The dark side of the Bay City Rollers

The Guardian, February 13 1993

It’s hard to be sure exactly when Les McKeown’s bubble burst. Maybe it was right back on his first night in the Bay City Rollers when the lead guitarist ordered him to dump his girl friend and Les ended up trying to batter him on the back seat of the car. Maybe it was when the promoter in America pulled a gun on him, or when his manager was busted for gross indecency, or when he got so fed up in the recording studio one time that he sneaked in after dark and wiped all the tapes clean. Maybe it was only ever really perfect when it was all in Les’ head.

When he was 15, he started dreaming (not day-dreaming, but literally dreaming in his sleep) of being up on a stage, singing in a band, with everybody screaming at him, with his bunch of pals – just them together against the rest of the world – and they all had big cars and loads of girls and one good time after another. It was only a dream then, something he played at when he was blow-drying his hair in the mirror, singing Ch-ch-changes.

Then, one night, his older brother, Roni, who was a fully-paid up hippy with a cowbell round his neck, took him to a David Bowie concert in Edinburgh and it simply kidnapped Les’ imagination. It was electric. This guy on a stage. This cheering. This whole atmosphere. He was wild for it and the next day he borrowed £200 from Roni and bought himself a PA system and started trying to sing in the front room. It didn’t worry him that he had never even sung in school assembly before – Les was always pretty sure of himself – and it turned out that he really did have a good voice.

He heard of a band manager, Edinburgh’s answer to Brian Epstein, a man called Tam Paton. He got hold of his address and went and knocked on his door. Tam’s mother answered; Les told her he was a singer; she let him in to see Tam, who was built like a sack of potatoes, and Les told him he was singing in a band called the Teabags and they were playing a lot of clubs in Glasgow and they were looking for a new manager. It was all bullshit. Les had never sung anywhere, but Tam took his address. A year later, he called him. Les sang for him. Tam hired him as a new lead singer for a local Edinburgh band, the Bay City Rollers. It was November 1973. Three months later, Les was on Top of the Pops.

“It was even better than the dream. We were the biggest band in the country, the biggest in the world. We could have anything we wanted. We never carried cash. You want a new car; someone phones a car company. You want a house; someone sends you pictures and you point at one. You want food; your security man takes the limmo into town. Whatever you want – you got it. I went into this fantasy world. It was like being in a bubble. This bubble just erupted around me, and I lived in it.”

But this bubble was bursting. Nobody outside the band knew much about it, and Les has never really talked about it before, but looking back now, it seems obvious that it was always going to burst, the way any innocent dream will collapse if you let it loose in a dirty world. It did get very dirty.

From the outside, they were squeaky clean, dancing on the grave of the 1960s with their platform shoes and their brushed-cotton trousers with the tartan flashes. They drank milk and coca-cola. They were in bed by ten. Their hair was neat and their clothes were clean and they released the kind of records that Mary Whitehouse could buy for her grandchildren. Bye Bye Baby – Baby, Bye Bye. They sold seventy million records. From the inside, it was the musical equivalent of an axe murder.

They were arguing about everything. Who had the most fan letters, who had the most close-ups on TV, which songs to record, which venues to play. There was a long-running squabble about who had the most talent because, unknown to most of their loyal following, four of the band never played a note in anger on five of their hit singles. Les sang, but all the music was recorded by session musicians. To this day, the others say that that was just to save money, not because there was anything wrong with their playing. Les couldn’t help letting them know that he didn’t see it that way.

There was a monster row about sex, which was really a disguised row about the power of their manager, Tam Paton. Tam decreed from the outset that there were to be no girls. None. Not even if the press weren’t looking. From the first night, Les protested. He insisted that he liked girls and sex and having a wild time and he liked his girlfriend, too. “Dump the bitch,” he was told.

That was when he started thumping the lead guitarist, Eric Faulkner, in the back of the car. Les never liked Eric. He never liked the rest of the band too much either. He couldn’t understand why they let Tam push them around. They seemed to be terrified of him, scared that he would sack them and send them back to their dull old lives. He couldn’t believe it when they obeyed Tam’s ruling. Les would shout at the others: “There’s thousands of girls out there just waiting for us, ready to seriously do us over – and you’re ignoring them!”

But the rest of the band stuck to their image. Tam made them share hotel rooms so that they could keep an eye on each other. Les just cheated. He told them he was going out to the cinema or to a record store or that he was too ill to rehearse and needed to spend the day in his room – any excuse, as long as he could get to the girls without the rest of the band finding out and telling Tam. He loved the thrill of getting away with it and he knew he was driving the others crazy.

It got to the point where they were on a tour of Japan, and Les started asking his security men to protect him from the others. He reckoned they had ordered the lighting man to turn off his spot light and were deliberately changing key just as he was about to start singing so that he would sound out of tune. He had done his best to wind them up. He had taken to leaving the stage for a quarter of an hour just so that the audience would roar when he came back, which irritated the others, and he had refused to rehearse with them and had ended up singing alone in a studio in Hawaii, while the others rehearsed in Los Angeles and the two sides communicated by telex, usually to argue about what songs they were going to sing when they finally met up on stage.

Eric wanted the band to record songs he had written. Les told him most of them were crap. They went to America. Les got so fed up that he wanted to come home. One of the promoters screwed his fist into Les’ collar, pushed him up the wall, pulled out a gun and told him he would shoot him dead if he went. Les kept seeing Eric and Tam going into huddles and he knew they were talking about him, so he and a new guitarist, Pat McGlynn, bought a little electronic bug and stuck it in Tam’s hotel bedroom so that they could hear what was going on. In the end, in 1978 with the band’s sales sliding, it got so bad that Les wrote to the rest of the band, suggesting that they all leave. They wrote back and told him that he was leaving.

When they kicked him out of the band, Les landed badly. He had no friends, no lawyers, no security men; they all went with the band. Tam disappeared into jail on a charge of gross indecency. No-one seemed to know where the money was. Eric and the rest of the band started suing their accountant. Les discovered he had no cash and a huge pile of debts (American Express alone wanted £24,000 off him). He had to sell the nine-acre spread outside Edinburgh where his parents were living, and he moved into a rented bed sit in Notting Hill Gate with a cooker in the corner and a shared bathroom.

He tried to struggle back. He recorded a solo album. It was to be promoted entirely by TV advertising, the first of its kind. The album was launched. There was an advertising strike on ITV. The album disappeared. It was called All Washed Up. Without Les, Eric and the rest of the band did little better. They were past their peak, and the recording companies knew it.

After four years of circling each other in the wilderness, they patched it up and relaunched the Rollers in 1982. They toured Ireland, playing on stages made of formica tables strapped together with tape in working men’s clubs with condensation on the windows and a crowd around the bar. Les went home early. At a concert in Leeds, a bunch of punks showed their appreciation by gobbing at them and throwing beer cans. Les threw one back and straight after the show, he was arrested and charged with assault. They tried to make a new album. Les wrote a song, but he hated the way that the band did it. So, at night, he got into the recording studio and wiped all 24 tracks clean. The others went crazy.

They ended up in Australia in 1985, driving hundreds of miles each day in a tour bus, hating each other. Les said they were drinking too much and he didn’t see why he should pay for their beer. He and Pat the guitarist didn’t trust Eric, so they insisted on being paid after every gig and ended up threatening one of the promoters to extract the money. One day, Pat started arguing with the drummer, Woody, and ended up giving him a ‘Scottish kiss’, nutting him in the face so that his head bounced off the wall. Woody bled everywhere. Pat was full of apologies. Eric went home early, but not before the Australian police boarded his plane to question him about $16,000 which the band said was missing. Eric satisfied them that he was innocent.

For a while there was peace. Les abandoned singing and went to Munich to make videos. Eric surfaced with a band called the New Rollers. Les was invited onto Jim’ll Fix It. Eric protested to the BBC that Les could not claim to be the Rollers. Les wrote him a stiff letter, signing himself Mr L.R. McKeown. Then, in the summer of last year, an agent offered Les a booking at the Town and Country Club in North London where he was billed as Les McKeown’s Bay City Rollers. The next thing Les knew, he was on the receiving end of an interlocutary injunction from Eric and the lads, forbidding him to use the name of their band or even to refer to his previous connection with them.

There were court hearings; rows of lawyers; rival fans on different sides; and finally, a High Court ruling that Les could put his name before the words Bay City Rollers only if he added a “prefix of an historical description such as ‘formerly of’ or ‘previously of’ or other such descriptions or such descriptive words; and when in written form these descriptions or descriptive words should be of at least equal size and in the same colour and design as those of the remaining words.” So Les McKeown’s 70s Bay City Rollers were born and the bubble finally burst.

But Les is still dreaming. “It didn’t have to be like that. It could have been a great, beautiful career. We could have been pals for life. But there was no communication between the lads. They were all scared of this Svengali manager. And I was very cocky in those days. The real trouble was money. That was never my dream. It was part of it, but it took over. These people around us took everything. They eat you up and spit you out. They don’t want to take some of your money. They want to take all of it, everything. It could have been so good.”

When Les plays now, his eight-year-old son, Jube, sometimes stands in the wings rocking with his dad. Jube is learning to play the guitar.