Into The Music Vault: Glasgow Barrowland – A Love Affair Begins

One summer evening bored as hell I sat in my bedroom nearly lifeless. Then a song came on the radio that stopped me in my tracks. Janice Long was introducing the new single by some band called The Pogues and for the next three or so minutes I was mesmerised by the tune ‘Sally MacLennane’.

Two days later I’m walking out of Sleeves record shop (previously run by Bruce Findlay, ex Simple Minds manager) with a copy of the 7” single and a ticket for The Pogues’ forthcoming concert at the Barrowland Ballroom, which would be my first ever gig.

Musically I was into the Two Tone bands and punk but I was too young to have caught The Specials, The Clash etc. in their heyday. Thereafter, I’d moved on to bands like The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure and The Cramps and, while I was now an avid buyer of the weekly music papers such as New Musical Express and Melody Maker, the thought of attending a live gig was not one that I had seriously thought about up to that point. No one in my year at school seemed to be going to gigs and while Glasgow was less than 20 miles away, it seemed as accessible as Mars to my 15-year-old self at the time.

Fast forward a few weeks to Wednesday 11 September 1985 and I’m getting dropped off at the Barrowland by my mum and dad who had driven me up to make sure I was safe and got to the venue OK (acknowledge it’s hardly rock’n’roll but they were looking after their laddy!).

The queue was snaking round the venue and, while the doors hadn’t even opened, it was clear this was gonna be a busy event. I took my place behind a couple, the guy too cool for school in his black leather jacket, white t-shirt, jeans and brothel creepers with a good looking girl on his arm. It was at this point I noticed the small print by the promoter Regular Music on my mint green ticket – “management reserve the right of admission – over 18’s”. Suddenly I’m fretting I won’t get by the door, let alone see the gig. The queue starts to move and I decide to try and keep close to James Dean and his girl in the vain attempt the doormen will take pity on me and let me in… it works!

I walked up the stairs, taking in the merchandise area and the competing smells of the nearby toilet on the left, over spilling with those who’d already had a few too many and, on the right, the “burger” counter which didn’t seem to be doing much trade.

Further up, more stairs and through the doors takes me to the infamous Ballroom. The place was mobbed and, as I didn’t know what to expect, I made my way to the back left hand corner, on the step just in front of the fire exit, the place I still gravitate to when attending a gig ever since.

Eventually, the house lights dimmed, the crowd went nuts, drink flying through the air in gay abandonment and a number of shadowy figures emerged on stage before the first bars of ‘The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn‘ kicked in. At that point, the place went really nuts, the sprung floor seemingly bouncing the crowd like ants up and down in merry unison.

This was a tangible, electric atmosphere and it’s no surprise that many bands hail it as the best in the world. As for The Pogues and Glasgow, they’re made for each other, a bewilderment of characters, rich of tales and yarns, hewn together by music, a good time had by all.

All the time I’m watching this, the band, the crowd, the surroundings including the amazing starred ceiling and feeling incredibly lucky to be a part of it, every second savoured for posterity.

Halfway through, ‘Sally MacLennane’ is played through a cacophony of sound, accordian, tin whistle, banjo all competing and complementing each other – fantastic. What then followed was extremely poignant, only 24 hours after the untimely death of Jock Stein, the whole crowd chanting his name before Cait sang an emotionally charged ‘I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day’.

The band finished with a blazing ‘Greenland Whale Fisheries’ before coming back for the encore starting with ‘The Wild Rover’, a song I was very familiar with thanks to my mum’s old Clancy Brothers albums. To hell with it, I headed into the throng, the crowd awash with a mass of sweating bodies out to have (and having) a good time. Sweating, laughing, singing, I made it out alive, just.

Outside, looking at the imposing neon Barrowland sign, I knew this would be a place I’d come back to again and again and again. Four decades later, that love affair has not diminished through countless gigs I’ve attended.
The 1935 programme produced for the traders ball is as true now as it was then. “To view the outside of the Barrowland at night makes one impatient for the enjoyment within”. I couldn’t sum it up better myself.

John Welsh

P.S. Two weeks later, Glasgow was no longer Mars and following a trip to Dees for Brothel Creepers and to Flip for a Baseball jacket, bowling shirt, t-shirts I was now James Dean… or maybe not!

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