Almanac Music: Bay City Rollers kilted up for encore

If you never lived through the first incarnation of Rollermania in the 1970s, it’s probably difficult to understand how much a group of working-class Scottish youngsters grabbed the music world by the scruff of the neck and created – however temporarily – a brand which sought and gained global domination.

 

But, even at this distance, the Bay City Rollers were a cultural phenomenon. Of course, they had their critics who dismissed such chart-topping hits as “Shang A Lang”, “Bye Bye Baby” and “Saturday Night” as, at best, catchy cheese and, at worst, banal bubblegum pop.

 

Yet these songs have been passed down from generation to generation.

 

They were post-Beatles and pre-punk and, for those of us who grew up amidst endless strikes, Cold War tensions and mind-numbing beige, the Rollers had an innocence and infectious quality which meant that we wore their tartan trousers even if we couldn’t bear to buy their records.

 

Les McKeown gets it and he should know. Back in the 1970s, the public wasn’t aware of the rancour and recriminations which existed behind the teenybop facade, and had no idea of how the young Rollers were being royally scammed by a predatory manager, Tam Paton.

 

The group’s dramatic Icarus-style fall to earth has been well-documented and I’ve interviewed McKeown before about his alcoholism and self-loathing.

 

He wasn’t alone among his bandmates. For many years, the Rollers seemed like an exercise manual in how NOT to enjoy the fruits of your hard-earned success.

 

But here’s the thing. More than four decades after producing some of the most infectious songs of their era, the Rollers haven’t merely returned, but they are headlining this year’s T in the Park festival on July 9.

 

And although McKeown is now 60, his eyes still burn brightly and he has the breathless qualities of somebody who can barely believe life has granted him and his confreres a blessed second chance.

 

As he told me: “I think we were a breath of fresh air in the 70s. There was nothing complicated about our music…although it’s amazing how many people who used to come to our concerts as teenagers are still coming back with their daughters after all these years and they’re singing our songs together. That’s pretty special.

 

“I think, in some ways, we are a breath of fresh air again. Whenever I go out on stage, you can sense the magic in the air and it is like old pals meeting up. We’ve obviously changed and you can’t turn back the clock, but there is a new connection and I sometimes pinch myself.

 

“I mean, this T in the Park gig is just so cool. I was flabbergasted when we were asked about it, and I talked to Allan [Longmuir] and we had a laugh about how life works out. He’s about to go over and do a one-man show in Toronto, but we will all be ready to give it our all next month.”

 

The sparkles and spangles might have lost their lustre after decades of litigation between various members of the Rollerati – even now, there are stipulations on how McKeown can promote his concert appearances, depending on the occasion – but the singer-songwriter is an altogether more energised, enthusiastic happy character these days from the man who told me: “I tried to destroy myself with alcohol back in 2008.”

 

Indeed, he is poised to release a new album “Les McKeown…The Lost Songs” in August which will feature a selection of the lyrics and melodies which he composed on the road at the height of the Rollers’ whirl-stop success four decades ago.

 

As he declared, he used to sit in hotel rooms across Europe, the United States and Japan and scribble down a plethora of words and tunes, dictating them into an old-fashioned tape recorder in the hope they would end up on the next Rollers album.

 

It never happened, of course. Or not last century. But now….! “I kept the tapes in a suitcase in my attic and I never imagined they would ever see the light of day,” said McKeown. “They were in limbo, but I’m ecstatic that they have now been turned into a great record and I’m very proud to finally have the chance to perform them for my fans.

 

“It wouldn’t have happened without the wonderful work of [multi-million-selling writer and producer] John McLaughlin. He listened to the songs and it is remarkable what he’s done with them over the last two years.

 

“There was the kernel of an idea there, but John has brought a magic touch to the whole thing. I started out thinking about whether people wanted new material, but we’ve had a fantastic time in the studio, and I’ve always thought the Rollers could up the ante and do more than just sing the original hits from 40 years ago.”

 

The fans needn’t worry. McKeown hasn’t morphed into some doleful purveyor of dirge or felt the need to ditch the shiny grooves which mean that Scotland in the mid-70s will be synonymous with Summer Love Sensation for many aficionados.

 

Instead, as he said: “Most of these songs were written a long time ago, so, of course, there are a lot of shuffles – our audiences have always loved them – and there are some nice ballads, a bit of variety, but I like music which lifts my spirits.

 

“John has done some incredible things with this project, and it’s going to be interesting to see what the response is from the public. They’ve shown me and the band a lot of goodwill in recent years – when we did the BBC Hogmanay programme, it was overwhelming – so I hope that I can give them something back.”

 

Les McKeown has had to endure plenty of privations since the Scots’ glory days in a faraway domain. Whatever one’s views on the Bay City Rollers, if would be churlish not to wish them well as the band warms up for the big festival stage.

 

Comments

  1. Neil Drysdale says:

    I know the Bay City Rollers were an acquired taste. But it was a real pleasure to speak to Les McKeown this week and it just made me think about how Scottish football has gone down the drain in the last 40 years. Last night, I watched Iceland – population 300,000 – qualify for the last 16, along with England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Scotland didn’t even get closd to the Euros. In that sense, maybe “Bye Bye Baby” was the message from the rest of the world to the SFA! Ah well…

  2. Perhaps SFA should adopt an “I only wanna be with you” approach and invest more in Scottish Football. Smaller nations than Scotland excel in football, look at Uruguay and even Iceland as examples. Not cash rich but culturally invested and resources strategically placed to develop players, facilities and competition.

  3. Neil Drysdale says:

    Good points Dave. There’s too much focus on the Old Firm in Scotland rather than trying to develop a truly national game. This isn’t helped by the SFA, which has blundered from one controversy to another for as long as I can recall!
    And I’m no spring chicken!

  4. Rita Michalopoulos New Jersey USA says:

    Our love and appreciation for Les McKeown is stronger than ever and we couldn’t be more happy for him that he is doing what he loves. The voice of The Bay City Rollers is about to wow us all with new “old”
    material and we wish him all the best! May life treat him kind as he is loved by many!

  5. Here’s to the Future. Whatever it may bring ? Maybe then we can all re-write the History Books. With that little bit more of the actual Truth. Until then I’m sure there’ll be another book for us to write. The “Complete BCR’s Story”. Xxx

  6. Neil Drysdale says:

    It’s nice to read these comments. The Rollers were totally scammed by their late manager and they have suffered many privations in the last 30 years. I think they deserve a second chance because these 1970s records are classic pieces of pop.

  7. Trucker Slim says:

    Thanks Neil for a pleasant memory of one of the pop sensations of 74/75.

    There is a sliding doors moment for the BCR as the other big rising pop sensation of that time was of course ABBA. I don’t know much about Les M and what happened, especially in the late 70s and into the 80s. I had already ditched that stuff and hitched my wagon to Punk. But you’re right, those singles are sweet and tuneful as ever.

    I see they are playing on the same bill as Stiff Little Fingers. I’m sure Les and Jake Burns could share a story or two.

    Surely there’s a doco (maybe Ken Burns could do it) on managers that have scammed pop music arists. Les and his crew sadly weren’t alone.

    Cheers

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