Licensee Interview: On MacLeod Nine (with a silver lining) – Donald MacLeod

The Garage is 25 years old this year. The man that’s been with this Glasgow nightclub institution every step of the way is its co-founder Donald MacLeod, after buying out former business partner Michele Pagliocca in 2004.

I caught up with him at Hold Fast Entertainment’s Glasgow HQ and who says men can’t multi-task. The Rolodex-brained Donald agreed to give me an audience while I became his captive audience when he picked up one of his many guitars for a rendition or two in between writing a piece for the Sunday Post while keeping an eye on sundry other stuff on his computer.

He gets by on five hours’ sleep per night, has a truckload of opinions, and has little time to sugar-coat them. He’s always entertaining, and fond of some effin ‘n’ jeffin.

He said, “I can’t sit and be content with doing one thing. It’s not that I’m greedy, but I’ve got to keep it going. That could be going to an art exhibition, it could be taking photographs, or it could be writing a column. Or it could be, and indeed it is, attending various committee meetings, briefs, or lobbying parliament whether it’s for the Nordoff Robbins music charity (he’s the fundraising chair) or licensing (he’s convenor of Glasgow’s Licensing forum) or standing up and screaming about the debacle over Sauchiehall Street or lamenting the loss of the ABC and other iconic live music venues. I’m a very driven person, occasionally a bam (less so these days), and I’m definitely not a shrinking violet ,but someone who is always prepared to put his head above the parapet and voice an opinion. Whether you like what I say or not.”

The Garage reaching its 25-year milestone was the main reason for this interview yet, as usual with Donald, we go off at many a tangent, like his having taken up martial art Aikido lately.

He explained, “I’m now going for my blue belt in Aikido. Steven Seagal is the biggest proponent of it and I did it 30 years ago. I came across a wee class in Falkirk a while ago and I thought I’d go once a week and that has now turned into three or four times a week. In progressing through the belts I’ve managed to lose a stone-and-a-half, which is not too shabby for being the oldest guy in the room. When I sat my Green Belt exam, the Sensi assessing me said I was too violent, so I had to do it twice. Yikes! The next day I was like, ‘arrrgh, the elastic bands in my fossilised knees were all broken and I looked like Widow Twankey. My target, though, is to become a Black Belt by the time I’m 60 , in 18 months, and to weigh 15-and-a-half stone.

“What the f*** all that has got to do with The Garage, I don’t know.”

That was our cue for getting back on-topic. Said Donald, “The Garage started back in 1994, when we thought that we were going to be getting kicked out of The Cathouse. We’d set up a deal with what was the GDA at the time to sell the building in Brown Street. We were going to do a double-dunt with the guys that that owned it, make a few quid in the process and then relocate somewhere else. But our plans were well and truly scuppered when it transpired that one of the owners was the chairman of the GDA. He came back from Pakistan on the day we were gonna do the deal and was like ‘WTF? I’m not selling this building’ so we got caught and they hit us with an irritation of lease and they made moves to kick us out”

And so, faced with eviction, they went looking for a new home for The Cathouse and came across the old Mayfair, which was shut, on Sauchiehall Street.

Said Donald, “We were standing with the building’s owner, the legendary Ross Bowie, and we thought, ‘could this be a Cathouse?’ But, as it transpired, we managed to keep the lease at The Cathouse. And this led us onto the idea of making the new place a seven-night-per-week student venue. Back then, it would be student night on a Tuesday night or it would be a jeans and t-shirt night in clubs and we thought, that’s not right. It was really patronising. Not that I was a great fan of students at the time.”

Said Donald, “I knew right away that the place was perfect and had potential. When we walked into that building, we just felt a real warmth and aura about the place. You know when you walk into a place if it’s right. The Barrowlands has got that feeling. It could be a swamp inside, but it’s still got that feeling and The Garage was the same, as was The Cathouse actually. The Tunnel felt good. The Shed also had a bit of that feeling.” The odds appeared to be stacked more against rather than for them at the time though.

Explained Donald, “When we started The Garage we were £25k overdrawn. Now, you try opening up a club the size of The Garage these days on an overdraft of that size. No f****ing chance. But it’s really about having the bravery, or is it stupidity, maybe naivety, to do it. And we did! “It’s also about thinking on your feet. Instead of being shut down for overcapacity because we had a ballroom licence, an archaic thing from the past, with a ridiculous capacity of 600, and we were cracking in 2000 odd a night, we re-invested a million in a balcony and made it fit for purpose instead.We didn’t even lose a day’s trading.”

Would he do it again? “I probably wouldn’t because after the banking crisis of 2008 I know what loss feels like and to be pulling your hair out, worrying over debt when you’ve got a family and being continually screwed. But back then, when we first started it was f***ing great. You felt invincible, money was starting to pour in and our bank would do as they were told and bend over backwards to help, instead of trying to screw you.”

And as coincidence – or universal forces – would have it, Donald recently unearthed some interesting stuff hidden away within the bowels of this iconic Sauchiehall Street building.

He explained, “The building may have been The Mayfair in a previous life, but we discovered when taking some plaster down a few weeks ago an old air-raid warning sign from WWll, back in the days when it was called the Gainsbourgh. I didn’t realise that they were dancing the jitterbug while Luftwaffe bombers were screaming overhead, and that was such a humbling moment.”

Despite firing off the one-liners and him being a good laugh, Donald takes his job seriously. He said, “I’m not just a promoter or a club owner. I’m a custodian who’s nurtured and looked after that building for 25 years and there were people doing that way before us. It used to be a row of terraced houses and if you go into the G2 Lane you can see the building and that would’ve been the backdoor. Once in, there’s a wee hidden staircase that the servants would’ve used, going all the way up to the attic. Many years later the Bowie family lived in it. They’re my long-term landlords now of course.

“Apparently it was an Edwardian house and that’s why it’s got the big pillars when you go up the stairs. That was the front door and I can just picture a horse and carriage waiting outside. But in the end we are now looking after it and hopefully one day my family will continue to do so. I really hope it’s always here as a place of entertainment, and to quote the film The Shining, ‘you’ve always been here’.”

Donald proved to be a font of information on the area’s history as well as the building’s. He said, “There was a stone mason in the G2 car park, because underneath there’s the Sauchieburn which, I think, is now dried up. It would’ve served the stonemasons and it’s rumoured that the stone of destiny was once hidden there.

“Sauchiehall Street means ‘Willow Avenue’ in old Scots, which is why they’re planting treesas part of Glasgow’s controversial Avenues Project. Maybe in Japan the willows would have already been planted and be blossoming, but in Glasgow at this rate of pace it might never be finished. They also didn’t pick willows. Apparently there’s a problem with their roots and electricity conduits.”

So what were the other highlights from the last 25 years which have seen major support from brewers like Heineken and brands like Strongbow?

Said Donald, “Prince was one of the obvious ones, but also Roger Taylor from Queen who played about a-year-and-a-half after Freddie past away. Roger had problems with his eyesight and we had torches when he came off stage and he took a left instead of a right and crashed into a pinball machine and started flapping it. I said you’ve got to put money in it before it world pal!

“Ian Dury’s last performance before he passed away with liver cancer was also memorable. Then there was Gary Newman, and walking by and catching him putting his wig on. I thought, who’s that bald guy? Meeting Noddy Holder from SLADE in 1999, was also special , apparently they started out there back in the early ‘70s. The walls in the club say it all, from Coldplay, Muse, Biffy Clyro – there’s tonnes of highlights.”

There were also plenty of pranks along the way too of course. Explained Donald, “The Bloodhound Gang was so much fun. Lead singer Jimmy Pop asked for a mobile number that they could put up so people in the audience could win Bloodhound Gang prizes. I knew he was at it. I gave him Mark Mackie of Regular Music’s number and half way through gig they flashed it up ‘Please phone this number for free Bloodhound gang merchandise’. He was still getting calls three months later from people saying ‘where’s my f***ing merchandise ya bastard?’

And 25 years on, what are Donald’s concerns about the climate in which licensees are operating nowadays?

He said, “My concerns are many. From high business rates to the highway robbers of the music industry, the PPL. I also lament the loss of the opportunities given to entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial spirit in terms of financial backing, in terms of the banks being allowed to kill business and then set it up the way they want it.Everything from turning us into a cashless society to removing lending, yet I’m still encouraged that there are still good entrepreneurs out there. Maybe not so many in the live music world, though. That’s a hard niche to break into because it’s now controlled by the giants, like LiveNation and AEG.

“I’d say we’ll be a cashless society in as little as 10 years. I was in a café in Aberfeldy recently and they wouldn’t take cash because it’s a two-and-a-half hour round trip to drop it off because they’ve closed the f***ing bank. That’s not good news for business, especially the hospitality trade.

Finally, I had to ask him if he’s still living as wild a life? He said, “I don’t go out as many nights at all. I cycle when the weather’s better and nobody’s nicked my bike, and I’m dedicated to my Aikido. I’m no saint though. Usually when a band is coming I historically know and used to party with , I initially panic, thinking ‘Oh no, that means I’m gonna get f***ing burst.’ And then when we meet up,I realise that they’re the same age as me and that they just want a quiet night as well. Like me and my pal Huey from The Fun Lovin’ Criminals. We now look at each other, wondering who is going to be the first to chicken out. Then there’s a standoff before we both realise we ain’t gonna last the pace and decide to go home. Not always though …


Jason Caddy