Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Bay City Rollers

Stuart “Woody” Wood talks to us about the connection between the Rollers and the Sex Pistols

Bay City Rollers bubblegum cards (Image: eBay)

Do you remember when Punk Rock was just a rumor? 

It is 1976 or 1977. You are 14 or 15. You live in Great Neck or a place very much like it. You dream of world where you walk on streets seen in Million Dollar Movie openings and That Girl re-runs. You know you don’t belong where you spend your days (except maybe with the theatre kids, or in line at Rocky Horror). And Punk Rock was just a rumor. 

It was the age before instant connectivity. Rumors, sometimes, were as powerful as facts. And the rumor of Punk Rock, just the idea that it was a possibility, changed our lives, gave us hope. 

Danny Boyle’s Pistol honored that rumor. It really did. True, facts were all over the place, or just plain invented out of whole cloth; but it was an accurate portrayal not only of how and why young people form a band, but also why we are driven to listen, engage, and join the strange fray, alien yet so familiar. One of the primary functions of music – both from the perspective of the listener/fan, and creator – is that it is a flag under which we meet out tribes. Pistol told that story and told it so well that despite the fact that I am a legendary Punk Rock nerd, I forgave the errors, as blatant as they were.

Pistol Poster! (Image: FX)

I also utterly loved the fact that Pistol honored the Bay City Rollers. The Bay City Rollers are an undeniable presence in Pistol: a key scene in the second episode featured the band and their friends stomping around to the Rollers’ proto-punk glitter anthem, “Shang-A-Lang”; the same episode concludes with a revised, carousel / playground version of the same BCR song; Thomas Brodie-Sangster, as Malcolm McLaren, refers to the Rollers multiple times, and his desire to incorporate elements of their imaging and marketing into the Sex Pistols; and a (slightly) keener eye will note the appearance of magazine pictures of the Rollers displayed in multiple places, from the bedrooms of the Huddersfield girls to the Sex Pistols’ office. 

And this isn’t artistic license. Circa 1975, the Bay City Rollers were a ubiquitous part of British pop culture. They dominated the British charts, television screens, tabloids, and media as no other band had since the Beatles (we rapidly note an enormous difference between Beatles and Rollers: the Beatles’ manager encouraged the band to achieve creative independence, adventurism, and growth, whereas the Rollers’ manager was terrified of deviating from formula, and therefore locked the band into a suicidal stasis of image and artistry).

But the pure constancy of the Rollers’ visibility in the U.K. isn’t the only reason they impacted McLaren and the nascent Sex Pistols. Pistol underlined something I have long believed: The Bay City Rollers were both a gateway drug for Punk Rock, and a bizarro-world model for the Sex Pistols’ themselves. Pistol (and to a slightly lesser degree, the memoir it is based on, Lonely Boy by Steve Jones and Ben Thompson) stressed that McLaren genuinely saw the Pistols as the dark side of the Rollers, and consciously modeled them in this image.

 

VIDEO: Bay City Rollers “Saturday Night”

After all, the Bay City Rollers were sexy, tartan-clad (very) young men with rooster haircuts, playing utterly simple music that drove teenagers crazy and caused them to destroy venues and defy their parents. The Rollers were as much the anti-Floyd as the Pistols were, only they were there first. 

Stuart Wood is 65 years old. He joined the Bay City Rollers In 1974, just before his 17th birthday, alternating between guitar and bass. Woody, as he was known to Rollers fans, was one of the group’s most recognizable members during their glory years. Wood still tours and records with a version of the Rollers that he leads. Speaking to me from his home outside of Edinburgh, Wood told me about an encounter he had with Malcolm McLaren at a party in London in 1975 which speaks directly to McLaren’s interest in Woody’s band.  

“It was a wee while ago, so I don’t recall the exact date,” Wood remembers. “We chatted, and he asked me all sorts of questions about the Rollers, the image, the tartan, the fans, how we did our hair…Eric [guitarist Eric Faulkner] and myself had the spiky hair. We didn’t think it was such a big deal: Bowie had the spiky hair, it was just something you did back then. Eric would cut my hair and his own hair himself; we never had a professional do it. And it certainly looked like we cut it ourselves. Malcolm seemed interested in that.” 

It is also worth noting that around this same time, McLaren attempted to recruit Midge Ure—then 22 and fronting a moderately popular Rollers-wannabe band called Slik—as the Pistols’ vocalist. It has also been rumored that McLaren was interested in approaching Wood himself for the Pistols job—he certainly looked the part—though Wood doesn’t know anything about this.

 

VIDEO: Six Pistols “Holidays in the Sun”

When the Sex Pistols and Punk Rock emerged, Wood and the Rollers did feel some kinship with the movement. 

“Back in ’77, we had heard from various people that a lot the punks liked the Rollers. I suppose we always had a certain affinity with the punk movement. When people would ask me what I thought of punk, I would respond that it wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea, but I very much appreciated that it brought music right back to the basics again. You didn’t have to be the world’s best musician. After all, the Rollers weren’t great musicians, but we had something that other bands didn’t have, and punk had a rawer version of that. ‘Shang-A-Lang,’ look at it, there’s nothing fancy about it. You just bang out the chords. It starts in an A. It goes down a fret. It goes down another fret. Then right back up again. Thatr’s it. Also, the Rollers had the tartan, and we would sometimes use safety pins to hold our trousers and clothes together on stage — these funny wee bits and pieces I flashed back on when I watched the show – the punks took those things and roughed it up.”

Pistol underlined something I have long believed: Like Dr. Feelgood, David Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Doctors of Madness, Hawkwind, et.al, the Bay City Rollers were a gateway band for punk rock. And a lot of the girls (and some boys) who wept and screamed for the Rollers, to the disgust of their ELP and Yes-loving older siblings, became the first and loudest fans of the new Punk Rock movement. 

“I never heard a punk slag the Rollers. I never heard a punk say a derogatory word about us. And we certainly never put it down, when asked. Eric, especially, was very vocal about the fact that music had gotten very complicated, and it was time to return to something that was rough and full of energy.” 

What did Woody think when he saw the big scene in Pistol where the Pistols and their mates are stomping around to the Rollers’ hit “Shang-A-Lang”? 

“That was quite an accolade to the Rollers, it was great that they did that. The U.K. can be quite funny towards the Bay City Rollers – I sense that most of the establishment music industry would like to pretend we didn’t exist. But you can’t keep it down. I sense that’s because of the songs, and that we had so many fans. They can slag us all they want, but when you do that, you’re just slagging the people who spent their hard-earned money on our records and concerts. That’s who they’re slagging, because we just played it, and enjoyed playing it.” 

The Pistols and the Rollers had something else in common, something quite a few shades darker: Both bands had controversial and controlling managers who’s personal and business style may have negatively impacted the naïve young men they represented. When Stuart watched Pistol and its’ portrayal of McLaren’s manipulation of the Sex Pistols, did it give him any flashbacks of the Rollers’ relationship with their manager, Tam Paton? 

“In my opinion, Tam was the only manager who could have managed the Rollers,” Stuart says. “What happened to him later was disgusting, but in the early days if Tam hadn’t been managing us and keeping such a close watch on us, there probably would have been fifty to fifty thousand lawsuits and babies…Baby City Rollers. I mean, I was sixteen, seventeen, during the height of all the Rollers stuff; if I hadn’t been watched carefully, kept under control, I wouldn’t have been out all the time, drunk all the time, and likely getting myself into massive trouble. So — and I know this is hard to imagine now — it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing that Tam was as heavy handed, as laying-down-the-laws, as he was.”

(We note that Stuart’s Wood view of Tam Paton, who passed in 2009, tends to be slightly more charitable than the impression of some others, including former members of the Rollers. Paton, who in the early 1980s was jailed for gross indecency with minors, has been accused by some former Rollers of sexual abuse, though British courts ruled there was insufficient grounds for prosecution.) 

There’s one other aspect of the Pistol saga that reminded me of the Bay City Rollers story. John Lydon sued, unsuccessfully, to block the making of the show, creating a significant rupture in his relationship with the other living members of the Sex Pistols. A little over a year ago, the Bay City Rollers best-known vocalist, Les McKeown, died. At the time of his death, Wood and McKeown were estranged (since 2017 both had been, essentially, fronting competing versions of the Rollers). We discussed Lydon’s break with the Pistols, and I wanted to know if Wood has wished, in hindsight, that he had made peace with McKeown before his death. 

 

VIDEO: Pistol Official Trailer 

“I think it would have happened, and I think we both wanted to take that extra step. One of the last things I heard about him was that he was looking into the possibility of putting together another reunion. I read that in the paper. And I had heard that Les was in a much better place health-wise, and emotionally. It’s a shame we never came together again. It wasn’t meant to be, which is quite sad. Al [Roller founder Alan Longmuir], who was my best pal, obviously he died [in July of 2018], and not much later Ian Mitchell, who was another one of the good guys, he died [Mitchell, who played guitar with the Rollers in 1976, died in September 2020]. With those three gone, there’s no chance of a proper reunion, that died with them. My main objective now is to keep this band going. I know that people still want to hear it, they still want to see it, they still want to love it, and they do love it, and I want to keep that going as long as I can.”

The experience of being in the Rollers, these fishbowl situations with dominating managers, it makes me feel that the members of the Rollers and the Pistols would understand each other. 

“I think that’s probably true. I was watching the show with Denise, my wife, and you know at the end of the second episode where they play ‘Shang-A-Lang,’ but it’s a carnival-type version – like the kind of thing you’d hear on a carousel? And she noted that it signified that the Sex Pistols had become part of the same thing that we were part of, the same machine that we were part of, the carousel of the music business, here we go, join the circus. During the same show they had played our version of ‘Shang-A-Lang,’ and it was really a joyous moment; but they ended the show by playing this version that signified that the Pistols had joined the circus. They were saying that the Sex Pistols were now part of the same carousel that we had been on.”

The Bay City Rollers are one of the most compelling and tragic tales in the history of pop (they really are). There are two wonderful books that detail this story: The Dark History of the Bay City Rollers by Simon Spence, and Bye Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair With the Bay City Rollers by Caroline Sullivan. You don’t have to be a Rollers fan to be deeply moved and compelled by both books.

Also, you can check out the current version of the Bay City Rollers and their touring schedule on their website

 

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He is the author of Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish and has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Learn more at Tim Sommer Writing.

One thought on “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Bay City Rollers

  • June 13, 2022 at 9:02 pm
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    This fascinating story is so packed with insight and history that my tiny mind is blown. Such a great point about BCR and Pistols being two sides of the same “we’re not King Crimson” coin. I love where Woody says, “I never heard a punk slag the Rollers. I never heard a punk say a derogatory word about us.” Stunning story and worth the super long read if only to learn Midge Ure had been considered for the Johnny Rotten spot. That would have changed the trajectory of everything that followed. And how easily could Slik’s hit “Forever and Ever” have been even huger in the gorgeous hands of BCR? Great, great piece of reporting and writing. One of the best reads of the year.

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