Glasgow's Miles Better: A guide to the city's music history

We take a look at the rich musical history of Glasgow, declared a UNESCO City of Music in 2008, exploring its multitude of venues and the bands who were formed here

Feature by Tony Inglis | 11 Nov 2021
  • LCD Soundsystem at the Barrowlands

Those of The Skinny’s readers based in Glasgow may have been relieved to see that, in the magazine’s Guide to Edinburgh from August, Edinburgh was described as being 'overshadowed' by Glasgow’s music scene, that it was 'hard to argue a case' for east over west. And while the piece goes on to list the myriad things the capital does have to offer, it surely warms the heart of every Glaswegian to hear (officially!) that it doesn’t quite match the country’s biggest city – musically speaking at least.

However, petty city rivalry aside, it’s difficult to question Glasgow’s musical credentials. The city has been entertaining music lovers for centuries. It is home to The Britannia Panopticon Music Hall at Trongate, the world’s oldest surviving music hall, which opened in 1857. Jump forward over 150 years, and Glasgow is a UNESCO City of Music, achieving that honour in 2008. It boasts approaching 200 available venues and has birthed dozens of popular – some seminal, some underappreciated – bands and artists. Music runs through the blood of Glasgow, through its streets and architecture, where tenement flats vibrate with the music conceived in and around them.

When LCD Soundsystem came to play in 2017 after a long layoff, James Murphy recounted onstage that it was the Barrowland Ballroom – affectionately known as the Barras – with its famously bouncy floor, where they now stood playing, that they specifically wanted to return to. It’s an anecdote that sums up the atmosphere around live music in the city – often a band will tell you they’re playing to the best crowd in the best room in the world at a show, but in Glasgow they actually mean it. Open since the 1930s down the Gallowgate, the Barras is just one of a number of iconic places bands pull up to play, from the mammoth big hitters like the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in the City Centre and the OVO Hydro on the Clydeside to tiny basements in pubs like The Hug and Pint on Great Western Road.

In these smaller fronts – Stereo and Broadcast in the city centre, or Mono in Merchant City, or SWG3 under the arches by the river, or The Glad Cafe in the Southside, or the converted church of Òran Mór in the West End, or the CCA on Sauchiehall Street, or St Luke’s, a hop, skip and jump from the Barras – is where Glasgow’s music community really feels like a teeming cultural hub of familiar faces and like-minded individuals. Many double as arts spaces of all stripes, and that’s the reason so many go on to be the origin of bands that spring up here.

Then there are places like King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, located on St Vincent Street, the lore around which makes it hard to discern what stories are apocryphal and which are true. It is true that countless bands who went on to mainstream success passed through its doors. It was famously where (and stop us if you’ve heard this one before) Alan McGee signed Oasis in 1993. That’s not to mention those we’ve lost – a dilapidated shell is all that remains of the old ABC on Sauchiehall Street, a sad reminder of the last Glasgow School of Art fire in 2018, even if it is survived by its sister venue, the O2 Academy on Eglinton Street.

Nowadays, these world class stages cohere into multi-venue festivals like Stag & Dagger and The Great Western, offering a chance at the festival experience but situated in purpose-built areas where music lives and breathes every night rather than for one weekend in the calendar year. That goes for non-indie music celebrations too, like Celtic Connections’ array of trad, folk, roots and global music (20 Jan-6 Feb 2022). There are the likes of TRNSMT (8-10 Jul 2022), bringing a mixed line-up of chart toppers and local up-and-comers, at Glasgow Green, or the electronic Riverside for those looking to go all in.

Perhaps there could be even more venues, with live music of the highest calibre sometimes spilling out on the streets. Your train terminates at Glasgow Central in April 1976? You might catch Neil Young performing to perhaps his smallest ever crowd at the station’s Gordon Street entrance a few hours before a show with Crazy Horse at the old Apollo on Renfield Street. In May 1985, The Clash busked across town, finally ending up on Old Dumbarton Road outside Dukes Bar. You might not have known who he would become, but you may have spotted a very young pre-music Gil Scott-Heron hold his dad’s hand on the city’s streets while Gil Heron (Snr) was playing for Celtic in the 50s.

Nirvana played their only ever Glasgow show at the University of Glasgow’s Queen Margaret Union as their career was skyrocketing after the release of Nevermind in late 1991. Kurt Cobain famously called The Vaselines – just one of a bumper crop of Glasgow-birthed music projects – his favourite band in the world. Where to even begin with how potent this city of no more than 600,000 people has been in producing great acts. Belle and Sebastian, Primal Scream, Camera Obscura, The Blue Nile, Franz Ferdinand, CHVRCHES – the list could go on. Most wonderful is seeing formative experiences repeatedly germinate in the same locations. Take Edwyn Collins and Orange Juice coming together in the now gone Vic Bar at the School of Art, and then later Life Without Buildings, and later still Still House Plants, developing within the art student community.

Even greater still is the way individuals from the city’s best bands stay connected with the wider music scene: Stephen McRobbie of The Pastels opening Monorail, just one of a number of excellent Glasgow record stores, or bands like The Delgados and Mogwai establishing labels Chemikal Underground and Rock Action respectively in the city and putting out important records from the likes of Arab Strap and The Twilight Sad. Techno duo Slam were there to capture the early days of Daft Punk, signing them to their Soma label and putting out some of their first recordings. That legacy lives on in the likes of independent imprints like Last Night From Glasgow. There are bands from just outside the city limits – The Jesus and Mary Chain (East Kilbride) and Teenage Fanclub (Bellshill) for example – who came up thanks to Glasgow’s burgeoning and fruitful scene. Electronic acts like SOPHIE, Hudson Mohawke and Rustie made their name here and went on to have genre-defying influence across music full stop. (Cocteau Twins are from Grangemouth, which is probably a little too close to Edinburgh for Glaswegians to claim).

The criteria that make up Glasgow’s previously mentioned City of Music status pinpoint seven main indicators of what such a label should aim to represent: iconic, knowledgeable, accessible, supportive, representative, promotional, unique. While celebrating that status, perhaps the city can also learn from it. It would be hard to say that, since it was awarded the title, Glasgow has been a pristine example of accessibility, support or representation. When the city’s flagship music festival can be a success with ticket sales and industry attention, but not have forward-thinking booking or a diverse, balanced line-up, can we say we have truly hit those markers? Use the rich history and tools at our disposal and we might just be able to wear the City of Music badge with real pride.