Damage Control: Is there a silver lining for the ABC following the fire?

After a fire from the neighbouring Glasgow School of Art caused extensive damage to the O2 ABC, we speak to those associated with the venue and look at what makes it so special

Feature by Tony Inglis | 04 Jul 2018

It’s May, and it is uncharacteristically hot and humid for this to really be Glasgow in spring. But that doesn’t matter: we’re inside a ballroom that has become as familiar to us as our own living room – we could navigate the path from bar to bathroom with our eyes closed we’ve been here so many times – and it’s hot in here anyway, surrounded by hundreds of other people. Car Seat Headrest are on stage, playing Talking Heads’ Crosseyed and Painless, and my friends and I are too dazed with excitement to realise that this wasn’t what we expected them to open with at all. When the band move into prog-pop opus Bodys, from their album Twin Fantasy, we lose our minds. The whole crowd is throbbing, and if someone isn’t singing it’s because they're gasping from pogoing around too much. Like the best shows, it’s hard to think of anywhere else you’d rather be. That was the ABC, that inconspicuous ever-present venue on Sauchiehall Street.

Just over a month later, it was up in flames.

It has become a distressingly familiar tale. That moment of panic when you wake up at some ungodly hour and, as has become routine, turn to your smartphone to scroll through an increasingly desperate set of breaking news tweets. On this particular morning, they tell us the Glasgow School of Art was on fire, again. Four years into a multi-million-pound restoration, the unthinkable has happened for a second time, not just to an institution of learning, a landmark, a beautifully constructed building, a place that consistently spits out talented creators like a machine, but also a representation of Glasgow’s imaginative and emotional spirit.

It was a few hours until those having a quiet weekend in realised that the toll on this occasion was much worse, with the damage spreading to neighbouring structures, including the O2-sponsored ABC venue. Former Delgados member, and Chemikal Underground co-founder, Emma Pollock was already in bed when she discovered what had happened. “I was almost asleep when my husband told me about the fire,” she says. “He was on the internet catching up on things and spotted it. It must have been about 2am. It felt quite unreal, but I couldn’t sleep and went downstairs to try to find out more on the news. It was only the next day when I saw the aerial photo of the site and I began to realise the extent of the damage and its impact on the ABC.”

Even in a world used to seeing scenes of destruction every day, it’s hard to look at the photo in question and stop yourself from gasping. Despite the shock of seeing the venue’s collapsed roof, the chatter around the Glasgow School of Art overwhelmed the plight of the ABC, and what it had endured threatened to fly under the radar. But as a multitude of artists on social media, and writers across other platforms, have scrambled around to declare, the loss of the ABC does not have less of an impact on the cultural ecosystem of Glasgow. It may not be a feat of architectural wonder in the same vein as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, but it is certainly more than just a place that hosts club nights and concerts. It's an arbiter of formative experiences, an influence on tastes and attitudes, and a focal point for Glasgow’s vibrant and unrivaled live music scene.

There isn’t an outpouring of grief for the loss of just any venue. In a city filled with so many unique spots to see bands, the ABC really stood out. On a purely practical level, it was easy to get to, getting in and out was simple enough (if we disregard cloakroom queues), you could stand anywhere and have the ideal view. And it sounded great.

It occupied its own spot in Glasgow’s family of venues. For bands not quite big enough for the iconic room in the Barrowlands, or for ABC’s sister venue the Academy, and for those too big for the more confined spaces of Mono, Stereo or St Luke’s, the ABC was a reliable home from home. “Many touring and local acts can't quite fill a Barrowlands or Academy sized venue, and it is a world-class, high-spec space that is slightly smaller in capacity,” says BBC Radio Scotland, and sometimes 6 Music, DJ Vic Galloway. “It means you can see a major act performing in high-class surroundings with a relatively intimate audience. I actually don't like venues being much bigger; you lose the edge and intimacy. The ABC had both, but also the production values to put on a really pro gig.”

Returning to that Car Seat Headrest show, the last I would witness before the tragic events of 15 June, as with all gig reviews ever written, it's impossible to put across exactly how a sweaty, kind of tiring, voice-shredding hour-and-a-half of music can make a person feel so elated. Looking back now, the generational importance this brick and mortar holds was never more apparent than that night: young teens with parents, adolescents in high school, students, those in their mid-to-late twenties still finding their way in the world, middle-aged music lovers there for the umpteenth time. And before them, people still came, those who stood in the same spot when it was a cinema, a theatre and even a circus.

[Slowdive @ O2 ABC, Glasgow, October 2017 by Claire Maxwell]

I recently went along to Slowdive’s show at the ABC on my own, a band I now considered – after their better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be self-titled comeback album – the one I held most dear. The room was full but I might as well have been the only person there. Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead’s delicate twinned voices, the soaring, otherworldly noise of the guitars, everything seemed to lock in place and amount to perfection. It may have been happenstance that the ABC figures into this memory or perhaps uniquely faultless shows like this were its forte?

Fire has ravaged that place now, but nothing can burn down the memories of allowing your favourite band’s music to envelope you in a room with countless strangers experiencing the same.

What’s more, the ABC developed a professional significance for me, being the location of my first gig review. Metronomy were the headliner, a band I didn’t like very much. But it was good! Surely this is evidence that the ABC could do no wrong? In all seriousness, though, it proves the ABC is responsible for, and at the intersection of, a large portion of what gives Glasgow its reputation for being a leader in live music.

The same can be said for the performers that graced its stages, as Pollock reminisces: “Every time I stepped onto the ABC stage it was a great feeling – a real sense of occasion. I’ve played on that stage with such a huge range of my favourite artists, got ready for gigs in the dressing rooms with them and knew many of the staff. It had a lovely familiarity to it and I can’t quite believe that it’s no longer there to just wander into and take in.”

Part of the reason somewhere so important to so many has been struggling for airtime is that, in comparison to the somewhat highbrow Art School, the ABC celebrates culture of all classes. For the nights that it wasn’t hosting renowned bands and artists of all genres, it was the home of long-running club nights catering to all types of people.

It was an alternative, away from the serious clubbers, the blue shirt and chinos boys clubs, and the footballer’s wealth extravagance. A place where lasting memories were made, and some not so much depending on the volume of alcohol you consumed. The music was decent – cheesy pop faves upstairs or middle-of-the-road indie rock downstairs, basically something anyone can get on board with – and the vibe was light. As it was on the night that the fire spread to its walls. (Amongst the melodrama that some might consider the eulogising of a building to be, it is with great relief to say that no casualties were suffered.)

[O2 ABC by Michael Gallacher]

“The ABC was such a special place to me," says Christopher Moody, a DJ-turned-promoter who played there every Friday for three years at the club’s Propaganda night. "It was one of the largest clubs I was playing in at that time but what made it truly magical was the atmosphere of the crowd week in, week out. I felt as though everyone who entered that space instantly felt at ease, almost like they were home and were just there to let their hair down and have a super fun night out with no holding back. I also met some of the best people I now call friends under that roof, and you could tell everyone that worked in the ABC loved being there, which is kind of rare in this industry.”

Even having gone through so many seminal moments during shows at ABC, sometimes what stands out is simply slipping on the toilet steps as you run to catch the next great song. Getting drunk and dancing to Mr. Brightside seems embarassingly lame now, but those times are crystallised in the minds of many and are looked back upon fondly.

Buried amongst the well wishes across Facebook and Twitter in the immediate aftermath of the fire, as the idea that the ABC would be out of commission began to burrow into the minds of those that danced on its floors on a weekly basis, was its overlooked importance in the city as a venue accessible to all. Tight basements and steep staircases in many Glasgow venues pose challenges to creating inclusive spaces where people of all needs can enjoy the transcendent experience of gig-going like anyone else and with everyone else. The ABC, despite being a 19th-century building which posed just as many such obstacles, was a place that strived towards that goal.

Gideon Feldman, the Head of Programmes and Business Development at Attitude is Everything, an organisation which works with venues to make live music accessible to people with all manner of disabilities, says the gap that the ABC’s absence will leave means that the situation for people with additional needs who love going to gigs is a little less bright. “We were greatly saddened at the news of the damage sustained by the O2 ABC, who we have worked with for the past six years,” he says. “It’s a silver-level venue on our Charter of Best Practice in recognition of their commitment to accessibility for deaf and disabled audiences, and it represents around 30 percent of the city's physically accessible live music capacity at that scale of venue, so its loss significantly impacts the options available.”

Perhaps a positive spin on the devastation inflicted on this inclusive space, is that a rebuild may offer the chance to install even greater accessibility provisions than before?

[Car Seat Headrest @ O2 ABC, Glasgow, May 2018 by Roosa Päivänsalo]

The mood from many going forward seems bleak. But it wouldn’t be the first time a popular music venue has come back from the brink after sustaining seemingly irreparable damage. Edinburgh’s Liquid Room was in a similar position after a neighbouring restaurant was consumed by fire nearly ten years ago, and has since reopened. Its Managing Director John ‘Mick’ McWilliams has sympathy for what ABC’s owners, staff and regular attendees are going through.

“My heart goes out to them, it’s a real shame. From what I’ve seen, it looks totally devastated,” he says. “It’s going to be a long, long journey for the people behind the venue. We’ve been through it for many years now and, to be honest, it’s been one struggle after another. So, it will be a fight – a fight with insurers, a fight to keep the attention of the people who go there. People will always find somewhere else to go, and the age group that hold it dear will grow up in the time that it’s not around, and move on, and the new generation that will replace it may not hold it in such high regard.”

While a scene mourns the loss, hopefully temporarily, of the ABC, promoters the Academy Music Group who run it, and even the Scottish Government, are working together to rearrange shows, plan ahead and return the venue to its former glory. The scale of the damage may not be apparent for many weeks, and with a chunk of Sauchiehall Street resembling a dystopian movie set after a series of similarly awful incidents, there is much that needs to be rectified. Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop has commented on the “strong sense of community in the Glasgow music scene,” and it’s that group of people that will ensure even a blow like this won’t allow the internationally reputable string of live shows planned across the city to collapse, even without its hub. It is them that will ensure that it is not forgotten amongst the feeling of hopelessness that surrounds the disaster.

“There’s no point in any of us not being honest about how shit this situation is," says Robert Kilpatrick, the Projects and Operations Manager for the Scottish Music Industry Association, "but Glasgow’s a music city, and it always will be. It’s embedded within us and is such an intrinsic and special part of our identity. We’ll always be singing our hearts out, and we’ll always be under a disco ball.”

McWilliams offers a similar glimmer of optimism: “The music scene is better now than it ever has been, and [the] ABC was such a big part of that. All I can say is that there is hope – if we can do it, they can. The hope is that what will stand in its place, in the end, will be purpose-built and will likely be even better than what was there. There is a silver lining if they can see it through the smoke.”

O2 ABC Glasgow are working as quickly as possible to move or reschedule forthcoming events to alternative venues in the city with minimum disruption. Please visit academymusicgroup.com/o2abcglasgow for up-to-date information