MEET: James Young from Cherry Bar

James Young Cherry Bar

Man comes into some money, buys his favourite bar in the world. It’s the sort of thing dreams are made of, or if not a dream, maybe a feel-good comedy script from the ‘80s starring Ted Danson. But it is the true story of James Young and how, after a rich and varied career, he came to take over Cherry Bar 12 years ago. As Young explains, “I’ve been a lawyer, I’ve done breakfast radio, I managed RRR radio station, I ran an advertising agency, I’ve had music labels, I’ve managed bands, but I’ve always just been very, very passionate about live music. About 12 years ago when I sold my advertising agency, for the first time in my life I came into a bit of money and decided to buy my favourite venue in the whole entire world - Cherry Bar - just to make sure I could always get in.”

Thankfully for the rest of us, he’s gone above and beyond just 'making sure he could always get in'. Young continues to book all 365 nights of live music at the venue, as well as curating the annual CherryRock festival which takes over Cherry Bar and its home of AC/DC Lane. The result is a venue that doesn’t flicker in the winds of trends and fads but stands solid as a rock. “I’m not sure that any parent dreams that their child will grow up to be a late night venue operator but I think what parents do want is for their children to be happy, and that’s what I am,” Young laughs. He certainly sounds it when we speak to him, pumped for the next CherryRock (taking place on May 7), despite being a little dusty and croaky from a long weekend of - you guessed it - rock n' roll. 

So this year’s CherryRock - it’s a pretty international line-up. You’ve got bands from the USA, Indonesia, Spain, Sweden, and of course Australia; I mean it’s lucky visa 457 doesn’t affect touring bands! As you said, you don’t really let yourself be swayed by trends and that sort of thing. How do you go about curating the line-up?
That’s a good question ... I just put on stuff that I love and hope that other people turn up. The CherryRock audience tends to be a heavy-drinking, well-behaved, denim group hug. It’s good to have the internationals - Nashville Pussy, Shihad from New Zealand, we’re going to announce Brant Bjork next Wednesday - so that’s another huge international. But we also have bands that I’ve seen overseas at festivals and are touring that I recognise that people haven’t had a chance to know them or see them or hear them. But I guarantee I’m gonna go away with a dislocated collarbone from all the pats on the shoulder from how good the bands are. Like Bala from Spain this two-piece band, two girls, on drums and guitar, they’re just absolutely mind-blowing. I can not wait for Australia to fall in love with that band. And even though no one’s heard of them I’m putting them on as the second headline on then main stage before Shihad. The same as Bottlecap - I love my Swedish rock n' roll and they’re very much schooled in that Hellacopters, The Hives, high-energy frenetic rock n' roll sound that I absolutely love and I know it’s going to go down very well in AC/DC Lane.

Well that’s perfect because you just answered my next question which was going to be who are you waiting to see, who are your picks [of CherryRock], if you’re allowed to play favourites?
Yeah and also I’ll just mention quickly the Indonesians because last year I put on our first Indonesian act called The Sigit. And there’s like a thriving English-speaking rock n' roll scene in Indonesia with these guys who are locals that own record stores that have incredibly fastidious knowledge of Black Sabbath and 70s rock n' roll. And again it’s really a thrill to be presenting those bands to Australian rock n' roll fans knowing that they’re going to really appreciate seeing something that’s different and also something that’s world-class because those bands play on Chinese music festivals to crowds of 35, 000 but they’re quite happy to come here as they haven’t been invited before and play at a festival for 1000 in AC/DC Lane, which will be a lot of fun.

You mention AC/DC Lane, and I wanted to ask you about whether you get a lot of fans making the pilgrimage…or stealing the sign where you are?
I saved my smartest marketing move for myself and 12 years ago convinced the city of Melbourne to change the name of Corporation Lane to AC/DC Lane. Cherry Bar’s the only business in AC/DC Lane and we have an obligation to bring that street name to life. No one wants to come from Germany and just get a digital photograph on their phone of a boring street sign, they want to come to a street that is trying to fulfil what that name suggests, you know it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock n' roll. And little bands playing on a little stage, all dreaming about being the next AC/DC which is kinda what happens in AC/DC Lane. And yes we get heaps of local, interstate, regional and international tourists coming to AC/DC Lane…there’s three walking tours a day that go through AC/DC Lane - that’s always interesting, the more civilised tourists with the camera around their neck coming to AC/DC Lane.

James Young ACDC Lane

So if you had the keys to the city are there any other Melbourne streets you’d like to rename in honour of its music history?
Well it’s kind of slowly happening. We’ve had an Amphlett Lane - for Chrissy Amphlett. We don’t want to overdo it but I think there’s moves afoot to put a Bon Scott sculpture in AC/DC Lane.

Any advice on keeping a successful live music venue alive?
Well in my case I think I’m lucky; I just put on music for myself and hope that other people turn up. I think life’s too short not to love what you do for a job. Cherry in AC/DC Lane is internationally recognised as a rock n' roll bar and I think other venues — and I understand why they do it — they sort of chase crowds so one week they might be hip hop and the next week they might be pop and they’re trying to get crowds in with whoever brings a crowd. Well, we’re not like that at Cherry. Every single decision we make goes through a very simple [selection criteria] - Is this rock? Is this rock n' roll? Every decision from the beers we pour to the artwork to the staff that work there - it’s all being real, being true to rock n' roll. So I tell my wife I’d be much healthier if I was into stamp collecting or triathlons but unluckily for her my addiction or my hobby is live music and I know some people have been able to let it go as they get older but not me, if I don’t see live music a minimum of twice a week I actually go a little bit crazy, a bit nuts. It grounds me, so I just can’t live without it.

So a couple of years ago you publicly posed a question about whether apps like Tinder were to blame for affecting live music because people don’t need to go out and pick up anymore. What are your thoughts on that these days?
Being married and mature I don’t really understand Tinder. I thought Tinder was how New Zealanders liked their steak. I just thought one of the contributing factors to there being slightly less people out at night is they’ve changed the way they meet people. It used to be that the only way to meet people was to go out and meet them and now there are other options and I think 1) people meet people and I think 2) people tend to take safe tinder dates - see a movie, maybe go to a comedy show. It’s not very safe to take someone to Cherry Bar because someone else might take them

I would have thought maybe the Cherry Bar crowd would be impervious to that. You know, do you have some pretty staunchly loyal clientele?
Yeah yeah absolutely! There are some that are stuck to the carpet…although many people get stuck to the carpet at Cherry. But there are certainly our regulars. And I think we’re lucky at Cherry, I think a lot of businesses [if] they lose 5% of their trade, they start to be in trouble financially whereas at Cherry we’re kind of bullet-proof and over my dead body will Cherry close.

We always ask people, what was the first gig you ever went to?
OK, first gig I went to, my mother was an angel and she took me to see Alice Cooper, so I was 11 years old. Back in 1977 I was obsessed with Alice Cooper, he was playing Festival Hall for $7 (?)… I said to mum "Can you take me?" … My dad had pissed off so she was raising us by myself, she was working in a factory, going to work in fingerless gloves, so she couldn’t afford to pay for a gig and I understood that. And then one day she came home with two tickets, it was my Willy Wonka moment. She said. "I’m gonna take you to see Alice Cooper". I’d never seen a show before in my life, they opened the curtains and there’s this giant cyclops, a huge guillotine, and Vincent Price doing the voice-over. There’s these giant black widow spiders dangling and I said, "That is it, I am fucking sold for life!…I am hooked for life".

And the last gig?
I just got back from the Boogie Festival in Tallarook which is only an hour outside Melbourne, it’s a fantastic festival. And I absolutely love this band from New York called Endless Boogie who do these very lengthy rock guitar jams, kind of like trance rock. Well it’s rock n' roll but it becomes spiritual. And they did a surprise show at the festival in a shearing shed and they played one song for 95 minutes, from like 1:45 at night til whatever it was 3:15. The lead singer - ‘Top Dollar’ he’s called - he had one of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard anyone say…he leaned forward to the mike and said “Hi, we’re Endless Boogie, this is our last song” and then started their first song which went for 95 minutes. And I was just, I can’t tell you how good it was, I was pinching myself. And then I had the thrill of the band who I know all coming back into my caravan — my boogie van — which was straining under the weight of about 20 people. And then the band, almost starting to annoy me and the people in my van by being so obsessed with AC/DC that they just played AC/DC songs for two hours … singing every word to ‘Rock n' Roll Singer’, and ‘Sin City’ and ‘Problem Child’. Just worshipping at the alter of AC/DC in my van from 4am til 6am so excuse me if my voice sounds a bit croaky.

Any gigs at Cherry Bar that go down in your personal hall of fame?
Oh the hall of fame Cherry gigs - that’s always a big question. Yeah we’ve had lots of great internationals - The Black Keys, The New York Dolls, Rival Sons, The Sword - big bands that have done little side shows at Cherry, always great. I did see something unusual at the second CherryRock actually, when the Brisbane band with two brothers who are the lead singers — I’ll remember the name shortly — anyway there was an attractive woman down the front who was a recent mother and she was doing something I’ve never seen before —squirting breastmilk about three metres across the stage into the singer’s faces with incredible accuracy, from the front row. And I was thinking at the time, I have seen a lot of things in my time but I have never seen that! And that’s the beauty of CherryRock festival, you’re not watching the Rolling Stones from a kilometre away and paying $400 a ticket…

People talk about spitting distance, but breastmilk squirting distance!
I’m not sure if I should have told that story

And what did the singer do?
The band took it in their stride, they’re pretty tough sort of punk band. I think they even enjoyed it, it definitely added to the spectacle of the show. I think she was just relieving some pressure on herself, it was the logical thing to do, she seemed to have a full tank and as I said, sniper-like accuracy from three metres.

And any particularly wild rider requests over the years?
One thing I will say is, we’ve got a grandma figure who’s always dry-cleaned our tea towels and done a bit of cleaning up on Friday afternoons and she’s in her late 70s. Sometimes when we have an international band we’ll get her to cook her homemade sausage rolls and party pies. And it doesn’t matter who the band is, they always love it when they’ve got a 78 year old woman coming up and going “Would you like a handmade sausage roll?” and it’s like suddenly they miss their mum or they miss their grandma. And they’d asked for four fried chickens and some amazing sushi and they suddenly forget about everything that they asked for of the rider and are just so grateful to have a helpful old mum give them beautifully made sausage rolls and party pies with a bit of tomato sauce.

And if last drinks get called on planet Earth, what are you drinking?
I’d probably be going for volume if it was the last drinks. Can I determine the size of the vessel please? I’d like a 44 gallon drum of Newtowner thank you. I’d like a keg actually, can you stick a straw in it? That’s my last drink, I’ll be with you in a month, I’m going out happy, see you later.

Cherry Bar, AC/DC Lane, Melbourne
Ph +61 3 9639 8122 

CherryRock takes place Sunday May 7, line up includes Shihad, Dwarves, Nashville Pussy, Bala, Bottlecap and more. Tickets $79-89.