Neil Sowerby tours a Scottish music city to rival his home
Glasgow is a more exciting musical city than Manchester. Who would have thought it?
Certainly, a weekend away exploring its diverse rock and pop heritage is a rewarding antidote to all my Factory Records/Hacienda fatigue. To cap it all, it even lays claim to the discovery, nigh on 30 years ago, of the last all-conquering Manc band.
We attempted a rudimentary tootle on a chanter and neither my puff nor my fingers were up to it
As we stand on the cramped stage of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut it’s hard to credit it was May 30, 1993, that Creation Records svengali Alan McGee, two songs into a four-strong set, made his Damascene decision to snap up the on-stage Oasis.
Noel, Liam and Co had hitched a ride up with another band already booked there and had to beg to play. No fee, just a few beers and a sparse Sunday crowd to provide a smattering of applause for the likes of Up In The Sky. Three years later they were playing Knebworth, to 250,000 fans over two nights.
A King Tut’s experience is on a different scale, just a 300 capacity venue attached to a public bar. Emerging from prolonged lockdown, it is still the place to audition for acclaim. Not always overnight, like Oasis. Kilmarnock’s finest, Biffy Clyro, played it six times en route to big stadiums.
Glasgow's music culture tours
This and much more we learn from Fiona Shepherd, pop critic of The Scotsman for three decades. She channels the music culture in which she is steeped into a couple of public toursthat she co-runs. Ours, the "Musical Mile" is centred on the city centre, culminating in King Tut’s.
The other, "Merchant City", leans towards the East End and takes in Glasgow’s other world-famous venue, the Barrowland Ballroom. Later that day we tasted some amazing cocktails at The Gate bar opposite, hoping to look across at its legendary technicolour dazzle, but in the absence of a gig, the lights were out. The perennial affection in which it is held was obvious when our taxi driver told us his grandparents had met there.
Half a mile away is the equally revered Britannia Panopticon, arguably the world’s oldest surviving music hall, where Stan Laurel made his stage debut. It was converted from a warehouse in 1857 and the recently restored 1920s stage still hosts a variety of events (check for reopening times). Many other once-essential destinations on the tours are now just shells or memories.
It was the creative surge in popular music from the early Eighties onwards and the current venue vitality we were in town to discover. Our previous Glasgow visits had focused on the equally vibrant food scene, especially around Finnieston, and inevitably the design legacy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
A catastrophic second fire in four years has left the Mackintosh art nouveau epicentre at Glasgow Art School, swathed in tarpaulins. A further four years of restoration on, its estimated reopening is between 2027 and 2032. No such positive ending awaits the 02 ABC music venue below on Sauchiehall Street, where the 2018 blaze spread.
Expect the demolition of a historic building that has previously been home to a diorama, ice rink and circus. In 2006, it hosted only the second Raconteurs concert with prime mover Jack White sporting a newly bought kilt in homage to his Scots roots (his real name is John Anthony Gillis). Bob Dylan, a few years later, purchased a set of bagpipes, yet to feature in his Never Ending Tour.
These are merely rock icons passing though. The local nitty-gritty is personified further west along Sauchiehall Street by The Garage at 490 and Nice N Sleazy across the road at 421, the first is Scotland’s largest nightclub (you can’t miss it – a giant yellow truck erupts from its facade; the second not as scuzzy as its name suggests but an in-your-face bar leading down to a tight performance space that has hosted Snow Patrol, Mogwai and The Vaselines, rated by Kurt Cobain as his favourite songwriters.
A personal choice of watering hole, I’d recommend The State Bar around the corner in Holland Street with its glorious Victorian interior, cask ales and Glasgow’s longest-running blues jam. A favourite Art School haunt apparently.
Art and music heritage in Glasgow
The Art School’s own Union was itself a launchpad for seminal Glasgow bands Teenage Fan Club, Belle & Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand. All are still going strong. The first two, loyal to their Scottish roots, are headlining the Doune The Rabbit Hole Festival in Stirlingshire this summer, while FF are touring a Greatest Hits album. Doubtless Take Me Out will be the big encore.
In 2008, Glasgow was named the UK’s only Unesco City of Music (before Liverpool), testimony to the eclectic roster of bands that have called it home – from arty Aztec Camera and Edwyn Collins’ Orange Juice through to Simple Minds, Deacon Blue, Del Amitri, Texas, Primal Scream, The Blue Nile, The Fratellis and so many more.
Not all from Glasgow, often from its satellite towns attracted by the bright lights, the bars and gigs, maybe even sex and drugs, and, of course, the presence of so many record stores (Fopp started here) that were cross-fertilising meeting places.
Testimony to the latter can be found at the Riverside Museum, Zaha Hadid’s epic architectural homage to the city’s shipbuilding past. Primarily a transport museum inside, with huge interactivity for families, the building also hosts a new exhibition, Spinning Around: Glasgow’s Remarkable Record Shops. In a mock-up site, previously the museum’s recreation of a 1950s pawn shop, it celebrates the 100 similar shops that existed in Greater Glasgow from the 1980s to the mid-1990s. Packed with posters, fan mags and much vintage vinyl, it must be a place of intense nostalgia for folk of that era, some of whom have contributed paraphernalia.
I was fascinated by the presence of (to me) lesser lights: Strawberry Switchblade.
The Pastels and The Bluebells, whose members opened the exhibition this March. They had a catchy UK number one hit back in 1993 with a reissued Young at Heart and, yes, it is on Spinning Around’s six-hour playlist. The YouTube video shows a very different monochrome Glasgow.
One treasured, and slightly macabre, contribution is a classic 1956 Lambretta scooter, bought by Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos with his first record deal advance in the Nineties. While on tour in Hong Kong he was told by a fortune-teller he would crash and die on a motorbike, hence the fingers-crossed handover.
And don't forget the bagpipes
Changing tack, Unesco, I hope, took note of a musical strand diametrically opposed yet strangely in harmony with all those band start-ups. Bagpipes seem more Highland Games or Edinburgh Military Tattoo, yet the National Piping Centre is in the centre of Glasgow, opposite the Theatre Royal, home of Scottish Opera. To cater for the abundance of visitors, many from overseas, the school hosts the Piper’s Tryst, an eight-bedroom hotel and restaurant with tartan bedspreads and haggis and neeps on the menu.
As well as a fascinating museum tracing the evolution of pipes both in Scotland and across the globe the Centre offers bagpipe lessons to an advanced level. At the end of our show-round, we attempted a rudimentary tootle on a chanter and neither my puff nor my fingers were up to it. Our charmingly modest guide Sean Curran showed us how it was done with a storming full bagpipe flourish. I wonder how far Bob Dylan got?
It’s not just King Tut and Barrowlands. Here are three other splendid music venues we visited:
Gateway to the West End, this converted Romanesque-Gothic church covers many bases – restaurants, a whisky bar, a gig space in the crypt that justifies the Gaelic name meaning ‘Great Melody of Life’. Amy Winehouse and The Proclaimers have played here. Crowning glory is the work of writer and artist Alasdair Gray. OK, I’ve never been able to finish his landmark debut novel Lanark, but I’ll concede greatness to his celestial ceiling mural in the Òran Mór auditorium.
Don’t miss, too, the Byres Road entrance vestibule where "welcome" in various languages is etched into white tiles and lions blow bagpipes.
St Lukes & The Winged Ox
Another church conversion, just down Gallowgate from Barrowlands. Hence "soul food" puns across the bar/kitchen. Last Supper anyone? Dog and child friendly, it hosts a variety of art and comedy events in a lovely space still dominated by the church organ, but I was taken by the quirky advance music list. Inside one April week Sea Power (the artists formerly known as British), Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5’s Spring Bonanza and Merrill Osmond.
Housed in a Rennie Mackintosh building once home to The Daily Record in a lane near Glasgow Central Station, this bar combines a vegan kitchen with a basement live music space. Pair a Queer Brewing Fight Like Hell DIPA with a gojuchang and togarashi burger or banana blossom tacos before taking in a gig from Fucked Up or Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard.
Under the same ownership, big brother Mono Cafe Bar half a mile way also offers vegan food but the music line-up is more established leftfield. The likes of Robyn Hitchcock and Kristin Hersch are playing this spring.
And if you want a current record shop fix head for Mixed Up Records on Otago Lane in the West End, 10 minutes walk from Òran Mór. All genres are covered, new and second hand. We loved The Strip Joint on the edge of trendy Finnieston. Spoiler: no clothing is removed in this industrial-chic beer and pizza bar that offers racks and racks of classic vinyl.
Even music fans have to eat. A few Glasgow recommendations
My, it’s over five years since I clued in Confidential readers with my 10 Glasgow Food Faves.
The Gannet remains my favourite and I’ve since enjoyed the piscine pleasures of its Argyle street neighbour, Crabshakk. Both are pioneers of the Finnieston area’s rise as a hip foodie destination. The eponymous The Finnieston Bar & Restaurant is no slouch either with sustainably sourced Scottish seafood as our oysters and langoustines testified.
Snuggling next door to its Finnieston Bar stablemate, Porter and Rye is an atmospheric haunt that sources dry-aged prime beef and wild food. And mixes a mean cocktail.
Situated on the main drag of Hope Street opposite the Theatre Royal, Ardnamurchan was our lunch spot after the pipes, the pipes were calling. The menu is inspired by the West Coast peninsula of the same name. Venison stew and seafood in a relaxed atmosphere.
Glaschu Restaurant & Bar takes its name from the Gaelic word for Glasgow, meaning "dear green place". It couldn’t be more central, just around the corner from the famous equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington outside the Gallery of Modern Art. Perennially topped with a red traffic cone, it now sports one crocheted with the blue and yellow of Ukraine. In honour of the Duke we’d recommend Glaschu’s sharing Beef Wellington with salt-baked heritage potatoes and horseradish.
Neil travelled by rail to Glasgow with Avanti West Coast. The First Class service was exceptional with table service of excellent food and a tipple bonus of Macclesfield's finest – Forest Gin.
He stayed at the Radisson RED, 25 Tunnel Street, Finnieston Quay, G3 8HL.
For music lovers, it’s a three-minute walk to the 12,000 capacity OVO Hydro, Scotland’s largest entertainment venue. Good to see two of Glasgow’s best-known bands, Simple Minds and Deacon Blue, rounding off current tours with homecoming gigs here. The colourful hotel itself hosts live music and DJ sets, while the rooftop Red Sky Bar offers panoramic views of the River Clyde plus signature cocktails such as the Glas-vegas Fizz.
For full tourism information on the city visit People Make Glasgow.
Saturday afternoon Glasgow Music City Tours last two hours and cost from £18 a head. Once a month there’s also a Scottish Trad Trail Tour, Dinner and Folk Music for £42.
Follow Neil Sowerby's adventures in food and travel on Twitter @antonegomanc
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