Legend has it that the Bay City Rollers chose their name by throwing a dart at a map of the United States. The first attempt landed somewhere around Arkansas, which was deemed to be not sexy enough for a budding boy band. The second throw landed on Bay City, Michigan, and a pop juggernaut was born.
However, the Rollers, paying their dues around grassroots Edinburgh venues such as Oasis and the Caves, had only made it into first gear. It was not until late 1973 when their original frontman Nobby Clark was replaced with 18-year-old Leslie Richard McKeown that the band’s commercial fortunes transformed.
Their manager Tam Paton later disparaged the group’s musical abilities but the arrival of McKeown, who has died aged 65, coincided with a period of supernova success to the tune of 120 million record sales, fuelled by bubblegum pop standards such as Bye Bye Baby and Shang-A-Lang and a new tartan-trimmed image, which was enthusiastically copied by their almost exclusively teen female fanbase. They were Edinburgh’s answer to The Osmonds, while the term Rollermania was coined, recognising the band as Britain’s biggest pop sensation since The Beatles.
Their boy-next-door frontman McKeown was an Edinburgh native, born on 12 November 1955 at the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion to Northern Irish parents Florence Close and Stephen McKeown. He started his pop career aged fifteen as the singer in another Edinburgh five-piece, Threshold, performing pop covers around Lothian before being poached by Paton after a gig in Dunbar.
McKeown put his appeal down to the cut of his trousers and his arrival in the Rollers camp coincided with an image overhaul, customising half-mast trousers and platform shoes with Scotland’s national plaid – a good three years before the fabric was adopted by the punk movement.
Within months, the new line-up of the Bay City Rollers had scored their first top ten hit, Remember (Sha-La-La-La), penned by the ace songwriting team of Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, who had already scored Eurovision success with Puppet on a String for Sandie Shaw and Congratulations for Cliff Richard. The duo supplied the group with most of the glam pop material for their debut album, Rollin’, including their US Number One Saturday Night (much admired – and copied - by US punk legends The Ramones) and their signature stomper Shang-A-Lang, titled after a euphemistic expletive favoured by Martin whenever his mother was present.
Rollermania burned briefly and intensely over a heady two-year period, soundtracked by the fan chant “we want the Rollers”. Founder member Alan Longmuir recalled a show at Edinburgh’s Odeon cinema thus: “The screaming was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself. We could have been playing Humpty Dumpty and they’d never have known.”
The band members were routinely smuggled out of venues in decoy vehicles – even ambulances and police cars – to circumvent the teen hordes. When US pop journalist Danny Fields witnessed the fan reaction to the Rollers at the Glasgow Apollo, he declared “this wasn’t a city, it was a martial zone”.
McKeown’s heartthrob frontman status placed him in the eye of the storm. Paton supplied the amphetamines to keep the show on the road, and McKeown dutifully partook. In 1975, while briefly home in Edinburgh, he crashed his car, killing 76-year-old pedestrian Euphemia Clunie. McKeown denied he was speeding; witnesses claimed otherwise. He was eventually convicted of reckless driving, fined and banned from driving for a year.
McKeown was ordered back on tour the next day; there was money to be made – for someone else. When success waned in the UK, fans in the US and Japan kept the faith. But the band members barely saw a penny of their recording royalties, with McKeown owed an estimated £1.8 million by the time he left the Bay City Rollers by “mutual agreement” in 1978, the same year that Paton was sacked.
Backed by a new band, Leslie McKeown’s Ego Trip, he released his debut solo album, All Washed Up. Although it topped the charts in loyal Japan, the title was prophetic. McKeown’s house was repossessed and he fought a long battle with substance abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts, telling The Guardian in 2005 that “I’ve never actually been bothered about dying. I can’t think I would ever really miss being alive.”
When his parents died within months of each other in 2002, McKeown spiralled further into alcohol addiction, before cleaning up on US reality TV series Rehab. Meanwhile, he poked the embers of his pop career fronting Les McKeown’s Legendary Bay City Rollers, one of two touring factions of the band.
In 2015, the Rollers schism was temporarily repaired when three-fifths of the classic line-up reunited, selling out multiple shows at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom in a matter of minutes to a faithful fanbase of middle-aged tartan scarf-wielding acolytes.
When that incarnation fell apart in 2016, McKeown released The Lost Songs – the rejected material he had written for the Rollers at their peak, finessed by his producer, manager and friend John McLaughlin. On hearing of his passing, McLaughlin lamented that McKeown had been looking forward to resuming touring when the pandemic subsided.
His death at home on 20 April was sudden, unexpected and marked by an outpouring of resigned sadness from the worldwide Rollers fanbase, with former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith paying tribute to “one of my first loves. I’m feeling some teen heartache but know it’ll be very real for his family and friends. Sending love, condolences and thanks for the memories.”
No cause of death has been given. McKeown is survived by his wife Keiko and son Jubei.
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