else,” he groans. A pre-fame Tom Petty was another big miss, this time on budgetary grounds. They had better luck in 1980 with the Jam, who recorded one of their two performances for a video, and Joy Division, who appeared a month before Ian Curtis’ death.
Though Cherry Red Promotions continued sporadically through to 1981, the Motörhead gig of the previous December had signaled the beginning of the end for fortnightly shows. A fog-delayed flight from London had found the band arriving at the Winter Gardens at ten, the curfew already looming.
“They couldn’t get Lemmy off stage,” Will recalled years later, “so some kind person went to the back of the hall and threw the power switch. Motörhead, being a lovely bunch, decided to look for the man responsible. By then we had a room full of policemen, including a chief superintendent and a police dog. Luckily I was standing by them when the roadies and Lemmy found me!” Iain, meanwhile, had wisely “made myself unavailable.”
Richard Jones “still can’t believe Iain got out of it unscathed…they were not happy,” while Bill Pritchard recalls “the guy on the mixing desk being so angry he picked up a chair, threw it against the wall and took out all the side lights. I remember grabbing hold of him…”
In Richard’s view, Cherry Red Promotions had come to a natural conclusion. “By Motörhead, we’d realised that it was no longer a novelty. The music scene had moved on and were no longer able to pick up bands on the up at a price we could afford. The bands we had in the last 12 months were playing bigger venues – not stadiums, because they weren’t around then, but to 2-3,000 people, which we couldn’t do.”
Ticket prices had risen as bands’ demands grew: Motörhead was £3.50, another reason the curtailed show left a bad taste all round. But Cherry Red had already seen the future: a single with local band the Tights was their first venture into recorded music.
Guitarist Rob Banks and pals had been Winter Gardens regulars since the age of 14, begging, borrowing or stealing to gain entry. “Cherry Red Promotions managed to get a lot of our favourites to play there – Hawkwind, Thin Lizzy, and Curved Air, to name a few. Once a month there would be a great band to see. It was a big venue for that neck of the woods.
“When punk came along they stuck out their necks and put on the Stranglers, Eddie and the Hot Rods, the Damned… We supported Wire and Dr Feelgood. All the bands around that time had learnt to be suspicious of record companies, the media, the establishment, pretty much everyone. It’s only in retrospect that we realised what Cherry Red had actually risked by starting their record company and putting faith in the Tights.”
The Tights didn’t make it but Cherry Red Records went from strength to strength, the Dead Kennedys their breakthrough signing. Richard made the move to London, then took off to concentrate on his own No Future label with his pal Chris Berry.
It would have been nice to mark the 50th anniversary this July with a Hawkwind gig, had the pandemic permitted. But the achievements of Cherry Red Promotions were recalled a couple of years ago by Rock Around the Hills, a charitable organisation which created an exhibition at Malvern and Worcester Libraries telling the story of live music in the town from 1961 to 1990. Captain Sensible from the Damned was one of those it attracted. If you missed it, catch up at malvernrockarchive.org.uk
Another fitting postscript is the fact that many of the bands promoted in the Seventies have since had music released by Cherry Red. Hawkwind, the Strawbs, Curved Air and Barclay James Harvest have recorded new material, while Trapeze, Bebop Deluxe, Man and more have been reissued. “That’s a good point to bring out,” smiles Iain McNay today. “The fact the music has survived is also extraordinary…younger people are discovering these bands too, which is fantastic.”
As we celebrate events half a century ago, one thing is certain. However many awards and plaudits the Cherry Red label amasses in the future, the story that has flourished on the banks of the Thames started in sleepy Malvern.
– Michael Heatley
|CHERRY RED CONCERTS- Malvern Winter Gardens and Festival Theatre|
|Date||Headline band||Support band||Support band||Remarks|
|Saturday, 3 July 1971||Hawkwind||Skin Alley|
|Sunday, 1 August 1971||Uriah Heep||Trapeze||Isengard|
|Saturday, 18 September 1971||Edgar Broughton Band||Fusion Orchestra|
|Saturday, 30 October 1971||Pink Fairies||Supertramp|
|Saturday, 22 January 1972||Trapeze||Isengard|
|Friday, 24 March 1972||Barclay James Harvest|
|Friday, 30 June 1972||Van Der Graaf Generator||Scraggs|
|Saturday, 22 July 1972||Soft Machine||Unicorn|
|Friday, 22 September 1972||ELO||Bandy Leggs|
|Saturday, 14 October 1972||Wizzard||Fusion Orchestra|
|Wednesday, 1 November 1972||Fairport Convention||Pewke Band|
|Saturday, 18 November 1972||Velvet Underground||9.30 Fly|
|Saturday, 9 December 1972||Stray||Canyon|
|Saturday, 23 December 1972||Status Quo||Snake Eye|
|Saturday, 27 January 1973||The Strawbs||Pewke Band|
|Saturday, 17 February 1973||Groudhogs||Bandy Leggs|
|Saturday, 17 March 1973||ELO||Steve Gibbons Band|
|Monday, 27 August 1973||Stackridge||Walrus Gumboot|
|Saturday, 7 April 1973||Curved Air||Gary Moore Band|
|Saturday, 28 April 1973||Sunderland Bros and Quiver||Albert|
|Tuesday, 15 May 1973||Barclay James Harvest||Pewke Band|
|Saturday, 2 June 1973||Fusion Orchestra||Lazy|
|Monday, 11 June 1973||Fanny (Wolverhampton)||Moonstone|
|Saturday, 30 June 1973||Medicine Head||Mankind|
|Saturday, 21 July 1973||Lindisfarne||Quicksand|
|Saturday, 22 September 1973||Geordie||Mammoth|
|Tuesday, 6 November 1973||Nazareth|
|Saturday, 24 November 1973||Procol Harum||Big Two (originally Procol Harum)||(Cancelled)|
|Saturday, 24 November 1973||Big Front Yard||Pewke Band|
|Saturday, 22 December 1973||Home||Malvern Dolls|
|Saturday, 26 January 1974||Argent||Walrus Gumboot|
|Saturday, 16 February 1974||Barclay James Harvest||A J Webber|
|Thursday, 4 April 1974||Stackridge||Dragonsmilk|
|Friday, 19 April 1974||Gryphon||Peter Hammil|
|Friday, 3 May 1974||The Incredible String Band|
|Saturday, 1 June 1974||Phillip Goodhand Tait||Sheewater||Malvern Festival Theatre|
|Saturday, 15 June 1974||ELO||Raymond Froggatt Orchestra|
|Friday, 5 July 1974||Cockney Rebel||Malvern Festival Theatre|
|Saturday, 20 July 1974||Refugee|
|Monday, 26 August 1974||Greenslade||Kit Crew|
|Saturday, 7 September 1974||Fusion Orchestra|
|Saturday, 5 October 1974||JSD Band||Curly|
|Thursday, 24 October 1974||Lindisfarne||Wally|
|Friday, 20 December 1974||Leo Sayer||Sundance||Debbie and The Dreamboats|
|Saturday, 18 January 1975||Thin Lizzy|
|Thursday, 6 February 1975||Hawkwind|
|Thursday, 27 March 1975||Curved Air||Trace|
|Thursday, 10 April 1975||Wally||Bandy Leggs|
|Thursday, 1 May 1975||Ace||Superchild|
|Saturday, 24 May 1975||Budgie||Demons|
|Saturday, 14 June 1975||Ronnie Lanes Slim Chance||Curly|
|Saturday, 12 July 1975||Be Bop De Luxe||Big Front Yard|
|Saturday, 26 July 1975||Babe Ruth|
|Monday, 25 August 1975||Camel|
|Saturday, 27 September 1975||Argent||Sheewater|
|Thursday, 9 October 1975||Van Der Graaf Generator|
|Wednesday, 22 October 1975||Barclay James Harvest|
|Tuesday, 4 November 1975||Dr Feelgood||GT Moore and The Reggae Guitars|
|Friday, 28 November 1975||Thin Lizzy||Staghorne|
|Tuesday, 23 December 1975||Heavy Metal Kids||Curly|
|Saturday, 24 January 1976||Kursaal Flyers||Eddie and The Hotrods|
|Tuesday, 9 March 1976||Hawkwind||Andy Dunkley|
|Tuesday, 30 March 1976||Man|
|Wednesday, 14 April 1976||Judas Priest|
|Saturday, 8 May 1976||Gentle Giant|
|Monday, 31 May 1976||The Pretty Things||Fast Buck|
|Thursday, 24 June 1976||Eric Burden||(Cancelled)|
|Wednesday, 30 June 1976||Man|
|Saturday, 3 July 1976||Kevin ayers||Fast Buck|
|Friday, 30 July 1976||Heavy Metal Kids||Lone Star||(Cancelled)|
|Monday, 30 August 1976||Andy Fairweather Low|
|Saturday, 25 September 1976||Eddie and The Hot Rods|
|Thursday, 4 November 1976||Barclay James Harvest||Easy Street|
|Friday, 26 November 1976||Caravan|
|Thursday, 23 December 1976||Curved Air|
|Friday, 28 January 1977||Be Bop De Luxe|
|Thursday, 10 February 1977||John Miles||Trickster|
|Thursday, 24 February 1977||AC/DC|
|Tuesday, 8 March 1977||Ralph McTell||Magna Carta|
|Saturday, 26 March 1977||The Damned||The Cortinas||The Models|
|Monday, 11 April 1977||Racing Cars||Roy Hill|
|Friday, 20 May 1977||Dr Feelgood|
|Monday, 6 June 1977||Burlesque|
|Saturday, 25 June 1977||The Jam|
|Saturday, 23 July 1977||Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers||(Cancelled)|
|Monday, 1 August 1977||S.P.O.T.S (Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly)||(Cancelled)|
|Saturday, 27 August 1977||Frankie Miller’s Full House|
|Saturday, 24 September 1977||Ultravox||The Mutants|
|Thursday, 6 October 1977||The Stranglers||The Drones|
|Saturday, 15 October 1977||AC/DC||Roy Hill|
|Wednesday, 2 November 1977||Blondie||(Cancelled)|
|Saturday, 26 November 1977||Tom Robinson|
|Wednesday, 14 December 1977||The Ramones||(Cancelled)|
|Friday, 23 December 1977||Dr Feelgood|
|Saturday, 11 February 1978||Rich Kids||The Vendettas|
|Friday, 3 March 1978||Judas Priest|
|Monday, 27 March 1978||Elvis Costello|
|Friday, 7 April 1978||Adverts|
|Saturday, 6 May 1978||Motors|
|Friday, 2 June 1978||X Ray Specs||The Tights|
|Saturday, 17 June 1978||Pirates|
|Friday, 21 July 1978||Frankie Miller’s Full House||(Cancelled)|
|Friday, 21 July 1978||Magazine||(Cancelled)|
|Saturday, 26 August 1978||John Otway|
|Friday, 22 September 1978||The Stranglers||Skids|
|Monday, 25 September 1978||Dr Feelgood||Ray Champi Rockabilly Rebels|
|Saturday, 7 October 1978||Wire|
|Thursday, 19 October 1978||Buzzcocks||Slaughter and the Dogs|
|Thursday, 26 October 1978||Radio Stars|
|Thursday, 2 November 1978||Hawkwind|
|Wednesday, 15 November 1978||Siouxsie and The Banshees|
|Wednesday, 29 November 1978||Frankie Miller’s Full House|
|Wednesday, 6 December 1978||Rezillos||The Undertones||Ralf And The Ponytales|
|Saturday, 23 December 1978||Pirates|
|Friday, 9 February 1979||Generation X|
|Tuesday, 6 March 1979||Stiff Little Fingers||The Normal||Robert Rental||Lora Logic|
|Monday, 16 April 1979||Magazine|
|Thursday, 31 May 1979||The Damned||The Ruts|
|Saturday, 23 June 1979||Rockpile||Lew Lewis Band|
|Saturday, 22 September 1979||Siouxsie and The Banshees||The Cure|
|Friday, 5 October 1979||Stiff Little Fingers||Lene Lovitch|
|Monday, 15 October 1979||Lene Lovitch||Jayne Ayre And The Belveders|
|Wednesday, 21 November 1979||Squeeze||Photos|
|Wednesday, 5 December 1979||Motorhead||Saxon|
|Saturday, 22 December 1979||Dr Feelgood||Phil Rambow|
|Wednesday, 13 February 1980||The Jam|
|Wednesday, 20 February 1980||The Pretenders||UB40|
|Saturday, 5 April 1980||Joy Division||The Primal Screamers|
|Saturday, 17 May 1980||The Undertones||Moondogs|
|Friday, 25 July 1980||The Fall||Emotion Pictures|
|Friday, 22 August 1980||Athletico Spizz 80||Ten Pole Tudor|
|Friday, 5 September 1980||Racing Cars|
|Friday, 19 September 1980||Dr Feelgood|
|Wednesday, 10 December 1980||The Jam|
|Saturday, 20 December 1980||Bad Manners|
|Friday, 1 May 1981||Stiff Little Fingers|
|Tuesday, 16 June 1981||The Undertones||Positive Touch|
|3 May||Iggy Pop||(Cancelled Don’t know year)|
|2 June||Dr John||(Cancelled Don’t know year)|
|26 February||Be Bop De Luxe||Doctors of Madness||(Cancelled year maybe 1976)|
|CHERRY RED CONCERTS- Wolverhampton Civic Hall|
|Sunday, 11 June 1972||Fanny||Moonstone||Female band from USA|