The fascinating history of the Barrowland Ballroom

How did a dancehall in Glasgow’s East End reinvent itself as one of the most iconic music venues in Britain?

The lights went up at the end of Bear’s Den’s Glasgow gig. Whistles and whoops and heartfelt applause filled the hall. The band looked momentarily overwhelmed. “It was one of those shows you didn’t want to end,’ said drummer and vocalist Kev Jones. “It was unbelievable.” Wanting to prolong their glorious moment, he and his bandmates stood in the middle of the stage and, for the first time on their tour, faced the crowd and took a bow.

“It was an honour and a privilege,” said lead singer and guitarist Andrew Davie of headlining the Barrowland Ballroom. “It was the venue we were most looking forward to playing.”  

His sentiments are echoed by a long and distinguished line of artists who have played the Barrowland Ballroom. Simple Minds were first in 1983. Big Country came next, then The Clash who were followed soon after by The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure and, in later years Blondie, Robbie Williams, Amy Winehouse and Ed Sheeran. With a reasonably small capacity of 1,900, it’s commonly acknowledged that a band hasn’t made it until it has played the Barrowland Ballroom. 

What is it about this former dance hall in Glasgow’s East End that makes it so beloved of
bands and audiences? 

There’s its history for starters. It was originally a venue for stallholders in the Barras market below to socialise. From the Thirties to the Sixties it was a popular dance hall. Band leader Billy, of Billy McGregor and the Gaybirds, famously requested the acoustic tiles on the ballroom ceiling which remain to this day, and are one of the reasons why the sound is so good. There’s a beautiful wooden, sprung dancefloor. The main band’s dressing room has 1960s basins and light bulbs around the mirrors. The building itself has a now-iconic neon sign stretched across its facade. 

It wasn’t all foxtrots and fun: a fire destroyed the building in 1958. It reopened in 1960 but the murders in 1968 and 1969 of three women who were walked home by a man nicknamed ‘Bible John’ made its reputation so bad that its doors closed in the early 1970s. It had a spell as a roller disco in the 1970s and early 1980s but it wasn’t until 1983 when Simple Minds recorded the video for their Waterfront single and returned to perform three sell-out gigs that its current incarnation as a concert venue began.  

Paul Weller, Metallica and Oasis have described it as one of their favourite venues in the world to play

Rumour has it that David Bowie stole one of the famous Barrowland stars that adorn the dance hall ceiling and the walls of the band room. Henceforth, anyone who plays there steals a star. It’s legends like that which give the Barrowland Ballroom its fame. Our interviewees – local gig goers – told us their own Barrowland stories.

Simon had tickets for four back-to-back nights of Faith No More but got so drunk on the third night that he fell asleep in the toilets and was woken by the cleaner when the gig was finished. Leslie, underage but desperate to get into a U2 gig, picked the tallest man in the queue and walked in with him in the hope it made her look older. Johnny summed it up by saying: “This place has been a constant. It’s seen me through umpteen crushes, at least three wives, six jobs, a university degree. It’s always been there.”

Musicians hold it in equally high regard. Paul Weller, Metallica and Oasis have described it as one of their favourite venues in the world to play. Amy MacDonald wrote a song about it and Iggy Pop told DJ Vic Galloway: “You know the Barrowland is a funky old room, feels like a skating rink, it feels like old rock.”

Del Amitri’s guitarist Iain Harvie was in the crowd for Iggy Pop’s 1988 gig. In 1990 his band headlined the Barrowland: “And it was quite something. I remember standing at the side of the stage waiting to go on and the noise was just deafening. There’s a sense of community in there. And the crowd know that they can make the shows happen.”

Barrowland staff love it too. The security stewards on the door will search you thoroughly but will tease the sharp-suited Fatherson fan for the tiny transparent bag containing a spare button that’s found on his person. The cloakroom staff will listen to your life story. Monika, the toilet attendant, will chase after you and fix your skirt if you’ve pulled it up askew. Fiona, the pit steward, will hand out sweeties to the crowd at the barrier. 

After the Bear’s Den gig, while I interviewed the cleaners who swept plastic cups to the side of the dancefloor, Kev and Andrew from the band took pictures of themselves in the empty ballroom. “It’s an amazing venue,” Andrew said.

Of their spontaneous bow at the end of their set, Kev said it felt right: “Let’s just capture this moment. Let’s be here doing a headline show for as long as possible.”

Barrowland Ballads by Alison Irvine, Chris Leslie and Mitch Miller is out now (Graphical House, £32.99)

Image: Joseph Joyce