Les McKeown 1955 – 2021: Ultrapop, Erotic Terror, and Punk’s Proof of Concept 

The best-known vocalist for the Bay City Rollers died suddenly this past week at age 65. 

Long Live Les McKeown (Art: Ron Hart)

When you are a teenager and you fall into the panic of love, it is the only time you love without the fear of death. Therefore, you can love with all your being, without logic, without a past or future. You are the only lover God has ever made. 

This is the way people loved Les McKeown, the best-known vocalist for the Bay City Rollers, who died suddenly this past week at age 65. 

When you are teenager and you discover that rock ‘n’ roll can both feed the bees in your head and silence the bees in your head (and give you new bees to obsess over), you feel like you are the first person to discover its land of frenzy and organization, flags and anti-flags leading you to tribes and friendship. You can love rock ‘n’ roll endlessly and entirely, as if it was made just for you, because it is a whole new language to learn. This is the way people loved the Bay City Rollers. 

And when you are a teenager, the first band who initiates you into that club, that place where they play your secret soundtrack, this becomes the club you are a member of for life. To this day, this is still the fellowship of Rollers fans.

First, you must know that in the United Kingdom the Bay City Rollers were enormous, ubiquitous, and far, far bigger than they were in the United States. If we measure such things by sustained media attention and audience hysteria, it is possible that only The Beatles and Lady Diana were bigger. Between 1973 and 1977, the Bay City Rollers absolutely ruled the charts, the hearts of young girls (and some boys), the newspaper and magazine covers, and the bedroom walls and notebook margins across the land. Their tours left trails of wrecked theaters, barricaded hotels, and limousines literally crushed under the weight of fans. Singles sold 75,000 a day in a country one-eighth the size of the United States; 120 million records sold across the world (in total) in a radically brief time span. Band members were regularly hospitalized due to injuries suffered during stage invasions. In the U.K. in 1975 they even had their own weekly prime time TV show, a variety/comedy show called Shang-a-Lang (which bore little resemblance to the sad Saturday Morning kid show they did a few years later in the States).

 

VIDEO: Shang A Lang Episode 1

In the wide and flat middle of the 1970s, the success of the Bay City Rollers was, perhaps, the last great manic episode of teen rock hysteria in the age before the industry really knew how to control and bottle these things. Although other boy bands would follow, none were ever truly proto-punk bands, snug and simplistic crayon-drawn Faces, boogie-playing working class yobs polished, scrubbed and poured into too-tight, midriff-revealing clothes to satisfy both the teen trade and the rough trade. And none, ever again, would walk so close to the edge of riot, not even the punk bands, who could only imitate the Rollers’ ability to actually risk death for the idea of rock ‘n’ roll. On multiple occasions (but most notably at a notorious BBC-sponsored event at Mallory Park Racetrack in 1975) the Rollers came close to being killed by their fans, who were willing to die just to touch them. 

It all would be just a fascinating cultural footnote if the music wasn’t actually quite good, and the band, with their sound and style that repudiated the prog and hippie aesthetic and favored short, sharp shocks of big, blunt pop and rooster-spiked hair, weren’t clearly the bridge between teenage and punkage for tens of thousands of young fans. 

And they were so young: In their 1975 heyday, the most recognizable members of the band — singer Les McKeown, bassist Stuart Wood, and guitarist Eric Faulkner – were just 20, 18 and 22. Drummer Derek Longmuir and guitarist Alan Longmuir were a bit older – mid and late 20’s, respectively – since they were veterans of the original band, who had been around since the mid/late1960s. Originally conceived (by the Longmuirs) to whack out Motown and American garage covers in front of tough working class audiences, this DNA never quite left them, much in the same way that it was always evident in the work of the Dave Clark Five, Slade, or the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. In fact, squint a little and “Money Honey” sounds like Slade, “Shang-a-Lang” like SAHB, and “Yesterday’s Hero” like the DC5 via Mott the Hoople. 

At the height of their fame they were makers of a chewy, polished, thumping glitter rock that rumbled, buzzed, burred and sighed, a football chant sing-a-song that fell somewhere between Sweet and Klaatu, the Alan Parsons Project and Mud, Nick Lowe and Slade. Not only have their best records dated well, but they also were clearly a very sensible bridge between the riffing raunch and melodic cascades of Ziggy Stardust and the downstroked barre chords of punk. It was no accident that both movements – Stardust-ism and punk – shared the spiky haircut and the short, sharp, bursts of song. Nor is it an accident that that Johnny Rotten appropriated the most obvious aspect of the Rollers’ costume, their tartan (the Rollers’ influence on Malcolm McLaren was especially significant, as was their much-discussed imprint on the Ramones: “Hey Ho Let’s Go” was a conscious emulation of “S-A-T-U-R, D-A-Y Night!”). The Rollers’ music makes sense both as a simplification of glitter and as a proof of concept of punk, with a little of the tra-la-la’ing of Eurovision ultrapop thrown in for good measure. True, they made their very best album after McKeown left (the roaring, Records-esque powerpop classic, Elevator, with Duncan Faure on vocals).

 

VIDEO: The Rollers on Merv Griffin 1979 

But the McKeown-era band could have done something like that if someone had just let them; and there is enough on their LPs and YouTube clips to show that the Bay City Rollers were a rough gang of horn-nutted rocking boys packaged as candyfloss. It’s no accident that they always reminded me of two of New York’s more interesting late 1970s’s indie bands: the teen-pop punk heroes the Speedies, and the Mumps, who also trafficked in riffing, lightweight pop with a barely-hidden sexual undertone. 

McKeown’s inability to cash in his Roller status for the mainstream pop career that should have awaited him is probably a testimony to the extraordinary damage life in the Rollers bubble did to him. It’s a shame, too, because his face-splitting grin and thin but precise and expressive voice would have made him a good candidate for the kind of career Cliff Richard had, and he certainly could have been shaped into a theater star like Michael Crawford. At the very least, he should have had a future as a TV presenter. But I suspect the damage he suffered from two vastly oppressive legacies – a physically, emotionally, and financially abusive manager and a public that so very much wanted a piece of you that they would kill you to get it – left him crippled. Honestly, he deserved better, as does the entire Rollers’ legacy. (Note: the entire fascinating, rather tragic Rollers’ story is very well told in Simon Spence’s When the Screaming Stops: The Dark History of the Bay City Rollers; and Caroline Sullivan’s utterly marvelous Bye Bye Baby is a, deep and unique account of what it was like to be a teenager swept up in Rollermania). 

McKeown has now left us (as has Alan Longmuir and Ian Mitchell, who replaced Longmuir at the height of Rollermania), but we are left with their fine, chewy records, and the thumbprint they left on so many hearts. We recall the erotic terror and the erotic glee, the yellowing photos of sobbing girls clawing the air, the shuddering animal noises that shook a sagging old Empire. Amidst the brick-dust and smoke of the shattered mid-1970s they made women out of children and created confusing shivers that yet had no name (but it wrote its bliss in crayon and lipstick). The supernova of sensation they caused may now seem like a dervish spell of badge-covered madness, but this must not obscure the honesty and purity of the feeling, nor the I/IV/V beauty at it’s root. I am not here to ask any of you to reconsider the Bay City Rollers. I am here to ask you to remember the Rollers, exactly as they were: Remember the joy they gave you. Remember the flurry of strange feelings you had when you thought of them, and how you wrote their names in the margins of your notebook, and in soft blue Biro on the back of your hand. These were honest feelings, friends. These were the real you, these were the real Rollers. 

Remember them, with the fingers of your teenage heart, but with your adult cognition: They did not just invent you, a screamer and a schoolroom daydreamer. They also invented you, a listener, lover, chaser, and canvasser of music. You needed those records, you flew down far corners and strange corridors to find those import copies; you memorized those songwriter and producer names, just like you would again and again in the far future, when the music was ever-so-much-more serious. But the Bay City Rollers were your first

Face it: The Bay City Rollers were your gateway drug, not just to every crush you had since, but to every band you have loved in their wake. 

 

(A few paragraphs towards the end of this piece appeared in an earlier essay I wrote about the Rollers in Inside Hook)

 

 

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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 has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

3 thoughts on “Les McKeown 1955 – 2021: Ultrapop, Erotic Terror, and Punk’s Proof of Concept 

  • May 2, 2021 at 1:13 am
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    Grateful to you for this clear-eyed explication of the origins, explosion and sad denouement of Rollermania. And the music! finally, someone writes incisively and non-judgmentally about the Bay City Rollers’ output! Your observations are right-on (speaking as someone for whom the next step after the BCR was a lasting adoration of new-wave and punk). This band empowered many, many young women to be bold, seek joy, and remain true to themselves. Later, scores of us re-found each other (and some band members, too) as the emergent 90s Internet facilitated communications among us, worldwide. It was a phenomenon in the 70s, and it still feels like that today as a community mourns Leslie’s passing.

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  • June 30, 2021 at 6:07 pm
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    Great piece! My older sister loved them growing up. I remember her playing the Dedication album over and over again dressed up in her roller strollers. I’ve recently come across their music again and have been reminiscing. Love the whole feel and look of it. So sad what they went through though, they deserved so much more. RIP Les, Alan and Ian.

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