By his own admission Donald MacLeod is a gambler, though not the sort you see nudging pay-lines on a puggy or betting on the number of drop-ball re-starts in a football match. The thing he has made a career out of taking a punt on is musicians – ones he likes, primarily, but also ones he thinks other people will like and will pay to come and watch.

He is, if you haven’t already guessed or don’t already know, a rock promoter and nightclub boss, that special breed so vital to the rock ecosystem. Someone once said of flamboyant American impresario Bill Graham that he was a cross between Mother Theresa and Al Capone. It’s true of all successful promoters to a greater or lesser degree.

“It is an extreme form of gambling,” says MacLeod. “The rewards are great and they keep you in it, but when you think of it, 80% of the money’s going to the band and the bigger the band gets the more they get and the less you get. You can lose your house and home – not that I’ve ever done that.”

A fixture of the Glasgow music scene for decades now thanks to his association with storied rock venues such as the Cathouse and The Garage – Prince played there once, but we’ll come to him presently – MacLeod has an almost unrivalled view of the city’s night-time economy and the vital place within it of rock music. It’s safe to say then that the new Herald columnist is not a risk-averse man. Is risk, in fact, part of the appeal?

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“I suppose it is,” he admits. “It’s the danger. It’s everything about it. One, I love my music. Two, I want these bands up here, I want to see them here. And then you’re taking the gamble and hoping that other people will and that other bands, especially unknown bands, want to be seen by the public.”

And at the heart of it all is something else that’s very simple: a deep and abiding love of music.

“If you’re a music man, whether it’s blues, rock, whatever, it doesn’t go away,” he says. “Music shaped my life.” Added to that is the buzz and the love of the buzz, and that’s a feeling that never dissipates either. “I’m 59, I’m not the wee boy anymore but I still feel like the wee boy. I mean yesterday I put on sale tickets for Fun Lovin’ Criminals. They’re great friends of mine and we go back a long, long way, and I suppose I can say that most of the acts I promote become very good friends because I’m not the kind of promoter that just sits in the office and hides away from the band. If there’s a band I like and I’ve put on, and discovered them or wish to promote them, I want to know who they are and I want them to know who I am – especially if I’m risking all that money. So I’m more of a personal promoter. And I like to get in with bands because I’m a musician as well. I can say that Josh homme of Queens Of The Stone Age is a very good friend, as is Huey Morgan from Fun Lovin’ Criminals – as is Dougie MacLean, going over to the other end of the scale.”

MacLeod did indeed start as a musician. Raised in Bishopbriggs, he caught the punk fever in the late 1970s and, as many did who were infected by it, he joined a band. So if by day he was a mere apprentice printer, by night he became a roaring, screaming, safety-pinned anti-authoritarian teenager with an electric guitar and a fuzz box – or he would have been if his band, First Priority, had actually played a gig. That changed when they blagged their way onto a bill at the legendary Glasgow Apollo supporting none other than The Clash. Yes, it’s true. Yes, he did hang out with the iconic rocker. Yes, he did have his amp stolen from the venue afterwards.

A decade of serious musicianship followed as he moved to London with First Priority, then re-located to Scotland and played in a band called The Crows. There were tours and support gigs, recording contracts and publishing deals. But it was as the 1990s dawned that he moved into promotion, opening the Cathouse in Glasgow and following that with other ventures such as The Garage. Guns N’ Roses, Oasis, Pearl Jam and Queens Of The Stone Age are just four of the iconic bands he has put on over the years.

HeraldScotland: The ClashThe Clash

And of course there was Prince. Then using an unpronounceable hieroglyphic symbol as a stage name but widely referred to as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, he flew into Glasgow to perform at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) in March, 1995. Your correspondent was at the gig and in the rosy afterglow of the experience was polishing his review on the train back to Edinburgh – meanwhile back in Glasgow Donald MacLeod was sitting in a venue quickly filling up with excited punters who found themselves staring at an entirely empty stage. “That was one of these gambles,” he says, picking up the story.

The deal itself was simple enough. For £15,000 cash, Prince would come to The Garage after the SECC gig and perform with his band. “It was surreal because you didn’t have email or the web or any of that, so it was question of picking up the phone and trying to get a plug [for the after-show gig] on Radio Clyde or in the Evening Times and then taking the gamble. We didn’t have a full band PA in The Garage so we had to hire in all the production, get leaflets out and hope that one the public turned and two, more importantly, he turned up.

“We had an empty stage and 800 odd folk in the place and no gear at all on the stage. We were waiting on the truck to come and unload and set up and that’s what they did, in front of the audience. So you can imagine that built up the whole excitement of the night. Suddenly the gear’s there so you’re pretty sure he’s going to come. Then the band start to slope in, cool as, with the trilbies and all that, and they just had a brilliant look about them. Furs on their shoulders, walking across the stage. Then finally, after you’ve told the security to bring him in the front door, he comes in the back door and almost face plants himself by tripping over the drum riser. That was brilliant.”

Then came the hard part: determining when (and if) he would actually go on stage. “He just sat there. I wasn’t bothering him, though to this day I wish I had a photograph.” Eventually one of the singer’s imposing security detail approached MacLeod and told him that The Artist Formerly Known As Prince – that’s exactly how it was phrased – would like to be paid. “I said: ‘Donald MacLeod doesn’t mind paying him, but Donald MacLeod wants him on that stage’.”

No pay, no play is reputed to have been James Brown’s motto, with the funk legend expecting a thick wedge of greenbacks before he would perform. Lore has it this would be handed over in a brown paper bag. Was that how it happened with Prince?

“It wasn’t in a brown paper bag but it was put down in cash in front of him … I said: ‘You’re not going to count it?’ and he said ‘No’. And within ten minutes he was on the stage’.

The rest, as they say, is Glasgow rock history.

MacLeod is quite the raconteur. The stories flow slick and easy. But busines is business, and business has clearly not been good over the last year, for obvious reasons. His serious work with the Scottish Music Awards and the Nordoff Robbins music therapy charity continues and is one of the reasons he was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list last year – “You have failed miserably in your attempt to reach Donald Cameron MacLeod MBE” runs his answerphone message today – but with clubs and pubs closed for a large part of the year, Glasgow’s night-time economy has taken a serious hit. The death of his brother at the start of the pandemic has made 2020 a year to forget for personal reasons as well.

“Music tourism is worth billions and I don’t think Scotland’s contribution to that through the contemporary music scene has been fully recognised, by all parties but mostly the present government,” he says when we come on to the pandemic. “Theatre’s getting the lion’s share of [government] money but they bring nothing to the party. It’s people like me, Geoff Ellis [of DF Concerts] and Mark Mackie [Regular Music] who have brought bands and different cultural experiences from around the world to Scotland. It’s us, the private companies, that have really put Glasgow on the map. And we’re not getting supported the way we should and I think that’s shameful.”

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Glasgow’s night-time economy is worth £2.16 billion, he notes, and employs nearly 20,000 workers. So while the city needs the cultural nourishment live music provides at street level, there’s also a strong economic case to be made which intersects with everything from the livelihoods of workers and musicians to Glasgow’s wider reputation as a tourist draw for music lovers. Not for nothing is Glasgow a UNESCO City of Music, the cultural organisation describing it as “a vibrant city with a legendary music scene.”

But it’s in those eight words, and is his own boundless enthusiasm for live music that Donald MacLeod finds cause for optimism. Besides, you don’t blag your way onto a Clash bill or negotiate as mercurial a talent as Prince by being a glass-half-fuller. The show will go on because it must. The only real question is when.

Donald’s favourite …

BOOK

Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir series

FILM

The Shawshank Redemption

ALBUM

Hunky Dory and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars by David Bowie

TV SHOW

Band Of Brothers