Around the Bloc+: John Burns interview

John Burns

BLOC+ BAR IN GLASGOW’S BATH STREET HAS BEEN A FIXTURE ON THE LIVE MUSIC SCENE FOR MANY YEARS, AND ACTUALLY CELEBRATES ITS 20TH ANNIVERSARY THIS YEAR. MAIRI CLARK SPOKE TO FOUNDER AND OWNER, JOHN BURNS ABOUT WHAT THE LAST TWO DECADES HAVE BEEN LIKE.

Twenty years ago, the design of Bloc+ was a breath of fresh air in Glasgow’s on-trade. John Burns, then in his late twenties, had been on the club scene for a good few years, flyering and running nights at The Tunnel, Archaos and over in Edinburgh. But the rave scene of the nineties was dwindling, raves were getting cracked down on and, with a young family, by 2001 Burns felt it was time to start getting a proper income.

He says, “I originally thought I was opening a pub by day and techno Mecca by night. I had never run a pub, but when you’re that age, you think “it can’t be that hard”. Well, it was. After months of exciting and exhausting planning and discussion, we opened our doors on January 11th 2001. These were my formative years in the bar trade.

“We were more of a style bar back then, with banging techno at the weekends. In reality we were more of a meeting room for sheriff officers! We never made a penny in those days.

“Luckily, back then I was a master of disguise and also suffered from a rare and convenient hearing disorder whenever they asked to speak to the owner. “Naw mate, I’ve never heard of him.”

“That was also the era of the good old Glesga gangster, taxing anyone they could, which brought us a few hairy moments and the odd “You’re getting ripped when we come back”. So that was fun! It certainly was a lively place with lively characters passing through and I guess that sums up our city as well.”

The inspiration for Bloc+ came from a pivotal moment in John’s life the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He says, “I vividly remember watching the TV in awe as that symbol of dictatorship was torn down. So BLOC+ for me meant showing the positive sides of the Eastern Bloc through music, art and design.

“Throughout the early ‘90s, my love was all things techno and I was a huge fan of the rave scene, so it’s fitting that I attended my first proper festival in 1991, in the reunified Berlin. It was called “The Love Parade” and it was an incredible display of unity, packed with top-class techno and rave shows and a good 250,000 people, partying and celebrating over one very long weekend. This trip quite literally changed my life and opened my eyes to all sorts of possibilities.”

At the time, John was planning his debut in the trade, Scottish band The Shamen had enjoyed nearly a decade of success, and embodied the electronic techno that John felt needed an outlet.

He says, “I was already a huge fan of Russian constructivism and that interest, combined with my new- found love of that part of the world, was a galvanizing factor behind BLOC’s design and feel. Constructivism is described as: “Abstract and austere, [aiming] to reflect modern industrial society and urban space, [rejecting] decorative stylization in favour of the industrial assemblage of materials. Constructivists were in favour of art for propaganda and social purposes, and were associated with Soviet socialism, the Bolsheviks and the Russian avant-garde.” That last part in particular resonated with me.”

And from there the unmistakable look of Bloc+ was born. Collaboration and discussion with designer Jonathan Scott, the designer behind many of the early covers of The Shamen

John says, “It was this steady, unforced, organic evolution that brought us to where we are today. Of course, the transition wasn’t always smooth. What was needed rather was a gang-hut for creative, awkward, alternative- minded folks of many stripes to meet, merge and make magic happen.”

In 2003, John had about a fiver in the bank, having invested all his savings in the pub. Enter David Parry – known fondly by John as The Madman.
John says, “Davy is a one-man party that never ends and has also been my best friend for the last 30 years. He played an enormous part in BLOC’s survival in the early days when the company was on its arse and on the brink of bankruptcy. He saved us from disappearing into the growing abyss of failed small independent pubs and a belief that things would come good eventually.”

It was the arrival of Craig Carrick in 2005 that ruffled a few feathers. some of the old school types were unimpressed by the amusing new signs that he put up and they let us know. John explains, “Craig put up signs such as “It’s not only canoes that tip”, “Nae winching’ at the bar (unless it’s a very close relative so we can phone the polis)” which brought out a few funny glances.

“By around 2004/05, the pub had acquired its own identity and, ultimately, that became more meaningful than any vision I ever had to start with.”

Bloc+ rejected the “pay to play” model for bands, instead it chose to pay bands and throw its weight behind the free-entry concept, resulting in a breeding-ground for undiscovered talent. Their ethical approach was by simply paying, feeding and watering all musicians who performed.

John says, “I constantly would hear people saying so and so came to Bloc+ and discovered a new band. That’s what we wanted.” The USP of Bloc+ is that it is the embodiment of its audience. It has always been inclusive, its neon sign on the wall says ‘Not For Everyone’.

John says, “We wanted a safe refuge. A home from home for people who wanted to feel appreciated and at ease. This was reflected in our clientele. We had a spread of ages, genders, dress and accents. It became clear that BLOC+ could appeal to anybody from any walk of life. What also became clear was that not everybody liked that fact. Snobs, yobs, racists, bigots and general wankers never really seemed comfortable and that was cool with us. In fact it was a problem that sorted itself out.

“As I see it now, the second era of BLOC+ – Phase II – ran from about 2005-2011. This marked a huge watershed in our musical history and, in essence, is when BLOC+ really found itself. We burst into the world of live music in typically noisy fashion, with young local acts all the way up to international touring bands making regular appearances. The old guard shipped out and a new breed of tattoos, beards and chequered shirts took the place over. That sea change was largely instigated by Craig. He was a raw young talent and rough around the edges, just like BLOC+. A true maverick whose thinking outside the box brought us inspired new ventures such as “The Wee Jaunt” (a bus-load of gig-goers ferried around pop-up concerts in bizarre locations) and “Blochestra”, which was, for a time, the beating heart of BLOC+ and really captured the community-minded spirit of our brand. It was all very unpolished, 100% DIY and pure fucking magic!”

In 2011, Craig emigrated to Australia and Bloc+ started to garner attention winning industry awards for its status as a music venue.
Chris Cusack took over from Craig and, John admits, took BLOC+ to a new level of professionalism on the live music front and put us on the touring map, both in the UK and internationally, with his bookings.

However, Chris was not a person with a love of computers. As social media was starting to take hold, Bloc+ needed some digital

input, which was supplied by Halina Rifai who joined in 2015. John says, “That was the beginning of Phase III. A workaholic, hit-woman, consummate professional and social media/PR wrecking-ball, she’s hard as nails and is the one person who really taught us the dark arts of how to use the now-essential tools of social media and more to succeed in the modern marketplace.” Halina changed the Bloc+ brand, developed its reputation for food. Before she moved on to pastures new earlier in 2020, Halina did ultimately bring some order to the chaos.
“We were able to start a very successful trade in home deliveries in 2019 thanks to her considerable efforts,” John says. “Something which has proven invaluable since lockdown struck in 2020. Halina rose to become the queen of all things social media at BLOC+, as well as PR, photos, the label, videos, receipts, communications … plus another 20 or so roles.”

From talking to John, the feeling you get is that Bloc+ is not so much a place of work, but a place where people are drawn to and just happen to get paid to work.

John says, “Our staff are like family. They embody what Bloc+ is. They socialise there, they see each other outside work, who knows what they all get up to? But they have a pride in what they do. Our bar manager, James Aitkinson, is just amazing. He is the ultimate front-of-house maestro. Customers and staff love him. He just knows how to work the tables.”

Covid has had an effect on Bloc+, but John has been determined to remain open for takeaway.

He says, “We’ve established a takeaway service anyway, so it made sense to continue to do it. But I wanted to do it as much for the staff as for business reasons. Our staff live and breathe Bloc+ so despite being furloughed, it’s a way of life. They miss the socialising, their friends, the banter.”

He’s pessimistic on live music being put on in 2021. He says, “I see adverts for gigs in June and July and I think, what do you know that I don’t? I don’t see us putting any music on until 2022.” Bloc+ remains a stalwart of Glasgow city centre and John, who turns 50 this year, believes it will sail through this storm comfortably. He says, “I’m already planning what we’re doing with the label and festivals. I’m doing some promoting and Bloc+ is going from strength to strength. I’m not ready to retire yet, so my plans for the future? Just to stay alive!”.

BOOC+, the book created to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Bloc+ is on-sale now for £20 and can be bought from www. bloc.ru/booc

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