There can’t be a music fan in Scotland who has not had a few swallies in town before rambling up Argyle Street and nodding a cap to Glasgow Cross, entering the Gallowgate and then experienced that magical rush when turning that wee bend in the street that allows you to see the neon Barrowland sign sparkling its welcome, often or not reflected double in a pool of Glasgow rain, as people queue past Baird’s Bar.
Tom Joyes who has been manager at The Barrowland Ballroom and adjacent Barras street market will modestly confess, “I know nothing much about music”, so seldom entranced with sound-checks he broke his own rule of leaving the bands, crew and promoters to get on with it and on 22 Jul 1997 he stood to watch a certain David Bowie get ready for his show. Towards the end of his sound-check, a porcelain star fell from the famous venue ceiling and narrowly missing Bowie. An unperturbed and suave David Bowie bent down, picked up the star, casually slipped it into his pocket and the incident passed with no mention to management or promoter.
I jokingly asked Tom a few years later, if he asked for the star back and he replied, “No fecking way, I was just glad not to get sued”. For me the story sums up The Barrowland in fewer words than I will use here, a colossal megastar who could have been playing a much larger venue, taking a souvenir of a place filled with gallus history, a hint of East End tack, a broken streetlight shade of violence and acres of allure.
Shy and prone to understatement, Tom Joyes may profess to not knowing new music but what he does know is the blood line of arguably the best venue in the world, as votes by numerous polls of bands, musicians and fans will testify. Built in 1934 by Maggie McIvor, “the Queen of the Barras”, the venue has remained in the McIvor family since opening in 1934, though it was rebuilt in 1958 after a major fire.
Manager Tom is fiercely protective of the venue’s independence and heritage so when he talks about the venue his passion, love and understanding is evident, “Glasgow audiences always provide a great atmosphere”. The stand-up hall is better than seating for rock concerts, with fans having access to the bar within the hall throughout the concert. Even with a capacity crowd of 1950, he claims that “from the back of the hall you can see the whites of the performers’ eyes”. Press Tom further and he will sum the venue up in two words, “atmosphere and character”.
The Barrowland is the best example of, “if the wheel ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, Tom says, “it’s also down to the fact that we’ve not changed the design of the place since the 1960s and have no plans to. We want to keep it the way it is.”
So the venue is intrinsically the same place as it was when Billy McGregor and the Gaybirds or The Alex Harvey Soul Band played standards to local Barras traders, families and friends, offering talent competitions and punters the chance to open a mystery box, where they could win anything from £500 to a rotten egg.
Many folk met their future spouses on the dance floor and talking in the Daily Record local resident Agnes McLean confirmed that, “To break into the big-time social scene in Glasgow in the Thirties, one had to be a ‘rerr’ dancer”.
If you have ever been to a Proclaimers show at the Barrowland and bounced to 500 Miles with the best of ‘em, you may not be aware that you’re being assisted by an imported Canadian wood floor, rumored to be sprung on thousands of tennis balls cut in half to cushion those dancing shoes. The current ceiling was designed in 1958 by the resident big band leader and barring a lick of paint, it remains unchanged to this day so the acoustics are second to none.
Legendary sound man Johnny Ramsey of EFX Audio who is not a man to mix his mince with his tatties once told me, “if you sound rotten here, it’ is because you’re rotten or your soundman is deaf and you need to fire him,” and in her song Barrowland Ballroom, Amy Macdonald sings that “nothing beats the feeling of the high Barrowland ceiling when a band begins to play”, (see video below).
Next week Alec recounts some of the legendary shows that have made the venue such a part of Glasgow lore.
Photo credit: Flickr
The Best of Simple Minds on Youtube here