The Glasgow Crew
A Barrowland load in is easier now than it used to be because there is a hoist which can take the heaviest loads. Before the hoist, everything went up the front stairs, and in those pre digital days there was more kit, there being more cable, and the amps were bigger too. Still, the men in the Glasgow crew are strong and hardworking, there is no doubt – some lean, some with portly bellies, some extravagantly bearded, some shaven or behatted, bareheaded, pierced, tattooed and one in possession of a melodious singing voice that echoes brightly up the stairwell. ‘That’s Jaz. He’s the true talent here,’ one of the men says and introduces him to me as the ‘Singing Soprano’.
This is how it goes: two men and the lorry driver – Arthur, who cannot believe the cold morning – unload the gear from the back of the lorry, its doors thrown wide to the Glasgow weather. They carry it down a ramp and into the bottom of the stairwell. Then teams of two men take it up to the next landing and another team of two pick it up from there and lift it into the ballroom. They are careful with the way they lift, almost always working as a pair, standing either side of a silver box, grabbing the handles and walking it up the left-hand side of the stairs, putting it down for the next two men to pick up and returning down the right-hand side of the stairs, a little puffed out at the start of the shift and then actual puffing or sweating by the end. ‘There’s no such thing as heavy,’ one man says, ‘only some are lighter than others.’ His partner quips: ‘But that was fucking heavy.’ Their feet are quick, the load is balanced, they speak little except to answer my questions: What’s that you’re carrying? ‘A lighting truss’. (One man has it up on his shoulders and the other man holds the bottom end like a ladder.) What’s that? ‘A base plate.’ It’s a flat sheet of metal on wheels with weights attached. ‘To weigh down the lights,’ someone tells me. What’s that? ‘A pile of shite. Just write that down for everything,’ Ally says and smiles. He’s on his way down, droplets of sweat on his forehead. Later, I see him carrying several loads with an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
I can see the grit and effort and sweat but it looks effortless this choreography of stooping, stepping, lifting and setting down, of climbing one way and turning to descend the other way, all to the accompaniment of Jaz’s singing or a shout from below or a cough or a poke of banter.
John – Bar Manager and Former Nightwatchman
John and Michael work together during the day and run the bars at night and if ever there were two mismatched work colleagues it is them.
By day, John wears a T-shirt and jeans and stock-checks the Barrowland bars, fixes broken toilet seats, replaces light bulbs, patches up peeling paintwork and supervises deliveries of beer, loading kegs on to a swinging hoist and rolling them into the pump room. By night he wears a freshly ironed shirt and smells of soap and shaving cream and runs the Revue Bar, formerly known as Geordie’s Byre where women used to come to avoid men they no longer wanted to dance with and Calton Tong gang members hung about.
Michael has a luxuriously full and long brown beard, brown eyes and a sincere and serious stare. He likes to make mental notes of maintenance jobs that need doing, assessing how long they will take – minutes, hours, days – and planning when he will be able to do them. His first priority is work for Tom, the general manager, then it’s John and then he chooses his own work, organising tasks for days when the building is empty and not bustling with people preparing for a gig.
Music is the issue. For men who work in one of the most famous venues in the world, neither is particularly interested in music. For John it has to be Hank Williams every time. For Michael, it’s heavy metal blasted at high volume or sometimes not even music – a Joe Rogan podcast instead. Michael can’t stand Hank Williams and John can’t stand heavy metal so they have a ban on listening to any music when they are working together. They share a keenness for an after-work pint in the Chrystal Bell on the Gallowgate. They play darts which John is good at. Pool? ‘He’s too good. And competitive. I don’t play pool,’ says Michael. They both have an effective ability to give and take a joke which seems an essential quality for working at the Barrowland.
Pammy and Sharon at Barraloadasoul
Upstairs in the main hall you won’t find the Barrowland of hot jumping bodies, all eyes on the stage where euphoric musicians raise their beating hearts towards the crowd. Today there are tables and chairs around the edges of the dance floor, stalls of clothes, records, photographs and paintings for sale. The main bar is open but there is no gig night rammy. The dance floor is the main attraction, all honeyed wood and violet and red spots of light. Dancers slide and scoop and turn, their feet agile, their arms expressive, their faces tilted upwards. There is ample space to dance for these movers in wide trousers and vest tops or short dresses or button-up tops. And they’re good movers too. On stage a DJ wears headphones, her image displayed on two screens either side of her decks. The music isn’t live but it’s loud and juicy and plump, filling up this hot and handsome hall. This is Barraloadasoul, a Northern Soul and sixties R&B event, one of many events the Barrowland Ballroom hosts as well as its traditional music gigs.
Pammy and Sharon are the shiny-haired women who bantered with Tam at his burger bar. They have been coming to the Barrowland since teenagers and are mothers of grown-up children now. They can tell you about the Barrowland Ballroom of the eighties, they can tell you how the Barrowland absolutely and definitively altered their lives and influenced who they are and what they do today.
‘My first ever gig was Madness,’ Pammy says. She and Sharon cool themselves with the flyers scattered on the table top. ‘I’ve got a memory of getting wraparound sunglasses and standing with them on, thinking I was dead cool. And this big boy just came and grabbed them off my face and stole them.’ She laughs and her smile is wide and red. Sharon is wearing a mini dress and flats. When she dances she looks like an eighteen year-old and when she’s reminiscing she’s remembering her eighteen year old self. ‘My mum went to the Barrowlands when it was the dancing in the sixties. And then me, coming from Paisley, it was like “Oh! I’m going up to the big city to the Barrowlands.” And the getting there and the queue and the first time walking in it. I remember thinking “Oh, it’s enormous!”’ She takes a sip of her drink and returns to the dance floor.
‘I always thought I was going to hook up with whoever was in the bands I was going to see even if I was fourteen,’ says Pammy. ‘I thought they were going to fall in love with me. I had read Smash Hits. All their favourite colours. What their dog’s name was. What their first girlfriend’s name was. What their star sign was. I was all set up for starting a conversation. Never happened.’
She cools herself with her makeshift fan and says, ‘There’s nothing better than Sharon dancing.’ Sharon flicks her hair behind her shoulders as she dances, her flat shoes pivoting on the dance floor, her arms drifting behind her body, then in front of her body, and she turns slowly to the DJ’s music. She joins us, takes another sip of her Irn Bru, and says: ‘It’s one place in my head I can go. Everything just shuts out and all I can hear is the music. It’s like floating.’
Dogtooth – Local Band
‘I don’t know if we should be telling you this,’ says Boab, ‘but we stole stars.’
You stole stars?
‘Do you want one?’ they ask me.
I do. I really do. Are you OK with me putting this in the book, I ask.
‘It’s OK. Aye, put it in the book,’ John says.
‘I’ve got two,’ Craig says. ‘One for each time I’ve played here.’
‘If I get lifted for it, I’ll blame you,’ says John.
I’m so tempted. How did you do it? I ask.
‘You climb on a seat,’ John says, as if it’s the simplest thing in the world.
Iain Harvie from Del Amitri
Iain will soon ask Lisa, Del Amitri’s caterer, to plait his hair; a neat French plait that will hang long down his back. Now he’s eating Lisa’s fruit salad in the band room while his fellow musicians rest on the sofas or cut about the room looking for places to put their energy. His son Louis sits on one of the sofas and is updating the band’s Instagram feed. Louis raves about Lisa’s food. She makes delicious steak and kidney pies and Teriyaki salmon and banoffee pie and there is water and cans of drink that you can help yourself to. Louis has been to Del Amitri gigs before but never in the Barrowland Ballroom. Where will you watch the gig? I ask and he mentions a spot at the back on the accessible platform. He’ll see everything from there. ‘There’s no mosh pits or anything,’ he says of the band’s older audience. ‘But it’s good fun and they’re all enjoying it.’
Iain tells me that this is the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth time they’ve played the Barrowland. He came as a teenager to see Iggy Pop, Madness and Black Crows. ‘It never crossed my mind that we would play here,’ he says. ‘It was people like Iggy Pop and Echo and the Bunnymen who played here, not people like me.’ Were you nervous? I ask. ‘I remember standing at the side of the stage waiting to go on and the noise was deafening. As soon as we started up they all just went mental. So in a sense, what was there to be nervous about?’
He says he can see everything from the stage including the Barrowland bar. He can see the enjoyment on people’s faces and insists that the Barrowland audience knows it can make a gig special. They have some kind of power in there which infects the band and then the magic happens. ‘There’s a sense of community in there when people play because everybody’s in the same room,’ he says.
It could be easy for him to lose concentration, taking on too much of the crowd’s reverie, getting carried away – because ‘a lot of it is muscle memory. You’ve played it a thousand times then suddenly you’re like that: “Oh! What happens next?”’ He has to retain some kind of focus without getting distracted if something goes wrong. An altered state, he calls it. I ask him what might go wrong and he tells me that he recently misread the set list, counted in the song and began to play the wrong one – ‘Oh Bollocks!’ A quick double check of the set list, a listen to the drummer’s beat, and he was back on track, but: ‘You’ve got to not get freaked out’ because you’re playing live and you can’t stop.
When it’s right, it’s obvious. ‘Sometimes it just feels right you know, between musicians. You just know that it’s all fitting together.’ He talks about the crowd again and the passion and energy they can push towards the band. ‘Justin loves being here,’ he says of Del Amitri’s singer. ‘He’ll probably be more relaxed up there than he’s been at any of the shows we’ve done so far. I hope I’m not tempting fate there . . .’ We look around for some wood to touch and find it all over the band room; on the dressing-table tops and the wood panelling around the mirrors of this glamorous, snug and sultry room.
Monika, Toilet Attendant and Cleaning Supervisor
Are the punters nice to you? I ask and Monika assures me that they are. Women try to give her money which she doesn’t accept. ‘“Oh come on, take it, you’ve got a hard job!” And I’m like, “No, I’m fine, I love my job!”’ She laughs. I feel I’m keeping her from her job tonight, but it’s a quiet night and there have been no calls over her radio to attend to spillages and the toilets are peaceful.
Monika has an affection for the ladies who come into her toilets. When one woman walked out without realising that her skirt had fallen off, Monika chased after her and helped her put it back on. ‘Some of them I think: “Where’s your clothes? You must be freezing!” Sometimes she thinks how lovely a woman looks, how beautifully she is dressed. ‘Sometimes they’re just pure fun and they want to cuddle you.’ Have you ever had men coming into the toilets? I ask? ‘No, never,’ she says. But sometimes the women go into the men’s toilets to pee when the queue is too long.