Memories of the Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom

16 September 2013
imports_CESC_0-d094vnyz-100000_36895.jpg Memories of the Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom
Author Nuala Naughton shares her memories of the heyday of The Barrowland Ballroom, one of Glasgow's top live music venues.

Author Nuala Naughton shares her memories of the heyday of The Barrowland Ballroom, one of Glasgow's top live music venues.

It’s a full house. The gig sold out only minutes after the tickets were released for sale. Bar staff are working flat out. There’s a mood of impatient anticipation in the crowd. The house lights are dimmed signalling the start of the gig and there’s a reverent hush in the room.

This is the moment where the atmosphere is electric with expectation until the stage lights fire up prompting a veritable beer shower as a thousand pint cups are thrown into the air in one simultaneous act of collectivism while the roar of the crowd hits fever pitch as the band take the stage.

‘Hello! Barrowlands!’, yells the frontman – and they’re off! Like a stampede of horses racing to jump the first fence at the Gran National, fans are almost climbing over one another in a bid to claim coveted front row status and the prize of getting up close and personal with their favourite rock stars. It could be pretty much any headliner and the scenario pans out in much the same way. Bowie, Alice in Chains, Alice Cooper, Blondie, Feeder, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Public Enemy, Ramones, Oasis – more than 1,700 gigs have been staged at the iconic Barrowland Ballroom since its resurrection as a worldclass gig venue.

       YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE... Primary school in the Forties

A sea of adoring fans

In the thirty years since the mothballs and cobwebs were swept away for the filming of the Simple Minds Waterfront video, rock stars and aspiring bands around the world have relished that unique view from the stage where they face a sea of adoring fans bouncing up and down like no other venue can mimic, thanks to the sprung floor that was originally installed for ballroom dancers in bygone days.

‘There’s something about nearly being crushed to death in the front row at The Barras that makes you feel alive,’ says Andy Dickson, who runs the Twitter page @TheBarrowlands. Why then has no one written a book about the venue? I was surprised to find that nothing had been written chronicling the Barrowland story.

The early years at the Barrowland

It would be a fascinating read, I mused, what with all its long history dating back to 1934 when the Barras Queen Maggie McIver had the inspired idea to build a ballroom and install a ‘big band’ to take advantage of the city’s favourite pastime of dancing: from flappers and waltzers, to jivers and lindy hoppers, twisters to disco dancers, many a lasting romance has blossomed while dancing on that famed Maplewood floor.

And that sign. The neon starburst of flashing colours that lights up the streets of Glasgow’s east end at the Gallowgate could fill a book in itself.

If Barrowland could speak, I thought, what stories it could tell. Among friends and colleagues, I would just mention ‘The Barrowlands’ and I was regaled with a bucketful of stories, personal anecdotes about different gigs people had seen, some hilarious, some poignant but almost all of them with a belly laugh punchline.

That was the incubus of ‘Barrowland: A Glasgow Experience’. The subtitle was prompted by so many people extoling the virtues of a night at The Barras as ‘a totally Glasgow experience’. No other venue, not even in Glasgow, can rival a Barrowland audience.

Content continues after advertisements

There’s something about the place that ignites a fire in the heart of fans and makes them go totally mental. The same audience may attend gigs at King Tuts, the SECC or the Glasgow Concert Hall but, put them in Barrowland and they just go off their head.Understandably, most of the Barras gigs are not for everyone.
Barrowland memories

Not everyone wants to be drenched in beer, or a similarly-coloured warm liquid that is certainly not poured from the bar: the men’s toilet, marked ‘Gentlemen’ is inconveniently located one floor down, after all. Yet, not all gigs are off-yer-face punkfests.

Amy Macdonald received her first platinum award on stage at the Barras, presented to her by New Music radio presenter Jim Gellatley. Singer and songwriter Horse brought on stage a full 40-piece ensemble from The Scottish Chamber Orchestra. You can almost hear a pin drop at a Christy Moore gig where he insists that his audience refrain from clapping during songs and the bar is closed. But, yeah, it’s mainly the off-yer-nut headbanging nights that produce the best stories.

The good, the bad and the ugly...

I decided, if I was going to write a book about the place, it would have to include the ballroom’s history from 1934 through the war years to the disco decade. And it had to include the good, the bad and the ugly, warts an’ all. It would be a somewhat Stalinistic exercise to omit the ballroom’s association with the murderer Bible John who used the place to stalk young women and lure them to their death. It would wrong also to ignore gigs by rock stars who were later publicly disgraced. And I was glad of the opportunity to clear up the issue of the venue’s name once and for all.

It’s known affectionately by many names: The Barras; Ra Barras; The Barrowlands. But this habit of adding an ‘s’ to the name is one of the bug bears of general manager Tom Joyes. ‘It’s Barrowland. Singular,’ he tells me. ‘There’s no ‘s’ on the sign.’

I also wanted to give as much information as possible about gig dates and support bands along with ticket prices. For this, I have stats wizard Gareth Fraser and twitter guru Andy Dickson to thank who used website manager Alec Downie’s gig history as a starting point for some heavy duty in-depth research.

At first, it was an interesting project to write a book about Barrowland but, as I came to know the old girl better through interviews with fans, bands, crew and promoters, I kinda fell in love with the old dear myself.

So much so that I suggested to Tom Joyes that it would be ‘soooo rock ’n’ roll’ to get married there. I was over the moon when I read the last line of his foreword announcing that he intended to apply for a wedding licence so that I could get married in the stars’ dressingroom.

It is an honour to now be truly part of the rich tapestry of social history that this gaudy, tarty, sticky, sweaty, glorious building has until now kept secret.

Nuala Naughton is the author of ‘Barrowland: A Glasgow Experience’ published by Mainstream Publishing.

(Barrowlands exterior photo copyright Johnny Durlan)