'Barrowlands won't be allowed to die – we'll be back'
ON GIG nights the Barrowland Ballroom is a scorching mix of noise and sweat and up-close bodies. Plastic cups crunch underfoot. Stage lights illuminate outstretched arms. The famous sprung floor accommodates hundreds of jumping fans and the rhythmic thuds are heard and felt downstairs in the cloakroom.
From the stage, musicians can see the bar staff serving at the back of the hall. They can see the fans’ faces. It’s a two-way thing: the band gives, the audience gives and that alchemy produces historically awesome Barrowland nights.
Hyperbole is a given. Ask Jim Kerr, ask Stiff Little Fingers, ask Metallica. When it’s empty the Barrowland is cold, the lights are dimmed and the Canadian Maplewood dance floor squeaks when you tread on it.
There’s a soft quiet and you can hear each other speak. After a gig the last of the punters is ushered down the stairs by yellow-shirted security stewards, a team of cleaners works through the night on the floors and stairs and toilets. By morning the building smells of polish and bleach, and the maintenance men have arrived to fix things, check the stock and prepare for the next gig.
Due to Covid-19 this famous music venue, which sits above the equally famous Barras Market, and whose iconic sign lights up the Gallowgate in Glasgow’s East End, is closed indefinitely. The building has settled into a lull deeper than in the summer months when the venue is traditionally quiet because of the outdoor festivals. Manager Tom Joyes says the feeling amongst the industry is bleak.
“When we first needed to reschedule gigs it was like a moving target. We threw a dart. We picked August 1 onwards.
That seemed to be fine. Seems different now.” Those gigs have been postponed again to the spring and summer of 2021. But there is a far larger issue. “When we do get back the big problem will be social distancing,” says Tom. “Our capacity is two people per metre square, and more at the front part of the stage to make up the venue’s capacity of 1900.
It’s a total nightmare. Social distancing is not going to happen. We need the vaccine.”
While lockdown continues and until a vaccine is found or a way of filling the building at a social distance is configured, Barrowland staff are furloughed or working fewer hours. Many of its casual staff – cleaning staff and bar staff – who benefited from the Barrowland way of sharing out the hours and giving everyone a shot at a shift have not been eligible for furlough and are without their entire Barrowland incomes. Maggie McIver Limited, the company that owns the Ballroom and the Barras Market, pays the wages of over 50 people from nightwatchmen to cloakroom attendants to managers to bar staff, some on permanent full-time contracts, others on zero-hours contracts.
The Barrowlands and Barras is a big part of the East End economy. It hires companies who specialise in security or cleaning or loading bands’ equipment in and out of the building. It uses laundries (bands get through around 60 towels per gig) and buys beer and other drinks for the bars.
There are the promoters and tour managers and caterers and bus drivers who work on gig days. And then there are the market stallholders in the market below who trade in the foundations of the place. The closures are a monumental loss for this part of Glasgow – the multi-million Calton-Barras regeneration project, in which the Barrowland Ballroom and Barras Market is the heart – has recently won recognition by the Royal Town Planning Institute.
New streetscapes and lighting compliment the addition of bars and restaurants and smaller music venues. There is a push for new traders to join the stallholders, some of whose families have worked the weekend market for generations. Artists now trade next to antiques dealers and sweetie stallholders.
The area is an integral part of Glasgow’s social history. The Barrowland Ballroom was built in 1934 by market owner Maggie McIver as a venue for stallholders to hold their Christmas dances. Destroyed by a fire in 1958 it was rebuilt and reopened in 1959.
Many Glaswegians met their future husbands and wives here. It’s the venue synonymous with Bible John, a man who murdered three women after escorting them home from the Barrowland, a tragic blight on its history that eventually closed the building down. Shut for most of the seventies, it reopened as a roller disco and its renaissance began in 1983 after Simple Minds filmed their Waterfront video there and held a series of Christmas concerts.
Big Country followed. So, too, did The Clash, The Smiths, The Cure, Blondie, The Beastie Boys, Amy Winehouse. Pick a band or an artist.
They’ve played there. Or want to. Or wish they had.
Until recently, under the glitter ball and acoustic tiles, collectors of 100 Barrowland ticket stubs stood next to first-timers, excited to be in the venue in which their parents saw Paul Weller or their grandparents held hands.The Barrowland is famed for its down-to-earth atmosphere, its banter, its beer cups flung in the air and the declarations of love from its on-stage musicians. It is the Barrowland staff who make the atmosphere. Some have been working there for decades.
They’re loyal, they’re funny, they’re eccentric. They say they’re like one big family. For a period of two years I documented the Barrowland Ballroom on gig days and quiet days.
I interviewed staff during what turned out to be one of the building’s busiest periods in many years. Now, during its quietest I went back to my interviewees to find out how they and the Barrowland are coping with lockdown. The Manager
Furloughed, Tom Joyes is finding it hard not to be in his 1960s wood-panelled office with market traders and gig promoters coming through the door, the telephone ringing and the emails piling up. He’s used to being there on gig nights and market mornings. He has worked for Maggie McIver Limited since 1984 and is candid, business-minded and protective of the East End jewel he tends.
He has recently got to grips with Facebook and uses it to promote his new venture – Barrowland merchandise – T-shirts, calendars, hoodies. He knows his will be one of the last buildings to reopen. “But if any company’s got a chance of surviving in the East End it’s us,” he says. “We’ll survive. Absolutely.
I’m not in any doubt.” The Maintenance Man Cool and pragmatic, Michael Stepien mends floors, paints walls, changes barrels of beer in the pump room and squeezes small maintenance jobs into a busy schedule.
Michael has always liked his own company so he is coping well with life during lockdown. He works with a Joe Rogan podcast in his ear or heavy metal music on speaker, much to the annoyance of his Hank Williams-loving colleague, John. He misses the buzz of a concert and the contrast with the quiet of the day after. “Now it’s all quiet,” he says.
During lockdown he comes in every other day to answer the phones in the market office and keep an eye on the CCTV. Sometimes traders come to their units to package up stock or do maintenance. Sometimes a promoter or a punter calls about a postponed gig.
If a colleague is in the office he’ll go upstairs to the hushed ballroom and paint the staircases. “Usually you couldn’t do them with everybody coming and going,” he says. Or he’ll pack up Barrowland merchandise, wrapping T-shirts in customised tissue paper to be sent to addresses in Scotland, the UK and beyond. On gig nights he stays to work in the bar in the main ballroom, Now he’s lost this income and is living indefinitely on his maintenance wage. “At the moment I can cover things,” he says. “Heating and council tax and rent and I have money left over.” His family lives in Poland. “Every other day somebody calls for a chat,” he says. ‘I’ve done a couple of online quizzes.
On my own, I’m fine.” The Bar Manager John Swift’s current problem is how to remove 80 full kegs of beer from the building and get them on to a Tennent’s truck.
The brewery has agreed to refund the Barrowland for beer that will go out of date. Usually kegs go up on a hoist – there is no lift. They’ve never done it in reverse.
John is used to working in the ballroom when there’s nobody there. The dimly-lit rooms and quiet corridors are familiar to him. He plays Hank Williams while he works.
He’s painting now – he’s done the ladies toilets and the gloss on the skirting boards in the area known as The Crush. “Oh aye, I’m missing the gigs,” he says. He loves the build up: the load in at 8am, the technicians and promoters and caterers buzzing about the place in the hours before the band comes on. He loves the way the building seems to ‘come alive’ and he feels a melancholy the day after when it’s all over.
On gig nights he manages the Review Bar, the smaller bar downstairs. And although he’s retained his salary for his day job, the lack of overtime in the bar is a financial hit. Before the lockdown, gigs were coming in regularly.
At one point the diary was so full he said to his wife, “We’re never going to get a break.” He laughs. “Careful what you wish for.” The Cleaning Supervisor “I’m going to take all the positives from this,” Monika says. “We’re decorating, we’re having barbeques, we’re going for walks, I’m home-schooling my kids.”
On Barrowland gig nights she works as a toilet attendant and general cleaner, mopping up spillages around the building and chatting to customers. She’s gregarious and kind. Sometimes women try to give her a tip. “Oh come on, take it, you’ve got a hard job!” And I’m like, “No, I’m fine, I love my job!”‘ She’s a meticulous cleaner – her before and after pictures of the Barrowland will testify to this – the rugs in the dressing room, the floor tiles in the Review Bar.
And she’s a hard-working supervisor, motivating a team of seven to clean through the night after the gigs finish at 11pm, bringing in home-baking for them to eat on their break, taking pride in their work. She and her husband are getting by. “We learn to save money on food and gas and electricity.” Her toilet attendant work falls under the Barrowland’s casual staff category, the same as the bar staff, and for this she hasn’t been furloughed. “But I have no hard feelings,” she says. “I will go back because I enjoy working there. Barrowland is my life.
It’s my favourite place to work.” The Security Stewards Ellen McWilliams and William Thomson are partners.
Employed by Rock Steady Security they have specific stewarding roles. Depending on the band and the crowd there can be up to 40 stewards in the Barrowland. Some work in the pit and pass sweets and water to fans at the barrier, some guard the dressing room or take tickets or help disabled fans onto the accessible platform at the back of the hall.
William does the door searches and looks after the smoking area outside. He’s courteous, professional, enjoys his work. Ellen manages the queue in the Review Bar.
It’s she who will point you with a smile towards John the bar manager or one of his colleagues. It’s a civilised system; less of the scrum you get upstairs. “It’s my little place,” Ellen says of her spot at the top of the queue. “I get to know most of the fans.” Both are furloughed by Rock Steady.
They work elsewhere but: “I love the Barrowland,” says William. “It’s the people that work in it, the bar staff, our staff, the managers. It’s like one big family.” Ellen loves the idea of working at gigs that will be talked of years later. “I just hope that the virus has gone totally before we open,” she says. “It’s high risk for all those people to be together.” The Crew Boss
The Glasgow Crew, the men who load bands’ equipment up and down the Barrowland stairs, are known colloquially as humphers. They’re revered and their repute goes far beyond the city: strong, hardworking, speedy and obliging. The Barrowland is a tough gig.
No lifts, just a hoist and two flights of stairs up which to humph everything needed for the gig. Billy Coyle is the crew boss and he would have been redeployed during lockdown, like his colleagues, to work at the Louisa Jordan temporary hospital. But he caught the coronavirus and spent six days in hospital on oxygen. “It’s as if everything inside you is falling apart,” he says of the virus. “Your muscles are tearing.
It was like black and red fighting each other.” Doctors feared he would deteriorate and asked him to write down instructions for his affairs if he died. Thankfully he survived and is recuperating. “My employers have been very gracious. I’m still being paid, not as much as I was, but as much as they can afford.” He says that his financial stability due to being furloughed helped when he caught the virus. “I was secure.
I wasn’t in a bad place.” A volunteer crew man for Simple Minds’ Waterfront video at the Barrowland 37 years ago, Billy will work for free at Del Amitri’s Barrowland gigs for NHS staff in December. “How could I not?” he says, referring to his time in the care of the NHS, being looked after by doctors and nurses working on the frontline of the disease that nearly killed him. As for the Barrowland Ballroom and the Barras market, they simply have to come back, he says. “Barrowland is luckier than most.
It’s got a good strong team behind it. Fans will flock back. The groundwork they’ve done reinventing the place – the structure is there.
It’s not going to die. It won’t be allowed to die.” See www.barrowlandballads.co.uk to buy a copy of Barrowland Ballads.
It’s a limited edition hardback book with wraparound poster as dust cover for GBP32.99 plus postage.