Nowadays it seems like most people’s conception of what a York-based record label can achieve is restricted to local successes, niche victories and noble flashes in the proverbial pan. History begs to differ. The fact of the matter is that from the late 1970s until 1988 York was home to one of the most successful and nationally influential underground record labels in the country. Red Rhino Records was founded by Bradford-born former accountant and light-show employee Tony Kostrzewa (that’s ‘Tony K’ to you tongue-tied sorts) and operated from a record store base on Gillygate a la London’s Rough Trade. Red Rhino operated as part of The Cartel, a wholesaling cooperative of independent labels/record shops from around the country.
Using this nationwide framework, Tony K and his label succeeded in facilitating the rise of numerous iconic bands and sub-genres, providing archetypal dance-floor art-rockers and all-round cultural giants Pulp with the platform for their first record releases and putting out efforts by counter-culture colossi like Butthole Surfers, The Mekons, and Front 242 along the way.
Not bad for a York-based label eh? Tony Kostrzewa and his wife Gerri racked up some pretty major achievements as the driving force behind Red Rhino Records from 1979 until the label’s unfortunate demise in 1988, driving 500k+ sales (slightly bizarrely) for punk act Toy Dolls’ cover of ‘Nellie the Elephant’ whilst helping to spread the word about ultra-credible acts like The Wedding Present, Sisters of Mercy,Chumbawumba and (your correspondent’s personal favourite) Red Lorry Yellow Lorry .
Operating from his Gillygate store, Tony K managed to balance running a truly national enterprise with maintaining a real engagement with York’s local music scene. At its height the label operated a warehouse on Eldon Street as its center for distribution and relocated its record shop to a larger premises on Goodramgate. In the words of The Creepers frontman Marc Riley: ”Red Rhino was a brilliant place to be. The warehouse was full of enthusiastic kids bouncing around, with records everywhere and bands industriously putting records in sleeves.” Sounds pretty exciting to me.
Tony Kostrzewa sadly passed away on 1 May 2008. His legacy is a pretty considerable one, considering that without the work done by Red Rhino Records in York throughout much of the eighties, a generation of talented underground bands would have gone undiscovered by many. It just goes to show what a local record label in York can achieve with a little drive and belief. With support from our community, I find it hard to see why York’s independent labels (Bad Paintings and Well Weapon for instance) couldn’t go national, global, do a Red Rhino and export our finest musical talent to the wider world. Now we just need the next Tony K to step up to the plate…