“Some people refuse to believe our memorabilia collection – which now numbers over 80,000 pieces – is authentic,” announces Jeff Nolan, Hard Rock International’s in-house Music & Memorabilia Historian, as he explains the common misconceptions of the franchise. “They can’t conceive that in 2016 a collection of this magnitude could exist. It’s annoying, actually. We’ve been at it since 1971.”
Indeed, its existence precedes even The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: born in London to American parents (as the brand’s Facebook bio reads), the initial Hard Rock Cafe opened in a former Rolls Royce showroom in the capital 45 years ago – the anniversary was in June, celebrated with burgers on sale at the same miniscule price observed way back when.
Still the best in the game, today the company operates in 68 countries, with over 163 cafes, 23 hotels and 11 casinos amongst its ranks. The largest by some measure is in Orlando, where the restaurant and the accompanying 3000 capacity venue occupies a space in the Universal Resort: when Clash arrives for dinner on a nondescript Saturday night, the latter is playing host to a high school prom; The 1975 have a sold out date booked in for December.
“It’s not some cynical ‘theme’,” Nolan stresses, “These historic items and the amazing stories behind them are at the very core of our brand.” Something that a bite to eat at any of the numerous restaurants confirms: a stroll around the Hard Rock warehouse, a full to bursting corner of the company’s head office – likewise found in Orlando on account, apparently, of its strong geographical positioning – establishes pretty much as gospel.
There is an authentic Beatles candy machine in one of the toilets, while elsewhere Buddy Holly’s yearbook collects dust; on a single rail you’ll find a pink Right Said Fred shirt next to one of Slipknot’s alarming rubber masks, further down eyes set on a bejewelled brassiere that belonged to Bonnie Tyler and a pair of Rod Stewart’s jeans, presumably the only place in the world such objects could be neighbours. “Iconic is an overused word in this building,” muses Jeff, and he’s not wrong. The vast closet is just one element of the operation taking place around us.
“Music has been at the centre of my life forever. It’s just been an all-compassing passion,” he’ll note later, when quizzed on his entry into the job. “I started going to concerts at an extremely young age, so I was fortunate to see some acts live stretching all the way back to the 70’s. I became a working musician in the 80’s and had a fairly decent career. I still gig pretty regularly; my job (with Hard Rock) has allowed me to continue working in a field I’m obsessed with, which is a rare situation. I’m a lucky guy.”
When you’ve worked with the company for a decade we discover, you’re gifted a Rolex; Jeff has been there 11 years. “I didn’t interact much with the brand before my job,” the Chicago native asserts of his relationship with it. “That’s mostly because of circumstance and geography, not by design. I treated the Hard Rock essentially as a museum. I’d go in whenever one was nearby just to check out the mind blowing collection.”
While the idea of nipping into a burger joint to look at the artefacts is perhaps not the norm for most, anyone who’s ventured inside a Hard Rock Cafe knows the wealth of objects (and former owners) on site – from pink Cadillac’s to vintage jewellery – isn’t exactly normal, either. When you think then, that everything in Hard Rock Oslo, Hard Rock Ibiza or Hard Rock Lagos has passed through the Orlando head office, it’s hard for your own inner fan girl/boy not to be at least a little overwhelmed
“There are literally hundreds of pieces that still leave me jaw-dropped every time I see them,” agrees Jeff. “From a fashion perspective, the red zippered jacket that Michael Jackson wore in the ‘Beat It’ video is completely iconic. That piece is so much more than just a pop star’s jacket, it’s a sort of 80’s talisman. People lose their minds when they see it up close. I also find myself in awe of handwritten pieces. Original lyrics and personal letters are simply amazing to see.”
Given he holds perhaps one of the best job titles in the industry, Clash can’t help but nudge Nolan on the projects he’s privy to; already he’s alluded to a ‘burger tour’ in New York he’ll be leaving for the day after our shoot. “Oh man, there are so many,” he says. “The Lost Lennon Tapes project was incredibly gratifying. We own the original audio tapes from an interview with John and Yoko that was conducted in their home in 1968. It had never been released publicly.”
“We decided to create a website and share it with the world in 2014,” he continues. “I got to spend many hours listening to and transcribing the interview, which was like being in Weybridge with John and Yoko for weeks. It was a surreal experience. The original interview was conducted by a college student named Maurice Hindle; I got to know him quite well.”
In the four and a half decades since Hard Rock first launched, the concept of music memorabilia as was has changed as the market has developed; the arrival of eBay, social media and the Internet in general, presumably means terms are different today. Likewise the slightly less revolutionary introduction of shows like ‘Antique’s Roadshow’, according to our host.
“Collector culture and the proliferation of television shows have led a lot of people to believe that any old ticket stub or autograph they have is going to pay for their children’s education,” he suggests. “Our memorabilia team field dozens of calls every day from folks who want us to buy their stuff. Much more often than not, they’re disappointed.”
“Also, the baby boomer generation retiring has made a major impact. Now you’ve got a large number of people who are well off financially, their children are grown and they want to capture a part of their youth. For some, money is no object. This has inflated the market not just for music memorabilia, but for anything associated with the mid-20th century.”
The Hard Rock Jeff speaks of is a different beast to the narrative pushed by social media (there are over a dozen Instagram accounts selling a filtered version of rock'n'roll to foodies and the like), which is not to undermine the marketing team’s work so much as to recognise that the company’s credentials extend beyond business. A corporation with an international audience and the corresponding budget, in a pre-digital landscape the brand delivered fantasy, quite literally on a plate, for many of music’s more sartorially enamoured fans, something it’s able to execute still, thanks to the colossal archive in its possession.
Given unprecedented access to raid said archive, above Dominick Sheldon lenses a handful of Clash's best finds.
Words: Zoe Whitfield
Photography: Dominick Sheldon