In the arena itself – spacious, ultra-modern – the sightlines are great. Rod and his band come on: the sound quality is remarkable, while high-definition video screens at the rear of the stage – part of Stewart’s own touring set-up – bring the action up close to the audience member up in the gods. The opening song is This Old Heart of Mine, the Holland–Dozier–Holland classic, a hit for the Isley Brothers.
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The fans present that night aren’t to know it, but we are the first of an estimated ten million people – nearly twice the total population of Scotland – who over the next decade would enter the Hydro … for concerts, for sports events, for comedy shows, for all sorts of things. Ten million.
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“Rod loved the venue”, recalls Peter Duthie, Chief Executive Officer at the Scottish Event Campus, which incorporates the Hydro, the SECC and the Armadillo. “He was really excited. He confessed that he was nervous about going on stage to open the building – but he’s back a few times since”.
It quickly became obvious that the Hydro had filled a gap in the market, and not just because 80,000 people attended gigs in that first week (Rod was followed by the Jesus Christ Superstar UK Tour, Fleetwood Mac and Bruno Mars).
“In its first full year of operation it was the second busiest venue in the world, which is staggering”, Mr Duthie recalls. “There were people in New York, LA, going, ‘Glasgow? Really? How did that happen?’
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“But part of our research for the arena showed that people in Scotland have a far greater propensity to go to live music, live entertainment than anywhere else in the UK. That gave us a kick-start.
“Glasgow’s always had a great reputation. Artists loved the Barrowland, they used to love the Apollo, and they loved the audience in Hall 4 at the SECC”.
Planning for what is now the OVO Hydro began all of 20 years ago. “We started talking about the arena back in 2003”, Mr Duthie says. “We used to stage significant concerts in Hall 4, but obviously that was a temporary environment, with temporary seats and stage and artist facilities.
“It was compromised in a number of ways – one for availability, because we were also using the hall for conferences and exhibitions. All we could do was identify a gap in the calendar, construct a concert environment, make it available and let promoters know when it was available, and try to schedule as many concerts as we could.
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“There was one week when we ended up having to turn down bookings from Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder and Michael Bublé, because we couldn’t fit their tours into the time we had available. We thought we needed to do something about this.
“By this time, most cities in the UK had purpose-built concert arenas in some shape or form. Scotland needed one, and if there was going to be one, it had to be on this site.
“Artists were looking for greater availability and capacity; we could have 9,000 people in Hall 4 but the bigger artists were looking to sell more tickets and customers were looking for a better experience.
“We proposed an arena as part of a complete re-masterplanning of the site and pressed ahead. It took us ten years, for a variety of reasons – design issues, funding issues – to get to opening the building, but the wait for worth it”.
Prince is Hydro electric
While most of the world’s concert arenas are built around a sports pad for an anchor sports tenant (the US model has ice-hockey or basketball), the SEC team knew there was no potential for an indoor anchor sports tenant. Though the venue can accommodate sports (like boxing, and 2014 Commonwealth Games events), the decision was made at the outset to make it a live entertainment venue.
“That was the brief to the architects [Foster + Partners]”, Mr Duthie added. “It was essentially the Royal Albert Hall meets the Colosseum. Give us a venue where every seat faces the stage, where it’s compact enough for the artist to get as good an experience as the audience.
“We’re one of the very few arenas in Europe that is built specifically for live entertainment. The artists love it, as well as the audience, because it gives a much better experience”.
Much like Hall 4 before it, the Hydro has brought some of the biggest stars in the world to Exhibition Way, Stobcross Road, on the site of the old Queen’s Dock.
A small but representative sample: Taylor Swift, U2, Prince, Robbie Williams, Beyonce, Fleetwood Mac, Andrea Bocelli, Mariah Carey, Madonna, Paul McCartney, the Eagles, Elton John, Roger Waters, The 1975, Celine Dion, Ed Sheeran, Lana Del Ray, Take That, The Who, Kylie Minogue, Lizzo, Kendrick Lamar, Lewis Capaldi, Stormzy, Dua Lipa, Barry Manilow, Kings of Leon … and Michael Bublé and Lady Gaga, who both missed out on the SECC a decade earlier. Elaborate staging – for such acts as Madonna, Waters and U2 – can be accommodated, which helps to make Glasgow an essential part of artists’ world tours.
“The exterior was added by the architect in the course of design development”, Mr Duthie recalls. “It very much starts the experience before you get into the building. The artists love it too.
“The late, lamented Prince, who gave one of the best concerts I ever, got so excited because we turned the building purple in his honour. When Sam Smith played, the building was a rainbow.
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“Michael Bublé was here earlier this year, near the end of his world tour – 140 shows in 26 countries, I think – and he wanted to make a film record of it, here in the Hydro, which was a nice accolade.
“The first time he came here, he walked onto the stage and bent down and kissed the stage. He said, ‘I love this building. I know it’s an arena but it feels like a theatre’. The proximity of the audience to the artist, for the same sort of numbers, is much closer, so they really feel the audience’s reaction.
“I was completely blown away when Prince came on stage. It was mesmerising. There have been so many memorable shows here: the History of the Eagles concert. Bruno Mars was sensational. The audience reaction the first time Simple Minds played here was phenomenal – it was the first show recorded here for DVD release.
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“There’s been such a diverse range of content here”, Mr Duthie continues. “There’s literally something for everyone. Sports events, such as the Andy Murray event, the Commonwealth Games, boxing. Comedy, too. Kevin Bridges has sold more tickets than anyone else in the SEC’s history over the best part of 40 years. The Still Game live show sold something like 220,000 tickets on its first run – it was extraordinary. There have also been kids’ shows, Disney on Ice, monster truck events, too.
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“The business plan was based on 700,000 visitors annually, and every year – bar the Covid years, obviously – we’ve done over a million”. Last year, when there was a post-Covid demand for live entertainment, the Hydro staged 150 shows, which between them attracted 1.2 million visitors – which is remarkable”.
The Hydro, which at peak capacity can accommodate 14,300 in a combination of seated and standing – has consistently ranked in the top five worldwide venues in terms of tickets sold. In 2019 five venues each sold over a million tickets; one in London, two in New York, one in Mexico City, and one in Glasgow. “When you look at the population bases of those other cities, it’s extraordinary. Really, the success of the Hydro is driven by our legendary audiences”.
The SEC Campus has had a plan in place for a few years to expand the conference facilities. “Given the success of the Hydro, we know the opportunity is there to enhance Glasgow’s reputation in the conference market, in which it is already very strong”, Mr Duthie says. “The challenge is, it requires government funding, because the benefit will be an economic one rather than a direct commercial benefit.
“But effectively as a public infrastructure project, it will pay for itself within ten years, in terms of tax revenues delivered through economic benefit. We just need to persuade a combination of UK and Scottish government to significantly fund it. Discussions are ongoing”.
Among the landmark conferences being staged at the SEC Campus next year is the 92nd Interpol General Assembly, which will be held from November 4 to 7.
The live-entertainment team at the SEC are in constant contact with concert promoters, who often compete for dates for Hydro dates. “It’s something of a juggling exercise in order to fit all the dates in”, Mr Duthie acknowledges. “Generally we get there. It’s very seldom we lose a show because we can’t find availability”.
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Like his colleagues, he is more than happy with what the Hydro has achieved in the space of a decade. “It has exceeded expectations on every front. And the regeneration of Finnieston, which was driven by the Hydro, was an unplanned consequence”. Finnieston, which is close by the venue, has changed considerably, with many more restaurants and other facilities than was the case back in 2010.
In the meantime, the Hydro continues to attract the biggest names in live entertainment. Beyond Shania Twain’s shows on September 22-23, future attractions include New Order, Deacon Blue, The Chemical Brothers, 50 Cent, Trevor Noah, The Prodigy and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Next year’s slate already ranges from Depeche Mode and The 1975 to Judas Priest, Simple Minds and Olivia Rodrigo.
Next November, incidentally, completes a circle in the history of the SEC venues. UB40 play the Hydro on November 16 – 39 long years after they played the very first concert in Hall 4. “Twenty-sixth of October, 1985”, says Mr Duthie, who was present that night, having joined the company the previous year. “The support act was Simply Red”.
Mick Hucknall’s evergreen band itself has played the Hydro, most recently in February 2022. Its debut album, Picture Book, came out around the time of the SECC gig. “It’s amazing”, Peter Duthie muses, “how many of these artists have been with us for the full journey”.