The Fascinating Prog-Pop Years of the Bay City Rollers
In 1978 the Bay City Rollers, who were hemorrhaging popularity after a half-decade run as one of the world’s biggest bands, fired their eminently punchable squishy-faced lead singer, Les McKeown. They also actively rejected the advice of Arista label head Clive Davis, who sought to turn the Bay City Rollers into a Manilow/Air Supply-adjacent MOR act.
Instead, the Bay City Rollers wanted to return to the aggressive, guitar-based powerpop that had always been the heart of their sound; and this time they wanted to do it without session men and with their own songs.
Thus begins the bizarre and rewarding story of how the Bay City Rollers did the best work of their career and marched into the cold, ash-colored sunset of obscurity, all at the same time.
First, the band replaced McKeown with Duncan Faure, a vocalist, keyboardist, and guitarist who had co-led the biggest South African band of the 1970s, Rabbitt. Next, the group streamlined their name to the vaguely new wave-ish Rollers. And then in 1979, Faure, guitarist Eric Faulkner, guitarist/bassist Stuart “Woody” Wood, guitarist/bassist Alan Longmuir, and drummer Derek Longmuir released Elevator.
Elevator is a smashing album of tough but creamy state-of-the art British powerpop. If you like The Records, the Rubinoos, The Motors, the Barracudas, The Three O’Clock, or Bram Tchaikovsky, you will probably seriously and truly dig the Rollers declaration of independence.
“When Duncan joined the band it suddenly took on a new lease of life,” notes Stuart Wood, now 61, and one of the most optimistic, and pleasant people I have ever interviewed. “Suddenly it was, ‘Oh, this is great, this is fun.’ We were at the top of our game at that point. The Elevator album was a lot punchier, a lot rockier, everyone felt we had gone back to what we should be doing.”
The Rollers had approached their reboot wisely: Rather then reinvent the wheel, submerge themselves in punk or disco, or renounce the joyful, big-chorus glitter pop that made them famous, they merely toughened it up and removed the fluff and the saccharine. The Rollers of Elevator is still, in many ways, the same Rollers as the Rollers of “Rock’n’Roll Love Letter,” “Shang-A-Lang” or “Saturday Night,” but they have lost everything plastic and cutesy, and replaced it with electricity, smoke and steel.
Despite the fact that Elevator deserved very serious attention (it could have fit perfectly into a world that was then embracing the Cars, Cheap Trick, the Romantics, the Plimsouls, the Knack, et al), the album completely failed to chart on either side of the Atlantic (it also probably didn’t help that they had fired their super-controlling and creepy long-time manager, Tam Paton, who at least seems to have had a true knack for promotion). It appeared that one-time BCR fans had moved on, and new listeners who might have dug the record weren’t going to have anything to do with a band that their younger sisters had once plastered all over their walls.
“It was really the band at their peak, it was our Sgt. Pepper era,” says Duncan Faure, also 61, who now lives in Los Angeles. “But people were still thinking we were Donny Osmond.”
Despite the failure of the magnificent Elevator, the Rollers soldiered on to make two more high-quality LPs, 1980’s Voxx and 1981’s Ricochet. Like Elevator, these also mixed big-guitar powerpop with the user-friendly prog sheen of 10CC or The Alan Parsons Project (sometimes it sounds like Jason Faulkner saluting Queen).
After Ricochet, the Rollers realized that they were selling a product that no one was buying, and the group disbanded. But the dream of a gleaming, hard-but-sweet powerpop built around the Rollers legacy was not over.
So let us now discuss a rather terrific album even more obscure than the three largely invisible Rollers albums.
In 1981, Wood and Faure (who, along with Eric Faulkner, had been the driving forces behind the Rollers’ rebirth as a credible hard power pop band) moved to Los Angeles and formed Karu.
Karu would, essentially, continue the same musical themes that the Elevator/Voxx/Ricochet Rollers had been pursuing, but with the streamlined arrangements and open spaces of a power trio and a more conscious sense of contemporary rock radio. By the way, the name is pronounced Kah-Rew; the band took its moniker from a desert region of South Africa, and unfortunately it has nothing to do with the legendary African American/Jewish baseball player, Rod Carew.
Karu’s lone album, CUTS, was released only in Japan and virtually vanished without a trace (although a 45 charted in South Africa). This obscurity is a terrible shame: Faure is a truly gifted hyper-pop songwriter and world class vocalist who sounds like a cross between McCartney, Dennis DeYoung, and Badfinger’s Tom Evans; and Karu’s well-polished, slightly metal/slightly new wave/slightly Beatle-esque riffy powerpop would have been virtually perfect for circa-1983 MTV. Karu’s music would have made total sense to fans of the Cars, Asia, Billy Squier, Billy Idol, even Don Henley. If the Karu album emerged today as a recording by a new band, it would be celebrated as some weird mix of Vampire Weekend/fun. and Breakfast Club/Sixteen Candles throwback guitar-pop, with just a very slight whiff of Sunset Strip strut.
Fortunately, Karu’s music is now widely available via streaming (because there have been a lot of acts since that use the word Karu in their name or song titles, search “Collider feat. Duncan Faure & Stuart ‘Woody’ Wood”); Faure and Wood even recorded a new Karu track to add to the Karu album when it went up on the net two years ago.
But Karu could never quite get past the Bay City Rollers connection, and they remained deeply below the radar.
Wood: “We did try to say, ‘Please don’t say we’re ex-Bay City Rollers,’ but wherever we played, we’d always have ‘Karu, ex-Bay City Rollers,’ or ‘Karu, starring Woody of the Bay City Rollers.’ We couldn’t lose that tie. What can I say, it was fun while it lasted.”
Karu split for good following a gig at Madame Wong’s West in Los Angeles in early 1983.
Faure: “We were together for three years, we got that album out, got a hit in South Africa with ‘Where is the Music,’ but in our third year in Los Angeles, Woody got called to do a Bay City Rollers reunion, and suddenly the Karu thing was set aside.”
Although Wood agrees that the Rollers reunion didn’t exactly help Karu, he believes there were other factors that led to the end of the band.
“With Karu, it was a struggle to try keep the gigs coming. It devolved into a band that was just rehearsing a lot, we weren’t getting anyplace and we were getting there fast, and there were bills piling up. I went to do one of the reunions – this was without Duncan — and the money I made paid for a lot of our recordings, because at that point we owed a lot of money to various studios. So certainly the Rollers reunion played a part. But by that time it was pretty clear Karu had done it’s thing and we weren’t going anyplace. Plus, I wanted to leave L.A. and get back to the U.K. But after that Australian Rollers reunion tour, things took another twist and I ended up going to South Africa for another seven or eight years.”
“The Australian reunion tour,” Wood continues, “I must say, was the worst tour I’ve ever been on. Eric (Faulkner) and his girlfriend abandoned the tour a few gigs before the end, Les, his wife and baby and Pat (McGlynn) and his girlfriend abandoned the tour before the last show in Sydney’s Coogee Bay Hotel. There was now only Ian (Mitchell), drummer George Spencer and myself left. We asked our support band if we could join up to make one band so we could fulfill our commitment to the promoter and, more importantly, the fans. It was the best night of the tour and one of the best gigs I was involved in. It was here that George suggested we three amigos join up with some musicians he knew in South Africa, and hence the creation of Neil Solomon and the Passengers.”
Neil Solomon and the Passengers, who played a light, A-ha-esque new wave dance rock, achieved some success in South Africa throughout the rest of the 1980s.
(For the sake of accuracy, we note that a reunited Bay City Rollers – with Les McKeown, Eric Faulkner, Wood, Ian Mitchell, Pat McGlynn, and George Spencer – recorded a truly dreadful album in 1985 called Breakout ’85. Likewise, although the continuum of the Rollers ends with Ricochet, numerous recording projects featuring sundry band members have been released since under the Rollers or Bay City Rollers name. To detail all of these would be, well, just plain old geeky, though there are spots of joy every now and then; a handy guide is to reject anything that has McKeown on it. We also note that in 1981, Wood, Faure, and the Longmuir brothers– i.e., the post-McKeown Rollers without Faulkner – appeared in and recorded original songs for a little-seen b-movie called Burning Rubber, of which Wood says, “It is a really crap film. It is absolutely terrible. It is really a crap, crap film. It was great fun to do, but it was just a terrible, terrible film.”)
Faure placed a song prominently on the multi-platinum soundtrack to Madonna’s Who’s That Girl, and has gigged and recorded steadily since, living in Los Angeles but playing all over the world (including South Africa, where he is greeted as a returning legend).
“I miss Karu,” says Faure. “It’s not impossible that we could do it again.”
This weekend, Stuart “Woody” Wood begins a short tour of the United States with a new Bay City Rollers. When you speak with Wood, you are struck not only by his friendliness and his humility, but also by the extraordinary fact that by the time he had turned 25, he had already been in – and out – of one of the biggest bands in the world, and accrued a lifetime’s worth of music industry experience.
“It is quite bizarre when you put it that way. I have been doing this since I was a teenager (laughs). I used to say to people that ‘I am a has been and a never was.’ It’s just all experience, it’s just all life’s experience. The thing about life is, anything can happen. Just make the best of it. Y’know, it’s not worked out so badly, not yet. “
Woody’s Bay City Rollers perform Friday, September 21 at the Indiana Grand Racing & Casino in Shelbyville, Indiana; Saturday, September 22 at the Music Box Theatre in Hershey Park, Pennsylvania; and Sunday, September 23 at the Aracada Theatre in St. Charles, Illinois.