Nightclubbing 1980s – on a hot, Hi-NRG journey at gay club Bennetts

Scotland’s longest-running gay club was created in 1980, with the community finding a wild and warm welcome at Bennetts in Glasgow.

Colin Barr (right) launched Bennetts gay club in Glassford Street, Glasgow in 1980 after seeking out a new clientele for his city centre venue. The nights have passed into the stuff of legend. PIC: Colin Barr.

Colin Barr was given the job of opening up the club above Topper’s Bar in Glassford Street, Glasgow, where he was taken on as a bar man after a trip to the Job Centre.

But the club, called Bennetts, remained empty at the weekend as nightspots including the Warehouse in Dunlop Street – which had an elevated dance floor – and Pzazz in Royal Exchange Square pulled in the smart crowd.

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Barr was “banging his head against a wall” trying to attract the punters, but nights out to hotel in Bearsden where his gay friend Chris Davis played funk and disco records on a Sunday night paved a new route for Bennetts.

A typically packed night at Bennetts. PIC: Colin Barr.

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Barr asked Davis if he would come and do a gay night on a Tuesday night in the City Centre. He did – and 300 people were queuing outside to get in.

As the nights were extended into the weekend, Barr was riding high at Bennetts – but then the owner of the pub and club came back from Marbella.

Barr said: “He took me out for a glass of Champagne to celebrate the success of the place. He still didn’t know it was a gay club.”

The late model Charles Matchett on a night out at Bennetts. PIC: Colin Barr.

The pair went to Bennetts for late drinks, with the owner getting uncomfortable after seeing two men kissing at the bar. After a trip to the toilets, he was seriously unhappy.

"I told him it was a gay club,” Barr said. “He said to me ‘you are fired’ and the keys were handed to the assistant manger.”

The next day Barr received a phone call and recalled: "He said ‘Colin, I’ve had a think about it, I apologise. Keep up the great work and just put the money in the bank’. Then the real journey started.”

Live acts like Sharon Redd, Sylvester and Divine were booked to play with the place going ‘mental’ to anthems such as Make Me Feel Mighty Real and Shoot Your Shot.

Bennetts became famed for its personal appearances from stars. Pictured here are Viola Wills, singer of massive gay anthem Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now and 'Gary Gay Scotland'. PIC: Colin Barr.

But then the dark days of the AIDS emergency started to fall. Friends of the club started to die, others disappeared – and no one really knew why.

“Then, the news told us it as AIDS,” Barr recalls.

"Nobody knew what it was. We were losing customers, we had no customers, people were scared. We closed – we had to try and work out what was going on.”

Barr worked with ScotsGay magazine and Durex to spread the prevention message.

A drag artist looking fabulous for a night at Bennetts. PIC: Colin Barr.

“We heavily invested in getting the word out,” he said. “Bowls of Durex were lying everywhere.”

Barr went on to become a key figure in Glasgow’s nightlife scene and has owned numerous pubs and clubs in Glasgow, from Volcano to Mass and The Tunnel.

Over in Edinburgh, the gay scene was pounding at Fire Island, which was set up by Bill Grainger in 1978 in what is now Waterstone’s on Princes Street.

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Fashion designer Spencer Railton dressed to impress for a night out at Bennetts. PIC: Colin Barr.
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