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Ghosts of the Glasgow Rock School

22 November 2015

Twenty-five years since it first opened, live music venue King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut is still the epicentre for British rock ’n’ roll.

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut neither swaggers nor reveals itself bathed in burnished neon like most music venues. It’s tucked away from the workday rush of Glasgow’s mercantile quarter, as if the unassuming basement club has been told off too many times for making a racket. It is 8pm, in the twilight sparkle of late October, yet even without a fanfare or flashing billboard lights, there is a thrum of anticipation. Inside, hooded parkas are swapped for rock-show T-shirts, while others feverishly queue, waiting for the doors to open.

Up a flight of neon-lit stairs, the soundcheck can be heard, all drums and guitars, muffled like a blast of radio interference. The hype bills the headline artist as: the triumphant sound of tomorrow; the audience is in the mood to be convinced. At last, after an interminable hour or so, the doors swing open, the crowd surges forward, and the dance floor turns into a raucous bear pit of revellers illuminated only by flickering spotlights. For one night only, the new heroes of rock are in town.

It has been a long quarter-century since King Tut’s started Scottish music lovers on an aural adventure that has introduced them to the likes of Oasis, Radiohead, Coldplay, The Verve, Blur, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers, Franz Ferdinand, and Biffy Clyro.

There are lead singers and guitarists right now – some of whose records you may well own – who weren’t even born when the music venue first opened in February 1990, and whose lives could well have panned out entirely differently had they never landed their first gig at the hallowed venue. “If you could score a gig in Tuts,” Jon Lawler, lead singer of Glasgow-band The Fratellis, once said, “you always had the sense that you were on your way.”

Twenty-five years down the road since the first guitar chord rang out is also not a bad moment to stop and ask: what got us here? Today, the club’s reputation extends far beyond Glasgow. BBC Radio 1 has consistently named it the UK’s best music venue (“King Tut’s has got everything I like,” praises legendary radio DJ Steve Lamacq), while NME describes it as, “Quite possible the finest small venue in the world.”

New York magazine put a night at the club in their top 10 euphoria-inducing experiences you could ever have, even above climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa or rolling out of bed in the Maldives. I was maybe 14 or 15 when I discovered King Tut’s for the first time. It had been invisible right up until the moment someone or something told me to poke my nose through its swinging doors on St Vincent Street. The inside, I still remember, was all muted buzz and dimmed lighting, nothing particularly louche, nothing too dangerous. Two bored-looking, rakish bar staff in flared jeans stood chatting behind the counter.

I felt noticeably underage, as if all eyes were on me, but it seemed just the sort of place where I could fit in. I’d never been to a live indie concert before, but the chalkboard gig listings, embellished scratches of blue, yellow and rose-pink on black, seemed to spark my imagination.

Then, suddenly, I felt as if I were standing on stage, the lights dimmed, preparing to play with a band – a Gibson guitar in my hand, sonorous, crashing drums at my back. At some point came a thought that struck with the force of revelation: I was going to become a pop singer, and sell out a gig at King Tut’s. Around four years later, a lifetime away for a scrawny teenager like me, and in the midst of Britpop, I somehow managed it.

First a little history. All great institutions need a creation myth and King Tut’s is better than most. Before 1990, when it was named after a club in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the venue led a previous life as Saints And Sinners, a dive bar worthy of no more than a footnote in rock history. Only devoted fans could tell you it was the backdrop for the first gig by a band that would later become Simple Minds.

Once dilapidated, with flaking paint and stained floorboards, where acts like The Strokes, Beck, and The White Stripes played their first-ever Scottish shows, King Tut’s today isn’t a recreation.It is the music venue as it once was, only with a new lick of paint and walls adorned with characterful rock art posters of bands that have graced its stage over the years. The life of the Glasgow music scene remains embedded in its walls, behind the newly painted doors, and it’s popularity also ensures that it is rarely, if ever, empty.

Many might be put off by the risks of life in the music business, but not those from a hardened, spirited city of grey spires and greyer skies like Glasgow. Even to an outsider, the likes of Sauchiehall and Buchanan Streets appear as impromptu stages for ambitious singers, buskers and performers. It’s hard to walk more than one block without passing a live music venue or club, and even in unflattering light, under a bleak, bruised sky, Glasgow maintains a rock ’n’ roll strut.

To hear Teenage Fanclub drummer and solo artist Francis MacDonald tell it, when he used to play with Glasgow supergroup BMX Bandits more than 20 years ago, it wasn’t hard to have your head in the clouds and feet firmly on the ground.

“There is a lot of dark humour in the city,” says MacDonald. “We were doing a gig at Barlinnie Prison about 20 years ago and were unloading the van when a voice from a high window called down, ‘You better lock that, there’s a lot of thieves about.’” His take is that cynicism, a notoriously Glaswegian trait, can foster a grounding that ensures musicians don’t ever stand on too high a pedestal.

What is also undeniably true, despite this downbeat pragmatism, is that from the early 1980s to the present, some of the most melodic and sunniest pop music in the UK has burst out from the city’s basement bars and music venues. Cue the likes of Deacon Blue, Del Amitri, Texas, and MacDonald’s own Teenage Fanclub. Reason enough for the city to now be recognised as the UK’s only Unesco City Of Music.

“Glasgow is big enough to support lots of bands and artists, but small enough to create a sense of community where everyone can have their voice heard and find their own scene,” says Fiona Shepherd, music critic for The Scotsman newspaper, and the brains behind the recently-launched Glasgow Music City Tours, a new series of guided walks around the city. “There is a communal feeling of being in all of this together.”

That word, community, not only underpins the success of King Tut’s, but also the city’s other live music venues, which can be taken in as part of one of the tours and that have seen the early shoots of success for many a performer. King Tut’s, however, is the venue from which every Scottish band, from Travis to Idlewild and newer acts such as Chvrches and Frightened Rabbit have more recently begun their climb up the charts. Even the world’s highest paid DJ – Calvin Harris – had to start somewhere. His first show at King Tut’s in December 2006 was watched by around 150 people.

While these venues venerate tradition, it ‘s the city’s collaborative nature, steeped in DIY mythology and a can-do attitude, that artists continue to buy into. Glasgow has the highest concentration of music students in the UK and the Electric Honey record label, run out of Glasgow Kelvin College, is the most successful student union record label in the world. Run by ex-members of The Bluebells and Love and Money, it released Belle and Sebastian’s debut album, some tracks by Biffy Clyro, and some by the Glasgow-based Snow Patrol, a band who once supported my own group, Volley, at King Tut’s when they played under the name Polar Bear.

“Glasgow’s a small city so it’s easier to get to know other musicians and bands than elsewhere,” says ex-member of Superstar Joe McAlinden, now a singer-songwriter performing under the moniker Linden. “When we were growing up, the scene was most welcoming. Primal Scream didn’t mind us hanging around. In fact, they encouraged us to get involved – we got to support the bands we loved and in some cases even to play with them, too.”

That may have been on the mind of an unknown band of five spirited, mouthy youths from Manchester, who decided to drive up to King Tut’s one night on May 31, 1993. Their plan, as it turned out, was to bully the promoters into letting them open for Glasgow band 18 Wheeler, threatening to smash the place up if they weren’t allowed on stage. Wary of their attitude, the sound engineers gave them a brief 15-minute slot, without pay, just to keep the peace. It was, as history now shows, all they needed. That band was Oasis and the story of that infamous night has gone down in British music history.

Many point to this storied evening as the night that Britpop was born. Within the following two weeks, both The Verve and Radiohead played on the same small stage, and a whole new era for British music began. A hint of that magic is in some small part thanks to King Tut’s.

To this day, the venue still has emotional resonance for music fans. My band never amounted to much – a Scottish tour, a minor radio hit in Japan, a headline show at King Tut’s – but I still feel bound to the venue, no matter how many times I return to support new music from the grassroots up. Like a favourite Rolling Stones or Beatles’ T-shirt, the club has become a touchstone for a generation, but also a graspable reality for new musicians from across the UK, a tangible stepping-stone from which to take on the world.

“The wheel keeps turning,” says MacDonald, pondering the future. “Established bands influence the next generation, even pulling them to the city. There is a definite sense of ‘if they can form a band and do it, I can too’.”

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Glasgow soon, make sure you play a game of King Tut’s roulette. Take a chance on a band you’ve never heard of, buy a $15 ticket for that night’s show, and prepare for the unexpected. You don’t know what kind of journey it might take you on, but that’s not the point.

To see the venue in full-swing, with amplifiers blaring, is to be reminded of how a noisy, jabbering Glaswegian crowd can help inspire a band, reminding them that when they are on stage, with the lights off and all eyes on them, that the only thing that matters is the power of the music. Because in King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, that’s how rock ’n’ roll stars are made.

kingtuts.co.uk

Words: Mike MacEacheran / Images: Robert Ormerod

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