Glasgow’s magical musical tour

The Glasgow Barrowland. Picture: Alex Hewitt
The Glasgow Barrowland. Picture: Alex Hewitt
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A new digital tour of Glasgow’s music venues past and present gives a rare insight into the city’s culture. By David Pollock

WHEN you’ve been to a certain number of big-name shows in Glasgow, you get used to hearing singers tell the audience that it’s their favourite city in the whole world to play. The truth is they really mean it, and that the atmosphere at a Glasgow gig which is going well really is second to none, but there’s sometimes no need to tell the crowd what they already know. Even seasoned gig-goers who think they’ve seen it all before, however, will find their eyes opened by the new Walking Heads music tour of Glasgow. An iPhone app which offers directions and audio commentary courtesy of new music DJ Jim Gellatly, the Walking Heads tour guides its audience around the venues – new and old, thriving and long gone – which have defined Glasgow’s music scene over the past two centuries and more.

The Glasgow Academy. Picture: Robert Perry

The Glasgow Academy. Picture: Robert Perry

“The tour’s primarily aimed at visitors to the city,” says Dougal Perman of Walking Heads, a sister company to his online music station Radio Magnetic and digital production company Inner Ear. “It scratches deeper beneath the surface from a cultural angle than your average guidebook. The more we researched the subject, though, the more we realised we didn’t know half as much as we thought we did about Glasgow’s music scene. ”

While the tour was initially researched by Gellatly, local music bloggers including Stuart McHugh of Jockrock, and Perman’s mother – the writer and journalist Fay Young – the aim is that it will be updated annually in much the same way as any guidebook, hopefully with contributions from members of the public who have their own memories of Glasgow’s music scene to share.

“Those places you’d pass by without having any idea what used to be there, they’re the most interesting,” says Perman. He mentions the Chateau, Franz Ferdinand’s former ad hoc gig space and arts venue on the south side of the Clyde. “It’s a dilapidated warehouse,” he says. “Even if it was open we wouldn’t recommend anyone go in, but that all adds to the spirit of it.”

While the tour is understandably more concerned with the readily researchable facts of the rock era, it delves back as far as it can into the past of a city which has always been obsessed with music.

“Before rock’n’roll, music hall was the thing,” says Perman. “It was very bawdy, very male-dominated, where people went to cut loose and express themselves. Some of the stories about the Panopticon on Trongate (the scene of Stan Laurel and Harry Lauder’s stage debuts) would put any rock venue to shame in terms of bad behaviour. Then on the marginally more wholesome side there was a thriving folk scene, a lot of which was based around Clydeside bars like the Scotia and the Clutha Vaults, where sailors and merchants would pile straight off transatlantic voyages and into the bar.”

“My first gigs were at the Barrowlands,” says Gellatly, who’s originally from Dundee, “nights out to the big city seeing bands like The Cramps, The Pogues and The Beastie Boys.

“What stands out for me is the sight of people throwing pints at the band, which is a term of endearment in Glasgow, believe it or not. I always thought, why would anyone from Glasgow want to throw their pint away?”

The experience will bring back similar memories for anyone who’s grown up with these venues in their lives.


The tour includes...


Built in the 1930s when Barras Market founder Margaret McIver discovered the local church hall she used for the annual stallholders’ Christmas party was booked out. Destroyed by fire in the 1950s but rebuilt the next decade as Glasgow’s definitive dancehall, today’s rough and ready concert venue has played host to Oasis, Bob Dylan, Britney Spears and Metallica, who declared it their favourite ever venue in 1996.

The Arches

Occupying 6,000 square metres of stone-vaulted archways under Central Station, The Arches was renovated for the Glasgow City of Culture exhibition in 1990 and opened as a permanent not-for-profit performance space the next year. Now playing host to club, live music, theatre and visual art events, DJ magazine voted it one of the top ten clubs in the world in 2007. At quieter gigs you can hear trains rumble overhead.

Old Fruitmarket

Built in 1882 for use as a market, it closed and became a dilapidated car park in the 1970s. The Glasgow Jazz Festival rediscovered it in 1992, booking Jools Holland to open their next festival, and the venue was refurbished in a style sympathetic to its history between 2003-06. The first concert after reopening saw the audience evacuated by a fire alarm, striking up a chorus of The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) on the street outside until they were allowed back in.

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut

Home to possibly Glasgow’s most famous music-related tale of all, the discovery of Oasis, left, by Creation Records’ Alan McGee in 1993. Originally named Saints & Sinners (a venue so revered that Simple Minds’ early punk incarnation, Johnny and the Self-Abusers, named a song after it), in the years following its 1990 rebranding Radiohead, Blur, Pulp, the White Stripes and Coldplay played early shows there. It also possesses one of Glasgow’s best jukeboxes.

Victoria Bar & Clutha Vaults

With the Scotia, the other two points in a historic Clydeside triangle. The Clutha (the Gaelic word for ‘Clyde’) opened in 1819 on the ground floor of a now-demolished tenement, the Victoria in 1867. When the Blue Angels biker gang took over the Scotia in the 1960s, the writers, folk singers and socialists who made the place their home in the mid-20th century migrated to these bars.

O2 Academy

Once upon a time this site held an old Gorbals church, which was converted into a cinema named the Bedford at the turn of the 20th century. Following the destruction of that building by fire in 1932 a replacement – the imaginatively-named New Bedford – was thrown up the same year. It stands to this day, and became the O2 Academy (formerly the Carling Academy) in 2003, playing host to Franz Ferdinand’s first gig, above, in a major Glasgow venue on the 2004 NME Tour. Many of their hometown crowd missed the show given they were first on the bill, but the band played nearby at their DIY venue the Chateau later that evening.

Nice ‘n’ Sleazy

This diner-style bar with a small basement venue downstairs is one of Glasgow’s most celebrated band hangouts. Around 20 years old, it’s played host to early shows by local heroes such as Mogwai and Arab Strap, and also contains possibly the finest alternative jukebox anywhere in the country.

Scotia Bar

Built in 1792 on Stockwell Street, the main route to and from the then-booming Clyde ferry terminals and towards the city, the Scotia is often claimed to be Glasgow’s oldest bar. Its connection to the city’s music scene emerged in 1862 when the now long-gone Scotia Music Hall opened next door, creating a unique atmosphere which would see sailors and variety performers mix at the bar.

Britannia Panopticon

Opened in 1857 as the Britannia Music Hall, a rough joint “where no turn was left unstoned” and the site of Stan Laurel’s stage debut aged 16. Became the Panopticon in 1907 when it was bought by wealthy Glasgow eccentric AE Pickard, who installed a carnival and a freakshow on the rooftop, a zoo in the basement and ensured every customer was handed a live rabbit on the door. The booming popularity of cinemas led to its closure in 1938, and it was used as a chicken farm during the Second World War. Now a museum and occasional concert venue once more.