Bay City Roller Les talks about leaving school to chase pop stardom

Les McKeown recalls that he had just the one ambition at school: to get expelled.

Tuesday, 16th September 2014, 3:25 pm
Les McKeown
Les McKeown

And he achieved it in the most spectacular fashion in a planned and rather revolting attack on the teachers’ lift. Permanent expulsion, just as he had hoped, was the result, a crucial first step towards becoming the lead singer with the Bay City Rollers.

“In 1969, I was desperately trying to get thrown out so that I could be a singer in a band. I managed it at the age of 15. What we did was really disgusting! But I hated school. In those days, the schools had classes of about 40, and secondary school was really terrible.

“I was interested in art and metal work, something to do with your hands, but the careers office was coming round wanting to recruit people to be North Sea gas fitters. All the North Sea gas was coming on line, and everybody needed it all changed so that they could take the new version of gas. About 98 per cent of my year went into the business. But I just said ‘I am going to become a pop star!’”

He was right. On November 18, 1973, he became a Bay City Roller.

“The tyrannical Tam Paton (the Rollers’ manager) came to see me perform at a disco in Edinburgh. We had developed the star status of the Saturday night band, and he recruited me. First of all I had to put my voice on all the records that went before.”

The band had been going a while, but their singles had flopped: “They’d had a single in 1973, and I had to quickly revoice it. The label had been going to drop the band. They needed something new.”

And so finally the Rollers were rolling, says Les who brings the latest incarnation of the band – Les McKeown’s Legendary Bay City Rollers –to Sussex for dates on Thursday, September 25 (7.30pm), at Chequer Mead Arts Centre, East Grinstead, and on Saturday, September 27 (7.30pm), at Horsham’s Capitol.

“The biggest break we had was on a show called Crackerjack. Another band couldn’t get to the studio, and we were in London at the time. And then we did The Basil Brush Show. That’s what helped us. There were only three TV channels at the time.”

Rollermania was unleashed, and the whole world seemed to go tartan. Beatlemania was evoked, and everyone went Bay City Rollers mad.

Remember, the Rollers’ first single with Les’ vocals, shot up the UK charts to number six and was quickly followed by Shang-A-Lang, Summerlove Sensation and All Of Me Loves All Of You, all hitting the top five. Bye Bye Baby was their first UK number one in May 1975 followed by Give A Little Love in July.

Their first US single, Saturday Night, went straight to the number-one spot in the Billboard charts, and their first British album Rollin’ was the first debut album to top the number one position in the charts. Singles over the next two years included Money Honey, I Only Wanna Be With You and You Made Me Believe In Magic. Between 1975-1978, they toured all over the world and played to sold-out crowds in the USA, Japan, Great Britain, Europe, New Zealand and Australia.

“It was great fun,” says Les. “It was just fantastic fun. We had watched Top of the Pops all the time, and we had thought it would be a great life to be able to sing and to make money from it. And the women just adored us. It was wonderful.”

As Les said, the band took great pride in getting all the harmonies right – which is exactly what he is still doing now.

“It really doesn’t seem all that long ago because I have carried on doing it. In some ways, it just seems a few years ago. We are bringing it all back to the stage, and there are still all the fans out there. You see new young fans out there doing all the crazy dances, and it is great. The music has still got the ability to touch them. The music was just really catchy.

“There was a time in 1975 when people got fed up with the Bay City Rollers. All the guys were wearing all the tartans, and Bye Bye, Baby was number one for what seemed like forever. That was our peak year, 1975. We had two number ones.”

But as Les says, it wasn’t exactly an overnight success. The band, without him, had been going since 1967 and had been known as The Saxons – hardly the best name in Scotland.

“In 1969, they decided to change the name by a unique process. They got a map of America and threw some darts at it, hoping that one of them would land on some groovy name, something catchy. Motown was happening; lots of bands were called after American towns and cities; and The Saxons really wasn’t a good idea!”

One of the darts landed near Bay City, Michigan. It turned out that their sports team was the Bay City Rollers. The name fitted perfectly. Four years later, they had the singer they needed for global superstardom.

“It was like some kind of weird, twisted apprenticeship we had. We were learning new things all the time. We just thought it was all part of what everybody was doing in the music business. We didn’t really realise what was going on. We were just loving it... and can you imagine just being constantly adored by all these thousands and thousands of women all the time.”

Inevitably the bubble burst, and did so fairly spectacularly in 1977. Punk arrived, but to an extent the band’s popularity in America and in Japan shielded them from it for a while. But the band was destroying itself anyway.

“It was really a very, very destructive, acrimonious divorce. The band almost went into full self-destructive mode.”

Call the Chequer Mead Box Office on 01342 302000 or the Horsham Capitol box office on 01403 750220.