A HANK Williams-loving bartender, long-serving cloakroom staff with the best of Glasgow banter, roadies who keep the show firmly on the road and stolen stars … welcome to the true story of the Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow’s most iconic music venue and one which still has the power to make the most successful of bands misty-eyed.

The Barrowland first opened in the city’s Gallowgate in 1934 as a dance hall, and was rebuilt in 1960 after a fire. Following a brief spell as a roller rink it took its place as the city’s leading gig venue in the 80s. Though these days there are many on the circuit, it’s never lost that magic.

Now the tales behind the venue – as well as those who work, perform and have fun there – are to be told in a new book by three artists who spent 18 months exploring its history and trying to get under its skin.

Barrowland Ballads is the creation of writer Alison Irvine illustrator Mitch Miller and photographer Chris Leslie and who hung out with the nightwatchman, joined the cleaners on their rounds, met the bands in their dressing room and watched them perform.

The National: Writer Alison Irvine, Illustrator Mitch Miller and Photographer Chris Leslie relax back stageWriter Alison Irvine, Illustrator Mitch Miller and Photographer Chris Leslie relax back stage

Due to be launched later this month, it features colour-soaked photographs by Leslie of the 60s decor, crowded gig nights from both the stage and the mosh pit, and, of course, the Barrowland’s famously illuminated outside sign, a beacon for many gig goers’ pilgrimages. Irvine’s written vignettes tell the stories of daily life in the iconic venue, and are drawn from interviews with bands, staff and dancers alike – many have had a relationship with the venue for decades.

Meanwhile, Miller’s “dilectograms” – illustrated mind maps drawn in forensic detail – tell tales of everything from the fancy-dress staff party to the green cocktail known in-house as “venom”. The three first documented the Barrowland as part of an award-winning post-Commonwealth Games project, Nothing Is Lost, marking the changes to the city’s east end. A tour of the ballroom left them feeling drawn to explore it in more depth.

Miller says: “It became the dream project. We’ve all done our share of serious stuff but this was fun and it spoke to our own youth, our experience of music. It was about how Glaswegians enjoyed themselves both then and now.”

The artists who’ve performed there – from David Bowie and Iggy Pop to Texas and Teenage Fan Club – might be legendary but this trio, who work in different art forms but with “a shared sensibility”, weren’t interested in writing another music book.

The National: Illustration by Mitch MillerIllustration by Mitch Miller

“It was about focussing on the Barrowland as an organism, a thing in its own right, and an acknowledgement of its history,” says Miller.

“It wasn’t so much about the bands – though they were part of it – as the place itself. We wanted to find what made people mythologise about it, what made them almost teary eyed when they talked about it.”

They managed to get funding and spent more than a year doing research both on and offsite, taking pictures, making sketches and writing up real-life stories for the book.

They watched the roadies set-up, interviewed the bands from the stage, took photos from the mosh pit at sold-out shows, stayed to see what it was like when everyone went home and were back in the morning when it re-opened. “We met Linda, who started working there age 18 in the pay box in the 60s,” says Miller.

“She was there when it was a roller disco and now she takes all the calls from the touring bands. There’s that human element that gives it its spirit and atmosphere.

“It’s also the way it’s designed, the springy floor and the acoustic tiles that were not intended as part of a gig venue but give it something special. It all comes together, an accident of history, it’s an evolutionary thing.

“My favourite bit was hanging out sketching the cloakroom staff. There is a very robust working-class culture there and if you’re not willing to be mocked you won’t last long.

‘‘Luckily I’m very used to that. And it’s still an amazing thrill to walk on to that stage and to go to the dressing room. It’s quite tacky, unglamorous but it has a wonderful feel.”

For Leslie, the star attraction was the building itself with its wooden-panelled walls, art deco lights, and 60s avant-garde tiles. With his camera he captured the way the 2000 capacity Scandinavian-sprung dance floor “radiates pink and yellow hues” and the arched ceiling dotted with handmade ceramic stars.

The National: Photograph: Chris LesliePhotograph: Chris Leslie

“Picture the Barrowland Ballroom empty like this and it could be in any town in any country and any decade,” he says. “It’s only when you fill it with people for a gig that you realise this is Glasgow, in the 21st century.”

But for Irvine it was all about the people. “I honestly could have written three books with all the stories I was told from musicians, staff and punters. And I haven’t laughed so much on a job as this one,” she says.

“Standout moments were watching the security stewards at work on the door, climbing above the famous Barrowland ceiling and looking down at the dance floor, getting to know the double act that is John the bar manager and Michael the maintenance man, and hanging out with the cloakroom staff and Tam, the burger man. It’s the sort of place I would love to work in myself.”

The time they spent there was a special one, adds Miller, because it came just after the second Glasgow Art School fire and the loss of the ABC venue on Sauchiehall Street.

Tens of extra bands joined a packed diary which included Del Amitri, the Wolfe Tones, Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5 and Gerry Cinnamon to name a few.

The National: Del Amitri concert at Barrowland Ballroom. Photograph: Chris LeslieDel Amitri concert at Barrowland Ballroom. Photograph: Chris Leslie

But at the same time as demonstrating – once again – its unique value to the Glasgow music scene, Miller claims they also witnessed the city’s fragility.

“I think we saw that it all depends on all the furious peddling under the surface,” he says. “Like many places, it’s always one bad year away from not surviving.

“It’s said that every year offers are made – well, allegedly – and they are all turned down. It shouldn’t have survived but it has. There is something so tenacious about the place.”

Tom Joyes, the Barrowland manager claims it has become “a cliche” to talk about the “special status” of the venue but admits it is iconic.

“We are not complacent though,” he says, claiming that due to the “evolving” nature of the area, which is undergoing a renovation programme to become the east end quarter, it is “on the cusp of a new beginning”. “It’s the history, it’s the building, it’s the Glaswegians who come here that make it what it is.”

The National: The Specials live at the Barrowland Ballroom. Photograph: Chris Leslie.The Specials live at the Barrowland Ballroom. Photograph: Chris Leslie.

The people behind the legend

From introduction: This book is not a catalogue of bands and artists who’ve played the Barrowland; we probably won’t even mention your highlights or standout concerts. Yes, it’s about what it’s like to play at the Barrowland and what it’s like to go there to see a gig, but above all it’s about the staff who work in the Barrowland and know it far better than we do. They’re the people who come to work on busy days and quiet days and who create for us on gig nights that special warmth and down-to-earth atmosphere for which the Barrowland is famous and beloved.

Barraloadasoul: Dancers slide and scoop and turn, their feet agile, their arms expressive, their faces tilted upwards. There is ample space to dance for these movers in wide trousers and vest tops or short dresses or button-up tops. And they’re good movers too. On stage a DJ wears headphones, her image displayed on two screens either side of her decks. The music isn’t live but it’s loud and juicy and plump, filling up this hot and handsome hall.

Pammy and Sharon, Barraloadasoul: Pammy and Sharon have been coming to the Barrowland since they were teenagers and they’re mothers of grown-up children now. They can tell you about the Barrowland Ballroom of the 80s, they can tell you how the Barrowland definitively altered their lives and influenced who they are and what they do today.

John and Michael, Maintenance: Music is the issue. For men who work in one of the most famous venues in the world, neither is particularly interested in music. For John it has to be Hank Williams every time. For Michael, it’s heavy metal blasted at high volume.

The National: Maintenance man Michel. Photograph: Chris LeslieMaintenance man Michel. Photograph: Chris Leslie

Tam, Burger Kiosk: Tam’s burger bar is next to the merchandise kiosk in the area known as the crush. For Barrowland staff he is relatively new. He’s only worked in the ballroom for seven years. He was thrown out of the Barrowland on his stag night aged 18 for being too drunk. He’s 65 now and gives the designated drivers a free Tunnock’s Teacake with their cup of tea.

Willie, Barrowland Licensee: Willie has a granddaughter who envies him his job. “Granda, you’ve got the best job in the world,” she says, and he admits he takes it for granted now. “People that love gigs, they’re coming in to see their favourite band and here I am in here getting paid to listen to them.” He says Amy Winehouse was special. She was very ill; it was one of her last gigs. “But see that night, when she played, it was absolutely fantastic.”

Glasgow Crew: “There’s no such thing as heavy [equipment],” one Glasgow crew man says, “only some are lighter than others.” His partner quips: “But that was fucking heavy.”

Local band Dogtooth: “I don’t know if we should be telling you this,” says Boab, “but we stole stars.”

You stole stars?

“Do you want one?”

I do. I really do. Are you ok with me putting this in the book?

“It’s ok, aye, put it in the book,” John says.

How did you do it? I ask.

“You climb on a seat,” John says, as if it’s the simplest thing in the world.

Bear’s Den Gig: As they play their final song the crowd sings the lyrics and it’s lit up in warm lights and you can see bare arms raised above heads and the band will be hearing their lyrics sung back at them, tunefully, euphorically. The lights are warm over the stage as well and there’s that connection right there between audience and band – I’ve caught it. I’ve seen what people talk about: that connection; that love; that intimacy.