The Future of Guitar Music

Glasgow's Priory Bar Nurtures the City's Many Raucous Guitar Bands

How one venue came to signify community and creativity in the space of a few years.

by Robert Blair
11 March 2019, 10:30am

All photos by Daniel Blake

On Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, shoulder-to-shoulder with gastropubs and overpriced nightclubs, sits one of the Scottish city’s most quietly vital venues. Well, quietly may not be quite the right word, given the guitars you may hear ringing out from within its walls on any given night. Sparsely lit by candles wedged into old bottles and flanked by long-suffering couches bearing the scars of many indulgent nights, the Priory is the ideal tavern setting for a Tom Waits song about whiskey-soaked vagrants. But rustic interior aside, the pub emerged from the ashes of its previous dive bar incarnation of The Brunswick Cellars to host everything from somewhat polarising artist Gerry Cinnamon’s Jam Night to frequent open mics.

Much-mythologised Priory owner John Jokey still seems in awe of how much the bar’s grown in figurative stature since opening its doors in 2014. He’d conceived of it as an antidote to the underhanded bullshit he’d witnessed first-hand around live events. “I had ran another big venue before,” he tells me, “and just saw a lot of young bands getting mistreated. A lot of my pals are musicians so I just wanted to pay people fairly; no’ be one-sided, no’ be greedy and just try and help people. The whole thing behind the place is that it was built on music and energy and that’s the two rules.” He mentions how someone at a major promotions company said The Priory shutting down would be “the worst thing for the Glasgow music scene. We kind of had a laugh as we’re just this wee tiny pub but we obviously take pride in that. It’s definitely became a community thing.”

When you consider it more broadly, Glasgow’s status as hallowed ground for electronic music has dominated its past 20 years of musical history. That’s no surprise, given the city is home to institutions like Sub Club, The Art School, Optimo, Warp, Soma Records and the dearly departed Arches on Argyle Street. But a renewed appetite for bands from Glasgow and its surrounding satellite towns has quietly developed into a scene that goes beyond the malaise of the pay-to-play ticket deals with greedy promoters and just playing to your mam and mates. Born of influences ranging from alt, art and garage rock to noise-pop, a new contingent of artists based in the city are making their presence felt farther afield. Namely, acts like Baby Strange, The Van T’s, The Vegan Leather, The Ninth Wave, LUCIA, Rascalton, SWAY and The Dunts have attracted interest in Glasgow and beyond, south of the border or even at SXSW in Austin, Texas. The Priory’s championed them all.

A Baby Strange Priory gig
Absolutely fair play, at a Baby Strange Priory gig

The venue finds its strengths in the sense of fraternity you see among patrons. The bar’s position as base of operations for Glasgow’s music scene really began in unassuming fashion with the hedonistic Sunday night tradition dubbed Club Sabbath, founded by punk trio Baby Strange. Since its very first edition in November 2015, Club Sabbath has emerged as something of a rite of passage that’s seen people jump from being partygoers, on the fringe of the scene, to playing the stage in bands of their own. Baby Strange frontman Johnny Madden breaks the club’s popularity down into pretty simple, serendipitous terms. “Aye, we just went in for a drink one day and Jokey approached us but we didn’t know him at the time,” he remembers. “He said he was into the band, gave us some free drinks and we just chatted away. It’s weird though ‘cos straight away we were looking about and saying ‘this would be great for a club night’.”

“When I think back to when it started”, adds Baby Strange drummer Connaire McCann, “there weren’t enough bands to imagine a scenario where we could do this every month for the year. It’s one thing to think ‘aw that band from Glasgow are doing stuff’ but it’s another thing to be able to go weekly or monthly and see groups that are just within reach – it makes you think ‘fuck it, we could probably do it’ rather than thinking there’s some trick to them doing well.”

A prime example of The Priory and Club Sabbath’s transformative effect is 21-year-old Daniel Blake. After first attending as a bit of an outsider, he soon became guitarist for indie punks Gallus. “Being from Dundee originally, I knew just one or two people in the Glasgow music scene when I first started doing gig photography. Now I know basically everyone and it’s almost exclusively through chatting to them in the bar. I don’t think there is anywhere else on earth where I have met more like-minded people… I guess for a lot of people, the big ambition when you join a band is to play the Barras” – Barrowland Ballroom – “or to sell out Wembley. But I genuinely just couldn’t wait to be the one headlining the Priory, instead of shooting someone else doing it.”

Dunts playing Glasgow's Priory Bar in 2018
Dunts playing Glasgow's Priory Bar in 2018

All of this might sound like any venue you could find in any town. But make no mistake, no one has ever ventured into this dimly lit basement for one or two. Its busiest nights see most people stay put until the end, before spilling out onto the streets and up to the most conveniently located flat to carry things on. On a personal level, bands who graduate beyond the city often name The Priory as a vital part of their growth. Garage rock four-piece The Van T’s, led by sisters Hannah and Chloe Thompson, have supported The Jesus And Mary Chain in Europe and played all over the UK but still consider The Priory a “home away from home.” As Chloe tells me, “Describing The Priory to someone who has never been always proves difficult. Hannah was one of the very first people to work there when it opened so she's seen it grow into what it is today. We were only a two piece at the time. Just goes to show what can happen in a few years. Time and time again we choose to go to the bar because even when there’s no gig on, you’re bound to bump into someone you know.”

Club Sabbath’s standout moments came from hosting the Lapelles’ debut show, and cramming 200 Wolf Alice fans into the space after the band’s Barrowland gig, as Johnny tells me, with a laugh. Sadly, the Lapelles’ career was brought to an abrupt end when frontman and Priory regular Gary Watson tragically died at the age of 22. Many took to the bar for solace in the wake of his death, and would soon stage a special fundraising night with “all of his favourite bands” that would raise over £9000 for his family. “If the pub was to close tomorrow, the fact that we raised all that money for Gary is enough for me,” says Jokey. “It was nothing but love that night; everyone just came together.”

By chucking aside tribalism and instead letting a varied crop of musicians to identify by a shared ideology, Glasgow’s guitar music scene is at its most vibrant in years. The Priory’s played an instrumental role as its de-facto home base. Glasgow’s musical identity doesn’t have to centre around just one genre or subculture, and this little venue highlights that. “We’ve played some nice big venues but you can’t really beat that, concludes Johnny. “We played two nights at the start of the year and it was the craziest thing we’ve ever seen. Folk are looking at you like ‘this is it, it ends tonight!’ It means a lot to a lot of people, us included.”

You can find Rob on Twitter and Daniel on Instagram.