While delirious fans indulge in a nostalgia fest, the reformed Bay City Rollers would rather forget their dark history of pop exploitation, writes Dani Garavelli
THE performance of And I Ran With The Gang – the story of Bay City Rollers’ founding member Alan Longmuir – had just ended when a man sidled up to Longmuir in the auditorium. “My missus is a big fan of yours and is wondering if she could say hello,” he told him. So Longmuir spoke to her, and the woman, in her 50s, burst into tears. “I have been in love with you for so long,” she sobbed as her husband looked on in bemusement. That’s what it was like throughout the runs of the Edinburgh fringe show. Middle-aged women – some with dodgy hips or knees – would turn up with one aim: to recapture some of the giddy excitement of a time when half-mast flares were all the rage and five Edinburgh lads were rocking the music world. For a few hours, it was as if they were 14 or 15 again. They sang and danced and didn’t care how much they would suffer for it the next day.
Tonight, thousands more will flock to the Glasgow Barrowland to see three of the band’s classic line-up – Les McKeown, Stuart “Woody” Wood and Longmuir – get back together for the first of four sell-out concerts there followed by two nights at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.
Though there have been other reunions, they haven’t shared a stage since they performed at a one-off Hogmanay gig in the capital to celebrate the millennium. Doubtless the venue will be turned into a sea of tartan as fans are transported to a “safe place”: a time when they still lived with their mums and dads; a time before they had to worry about family commitments and paying the bills.
There is irony here, however. Because the carefree era the fans are yearning for never existed; or not for the band members, at least. And while the scarf-waving fans trade happy stories of watching their idols on Top Of The Pops, the memories rekindled for the musicians are likely to be much darker.
Never in the volatile history of pop music has a band been more ill-fated than the Bay City Rollers. Even at the peak of Rollermania, when they had money to burn and gangs of girls would pursue them down the street, they were miserable. Their manager, Tam Paton – a sort of Scottish Jimmy Savile, hiding in plain sight – used and abused them, forcing them to work 365 days a year and supplying them with drugs to keep them going. After the group imploded, things got worse. There were years of acrimony as former members fought for the millions they were owed. Desperate to salvage some kind of legacy from their fleeting fame, McKeown and Eric Faulkner launched rival spin-off bands, with Faulkner taking McKeown to court over his use of the BCR name. There were breakdowns and suicide attempts, alcoholism and stints in rehab; there were autobiographies and allegations of sexual abuse; and eventually there was Paton’s death and the hopes of a new beginning.
Yet even now – as the BCR bandwagon gets ready to roll – two members of the classic line-up are missing. We have been told Alan’s brother Derek, who was convicted of possessing images of child abuse, “just wasn’t interested” (although, in reality, his appearance would have been controversial and potentially damaging), while the “door is still open” for Faulkner to come back at any time. Faulkner is now a fairly successful folk musician, but those who remember the animosity between him and McKeown might wonder if his absence has more to do with an enduring hostility than a commitment to his solo career.
So dark is the shadow that looms over the Bay City Rollers, it seems odd the faithful feel able to embrace them as a symbol of all that was good about their adolescence. Perhaps it is a tribute to the power of marketing that the image of the band as upbeat, milk-drinking boys-next-door has prevailed, or perhaps they are simply rooting for victims they know were chewed up and spat out by the music industry. Nevertheless, there is something discomfiting about the way in which the hype around the reunion seems to glorify an era we now know was riddled with financial and sexual exploitation.
No matter how you look at it, the villain of the Bay City Rollers story is Paton, the man who both made the band and broke it and is said to have run a paedophile ring centred on a flat he owned on Palmerston Place, Edinburgh. As with Savile, rumours of Paton’s depravity were rife, but very little seemed to stick. In 1982, he was jailed for gross indecency with teenage boys (though he was quick to point out that when the age of consent for gay sex was lowered to 16 in 2001, this would no longer have been an offence). Then, in 1990, the police launched Operation Planet after a boy from a children’s home who had been drugged and raped was found in the Palmerston Place premises. The operation led to 57 charges against 10 men, but no convictions.
Without Paton – arguably – there would have been no Bay City Rollers. Though the band was originally formed by Alan, Derek and Gordon (Nobby) Clark, it was Paton who ensured their success. He asked Jonathan King (himself now a convicted sex offender) to produce their first hit, Keep On Dancing, and kept with them through a series of changes in the line-up, until – by 1974 – the BCR comprised “Woody, Eric, Alan, Leslie and Derek”, as fans would chant; and they hit the big time. In 1975/76, their upbeat teeny-bop ruled the airwaves: they had five hits – Shang-a-Lang, Summerlove Sensation, All Of Me Loves All Of You, Bye Bye Baby and Give A Little Love – in quick succession.
For a short time, they were bigger than One Direction. But when punk arrived with its rebel yell, their tweeness was exposed and the phenomenon ended as suddenly as it had begun. Already frayed relationships between band members began to disintegrate. Alan Longmuir left at the end of 1976; McKeown and then Paton were told to go in 1978.
Throughout the band’s time at the top, Paton exercised almost total control over the boys, then aged between 16 and 21, putting them down as much as he built them up. He made sure that when Faulkner overdosed in 1976 the whole world knew about it, and later claimed the boys were lacking in talent and didn’t play their instruments on their records. Insisting they must be seen as squeaky clean, Paton forbade them to see girls – whom he derided as “smelly fish” – and cultivated a claustrophobic atmosphere which encouraged them to turn against one another.
His manipulative behaviour endured long after the band’s demise. When McKeown accused Paton of using Quaaludes – a drug linked with arousal – so he could sexually assault him, Paton laughed it off, suggesting McKeown was an attention-seeking wee nyaff. Ditto when Pat McGlynn – a guitarist who replaced Ian Mitchell, who replaced Alan Longmuir – made the same accusation. Paton was cleared of the attempted rape of McGlynn when the procurator fiscal decided there was insufficient evidence.
There were times when it felt like the band was cursed. Weeks after Bye Bye Baby reached No 1 in 1975, McKeown ran down and killed elderly neighbour Euphemia Clunie in the turbo-charged Ford Mustang he had dreamed of owning. He was convicted of reckless driving, fined and banned for a year. Paton told him to keep working. “They didn’t see it in a helpful, human way. It wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to get through this together,’ it was more like, ‘We need you on stage tomorrow, you wee c**t, so you better stop f***ing crying,’” he later said.
The band travelled to the US, where they had three top 10 hits, but by that time McKeown was more interested in taking cocaine with Keith Moon and sleeping with famous women than in producing music; his relationship with Britt Ekland ended when he had sex with Ekland’s daughter. In interviews, McKeown often talks about women contemptuously as if some of Paton’s misogyny has seeped into his DNA.
Everything came to a head in 1977/78. By then McKeown and Faulkner could barely tolerate each other. On a tour of Japan, a paranoid McKeown started to believe all the others were out to get him, so he bought some listening devices and bugged their hotel rooms. Maybe he wasn’t being paranoid, because his constant flouting of the rules was a source of friction, and eventually they told him to go.
Ousted from the band, McKeown had his house repossessed. He had a solo career for a while performing as Les McKeown’s Ego Trip, but interest soon dwindled. Eventually his alcoholism got so bad he needed therapy. Like everything else in his life, he went through counselling in the full glare of publicity, appearing on the reality TV show Rehab, which filmed him at a clinic in Malibu. On the programme he talked about his sexual encounter with Paton and said that, though married, he had continued to have same-sex liaisons throughout his life.
Other band members fared badly too. Alan Longmuir was rumoured to have attempted suicide around the time he quit (though he denies it); then, in 2000, his brother Derek was given 300 hours of community service after he admitted downloading four indecent pictures from the internet (he later claimed he had been set up).
Financial wrangles kept band members at each other’s throats. While other big stars could enjoy the fruits of their success, the Bay City Rollers, who sold 120 million records, claim Arista Records (since taken over by Sony) has failed to pay them tens of millions of pounds in royalties. The case has been in and out of court, with the Rollers squabbling over who was owed what and has still not been resolved. Their bitterness was intensified by the fact that Paton – who died in 2009 – lived in a mansion and left £2.7m to assorted charities.
The need to continue earning money meant the Bay City Rollers never really disappeared. In 1982 – after four years apart – they reunited and started touring two-bit venues, but the antipathy between Les and Eric hadn’t dissipated. Then one night, while touring Australia, McGlynn nutted Woody and that was that.
Apart again, Faulkner and McKeown started rival bands then scrapped over the right to use the name. Both men continue to trot out old BCR songs at concerts across the country, but Faulkner also performs folk music at acoustic gigs. Alan Longmuir went back to being a plumber, while Wood became a record producer. In addition to the various incarnations of the band, there have been BCR books, plays and documentaries..
It was a chance conversation between Liam Rudden, who wrote And I Ran With The Gang, and songwriter John McLaughlin that paved the way for the latest reunion. McLaughlin went on to work with McKeown, who then made a surprise appearance with Longmuir at the end of one of the fringe shows, demonstrating that the pair were capable of performing together.
The three men who will take the stage tonight have lost their svelte appearances. McKeown has diabetes and Longmuir has had a heart attack and a stroke, but none of this has deterred their fans. The response to the news of the Christmas gigs has been overwhelming. The first three Glasgow shows sold out within minutes, prompting a fourth date to be added. Then a campaign to bring the band home to Edinburgh led to two performances to be scheduled for the Usher Hall. The band is bringing out a comeback single, Boomerang, and will be touring in 2016.
It’s about the money. Of course it is. But when they take to the stage at the Glasgow Barrowland tonight, no doubt they will look out over the ageing audience and remember the days when hysterical, fainting teenagers had to be carted off by police officers. It won’t be quite as sexy this time round, but maybe – older, wiser and without Paton – the remaining Rollers will finally get the chance to enjoy it.