The newly-opened Hard Rock Hotel in Penang is a living museum of rock memorabilia.
WHEN I told a friend, who plays in a band, that I was off to Penang for a two-night stay at Hard Rock Hotel, the dude quipped:
“Bring along an empty guitar case.”
“Why?” I asked.
“So that you can carry off a Les Paul with you before you check out,” he quipped.
Of course, my friend was just kidding; he would never advocate theft. But such is the expectation when the name Hard Rock is mentioned – images of valuable and precious rock memorabilia are conjured. And here, credit should be given to Eric Clapton, the rock star who started it all by donating the first ever item in Hard Rock’s collection – an unsigned red Fender Lead II guitar.
Then, in a typical rock ‘n’ roll show of one-manship, Pete Townshend of The Who donated one of his guitars, with a note saying:
“Mine’s as good as his! Love, Pete.”
That was in 1979. Today, Hard Rock has amassed what is regarded as “the largest and most valuable music memorabilia collection on the planet” – a total of 71,000 items to date. Or more accurately, 71,002, thanks to Hard Rock Hotel Penang. But more on that later.
The memorabilia items are spread out across all the Hard Rock Cafes and Hotels around the world, while some are also kept in a warehouse in Orlando, Florida (simply called Memorabilia HQ or The Warehouse). Hard Rock has a team that buys stuff at auctions while its cafes request donations of memorabilia from the stars themselves.
The biggest item in the Hard Rock collection is the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour bus, the five-tonne psychedelic bus used in the band’s 1967 film of the same name.
There are also some pretty bizarre stuff such as Gwen Stefani’s brassiere, Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland’s bullhorn (through which he sometimes sang), Elton John’s Visa card (expired in 2007!), Ray Charles’ Braille edition of Reader’s Digest, Bruce
Springsteen’s handwritten note to his cook. and a police mugshot of The Doors’ Jim Morrison for his 1968 Las Vegas arrest (strangely, signed by the band’s keyboardist).
The Hard Rock Hotel Penang, which opened on Sept 19, boasts a collection of more than 500 items on display all around the hotel and in the Rockshops and Cafe.
In the lobby itself, there is a long glass display with items such as Elton John’s stage costume; one of The Supremes’ glittering dress; Jon Bon Jovi’s jeans, scarf and jacket; and various guitars, basses and more costumes from bands such as Canned Heat and Motley Crue. On every floor is a glass display of a costume and framed rare photographs all along the corridors.
On the VIP floor is a special room called the King’s Lounge, dedicated to the King of Rock n’ Roll himself, Elvis Presley, and blues master B.B. King. In that lounge can be found King’s guitar Lucille, and Presley’s famous red sweater.
Down at the Cafe, you can find Madonna’s famous biker hat and “pointy-breasts” costume, as well as Guns n Roses guitarist Slash’s top hat, among other stuff like drum sets and guitars from other rock stars.
Meanwhile, Hard Rock Cafe Kuala Lumpur, which opened 18 years ago, has about 110 pieces of memorabilia, including Jimi Hendrix’s silk jacket, Cheap Trick’s guitar and Gwen Stefani’s stage costume. The Cafe, completely refurbished, was relaunched on Nov 8 last year.
It’s all about the music, but wouldn’t you know, it all actually started with food.
Rockin’ all over the world
June 14, 1971, is a special date, not just for the Hard Rock chain but also for the music world in general. In an effort to bring American-style food to Britain, Americans Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton opened the first Hard Rock Cafe in London, near Hyde Park Corner.
From the very beginning, there was already the rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere, not just affordable food. Both Tigrett and Morton were music lovers. Incidentally, Morton’s former stepdaughter was Domino Harvey, the English bounty hunter/model who inspired the 2005 movie, Domino. And Tigrett later also founded House of Blues, the famous joint he created with actor Dan Aykroyd and designer James Cafarelli.
It wasn’t long before the cafe became known for more than just food, especially when Clapton donated his guitar and changed the initial decor of the restaurant. Eleven years later, Morton and Tigrett began their business expansion, and Hard Rock Cafes opened in major cities around the United States, as well as in Paris and Berlin in Europe.
Over the years, interests, properties and the brand itself changed hands, and in 2007, the Seminole Tribe of Florida acquired Hard Rock International Inc and other related entities.
Today, there are “157 venues in more than 52 countries around the world, including 127 cafes and 12 hotels/casinos,” according to Hard Rock’s official website.
And each venue is a “living museum” of rock memorabilia. So, not only is it about American cuisine and a rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere, the memories from throughout the history of modern music live on in the Cafes and Hotels. The Hard Rock chain is also the first themed restaurant chain in the world.
In 2006, Hard Rock International embarked on an ambitious project, the Hard Rock Park, a theme park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, that would include a huge arena for concerts and more than 40 attractions. It opened in April last year but closed and filed for bankruptcy six months later.
But the brand’s guiding philosophy of “Love all, serve all” and a faithfulness to the rock n’ roll sensibility continue to be observed, and have led Hard Rock to be closely associated with many music stars, both for philanthropic efforts and also for its growing collection of memorabilia.
Currently Jon Bon Jovi is helping to raise funds with a Signature Series T-shirt line for the Philadelphia Soul Charitable Foundation, now known as the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, a charitable group fighting poverty and homelessness.
This month is also Pinktober, a campaign dedicated to breast cancer awareness.
Here, there and everywhere
Walk into the spanking new Hard Rock Hotel Penang in Batu Ferringhi and you will be greeted by … music, of course. Apart from that, you’ll also be greeted by four busts representing the Beatles, at the front door.
Inside, you’re met once again by the Fab Four in a colorful mural next to the lifts. Further inside, next to the Starz Diner is a beautiful large mosaic mural of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Step out onto the beach and pool area, and you will see, standing atop one of the roofs, the Beatles once again, this time as bronze statues.
Nice to see the Fab Four everywhere, as if in celebration of the recent release of the remastered versions of their albums. A Beatles fan couldn’t be happier. But it’s understandable why the Beatles would be everywhere in Hard Rock Hotel, just as how Elvis has an entire lounge dedicated to him. After all, modern rock owes much to the Liverpudlian quartet, not just the music but also the lifestyle, image, persona and attitude of rock, a phenomenon captured perfectly by the Prefab Sprout song Electric Guitars.
And it is this irreverence, brashness and the celebration of individuality that is at the core of what Hard Rock stands for.
More than just the memorabilia and the live music, it seems that the entire Hard Rock design, concept and even its staff embody the essence of rock.
On my visit to the hotel, I caught sight of staff members dancing or strumming a guitar in the lobby and elsewhere. Go to the Hard Rock website’s corporate page, and you’ll be greeted with the words “Anti-established since 1971.”
Hard Rock Hotel Penang had put an ad in a newspaper and interviewed more than 2,300 people for 280 jobs, said its general manager John Primmer.
“We were looking for what’s on the inside,” he explained. “We’re not a ‘snobby’ chain. As for outward appearance, we weren’t intentionally looking for people who had big hair, earrings or tattoos. But we were looking for people who had something different inside, the right attitude, and who wouldn’t be scared to get up on stage in front of a crowd.
“We even asked some of them to dance! It wasn’t whether they could dance, but whether they were willing to have a go at it.”
But all talk inevitably leads back to the memorabilia, snapshots of the rock star life.
Things we saved today
On the last day of my visit, I was taken on an inaugural “memorabilia tour”, something that would be included as part of the hotel’s activities for guests in the future. My guide? A guy in a funny wig dressed like a member of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
When he talked about the Fender donated by Clapton in 1979, Aidrul Fathuddin Ahmad, also known by his rock star name Ai, launched into Tears In Heaven on his acoustic guitar.
There are still items being shipped to the hotel, Primmer told me. Every six or seven years, a whole new bunch of stuff will be brought in, and the current bunch shipped to other venues. This is the rotation system used for all the outlets.
“I was lucky enough to have a look through the warehouse (in Orlando) about a year ago,” said Primmer. “The Hard Rock team go to Christie’s auctions a lot, and a lot are donated by the artistes. But what’s important to these guys is that (the memorabilia) are all authentic. And they would process the appropriate documentation from the artistes to state that it is all authentic.”
But who determines which venue gets what?
“There’s a whole team of memorabilia people in Orlando,” said Primmer. “These guys will know a certain style of a hotel. If it’s more a resort (such as this hotel), then what suits this hotel might not suit the San Diego hotel, which is more of a corporate hotel.”
Security is not a problem, said Primmer. There are closed-circuit cameras everywhere in the hotel. But then, the shipments that come in containers do not have armed guards accompanying them. Still, these are valuable stuff.
“We keep a close eye tracking them and where they are at all times,” said Primmer of the shipments. “And the guys from Orlando do all the installations and everything. They take it very seriously. You see in some of the older Hard Rock Cafes, there’ll just be a guitar hanging on the wall. This (pointing to the framed items nearby) is the style of what they’re doing now, sort of the old-fashion frames and … they’ve gone for a certain look. They’re very particular about the pieces, where they go, what mixture of genres we’ve got in the hotel.”
Indeed, everything now is framed, and costumes dressed on mannequins. But not everything is international though. There are some local flavors. For a start, the murals and mosaics, and even the giant guitar and statue of Michael Jackson in an armchair outside the hotel, were all created by local hands.
And over at the Hard Rock Cafe in the same building, are a pair of jeans and an acoustic guitar from local rock queen Ella, and a small drum and pair of drumsticks from singer/percussionist Zainal Abidin. All framed and signed, of course.
“We started back in June, we wanted to send the message to Malaysians and Singaporeans before we opened, that we support local artistes and the local industry,” said Primmer. “So it was just a phone call to them and they said yeah, they’d love to donate a couple of pieces.”
Ella and Zainal are the latest additions to the Hard Rock living museum. The collection will continue to grow.
And when you step out of the hotel, you will come face to face with an appropriate quote on a wall from Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.”
Map, Location and Driving Direction to Hard Rock Hotel Penang: