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 brand which sought and gained global domination.
But, even at this distance, the Bay City 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 cheese and, at worst, banal bubblegum pop.
Yet these songs have been passed down from generation to generation and Les McKeown, who has died aged 65, was the face of the band and the singer who poured his heart and soul into their iconic hits in the 1970s.
Les McKeown didn’t have his problems to seek
They were post-Beatles and pre-punk and, for those of us who grew up amidst endless strikes, Cold War tensions and mind-numbing beige, the Rollers had an innocence and infectious quality which meant that we wore their tartan trousers even if some of us couldn’t bear to buy their records.
Les McKeown didn’t have his problems to seek, but he found refuge whenever there was a stage on which he could regale an audience. 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.
The group’s dramatic Icarus-style fall to earth was well-documented and I interviewed McKeown several times about his alcoholism and self-loathing.
He told me: “We were young and naïve and we just wanted to make music and sing our songs. But we were all kicked in the guts at one stage or another.
“When we first reached the top of the charts, we had no idea what to expect and the reaction from fans wherever we went was astonishing. I sometimes look back and have to pinch myself when I see the photographs and look at all the merchandise and memorabilia. It feels like ancient history.”
Les McKeown was invited to perform at T in the Park
Even as McKeown talked about reaching 60, his eyes still burned brightly after he was invited to headline T in the Park five years ago.
By that stage, he was a far cry from the fresh-faced teenager with the tartan regalia, but he never stopped performing, whatever the venue, as he travelled to Australia and Japan in what turned out to be the swansong of his life.
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 have obviously changed and you can’t turn back the clock, but there is a new connection and I sometimes pinch myself.
“I remember being at a concert in Aberdeen where I met these two lovely women and they were 100% decked out in all the Rollers gear.
They were mother and daughter and I gave them autographs and they looked so, so excited. I know we were never exactly cool, but we gave a lot of people a helluva good time and I’ve always believed there is nothing wrong in that.”
Les spoke poignantly of the problems he suffered
Their biggest hits might have had simple melodies and basic lyrics, but McKeown was a more complex character than one might have imagined. He spoke poignantly of his problems and admitted: “I tried to destroy myself with alcohol back in 2008. I just felt there was nothing left for me.”
Thankfully, he found a renewed zest for recording and performing and even released a new album “Les McKeown…The Lost Songs” in 2016 which featured 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.
This was in the days when 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 that they would end up on the next Rollers album.
It never happened, of course. Or not in the last century. But McKeown never stopped believing. As he said: “I kept the tapes in a suitcase in my attic and I never imagined they would ever see the light of day.
“They were in limbo, but I was ecstatic that they were finally turned into a great record and I was very proud to finally have the chance to perform them for my fans. So many of them have stayed super loyal down the years.
“It wouldn’t have happened without the wonderful work of [multi-million-selling writer and producer] John McLaughlin. He listened to the songs and it is remarkable what he’s done with them over the last two years.”
The lead singer was a man who defined a generation
The new material didn’t stray far from the shiny grooves which meant that Scotland in the mid-70s will be forever synonymous with Summer Love Sensation and other indelible hits.
McKeown never asked for anything more than a opportunity to entertain and he succeeded in that ambition.
A few years ago, he and his colleagues reunited for a BBC Hogmanay Special and even the most cynical, world-weary music aficionado would have found it difficult not to shuffle a bit.
It was sad that he had to endure plenty of privations since the Scots’ glory days in a faraway domain.
But, whatever one’s views on the Bay City Rollers, their lead vocalist was one of those rare people who defined a generation, somebody who put a spring in people’s steps and, for me, his voice will always evoke the summer.
That’s not a bad legacy!