"People here take their music seriously," says DJ and promoter Alan Miller, AKA Hushpuppy, a fixture on the Glasgow scene of more than 20 years and the co-founder of the Record Playerz parties, which until recently kicked off each Glasgow weekend on Thursday nights at the Glasgow School of Art. "As with so many areas of Glasgow's creative communities—art, music, performance—the city's clubbing scene is filled with over-achievers, far more of them than the size of the city should really be able to support."
With just 600,000 inhabitants Glasgow is home to roughly the same number of people as the modest likes of Poznan, Genoa and Essen. Yet it has punched well above its weight in spawning such world-renowned clubbing names as Optimo, Numbers, Slam and LuckyMe. The oft-noted intensity of Glasgow crowds—key to all of these clubbing success stories and many more besides—is fostered in part by licensing laws that require clubs to shut, almost without exception, at 3 AM, creating both a sense of urgency inside clubs and a famously debauched and crowded afterparty scene, with 24 to 48 hour parties commonly following four hour club nights. Exiles such as Huntleys & Palmers Audio Club's Andrew Thomson, now living in London, and Ciorsdan Brown, AKA LuckyMe's Nadsroic, who is just back from a three-year stint in Japan, eulogise this intensity, with Thomson calling the afterparties "vitally important in forging friendships and forming creative collaborations" and Brown saying she missed, from her home in a sedate corner of rural Japan, "the bonding that happens in a Glasgow crowd when they hear an amazing tune. Everyone just goes nuts."
In truth though, you join us at a rather strange and challenging time for clubbing in Glasgow. For the past decade at least there has been a significant gap between the number of clubbing options typically available and the number of people to go around. Though the inevitable Darwinist effects have undoubtedly helped keep standards high, the difficulty of attracting a reasonable crowd has been brought into sharper relief lately by a cocktail of economic hardship, shifting tastes among 18 to 20-something year-olds, the end of a couple of key nights and saturation of Friday and Saturday clubbing options. A feeling of sameness and relative creative malaise has resulted. It is how these problems are dealt with—and who rises above the mediocre mass to drive things forward—that will define the Glasgow clubbing experience in the coming years.
More on this later, but first a quick bit of history. Clubbing in Glasgow in its recognisable modern form began to happen in the mid-'80s, but took some years to find the egalitarian, non-elitist, genre-melding character that defines the city's better nights today. The Sub Club, still the first port of call in any serious consideration of the Glasgow scene, celebrates its 25th birthday this year, but was a very different place in its early years, as Alan Miller outlines: "The Sub Club was very yuppie-ish in the 1980s," he says. "It was still a cool place, but it was very styley—it was somewhere you went if you had money. Most students and irregularly employed or unemployed people couldn't afford to go, or would have to save up to have a night out there." The city's other clubs and club nights around that time were rigidly defined, Miller recalls: "indie nights were separate, goth nights were separate, and so on, and dance music could only really be found at the Sub Club." As time went on a smattering of other clubs opened up—46 West, Tin Pan Alley, Radio City, the Cotton Club, all of them now long-defunct—"but people went there more because it was something to do, rather than to hear specific DJs or specific music."
Keith McIvor, AKA JD Twitch, co-founder (with Jonnie Wilkes) of Optimo and another long-term Glasgow clubbing presence, takes up the story: "Glasgow clubbing in the late '80s and very early '90s was actually pretty dire. Initially the clubs shied away from playing the new strains of dance music—Detroit techno, Belgian or UK rave, acid house—and the clubs that did embrace some of this music still had a hangover from the '80s, with strict dress codes, elitist door policies and a fairly lightweight music policy. Records such as Joey Beltram's 'Energy Flash' would sell several thousand copies in the 23rd Precinct record store alone, but nowhere apart from Tin Pan Alley was playing anything but the big hits. Instead, people would leave Glasgow and go to clubs in Ayr and Saltcoats to hear that stuff, and we'd take coachloads of people through to Edinburgh for Pure [Twitch and his collaborator Brainstorm's legendary, ground-breaking techno night] every week."
The details of these rather shaky beginnings, and the burst of DIY activity that was triggered as a reaction, during which, says Twitch, "illegal raves were held everywhere you can possibly imagine—on farms, in forests, in warehouses, in tunnels and in quarries," are only patchily recorded save for the oral testimony of people who were there at the time. To anyone who has arrived in the city in the past decade or so, the idea of having to travel to a small town in Ayrshire to hear Detroit techno, or of 4000 ravers going wild in a disused restaurant in the city centre without attracting police attention, will seem outlandish. But these events lie immediately adjacent on the timeline to clubbing's entrance to the UK's cultural mainstream in the mid- and late '90s, during which Slam came to prominence, The Arches venue opened and Optimo began, and clubbing in Glasgow began to look an awful lot more like it does today, for better or for worse.
Its importance cannot be overstated, in other words, but, in the middle of June, demolition of the building began, to make way for a futuristic new union designed by New York architect Steven Holl. Construction is slated to last two years, and how the Art School will come out of the upheaval, both in the short and long terms, is impossible to predict. As for the next two years, the union's operators are in the process of taking on the premises of the Sauchiehall Street bar Capitol (run by "hospitality and leisure conglomerate" the G1 Group, whose white cat-stroking supervillain owner Stefan King resides in a dormant volcano and splits his days between systematically dumbing Glasgow's bars, clubs and restaurants down into a depressing grey soup and laughing maniacally as lightning illuminates his terrifying features).
It would be unfair to speculate on whether this move to very different premises will feel natural or forced, as it would be to try and predict how the new union will feel when it's completed. But it probably is safe to say that the very particular, arty/scuzzy atmosphere of the Vic Bar and the larger club space above are now gone for good. Among the more upbeat reactions to the closure is that of Richard Chater, a worker at Rubadub Records on Howard Street and one part of the many-headed Numbers beast: "We had some memorable parties in the Art School," he says. "Being able to have the likes of Modeselektor, Errorsmith, LFO and Autechre play in that space was amazing. It'll be missed, but times change and hopefully something new and vibrant will appear in its place."
The loss of this go-to venue is an emblem for what has caused the feeling of malaise currently afflicting Glasgow clubbing. But there is also the demise of two long-running nights: the Italo/electro-based Record Playerz (or RPZ as it was latterly known) on Thursday nights at the Art School, and the famously anything-goes Optimo, on Sunday nights at the Sub Club. The musical impact these nights had in Glasgow has been well documented and acknowledged, but what might be less obvious is the way that their scheduling lent a particular structure to the city's clubbing experience. These two nights didn't merely bookend the weekend in Glasgow. For most of the '00s they actually added two days, shifting the focus away from Friday and Saturday and making those days almost bonus additions to the main event.
"I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say those nights changed my life," says Chris Duncan, former clubs editor of The Skinny and now the Sub Club's press and marketing officer. "I got an education in good music and met people who became lifelong friends. I certainly wouldn't be doing the job I'm in now without those experiences." These are sentiments echoed by hundreds of like-minded clubbers, many of whom postponed careers, university and many other key facets of growing up to concentrate on the intoxicating loop of the city's four-day weekends (five-day, if you count the inevitable post Optimo flat party). Neither RPZ nor Optimo has been replaced in terms of their crowds moving somewhere else en masse—the Glasgow habit of going to a (good quality) club night on a Thursday and/or Sunday has simply disappeared, at least for now, taking with it the anarchic feeling of being out on "school nights."
The focus has lurched back to Friday and Saturday nights, which have in turn become even more saturated with nights. It feels, frankly, a little claustrophobic. Alan Miller sums it up thus: "Competition to fill clubs with punters is becoming really tough because literally every hole in the wall has a PA and a laptop wedged in it, and every one of those holes is doing something crazy/amazing/legendary/absolutely not-to-be-missed. Everyone and anyone can now download a cracked copy of Traktor or Serato and with a couple of days' practice create a passing simulacrum of the DJ set of any of their favourite acts."
Despite the glut of nights, the hordes of talent-light digital DJs and the atomised crowds, however, there is still a huge amount of great stuff going on in Glasgow if you know where to look.
Round the corner at The Arches Slam's Pressure still attracts the Hawtins, Velvets and Garniers of this world on a regular basis, and the huge railway-arch venue is also a popular setting for large-scale one-offs such as Numbers' Modeselektor/Siriusmo show in April. Death Disco, which for some years seems to have been labouring under the misapprehension that the Ed Banger sound is the last word in musical brilliance, has a head-turning September bill featuring Lindstrom, Prins Thomas, Factory Floor and, OK, Feadz, which suggests a return to form may be on the cards.
Stereo, on Renfield Lane, by Central Station, is one of the best all-round venues in the city these days, with excellent vegan food and good beer available on the top floor and high-quality gigs and clubs downstairs. Numbers and Huntleys + Palmers Audio Club schedule intriguing nights there on an irregular basis, and the stylishly spartan club space is also home to Menergy, one of the very few interesting, high-quality gay nights in a city where such contrivances are largely redundant given the goes-without-saying gay-friendliness of every club night worth talking about.
Up on Queen Street, La Cheetah, the basement club space of the Max's Kansas City bar, has quickly established itself as home of a long list of Glasgow's most interesting new nights. This 170-capacity venue actually chips in to help promoters with poster and flyer printing costs and DJ fees, charges minimal hire prices and keeps the bar prices notably low, ticking all the right boxes in these times of stretched finances. Jelly Roll Soul, which specialises in "deep beats and disco treats" and has welcomed the likes of Jackmaster and Wbeeza in recent months, is both my favourite night there and my favourite new night in the city. However, Slabs of the Tabernacle, Mount Heart Attack, Stay Plastic and Highlife, among others, are all worthy of your time and attention.
Nice'n'Sleazy has long been a beacon among Sauchiehall Street's discount student pubs and dire live indie-rock bars, and has for the past few years been a 3 AM licensed club as well as a bar and gig venue. Teamy and Dirty Larry play disco, dubstep and more at their Wrong Island monthly, which is consistently interesting without ever forgetting to be great fun. Most other nights at Sleazys, and especially those hosted by generously bearded local music oracle and all-round walking antidepressant David Barbarossa, offer considerable bang for the maximum £3 buck that entry will cost you. The Hold, underneath The Admiral bar on Waterloo Street, is always worth a look, with long-standing disco monthly Melting Pot and the Northern Soul-based Divine, recently relocated there after a blink-and-you'd-miss-it 21-year stint at the Art School, the standout nights.
A quick guide to Glasgow
Edinburgh is sometimes considered to be better served than Glasgow for quality bars, but there are plenty of fine establishments if you choose carefully. The Sub Club-owned-and-adjacent Macsorleys is a good pre-club shout with great food, as is the Stereo cafe/bar and Mono at King's Court, within which the must-visit Monorail Music record store can also be found. The Tiki Bar strikes a perfect balance between high-kitsch decor and superb cocktails. Craft brewers BrewDog have just opened a pub opposite Kelvingrove Museum which is worth a visit for a shot of their 40% ABV Sink The Bismarck ale alone.
West's range of beers are well worth checking out (their Munich Red is my favourite) and are available in numerous places across the city as well as at their brewery bar/restaurant out east by Glasgow Green. Kelburn Brewing Company in Barrhead produces an array of great ales, and the Clockwork Beer Co near Hampden Park football stadium is an excellent microbrewery and pub. If there's a more gruesome swill than Tennents Lager then I'm yet to encounter it. Common shorthand for it here is "a pint of piss," which says it all really.
Glasgow is famous for its curries, and Mother India Cafe, Balbir's, Banana Leaf and Mister Singh's are all excellent practitioners in their different ways. For a set-piece meal Ubiquitous Chip and Brian Maule at Chardon D'Or provide top-quality, top-price French-Scottish cooking. At the other end of the price scale burritos are very big in Glasgow at the moment—Taco Mazama does a great roast pork one and opens until 4 AM at weekends. Malaysian restaurant and west end institution Asia Style is rightly renowned for its soft-shell crab. Glasgow has a large Chinese population but is bewilderingly light on quality, affordable Chinese food—for that I hop on the train to Haymarket in Edinburgh and visit the exceptional Chop Chop.
Glasgow has over 90 parks and whenever the mercury tops, ooh, 14C or so, they fill with people hungry for a rare fix of Vitamin D. Kelvingrove Park, the Botanic Gardens, Queen's Park and Alexandra Park are four of the most picturesque and easily accessible for the casual visitor. Outdoor drinking is illegal in Glasgow (apart from in beer gardens), so be subtle if you plan on making your picnic a boozy one. Locals often like to get out of Glasgow on sunny weekends and the island of Millport is close by and makes for a lovely day trip. Ditto for Loch Lomond, as long as you avoid the shopping area.
The city's blanket 3 AM closing times mean nights will appear to be running in fast-forward to visitors from most other big-league clubbing cities, so be prepared to get dancing by about midnight if you want your money's worth. Still feeling energetic when the lights go up? In what is by most visitors' estimations one of the friendliest cities on earth, afterparty opportunities are seldom more than a bit of amiable chatter in the outdoor smoking area away, even if you're a complete stranger.
New venues and DJs appear on a permanent rolling basis in Glasgow, and looking to the future is as enticing an activity as ever right now. The Berkeley Suite, which opens in September next to Chinaski's bar on North Street, looks like it could quickly become an established favourite. Enviably positioned on the cusp between the city centre and west end, it will comprise a compact upstairs bar area and surprisingly large 250-capacity basement music space, which the owners say will be an occasional club venue rather than a night-after-night proposition. With a seven-days-a-week 3 AM license secured and Optimo, Jackmaster, Trevor Jackson and a 10th anniversary party for the Late Night Tales mix series booked in the next couple of months, the venue's prospects look uniformly encouraging so far.
The lo-fi, low-cost way of doing things seems an obvious way to keep things moving while economic times are tough, and has been embraced by forward-looking gig and club promoters alike. The group responsible for the Vitamins events has shown particular commitment to the ethos, with past parties in a warehouse and a forest and one in September in a derelict location "where you'll need a torch" in between more conventional nights at Ivy Bar in the west end and the Chambre 69 space on Nelson Mandela Place in the city centre. Vitamins, along with many other small-scale crews of their ilk, have strong links with Glasgow University's Subcity Radio station. The station's schedules are a conveyor belt of promising young Glasgow DJs, and the All Caps collective's varied mixes have created a particularly persistent buzz of late. The independent Radio Magnetic is a similarly excellent outlet for nights and crews across the city, with everyone from Wrong Island and Optimo to Mixmag and Mogwai contributing podcasts on a regular basis.
Although a lot of old certainties have been swept away, then, the more imaginative and talented denizens of Glasgow's clubbing environment show every sign of guiding the city away from mediocrity, reaffirming its place as one of the world's most interesting and passionate clubbing destinations. As Alan Miller's last word on the subject suggests, optimism comes as standard in a city packed with this much creative energy: "I think the one thing that will come out of a difficult time is that the dedicated people will stick at it, and find ways around problems. Those will be the kids (as well as some who are a lot older than the kids I'm sure) who will create the great new clubs of the next few years."