Time’s a funny thing, ain’t it?
Forty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to bring myself to admit that the Bay City Rollers had any musical credibility at all, such was the black and white adolescent certainty, in those days, about what constituted good music, and what did not.
In the eyes of my equally snobbish pimpled cronies and I, The Rollers were the epitome of what was wrong with modern music – manufactured, saccharine and musically lame. How could so many thousands of people get it so wrong? How could so many beautiful young people swallow their collective pride and feel it was OK to be seen wearing ‘Roller Strollers’ in public?
Then, ten years on from their heyday, on one of their ‘comeback’ tours, I bought a ticket to see them play at a local sports club on a cold, snowy night in Canberra, and sang along without guilt, albeit ‘ironically’, with their hits – annoyed when the show was interrupted twice by prank bomb scares.
Thirty years further on, and now with a greater sense of perspective, I have to see the music of BCR as one of the many glorious colours that make up the tapestry of modern pop – because their music, in its deceptive simplicity, and sweet layered harmonies, provides a conduit to reignite the intensity of emotional feeling that those formative years held for so many. They did sell 300 million records, after all!
When Rollers’ lead singer, Les McKeown, brought his latest incarnation of the band to Australia last year the response was emphatically positive. Due to their delight at the success of the tour, the promoters quickly offered the band an opportunity for a return visit in 2018 – an offer that Les, on behalf of the group, was only too happy to accept.
Speaking with Les on the phone, he spoke enthusiastically about his forthcoming return, and seemed pretty happy with the way things are currently unfolding for him and his band.
The Upside News: Hi Les, it’s The Upside News in Adelaide once again…
Les McKeown: How you doing, alright? (Laughs) We’re coming back to Australia!
TUN: That’s right! It was only a year ago that we chatted, and you were saying how excited you were about coming back to Australia for the first time since 2007.
TUN: So, no waiting for a decade this time around. What’s bringing you back here just a mere twelve months later?
LMc: I think it was just the reaction from the fans, really. Metropolis Touring are a really good outfit over there – they’re professional, and the dust hadn’t really settled on the  tour yet and I was asked to come back this year. So I said, ‘Yeah! Why not?’ The fans were really digging it – there’s a word from the old days, eh, ‘digging’ it! (Laughs) – and they liked what we do, saying they wanted us to come back, so – yeah! We were really pleased.
TUN: Yes, it is great that you are coming back. Were you surprised at the level of interest that was so evident last year? I mean you were on TV talk shows, interviews on other media, and obviously the shows went really well…were you surprised?
LMc: Yeah, it never fails to surprise me how popular the Bay City Rollers music still is. I mean, over here in the UK we tour three months in springtime and three months at the end of the year and the places that we play – you know, there’s lots of [fans?] as you are probably well aware – so there’s a lot of places to go, and we just go and play everywhere, basically! (Laughs)
TUN: Last year you did say you had been doing around 150 shows a year in the UK – are you still keeping up that frenetic pace?
LMc: Um yeah – but maybe slightly less than that this year. I wanted to do, like three a week, rather than four or five a week. I’m getting a little bit old! (Laughs)
TUN: Well people seem to be blind to the fact that you are ageing – fans still seem to be keen to relive their youth when they come to see you…
LMc: Yeah, it’s a great atmosphere at the gigs, it really is. I mean, we all treat it with great respect. We try our best to reproduce the music the way it was on the records, we wear the iconic shirts that the Bay City Rollers were famous for, and just keep the right attitude about the whole thing. You know, we tell some little anecdotes about when we were younger and all that kind of stuff. It seems to go down really well!
TUN: So, will this year’s show be a reprise of the greatest hits show that you did last year, or will there be some new surprises this time around?
LMc: Well we try not to fix anything that’s not broken. I think the fans of the Bay City Rollers want to kind of ‘relive’ a moment in time, you know, so we don’t really want to…I mean, I have a new album out with my own stuff on it, songs from the past that I wrote back in 1974-75 called The Lost Songs – you can listen to that on iTunes, if you’d care to – and I’ve got another album that’s almost finished and that will probably be finished by the time I get to Australia, and maybe I’ll be able to bring some of that out with me. But [playing new material] is not something we try and do at our concerts, we try and focus it on reliving the Bay City Rollers days, if you know what I mean.
TUN: The Lost Songs album…you mentioned that last year, telling me how the tracks on it were old songs that you had found up in your attic, but I’m interested to hear you have a new album coming up. Is the new one a Les McKeown solo album? Or a full Bay City Rollers album?
LMc: It’s just going to be my album. With new material. I haven’t even come up with a title yet – that’s always a last minute thing, that…
I’ll be going up to Glasgow to finish it. There’s about three songs I need to finish, I need to revoice – and that will be it. Done. And then we’ll do some cover photographs , or whatever.
You know, maybe it should be a Bay City Rollers album. Maybe that would get more traction! (Laughs)
TUN: Are the songs on the album in that classic BCR pop form, with classic pop themes? Or is it more topical?
LMc: Well, it is pretty much Bay City Roller-ish, but there are a couple of songs I’ve done, sort of poignant sort of songs – one’s called Bones, which is very interesting. It’s sort of retrospective, I suppose. I’ve been looking back over the years and thinking about what did I do really well back then? People still want that happy-go-lucky kind of song from me. But there are a couple of real depressing ones on this album! (Laughs)
TUN: That must be the age – the wisdom – coming through is it?
LMc: Yep. (Laughs)
TUN: It’s interesting that you were saying that you’ve been looking back to see what you did really well. One of the questions I wanted to ask you was since you’ve been playing and singing these songs from the Rollers songbook for so long, do you ever stand back objectively and look at those iconic songs and analyse and appreciate the factors that made them have such longevity? Do you ever just marvel at the songcraft that went into creating them?
LMc: I dunno. Because I’m doing it all of the time – you know, I’m more or less permanently on tour. Let’s see March, April into May…that will see us finished with touring in the UK, and then we’ve got festivals to do through June, and then we’re coming to see you guys in Australia for July and August…and then when we come back, well we’ve got a few days off and then we start our autumn tour in the UK! Then, of course, we go over to Japan in February, and then – who knows? We might get asked to come back to Australia again next year! You just never know.
TUN: That’s pretty frantic isn’t it? Not a lot of time for reflection then…?
LMc: Well, no. But I kind of like working at this kind of level. It’s pretty good.
TUN: Would you have thought forty years ago that you would still be this much in demand now?
LMc: No. (Laughs) I’ve recently actually tried to calculate just how long I’ve been singing. I’ve been on the stage since I was fifteen and a half – that’s forty seven years that I have been singing in bands! And I got to thinking, ‘God almighty – where did the time go?’
TUN: If you tried to tally up the hours on stage over those years, you’d be even more amazed!
Today’s musical landscape seems to be so crowded with all sorts of new genres and new artists, are you surprised that there is still room for so many bands from your era to still have such a – I won’t say ‘comfortable living’ – but to have that demand for you all still there so strongly?
LMc: I feel pretty privileged that there is still such a great audience who wants to sing along with our songs and reminisce and be reminded of times that were completely different to the ways things are now that we’re older. It’s a bit about escapism, that kind of thing, and at my gigs there’s always smiling faces, and people are always happy – about as happy as they can be, really. So, yeah – I think I’ve got a pretty good job!
TUN: You mentioned a few minutes ago, about the summer festival season. I notice that whenever I see advertisements for British festivals that the line-ups are so diverse – do you gravitate more towards the 70s – 80s artist packaged festivals? Or do you find yourself, sometimes, coming on stage between sets by, say, a death metal band and a hip-hop outfit, or something like that?
LMc: Absolutely. We’re doing a thing called ScotFest up near the airport and that’s got pop bands from different era (NB: The 2018 line-up features The Jacksons, Five, B*Witched, 5Star, East 17, Liberty X, Boyzone….) – you know, boy bands, girl bands and DJ mixing and all that kind of stuff – I dunno, I don’t listen to that kind of stuff myself, but…
Yeah, you know, when they want a bit of history they usually have me come along and do the festival – I don’t know if it’s because they want to put a stamp of some sort of authenticity on or not. I don’t know.
I do often end up on a really strange bill, you know, with other people. It’s not always with people from the seventies, or historical stuff – some of the time it’s with new bands I have never even heard of.
TUN: So how do you go down with an audience when you are on one of these strange bills? I mean, do they respond positively and respect you guys?
LMc: Yeah. (Laughs) You know, I just think people appreciate good music played well, no matter what era it is from. If the guys are doing good, and they’re putting on a good show, and they are playing the instruments to the right calibre, then I think music fans appreciate that – no matter who is on the stage, you know what I mean?
TUN: Yeah. So, I notice that we occasionally get tours that come through town with more than one band on the bill – last year we had Racey, Paper Lace & The Rubettes, and we had Howard Jones here together with Kim Wilde, for instance. When I talked to them, they said they do a lot of these combined tours with their contemporaries back from their time on the charts.
I see that last year you went out with The Sweet and David Essex – even The Osmonds – and bands like that…So do you all sit around over a whiskey or two and share old tales about being on Top Of The Pops and of dodgy record deals and other old music biz war stories?
LMc: No, not really. (Laughs) Usually you hardly see the other people that you are on tour with. They are on stage, when you’re getting ready to go on stage, or you’re getting packed to leave. There’s not, like, a really big ‘green room’ kind of type atmosphere where everybody hangs about – because we’re all busy doing something, or going somewhere, or arriving from somewhere…
TUN: Aw, you have just dispelled this little mental fantasy image I had where you were sitting around with all these people who you used to be competitive chart contenders with, and, you know, you bury the hatchet and…
LMc: Well, yeah, we always do that, yeah! (Laughs) There you go…
TUN: If we can go back to The Rollers heyday, one of the things that strikes me now, in hindsight, is that the band covered a pretty diverse range of songs by other artists – like songs by The Four Seasons, Dusty Springfield, David Bowie, The Raspberries, people like that. So that is, collectively, a pretty tasteful bunch. So it makes me wonder – were you all pretty serious students of classic pop? Did you get to choose those songs yourselves, or was it a decision made by your management?
LMc: [We’d sometimes sit around] a table where we would listen to songs that either some people in the band liked or that we thought would suit us. The song Bye Bye Baby just popped out as a really great song with all those harmonies and stuff on it. And that proved to be one of the successes that came from those sessions that we used to have, you know, where we used to bring along some records and have a listen to them – ‘What do you think about this one? What do you think about that one?’
TUN: Were there any songs that the band covered back in those years that didn’t fit the image at the time that are now locked away in the record company vault and are going to come out in a boxed set soon?
LMc: (Laughs heartily) No, I don’t think there’s any that are going to come out in a boxed set very soon! (Laughs)
TUN: It seems to be all the rage…
LMc: Yeah, but I think we’ve released, more or less, everything the Bay City Rollers did since their inception…
TUN: Again, if you listen to the Rollers songs now, it seems that they have everything going for them – they’re melodic, they’re catchy, they can be played ‘straight’, or with heavy irony by other artists – so why don’t more people cover Rollers songs? It seems to me that we have so many rehashed songs that come out at fairly regular intervals, but the Rollers material doesn’t seem to ever get a guernsey. What’s your view on that?
LMc: It’s a difficult thing to fathom really. The Bay City Rollers were, like, an unique thing that just happened. You know they tried to put us in with ‘glam rock’, they tried to put us in with ‘boy bands’… they tried to categorise the Bay City Rollers, but we never seemed to sit anywhere, really. They were just a thing that happened. And they meant a lot to a lot of people all over the world and they are a special memory for everybody.
TUN: Yes – which would lead to, you would think, more people wanting to cover the songs and bringing them back at regular intervals because they were so important to people’s lives…
LMc: Yeah, but we were missing a Lennon and McCartney in our band – we didn’t have two great songwriters like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, so we had to find our songs from other places. And some of it was by accident, and some of it was by design. But the biggest thing about the Bay City Rollers was the ‘event’ itself. You know, that kind of ‘Rollermania’ thing. That was the thing. The songs, of course, played a huge part in it but there wasn’t so much great stuff being written inside the band at that time.
Let me think. I’m just trying to think…well, there was one called Money Honey that was written by Eric Faulkner, which is a really strange song because, although it was a hit and all that kind of stuff, it doesn’t go down very well at a live concert. It’s just…awkward.
TUN: In what way?
LMc: It’s just the style – the beat of it – the tempo, and the whole rock thing. It just doesn’t sit right, with the key, with the others we play. We very rarely play that now. We might play it for Australia – because Australians like a bit of rock, don’t they?
TUN: We do, we do. I’m going to have to go and dust off the old vinyl album and play that song now that I’ve spoken to you, to see exactly what you mean. It surprises me, because I remember that song quite well – it got a fair bit of airplay over here.
LMc: It was very successful. But it is just one of those songs that when we play it, it doesn’t get the kind of reaction that you think a hit song would get. It’s just weird. It just doesn’t sit right, so we very rarely play it.
TUN: You mentioned ‘Rollermania’ a minute ago. Do you still have to bring extra tartan shirts on tour these days, so that you can wear one on any given night whilst the previous night’s is being repaired after people have ripped off the buttons and the pockets for souvenirs?
LMc: (Laughs) Yeah! No, not these days. They don’t rip our clothes off anymore. (Laughs) Thank God!
TUN: What form does Roller fan fanaticism take these days then?
LMc: Well, I suppose it’s a little bit like it used to be, but maybe just a little bit quieter! There’s not so much screaming…
But everyone still says to me that the memories come back. There’s a lot of tartan on the stage, and, you know, they are looking at their idol from when they were thirteen years old, or something like that, and having a great time singing the songs that they’ve loved all these years. It’s pretty emotional, man!
TUN: I’m not immune to it myself. You’re talking to someone who is going to fly over to the UK this year to catch the latest Mott The Hoople reunion…
TUN: I’ll be one of those emotional old fans weeping at the back…!
TUN: Unfortunately, I was overseas last year when the band hit town, so I didn’t get to see your show. I’m pretty sure though that we would have given you the rousing welcome you would have come to expect from an Australian audience…
LMc: Yes, you did – absolutely!
TUN: Can you remember how the gig went down? You played at The Gov which is a great venue…
LMc: Yep, and we’re going to be playing there again, I think. All of the audiences in Australia were great. It really surprised me that I was still so popular! (Laughs)
The Metropolis touring people are really, really good. It’s a proper company, do you know what I mean? I have been offered the chance to be have been brought over to Australia before, but I’ve never really liked the conditions because they weren’t really proper promoters – and I didn’t want to be presented in a bad light, that sort of thing. I wanted it to be done proper. And when I got the opportunity to tour with Metropolis, that was exactly what I had wanted – so everybody was happy.
TUN: They have got you doing more shows this time around – more towns, and the secondary cities around the country?
LMc: Yes, it is going to be fun.
TUN: So, will you be getting much downtime to be the tourist?
LMc: Well, let’s see, we are out there for about four weeks – and out of those four weeks we will have a couple of days off each week, on the nights that, sort of, nobody goes out. A Monday, or Tuesday, or something like that. So we will have a little bit of time to do something – you know, wherever we’re near…a beach, or last time we went to a lot of zoos and stuff like that. That was good fun!
Or maybe we can just…sleep! (Laughs)
TUN: Well, Les, our time is up – thanks for giving up some more of your time to chat to The Upside News once again…
LMc: No worries, buddy. Come to the gig and say hello and let’s hang out!
Now there was an offer my teenage self would not have expected that I would ever receive!
Les McKeown and The Bay City Rollers will be playing at The Gov on Thursday, August 2, 2018.
Tickets are available at the usual outlets, or from: https://metropolistouring.com/bay-city-rollers/