It is hard to imagine it, but there are currently thousands upon thousands of successful people in this world who once made the tragic fashion faux pas of being happily seen in public in their full tartan bedecked ‘roller strollers’, proudly declaring their allegiance to their favourite, and once most popular, band in the world: The Bay City Rollers.
The Rollers amassed in excess of 300 million record sales, and, in their seventies heyday, songs like: Shang-A-Lang, Give A Little Love, Saturday Night, Summerlove Sensation, Money Honey, Bye Bye Baby, Remember (Sha La La), I Only Want To Be With You as well as their hit version of John Paul Young’s song, Yesterday’s Hero, dominated AM radio airwaves and inevitably featured on Countdown every Sunday evening for years.
Those heady days, however, took their toll on the ‘Classic Five’ line-up of Les McKeown, Stuart ‘Woody’ Wood, Derek Longmuir, Alan Longmuir & Eric Faulkner.
Management hassles, naivete in contract negotiations, and the descent into the temptations of fame – drugs, booze and debauchery – meant the centre could not hold and the group inevitably broke apart, before reforming in various incarnations multiple times, only to break apart again and again.
Now, in 2017, a much healthier and happier Les McKeown is bringing his latest version of BCR back to Australia for a series of shows celebrating those heady days when Rollermania rocked the world.
The Upside News recently spoke to the former teen heartthrob, and found him in particularly high spirits…and despite a very bad line distorting the signal and making his thick Scottish brogue sound like he was talking through his tartan scarf at times, it was clearly evident that he was very excited at the prospect of returning to Australia once again this July.
The Upside News: Hello, may I speak to Les McKeown please?
Les McKeown: (pause) Erm…Just hold on a minute. I’ll see if he’s here. Hello, Les? You here? Yes….I’m here…
TUN: (Laughs) You had ‘McKeown’ there…!
LMc: (Laughs) How you doin’, alright?
TUN: Great. Hey, it’s been a while since you have been to Australia. What do you remember about those ’75 and ’76 Bay City Rollers tours?
LMc: I remember it was very hot…!
TUN: Well, they were both just before Christmas…
LMc: And loads of girls trying to get hold of me…and that’s all I can remember! Not that that was a bad feeling…
TUN: It was a bit of a whirlwind for you, wasn’t it, in those days?
LMc: It was. They were great days. Great days.
I really have great memories of Australia.
I’ve been to Australia many times. The last time was 2007 when I was part of the Countdown Spectacular Tour, and there was Molly Meldrum and John Paul Young who composed one of our hit songs, Yesterday’s Hero…
TUN: That’s right – so you had that Australian link from very early on?
LMc: Yeah, and what was great about that tour was I got to meet a guy who used to play guitar in The Bay City Rollers. I’d never met him before – David Paton.
TUN: Is that right? The guy from Pilot?
LMc: Yeah, exactly. He was the one who wrote January, and It’s Magic…(sings) ‘Oh ho ho, it’s magic…you know-ow…’
TUN: I actually saw you on one of your earlier Australian tours, back in 1985 in Canberra.
LMc: Oh, that was one of those reunions, was it?
TUN: Yes, I think so. And the crowd got evacuated a couple of times during your set due to bomb scares…was that the sort of thing that you had to deal with all the time?
LMc: Yeah. I can’t actually remember that particular event – but it sounds familiar, to tell you the truth.
TUN: I don’t think that was a very happy tour for the band anyway. I read somewhere that Eric (Faulkner) walked out at the end of that tour, didn’t he?
LMc: Yeah – he did a lot of that. (Laughs)
TUN: That sort of stuff had to be expected, I suppose. I mean you guys were pretty young when the band started…
LMc: We were. I had just turned eighteen, in 1974, when I was asked to join the band, and at the time they were already considered to be a one-hit wonder band, because the only hit they’d had was in 1971. But I was young and I wanted to join up with a professional outfit, so I joined up with the Bay City Rollers and they had these – what I think – were brilliant songwriters, Phil Coulter and Bill Martin. And our first song was called Remember, and I had to re-voice that because their old singer was on the original song, but they hadn’t released that.
So I re-voiced that, and Keep On Dancing, Saturday Night…all those kind of songs that those guys wrote.
Funny thing about Saturday Night – it was a bit of a flop in 1973 when they released it, and then that, of course, was chosen as our debut single for America, and when it was released it went straight to number one! So a quite bizarre run of events…
TUN: It is bizarre isn’t it? And back in those days you wouldn’t have had much say over what was released, or in what sequence…
LMc: Well absolutely not. And that’s what led to the release of The Lost Songs, my new album, which is all songs that I was composing back in the day, but people like Phil Coulter and Bill Martin said they were a bit rubbish and that I should leave the songwriting to the professionals, like them…
So, disillusioned, a little bit dejected, I left those songs. Obviously, a professional had told me that these songs were crap songs, so I’d better just forget about them.
Then all these years later, I met up with a Scottish producer who asked me, particularly, if I had any songs from that era.
So me and the wife, we went up in the attic to try and find anything that looked like it could be an ideas tape, or something like that, from the past. And we found an old briefcase, and inside the briefcase were these little microcassettes with ‘Ideas One 1974’, ‘Ideas Two 1975’, on them and all that.
So we put these to the producer and he said, ‘These are fantastic! We’ve got to work on these!’ So we went to work on them and we turned them into my new album, called The Lost Songs, which you can now preview on iTunes!
TUN: And I will…!
LMc: So I’m really happy about that. After forty years, my songs have made it to a CD! (Laughs)
TUN: Well, everything goes in cycles, doesn’t it – everything gets its turn.
LMc: Oh, I never expected it. That’s for sure.
TUN: So when you replaced…it was Gordon ‘Nobby ‘ Clark wasn’t it…back in ’73…
LMc: Yes, Nobby Clark left the band in 1973 and I was asked to join them.
TUN: I think there was one personnel change after that, and then that was the ‘Classic Five’ line-up. What was it about the chemistry of that particular group, at that time, do you think, that caused your popularity to explode?
LMc: Who knows? I mean, that’s the thing about chemistry. You just don’t really know what…there’s no science to it. That’s just the way it happens. I couldn’t tell you what it was that changed the [fortunes of] the Bay City Rollers.
Of course people will say, ‘Well, the singer was different.’ That was me. They might say that when I came into the band, things started to happen. But it could have been a multitude of reasons really.
But, in the event, it did happen – and I’m really happy it did happen, of course, but I didn’t really think the Bay City Rollers had the…what I mean is, that we all had this image of the Bay City Rollers when I was young that they were a one-hit wonder, and that they weren’t actually going to go anywhere else.
But when I joined, and I was only nearly twenty or so remember, I thought: ‘Well they’re a professional band. They’ve got their own P.A. system, their own roadie and the van, and lots of gigs.’
So that’s the reason I joined the Bay City Rollers – because they were working quite hard.
TUN: It seems to me it was like a perfect storm. There were others, like Kenny and Slik, and other bands of a similar ilk, but they didn’t achieve the success that you guys did. It was a phenomenal time…
LMc: Yeah. Well, those bands you just mentioned, they were post-Bay City Rollers. They just tried to recreate us, you know.
It was, I suppose, a type of ‘boy band’ type of thing by having bands like Kenny and Slik, and all that kind of stuff, but it wasn’t meant to be for them. They were too manufactured, if you know what I mean.
TUN: So when you look back on all the things that happened after your success – you know, the fight for royalties, and there were other hard times – do you look at the boy bands of today and say to yourself, ‘I wouldn’t want to be doing that again’? Or do the good times you had back then outweigh all that…
LMc: (Laughs) Yeah, I suppose, in a way, I wouldn’t want to be doing that again because there were some really bad times involved in all the good times.
We’ve settled with our old record company, and I’m really happy about that, but it just takes it out of you. Lots of years feeling ripped off, and all that kind of stuff.
When you think back on it, you think that was a waste of time, and you should have just let it go a lot earlier. Should have said, ‘Right – tough luck, you’re not getting paid for it. Just get on with your life!’ (Laughs)
TUN: So did it cost a lot of friendships in the band, those hassles and ongoing troubles?
LMc: It definitely did. It really messed with everybody’s heads, and that manager we had was a real animal, a real beast of a guy. So that affected everybody in the band really.
TUN: The band, over the years, have semi-reformed a number of times in various combinations. Is it just you this time around, or do you have any of the ‘Classic Five’ still with you?
LMc: No just me. Just little old me. And I’ve been doing that now for at least ten years. I’ve been building it up and bringing the Bay City Rollers’ name back into the public domain, sort of thing.
I did put together a reunion with Alan and Woody in 2015 and 2016 at Christmas time…
TUN: I read about that…
LMc: That was successful. We were only going to do it the one time, but then we said we’d do it just one more time, and now that’s it. Done. Done and dusted.
So now I’m just back on the road with me and my own band. Some of the guys have been with me for 27 years or so. We’ve been building our audience up, and now, these days, I do about 150 gigs a year in the U.K.
But this year I won’t be doing 150 – because I’m coming to Australia!
TUN: And your setlist, will it be solely BCR classics, or will there be some of The Lost Songs and other more recent songs to add a more contemporary feel to things?
LMc: No, no, we won’t be doing any new stuff. In fact, I’ll only do one or two things from my new album. It’s mostly a retro show, and the musicians we’ve got, we try and reproduce the records the way they sound on the records. So, all the guys in the band sing and play. We’ve got great harmonies, and when the guitarist plays his solos it is exactly the same as it is on the records. I try to reproduce the records as closely as I can.
TUN: And do you still wear the ‘Roller strollers’ and the full tartan gear?
LMc: Not the bottoms, but the tops we do. The trousers now, well they’re just normal trousers…(Laughs) But we wear the iconic shirts.
TUN: I was telling a few people that I would be speaking to you this evening, and there were some ladies of a certain age who suddenly went all glassy-eyed…
LMc: Hey, great!
TUN: And they said to ask Les if he’s still wearing the ‘Les tartan’, and then they started reminiscing about wearing all of their tartan regalia back in the day. It was funny to see just how many Bay City Rollers fans came out of the woodwork…
LMc: There you go, hey! And hopefully they’ll come along to the concert and have a great time going down memory lane with me.
TUN: They said they certainly intended to when you get here in July.
So is that the bulk of your audience these days? Those people who idolised you back then? Or have you attracted new fans over the years?
LMc: Well, over the years, things have changed a little bit.
There’s more guys who come to the concerts. There’s more kids who come to the concerts. Whether or not they’re the husbands, or boyfriends of the girls, or their kids, I don’t know, but there’s a big, diverse audience who come to see us now – which is quite amazing, because when you’re looking out and you’re singing to the crowd, they’re all happy singing along and, all the guys, you can tell, know all the songs inside out, singing all the lyrics.
It’s quite good. I don’t know what it will be like in Australia, but you never know…
TUN: I think you’ve still got a pretty big fan base. And I guess those guys who sing along, when they were younger, wouldn’t have been seen dead doing that…
LMc: Right! That’s right, absolutely! Guys would never come to a Bay City Rollers concert, back in the day…
TUN: Now a last question, if I could…
A few years ago, I read a book by the journalist Caroline Sullivan called Bye Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair With The Bay City Rollers, and she shyly didn’t name the guy in the band she had a crush on…
LMc: Oh yeah.
TUN: It was you wasn’t it?
LMc: Yes (Laughs)
TUN: Did you read that book?
LMc: Yep. I met up with Caroline Sullivan [again?] about ten years ago, and she was telling me about that. I was the apple of her eye, apparently…
TUN: You obviously have made a lasting impact on people all over the world!
LMc: Look, I’m super-happy that I’ve still got an audience to sing to, that’s for sure.
TUN: I’m sure your Adelaide show is going to be fantastic. And I know as soon as we posted on The Upside News that your tour had been announced, there was quite an incredulous response from people saying it will be great, and people have certainly been buying tickets…
LMc: Thanks very much.
And Ken, if you’ve got time, come to the show and do a review. Come along and let me know what you think.
TUN: Thanks Les, I might just do that.
LMc: Great! This is Les McKeown, on The Upside News, saying goodbye!
Les McKeown & The Bay City Rollers play a sold out show at The Gov on Wednesday July 12, but tickets are still available for Thursday July 13.
Tickets available from usual outlets.