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From The Apollo To The Hydro, From Atmosphere To Convenience – Kenny Forbes


In today’s post, Kenny Forbes places the development of the Glasgow Hydro Arena into a historical context. He compares it to the legendary Apollo, and makes some observations about what the differences between the two say about the live music experience, and how it has changed.

A recent report in Music Week (Pakinkis, 2014) highlighted the steep growth in both live music events and audience attendances within the UK arena network during 2013, with rises of 20% and 25% respectively. A major contributor towards this upsurge was the opening of the £125 million Hydro Arena in Glasgow. The venue, which launched on 30 September 2013, has already made a considerable global impact. Even prior to opening, the 12,500 capacity venue had already attracted £15 million revenues in naming rights as the SSE Hydro. Appearances by a range of major artists such as Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake have, attendance-wise, helped the Hydro gain a position amongst the top five global arenas, with predictions being made that the venue will achieve a top three spot in due course (ibid).

If anything, the success of the venue within its relatively short timespan has functioned to emphasise its main purpose as that of a cultural-tourist magnet for the city of Glasgow. Indeed, the Hydro, which was the recent recipient of an architectural excellence award, assumes a prominent position on the city’s Clydeside waterfront, to the extent that the venue now regularly features in stock images of the city from a worldwide perspective. With the Hydro acting as a key fixture of what Urry (1990) refers to as the ‘tourist gaze’, Glasgow City Council, who own 90.86% of the Company that manage the venue, can be further gratified that the MTV Europe Awards will be held at the venue in November 2014.

Of course, such statistics and accolades say little about the live music experience at the Hydro. Indeed, the overall experience encompassing the two concerts that I have attended at the venue (Fleetwood Mac in October 2013 and The Arctic Monkeys the following month) was both pleasant and agreeable. On each occasion I drove to the venue, parked nearby (thus avoiding the venue’s rather steep £7 fee for on-site parking), and, after a short walk, reached the venue.

On entering the Hydro a vast array of snack outlets, bars and restaurants confront the audience member. This, along with sufficient toilets, cloakrooms, merchandise outlets, cash machines and VIP areas, means that the venue boasts ample facilities. This is all good and well, but what about the live music experience?

Well, upon entering the main auditorium the initial impression is of a relatively intimate setting, whereby the venue’s somewhat lopsided horseshoe design accommodates a fairly compact seating layout that acts to mask its large capacity. This is further enhanced by the excellent sound quality and good sight lines within the venue. Exiting the venue after the concerts was a reasonably quick and secure process, and on each occasion I was able to return home with the minimum of fuss and within a reasonable amount of time. Overall, attending a live music event at the SEE Hydro proved to be a pleasant and rewarding experience, and, if pushed, one could perhaps engage with some of the global-status rhetoric that surrounds the venue.

Such developments mark a notable transition in the city’s live music history. Forty years prior to the Hydro’s launch, Glasgow’s first major venue of the rock era, the Apollo, opened in the city centre. Following the initial concert by Johnny Cash, major artists such as The Who, The Rolling Stones and AC/DC, among many, many, others, regularly performed at this somewhat down-at-heel venue. The Apollo went on to become renowned as one of the key live venues on the UK circuit due to its large capacity, unique atmosphere and the high levels of engagement that emanated from the local audience. The venue finally closed due to extensive building maintenance issues in June 1985, and the newly-constructed Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC), which opened within three months of the Apollo’s demise, thereafter assumed the position as the city’s major live music venue until the Hydro opened in 2013.

However, despite the scale of this forty-year local trajectory towards the ultimate live music experience at the Hydro and the venue’s embodiment as a global symbol of Glasgow, it is the Apollo that resonates among many of the local audience, with this venue being regarded as being a more realistic representation of what the city essentially symbolises. Indeed, my current research on the Apollo has uncovered a depth of emotional attachment towards the venue that is unlikely to be replicated at the Hydro, notwithstanding its superior facilities.

As the ‘yin’ to the Hydro’s ‘yang’, the Apollo was a warts-and-all venue that had originally opened as Europe’s largest cinema in 1927. Poorly constructed and badly maintained almost from the outset, the venue facilitated a ramshackle setting from which elements of its unique atmosphere emanated. If you also include the venue’s dangerous-but-captivating shaking balcony, the highly vocal and boisterous local audience, over-enthusiastic Bouncers and the wide range of global-status artists who performed at the venue during their creative peaks, then a sense emerges about the Apollo’s idiosyncratic charisma.

My encounters at the Apollo embraced examples of the good (Sparks, The Jam, and The Ramones), the bad (The Boomtown Rats – three times!) and the ugly (the near-riot that accompanied The Clash concert in July 1978). However, no matter the artist, attending the Apollo was always a unique experience that reverberated for some reason. The atmosphere in the venue was discernible and elements of tangibility accompanied every visit, be it witnessing the Bouncers ‘in action’ or being confronted with the overall dynamics of what was normally an extremely loud live concert experience within this unique setting. I often returned home on the local bus (which stopped immediately outside the venue) with my ears still ringing, and covered in dirt from the unclean seats and the suspicious stains on the venue’s walls and threadbare carpet.

My thoughts turn again to my recent pleasant live music experiences at the Hydro, whereby the live setting was clean, safe and agreeable. Was the Hydro better than the Apollo? Of course it wasn’t.

Kenny Forbes, University of Glasgow and University of the West of Scotland


Pakinkis, T. (2014) ‘Back With A Vengeance’ Music Week. 28 March, pp. 19-20

Urry, J (1990) The Tourist Gaze. London: Sage

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