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T in the Park: Exclusive interview with headliners Bay City Rollers’ frontman Les McKeown

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Les McKeown spent a few seconds searching for the right word after I asked him about the Bay City Rollers headlining T in the Park.

“Delighted? Surprised? No, that doesn’t really cover it, to be honest. What about ‘flabbergasted?”

It was a typically honest response from one of Scottish pop music’s most famous faces.

If you never lived through the first incarnation of Rollermania in the 1970s, it’s probably difficult to understand how much a group of working-class Scottish youngsters grabbed the music world by the scruff of the neck and created – however temporarily – a sound which commanded global attention.

But, even at this distance, the Rollers were a cultural phenomenon. Of course, they had their critics who dismissed such chart-topping hits as “Shang A Lang”, “Bye Bye Baby” and “Saturday Night” as, at best, catchy kitsch and, at worst, bubblegum banality.

Yet these songs have been passed down from generation to generation. They were post-Beatles and pre-punk and, for those who grew up amidst endless strikes, Cold War tensions and mind-numbing beige, the Rollers possessed an innocence and infectious quality which meant we wore the tartan trousers even if we wouldn’t buy their records.

Les McKeown gets it and he should know. Back in the 1970s, the public wasn’t aware of the rancour and recriminations which existed behind the teenybop facade, and had no idea of how the young Rollers were being royally scammed by a predatory manager, Tam Paton.

Stuart Wood (Woodie), Les McKeown, and Alan Longmuir, three members of the Bay City Rollers,
Stuart Wood (Woodie), Les McKeown, and Alan Longmuir, three members of the Bay City Rollers,
Stuart Wood (Woodie), Les McKeown, and Alan Longmuir, three members of the Bay City Rollers,
Stuart Wood (Woodie), Les McKeown, and Alan Longmuir, three members of the Bay City Rollers,

The group’s dramatic Icarus-style fall to earth has been well-documented and I’ve interviewed McKeown before about his inner demons. He wasn’t alone among his bandmates. For many years, the Rollers seemed like an exercise manual in how NOT to enjoy the fruits of your hard-earned success.

But here’s the thing. More than four decades after producing some of the most infectious songs of their era, the Rollers haven’t merely returned, but will command audience at T in the Park festival on July 9.

And although McKeown is now 60, his eyes still burn brightly and he has the breathless qualities of somebody who can barely believe life has granted him and his confreres a blessed second chance.

As he told me: “I think we were a breath of fresh air in the 70s. There was nothing complicated about our music – although it’s amazing how many people who used to come to our concerts as teenagers are still coming back with their daughters after all these years and they’re singing our songs together. That’s pretty special.

“I think, in some ways, we are a breath of fresh air again. Whenever I go out on stage, you can sense the magic in the air and it is like old pals meeting up. We’ve obviously changed and you can’t turn back the clock, but there is a new connection and I sometimes pinch myself.

“I mean, this T in the Park gig is just so cool. I was flabbergasted when we were asked about it, and I talked to Allan [Longmuir] and we had a laugh about how life works out. He’s about to go over and do a one-man show in Toronto, but we will all be ready to give it our all.”

The sparkles and spangles might have lost their lustre after decades of litigation between various members of the Rollerati – even now, there are stipulations on how McKeown can promote his concert appearances, depending on the occasion – but the singer-songwriter is an altogether more energised, enthusiastic downright happy character these days from the man who told me: “I tried to destroy myself with alcohol back in 2008.”

Indeed, he is poised to release a new album “Les McKeown…The Lost Songs” in August which will feature a selection of the lyrics and melodies which he composed on the road at the height of the Rollers’ whirl-stop success four decades ago.

Back at the height of the Scots’ success, he used to sit in hotel rooms across Europe, the United States and Japan and scribble down a plethora of words and tunes, dictating them into an old-fashioned tape recorder in the hope they would end up on the next Rollers album.

It never happened, of course. Or not last century. But now….!

“I kept the tapes in a suitcase in my attic and I never imagined they would ever see the light of day,” said McKeown.

“They were in limbo, but I’m ecstatic that they have now been turned into a great record and I’m very proud to finally have the chance to perform them for my fans.

“It wouldn’t have happened without the wonderful work of [multi-million-selling songwriter and producer] John McLaughlin. He listened to the songs and it is remarkable what he has done with them over the last two years.

“There was the kernel of an idea there, but John has brought a magic touch to the whole thing. I started out thinking about whether people wanted new material, but we’ve had a fantastic time in the studio, and I’ve always thought the Rollers could up the ante and do more than just sing the original hits from 40 years ago.”

The fans needn’t worry. McKeown hasn’t morphed into some doleful purveyor of dirges or felt the need to ditch the shiny grooves which mean that Scotland in the mid-70s will be synonymous with Summer Love Sensation for many aficionados.

Instead, as he said: “Most of these songs were written a long time ago, so, of course, there are a lot of shuffles – our audiences have always loved them – and there are some nice ballads, a bit of variety, but I like music which lifts my spirits. If it makes you feel happy, th

“John has done some incredible things with this project, and it’s going to be interesting to see what the response is from the public. They’ve shown me and the band an awful lot of goodwill in recent years – when we did the BBC Hogmanay programme, it was overwhelming – so I hope that I can give them something back.”

Les McKeown has had to endure plenty of privations since the Scots’ glory days in a faraway domain. Whatever one’s views on the Bay City Rollers, if would be churlish not to wish them well as the band warms up for the big festival stage.

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