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Stories from the Ballroom: Dancing Fools by Alison Irvine

Ahead of the publication of the limited edition book Barrowland Ballads in March 2019, we have a wonderful guest blog from Alison Irvine accompanied by photographs by Chris Leslie and drawings by Mitch Miller, together they are the award-winning artists Recollective.

Photograph by Chris Leslie

Dancing Fools by Alison Irvine

On my first visit to the Barrowland Ballroom I went in the huff with my husband because during the gig he told me to ‘Go and dance with all the other fools’. I know exactly where on the dancefloor we were standing and I remember what song the band was playing. I also know that my huff lasted several hours.

Our music taste is different. Mine is a mix of the high and the lowbrow (mostly the low), his is most definitely the high. Fine. Opposites attract. It takes all sorts.

But I told him he was being cynical and condescending. In his defence he told me that ‘dancing fools’ was a well-known idea, and that, anyway, he was being Glaswegian: he didn’t mean ‘fools’ as in ‘idiots’, he meant fools as in ‘people’: much the same way as ‘c**ts’ doesn’t mean ‘c**ts’ it means ‘people’. Oh. OK. ‘Go and dance with all the other c**ts,’ he could have said.

I was new to Glasgow (and to him) so was in no way impressed with his explanation and huffed all the way down the Gallowgate to Central Station and on to home. I get what he claims he meant now, having read a bit of Kelman and listened to – well, anyone from Glasgow really. However, my first memory of the Barrowland Ballroom is of going in the huff and being pissed off with my husband.

I’ve got to my point. Glaswegian-Essex relations aside, we’ve all got a story about the Barrowland Ballroom. I’ve got many more now. And I’ll make this bold claim: anyone who has ever been to the Barrowlands has lasting, powerful, potent memories of the place.

My Recollective colleagues Mitch and Chris have their own memories: Mitch sat in the green room, all young and green himself, while his pal who played bass in Idlewild prepared for his band’s very first gig. Chris was utterly unprepared for the psychobilly battering he got in the midst of a Barrowland Cramps crowd.


Drawing by Mitch Miller

We carry these Barrowland memories with a kind of pride. I wonder what it is about the Barrowland that lifts our memories and gives them such exalted status, high as the glitterballs that revolve in its star-spangled ceiling. Is it that its reputation precedes it? The sheer longevity of the building with its history of McIvers, market traders, Billy McGregor and the Gaybirds, rock’n’roll, Simple Minds and all the beloved rest of it? So when we go ourselves we know we’re in a building full of history, where history is made and will be made – and to it we add our own precious wee histories?

I don’t know. What I do know is that when we did our tours of the Barrowland Ballroom as part of Glasgow 2018 back in August, as well as learning about the original fixtures and fittings, the tales of musicians stealing stars and the stories of bands (high and lowbrow) who’ve played there, each person who came also came with their own stories and were eager to share them.

Drawing by Mitch Miller

One woman pointed to a spot on the dancefloor near to where the main bar is now. ‘That’s where I was proposed to, just there,’ she told her husband. Her husband was not the proposer; not that time anyway. So there is where she turned the proposal down, presumably, that spot on the Canadian Oak sprung floor, which, in the 1980s after exuberant concert crowds bounced up and down on it, had to be supported by £250 thousand pounds worth of steel trusses. That floor where further towards the stage another woman remembered catching a cup thrown into the crowd by Curiosity Killed the Cat’s lead singer, Ben, and where a man and a woman looked up at Iggy Pop’s glistening naked torso.

Photograph by Chris Leslie

It was strange for our tour guests to even hear their own footsteps as they walked on the dancefloor or feel cool air instead of the heat of a thousand bodies. It was strange for them to speak their stories in soft voices and yet be heard. The Barrowland is a different place when there isn’t a gig on. The staff remark on it and await the next gig with something like hope. Some of them do anyway. Others are more pragmatic.

Photograph by Chris Leslie

But it’s true that the building has an almost downcast feel to it when it’s empty, and from the dim half-light of the ballroom more stories poured.

‘When they came on stage they unleashed the strobe lights and I thought I’d been transported to a different world!’ said one tour guest of her first gig in 1993; Sepultura Chaos AD.

One man remembered falling into a drunken sleep in the toilets and being woken by a cleaner when the gig was over. It was the third of four gigs by Faith No More and he had a ticket to every one.

One woman remembered being caught in the ‘dreaded sway’ as the audience moved en-masse from side to side. She was pulled out by the St. Andrew’s Ambulance men and recalls the crowd parting to let her stagger out, on the verge of fainting.

Another woman talked about her dancing competition days, another spoke fondly of the rollerskating discos.

One man was in the crowd in the early days of the Simple Minds concerts. Another man wearing a Ramones T-shirt showed us ticket stubs and set lists. One woman’s best memory was simply – Amy Winehouse.

Our tour guide, Gareth Fraser, with a photographic memory and a deep and passionate knowledge of the Barrowland Ballroom, took us into the band dressing room and we stood where Bowie and all the other greats have stood. He showed us the support band’s dressing room with the strangest shower cubicle any of us had ever seen. He told us how bands love the famous Glasgow crew and the warm welcome from the Barrowland staff. We sat in the booths in Barrowland 2, formerly Geordie’s Byre, a haven for women in the 1960s escaping the attentions of unwanted dance partners. We peeked inside the ladies and gents toilets.

Gareth told us the building’s own story; how Maggie McIver built the ballroom as a venue for the Barras traders’ Christmas dance. When it burnt down after her death the McIvers built it again, of course, as she’d have wanted. And nothing has changed. Things have been added – the Biffy Clyro lyrics on the stairs, for example, and the floor covering – a replica of the iconic Barrowland sign – in the main ballroom just before the step down to the wooden floor. But it is as it always was, and that was a strange comfort for many of our guests.

It’s inconceivable to imagine Glasgow without the Barrowland Ballroom. It’s such a huge part of many people’s lives. That’s one of the reasons Recollective is doing this project: we’re photographing and sketching and noting all the Barrowland ballads we can find from old memories to new memories to the day-to-day stories of how the building is run. They’re important and precious.

During the tour, Gareth told us how bands and singers mean every word of the cry that Barrowland audiences love to hear: ‘Barrowland, you’re the best venue in the world!’ That crackle that can happen between audience and band, that alchemy, that’s what makes the venue famous, above all. Bands talk about seeing the whites of their fans’ eyes. Audiences talk about seeing a wash of euphoria – glory, even – come over the musicians when they look out at an appreciative Barrowland crowd.

Photograph by Chris Leslie

Perhaps that connection between band and audience is at its most potent in the Barrowland, above any other venue. That must be it. That magic, that chemistry between audience and musicians is at its zenith at the Barrowland Ballroom. And when it’s like that we forget everything other than that shared moment. It’s good to forget ourselves once in a while without forgetting the experience, ever.

So here’s to our Barrowland stories. Even if we woke up drunk with a sore head in the toilets, if we were bashed and battered at a Cramps gig, if we nearly fainted and had to be pulled from the crowd by St. Andrew’s first-aiders, if our husband called us a fool for jumping around with other fools.

Keep dancing, fools, I say.

Barrowland Ballads is a Recollective project supported by Creative Scotland, Glasgow 2018 and Glasgow City Heritage Fund. We welcome your stories, memories and thoughts on the Barrowland Ballroom. For details of how to share your story and how to pre-order the limited edition book please follow this link: