Bay City legend Les McKeown is rolling with the punches once more as he heads out on the road. Just don’t compare his tartan-clad, all-conquering 70s chart-toppers with One Direction
LES McKeown has a bee in his bonnet. It’s that hoary old chestnut people keep tossing about (and that I have just, tiresomely, repeated) comparing the Bay City Rollers with modern-day boy bands; One Direction and the like. He’s not exactly angry; more exasperated really.
“A boy band to me is people who just jump around on stage and mime to someone else’s records,” he says. “You could say that, back in the day, the Bay City Rollers were perceived in that light but don’t forget we were all established musicians and we were a proper band.
“Someone asked me if I could imagine some of the bands today doing what I’m doing 40 years later,” he adds, “and I don’t know if they’re going to be fit enough. Their little gimmick is to dance around furiously and sing their songs so there’s no way they’re going to be able to do those things. Unless they get robotic replacement parts.”
Yet, at the risk of irking him further (but for the benefit of those whose memories don’t go as far back as mine), McKeown was, to all intents and purposes, the 1970s’ equivalent of Harry Styles. All the girls had their favourite Roller, but Les was the main man – the pretty boy with the microphone whose poster was on a million teenage walls and whose name was etched on a million school jotters. For four years they rode the tidal wave of fame: screaming fans, sports cars, Saturday morning TV. Then somewhere along the line it all went wrong. Yes, there was the predictable sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – so far, part of the territory – but there was also a child porn scandal, sexual abuse, life-threatening alcohol dependency, acrimony, secrets and lies, missing millions…
He’s been down, has McKeown – at one stage he took part in a celebrity rehab television programme which resulted in him revealing details of a secret gay past in the presence of his unsuspecting wife and son – but he’s never been out. And he still tours tirelessly, even though some of those gigs, he admits, he’s not been exactly proud of.
This year he’ll be all over the UK – Scottish highlights include Airdrie Town Hall, Langholm Buccleuch Centre and Inverness Eden Court – before heading to Japan, then Russia, the US, Australia and New Zealand. “The audience can expect all the old hits done to a professional standard,” he promises. “Quality delivered with gusto from yours truly.”
Tongue-in-cheek sales pitch over, he adds: “It’s mundane being on the business end of life all the time, sorting out all the icky bicky things, but I kind of enjoy it in a sado-masochistic way. I’m looking forward to getting on the road though – it’s more like a holiday for me. I can forget about all the business and just go ahead. Everything’s pre-arranged: the hotels, the PA, the lights, everything’s sorted, everything’s got its time. I just have to be at the gig. Nothing should go wrong.”
Depending on which way you look at it, it must be a bit of a nostalgia trip, playing town halls and community theatres in front of audiences of 500 to 1,000 instead of the kind of stadium gigs that came at the height of Rollermania. Either that, or the worst kind of anticlimax. McKeown is going with the former. “I prefer doing the theatres,” he insists. “They have a great atmosphere. They’re just the right size for a band like us. You can be intimate when you want to be and you can be noisy and rambunctious when you want.”
In this particular incarnation of the band, McKeown is the only original member – he’s been touring with various versions since 1991. But rumours the 1974 line-up could reform are growing more insistent. They put their differences aside to play Edinburgh’s Hogmanay in 1999 and next year will be the 40-year anniversary of their first big hit, Remember (that’s not a question; it’s the name of the song). The time is right, then. So what are the chances?
“We keep threatening each other to get back together again,” says McKeown. “I’d love the old band to do a couple of world tours. The money’s there, the promotion’s there, the people want us to do it. The other guys are still doing their own thing. Eric’s still writing songs, he’s carving up and down the country doing gigs every now and again with his own Bay City Rollers; Woody’s got his production offices in Edinburgh producing bands like the MacDonald Brothers; Derek’s been an upstanding member of society for years as a cardiac nurse at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh [he admitted possessing child porn in 2000, though claimed it belonged to a friend, and was sentenced to 300 hours’ community service]; and Alan’s enjoying his retirement. But I don’t mind giving those old guys a job again,” he laughs.
At the time of McKeown’s departure from the band in 1978, things weren’t quite so chummy. Does all this talk of reunions mean they’re friends again? “We’re far from as close as we were when we were in the band,” he says, “because we’ve all got different things we do these days and we’ve built up a whole other life outside the Rollers. It’s very difficult to ask people in that situation to give it all up and come on the road and be a rock’n’roll star. But everybody’s moving in the right direction. We hope that one day we will – maybe by next year, who knows – be able to do something together. The guys need to get their skates on though, because I’m making plans way in the future.”
Some may say he has no choice. That while the Rollers’ onetime manager Tam Paton lived in relative luxury (and disgrace – he served one year of a three-year jail sentence in 1982 after pleading guilty to committing indecent acts with teenage boys, and was fined £200,000 for dealing cannabis in 2004), the rest of the band has been forced to work the not always glamorous nostalgia circuit to pay the bills.
It shouldn’t have been that way, they say. Estimates put their record sales at up to 300 million, which would have earned them up to £5 billion in revenue, but the guys saw little of that money. They now claim they were defrauded by management and their record company, and a legal dispute has been ongoing for several years. All McKeown will say on the matter is: “It’s looking good.”
And, far from being forced into continuing performing, McKeown says it’s all he’s ever wanted to do anyway. “Ever since I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a singer in a rock’n’roll band, and as far as I was concerned this was my destiny and everything was falling into place.”
THE year was 1974. The Bay City Rollers had already had a minor hit three years earlier with a song called Keep On Dancing, with vocals by Nobby Clark. Then nothing. Disillusioned with the band’s musical direction, Clark walked and was replaced by 18-year-old McKeown. The timing couldn’t have been better. Remember (Sha La La La) had just started charting, the vocals were hastily rerecorded to include McKeown, and the track peaked at No 6 in the UK charts.
“I remember Alan Longmuir said, ‘This happened before for us,’ which it did of course, with Keep On Dancing,” recalls McKeown. “He was obviously sceptical that it would have any longevity because of his recent experience. I had to reassure him that there was just no way; we were going all the way to the top. I think he took a lot of confidence from my positive attitude.
“We were young, working-class guys who wanted to be famous and wanted to play all over the world and make our music and Scotland and tartan famous and that was our main goal. For the first two years we lived in our own little successful bubble and we had a great time – with the fans, at concerts, we met all the famous people, we did everything we wanted to do. It was just such a great thing to be young and to be in a great band.”
The now-famous half-mast, tartan-trimmed trousers and tartan shirts wasn’t the original look though. That developed over time. “It came about through fans drawing pictures of their favourite guy in the band,” says McKeown. “It might have been Eric, Alan, Woody, Derek. There was one particular group of fans who drew pictures on A3 cardboard from their school – Woody and Wendy falling in love; Eric and Erica – and they’d drawn us with stripes down the side. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if it was tartan?’ We didn’t realise at the time how fantastically brilliant a gimmick that was.”
In their few short years at the top, the hits included Shang-A-Lang and Summerlove Sensation. Bye Bye Baby, their first No 1, was the UK’s biggest selling single of 1975. The boys from Edinburgh were bona fide stars. “My first big blow-out was buying a washer dryer for my mum,” he says. “That was £40. It was a twin tub, Electrolux. After that I bought myself a second-hand Ford Mustang.”
They broke the States, scoring a No 1 with Saturday Night, but by 1978, the cracks had begun to show. It was that all too familiar refrain. “We had differences about which direction the band was going to go,” says McKeown. “The band wanted to produce themselves and write all the songs and I had the opinion that we should get some professional songwriters in to write us big hits for the USA to establish us in the American psyche. They rejected that idea and rejected me and I was out on my ass.”
His next venture was a band called, appropriately, Ego Trip – all Lycra leotards, space-age body suits, boots and mullet. “I was a big fan of Queen and David Bowie and all that stuff and I took a lot of my inspiration from that,” he says. “Also, I had a good body back then so I didn’t mind showing it off. I wanted to sex it up a wee bit. In the 1970s it was all about image and I thought that was about as far away as I could get from the Bay City Rollers. It was all reflected in the name of the band. I was on my own little ego trip and having fun doing it. If you say you’re on an ego trip people see it as a negative but an ego trip can be quite positive used in the right hands.
“I tried to be super-duper creative with writing songs, designing album covers, designing clothes,” he says. “It wasn’t like someone else was doing it for me, it all came out of my head and the people that were around me at the time. We had great fun doing it; it was a great creative process for me in that it showed me what I could do. Prior to that I was just singing in the Bay City Rollers and I wasn’t really allowed to put my songs forward into the pile – it was Eric and Woody who were the songwriters.”
He continued to perform and tour and the fans, particularly in Japan and Germany, have stuck with him through it all. “There’s a deep love between the fans and me. They’ve seen me go through some hellish times and they’ve stuck with me; they’ve come along to see me sometimes when I’ve been really pretty bad on stage. They’ve let me know there is a love out there for me, and if I could just get my stuff together they’ll really appreciate it. That was a big driving force in helping me recover and get into rehab.”
In 2008, hooked on alcohol and cocaine, he was told he had just months to live. He was offered expensive treatment at the Passages clinic in Malibu as part of a reality TV programme, during which he revealed an early sexual encounter with Paton under the influence of drugs which had left him with feelings of guilt, anger, fear and self-loathing. He also revealed he had continued to have gay encounters after that.
At the time of Paton’s death in 2009, McKeown described his former manager as “a thug, a predator and a drug-dealing bastard”. Now the effects of rehab – and, perhaps, the passage of time – have helped mellow the anger. “I made peace, not with him personally, but my rehabilitation was to forgive people for bad things they had done towards me and I had to go through that in order to come out a well-adjusted individual, so that’s what I did.
“I was able to let those things go. Through talking to counsellors and the hypnotherapists and all that, I was able to let go of all the hate and all the anxiety and all the self-loathing and all the stuff that is associated with my demise and I got rid of it. It doesn’t really bother me now. It’s in the past and I’m not the only person in the world to have things like that happen to me. Since I came out with all that stuff I found out there’s a whole of people in the world that have been abused and have had hard times.
“I’m able to connect with people on a much more personal level; people talk to me about the strangest things because they know they can connect with me. I’m strong enough to handle that now. Before rehab I wasn’t strong enough to listen to anybody’s stories because they’d drag me down.”
Now aged 57 and living in London, he adds: “I’m perfectly clean, absolutely great. It’s a good, positive life I’ve started to live. I need to go to the gym a little bit more often as I’m a bit lazy with that – exercise isn’t my strong point. I don’t know what it is about time – when I’m in the house it flies; when I’m in the gym it slows down. Every single minute is probably the equivalent of an hour.”
His relationship with his Japanese wife Peko, he says, is also back on track. “That’s fine – absolutely great.”
He even softens towards those annoyingly bouncy boy bands. “Bands like The Wanted and One Direction – all the songs are very, very catchy and they’re fantastically produced,” he says. “And they’ll inspire a whole new generation of fans to fall in love with music. Maybe One Direction will do a cover version of a song and the fans will like that, then want to know what the original sounded like. That will open their ears and their minds to different music. That is great. They might end up liking opera or classical or Radiohead or something.”
And while his own on-stage performances are, perhaps, not quite as energetic as they once were – “I used to jump all over the place but, of course, your singing suffers. You don’t want to be jumping around if you want to hold a note; that’s why you don’t see opera singers doing that sort of stuff” – he’s still rocking that tartan chic. “The trousers have got a bit bigger,” he chuckles, “but I’m trying to put out the onstage look of the Bay City Rollers, so there’s a tartan backdrop and all the guys in the band wear the iconic tartan shirts.
“The audiences have changed a little too. They’re a few sizes larger than they were, just like me, so we’re all growing up together, in proportion you might say. We’ve still got fans all over the world, they just got busy doing their own thing, having kids, paying the bills. Thirty-nine years later they’ve done all that and maybe they have a bit of time to get with what they were doing when they were younger – going to see some old movies and some old pop stars.”
• Les McKeown and the Bay City Rollers play Airdrie Town Hall, 2 October; Ayr Gaiety Theatre, 3 Oct; Inverness Eden Court, 4 Oct; and Langholm Buccleuch Centre, 5 Oct (www.lesmckeown.com)