Les McKeown, whose death was announced today, was the singer with the Bay City Rollers and one of the biggest pop stars in that neglected period between glam and punk. I liked the Rollers a great deal: the singles were terrific pieces of disposable pop and there was one album – their fourth, Dedication (1976) – that was really very good indeed.
I met Les once, back in 1996 or so. He was playing with his version of the band at the Roadhouse in Covent Garden, I was trying to put together a book on 1970s pop music, and he was kind enough to talk to me between the soundcheck and the gig. He was friendly and helpful, but he didn’t seem particularly happy. Maybe it was because the Rollers stock was not high at that point, and the Roadhouse – as he noted – was barely an echo of the glory days. Even so, he turned on the charm for some Japanese fans who had flown over specially to see him play and who came over to speak. And he did put on a good show, running through the hits one more time.
Meeting him confirmed my impression that what he’d really wanted was to be a rock star, but he’d discovered that he had the looks and voice of a pop star. And those were very different roles in the 1970s.
Here’s some of what he had to say.
The direction of the band was always aimed at the teen following. If you go back to the ‘60s or whatever and look at other teeny-type groups, they’re all kinda like grown-up men. And it wasn’t till the tide started to turn a wee bit and you got to the ‘70s, I think there was room for a younger looking guy band.
We had a bit of a street image. The first pictures we were kinda like in Adidas, tight fucking jeans, braces and Fairisle shirts. And then that got a wee bit ponced up with the big boots that Gary Glitter had, and then some cunt came up with the idea of putting our ages on our T-shirts: on the first Top of the Pops, I’ve got ‘17’, someone’s got ‘19’, you know what I mean. So that was a kinda gimmicky thing. I mean, the Rollers had absolutely no tartan at all around them for that first period – there was nothing tartan about us. That all started later on.
It’s a good thing, I think, for a band’s image, not to be ligging around and all that kinda stuff. There was a certain thing created around the Rollers: inaccessible, untouchable, that kind of thing. The manager would go out of his way to make sure: how long does it take to drive the guys from the hotel to the TV studio, how long does it take to walk up the stairs – he’d have somebody go and do it. So you didn’t have to think about all that: what time am I gonna get ready? Somebody would come and tell you. And there’s all these people with backstage passes in VIP rooms, but you just never saw them. You went up onto the stage, then out back into the limo and back to the hotel.
The debut album Rollin’ (1974):
The record company wanted an album, and they wanted it last fucking week, you know, on the shelf. And so along with the problem we had with the power struggle, we had the pressure from the record company. So all the musician side of things, the songwriting thing, or anything creative from the band’s point of view got shoved right to the back of the queue. Cos there’s more important things to do: we have to have an album, have to have a picture, have to have a TV show in Finland, we have to fly over to Australia – there’s no fucking time for you to be a musician. That’s the attitude that prevailed at that time. Of course, I don’t know if things are really that different now with these new bands that are around. I hear a load of old stories.
When you’re that age, when you’re young, you really don’t have the ability to get together as a band and evolve your own little power structure: we are the band, we stand together. Which you could have done, but you don’t really develop that sense until later on. In our story it was just too late.
Working with Bill Martin & Phil Coulter:
In those days I’d come down to London, I’d go to [Phil Coulter’s] house, he’d sit there with a piano and we’d sort of get it up, you might call it: ‘This is the song, let’s hear you sing it.’ And then he would make a decision in his own mind: yeah, this is a good song, suits his voice, or change the key or whatever. Cos don’t forget I’m something like sixteen/seventeen, never even been on a flight before, never mind anything else.
We’d then turn up at the studio – it’d be probably me, Eric, Woody and Alan, sometimes Derek would be there too – and we’d usually do a lot of the backing vocals first, then do the lead vocal, then do any additional backing vocals. That was all the band, but the track had already been made. I mean, you had some good musicians there. Really brilliant.
But the genius of the sound was Phil Coulter, he made that sound. He manufactured in a way that sound image in his head and made it come out the speakers. The guitar on ‘Shang-A-Lang’, and the drums – just the way he would gaffa-tape up the drums, he would do that. And the handclap thing that he made from a couple of old floorboards with handles. He did all that stuff, he was a very very creative guy.
They’re classics, they’re brilliant. I would’ve liked to have kept working with Phil, cos I thought he was great for me – might not have been good for the band. I would’ve imagined that at some point you could’ve used the band, it’s just a matter of how much time, how much money. It’s an unknown factor with a band, but with a session-musician, the guys know that you’ve got to get it done, cos there’s fucking one hour you’ve got, you know what I mean. And it’s instinct.
The big break-up with Martin & Coulter? I dunno, a lot of the stuff that was going on was … not behind the band’s back, but in the management levels, you know what I mean. So as we were just like travelling the world and doing things, those kind of things were being done in London in our name. But I do remember Eric Faulkner saw himself as a bit of a writer – and he has written some good songs, and still does, but maybe at that time the songs he was writing may not have been as good as the ones that Martin & Coulter made. But when you’re writing stuff, you want your stuff out and you see it as your band or whatever. I can remember that there were occasions at Mayfair Studios when Bill Martin would take me off for a coffee and chat to me about going solo. And this was like Day One. A bit soon – I’d just joined the band. So there was that kind of thing going on, and of course at that time the band was very, very, very tight and close, so I would tell the other guys.
There was an occasion I remember at Granada Studios when Bill Martin comes up to produce this TV mix. We were up in the control room and one thing led to another, and I actually ended up having a punch-up with him, when I was saying, ‘You can produce fuck-all’ type of thing, you know. That was one of the things that started it. And of course the innate thing where the band wanted to have its own songs out. Because we were in a situation then very quickly where we had a lot of fans joining all the time, lots of crazy things happening at gigs. So it was an upward spiral. We felt we should have that, and we got that through having Phil Wainman to produce us.
But you can’t really pin it down to one particular thing. I think the worst thing for the Bill Martin-Phil Coulter situation was Bill Martin. Cos he was a very aggressive obnoxious cunt of a Scotsman. He really was. Very little likeable things about him. I mean, if you weren’t in business with him, he’d be a right laugh at parties and all that kind of stuff.
Working with Phil Wainman:
I never ever got along with Phil Wainman, because I thought he was a bit like Bill Martin, in that he was a creative bully and he had very little patience for me. Alright, I was a bit of a cheeky little upstart, but when it got time to do work … If you were going to produce someone, you wouldn’t say to the singer, ‘No, that’s not right,’ after he’d sung one word or something; you’d be in the mood to encourage, try to get the best out of people. He would fucking annoy me like that. He’d run the track, first couple of words would come up, he’d stop the track; and he would just keep doing it, he would never let you have a run at it, which is normal, couple of runs to warm up. Because I wouldn’t take any of his sort of lip outside of the studio, so he brought it into the studio, which I thought was pretty unprofessional.
And it never helped that we were working in a studio in Chipping Norton – brilliant studio, but the control room is about nineteen feet up, so you’ve got this big thing up there nineteen feet high up and that’s where the producer is, and that’s about the only cunt you can see. And you’re down here, feeling very small, and he’s fucking annoying you. And he’s looking down, and you can see him stop the tape, and you can see him talking away but you can’t hear. All that sort of stuff. It was fucking so annoying, I nearly blew my top – I did blow my top loads of times.
So why stick with Wainman for two albums?
It wasn’t me that really stuck with him, it was the band that stuck with him. And also the fact that it was fucking successful. I would’ve preferred it if the band had stuck with the Rollers sound, which I consider was the Phil Coulter sound – it’s my favourite sound of the Rollers, for the young kinda angle.
Going to America:
We were a bit kinda scared cos the ones who’d just tried to do it before us was Slade – great band, loved them. But the difference between us and a band like Slade is our music was a little more mainstream, it had a fresh young thing about it – we were fresh and young, so that was good. To tell you the truth, it’s all about the hype and all that kind of stuff, isn’t it? That kind of thing came mostly from the manager, who had this idea, he wanted to be Brian Epstein. That was his failure in life: he wasn’t. He was trying to emulate him.
The other big element to our success in America was the record: ‘Saturday Night’, produced by and written by Phil Coulter. It had previously been a flop in the UK twice with the old band. We didn’t re-record the track, but I sang on it, exact same backing track. Given the right surroundings, that song was a massive hit, whereas with the wrong surroundings it wasn’t a hit. Some things have a life when you add another element to them. You shouldn’t write everything off.
We just didn’t give a fuck really. I mean I think it got to Eric probably a wee bit, because he tended to read the serious press. But the positive side of that is these arseholes are writing about us and we’re in their paper anyway. Even the most ardent New Musical Express hippy, he has to read it, because it’s in his fucking paper: doesn’t matter if he hates us, he reads it. It’s like anti-press, it’s like: ‘You’re all a bunch of cunts’ – but they were saying it every week. Brilliant. We’ll just deal with the dailies.
Playing gigs like the Roadhouse:
The graveyard circuit, that’s what this is. That’s what it’s referred to. I don’t really enjoy doing this that much, because you’ve got to focus on doing just the hits. I mean, I’ve played them enough. We’ve re-arranged them and stuff like that, try to keep an interest really. It’s not got those elements that make it worthwhile, it’s only got the cash.
The punters come along, they want to hear the hits that they remember – cos they don’t quite remember that obscure album track – so if you play a lot of other stuff, or not-so-famous stuff, then they might not react so good for the group. And in consequence the promoter might not react next time you ask him to book us. Cos it is only a money-making thing. If you went there and did your own stuff, would the audience like it? Because you’re currently not getting promoted by anybody apart from yourself, so there’s no way for them even to be prepared for those songs or listen to them again. Some of them might like it on the night, but it all boils down to: what’s the fucking point?
The loneliness of the star:
The problem with us is we were just so fucked up with all that stuff. And no, there is no one around to help you. You were like a little island all by yourself. I mean, that’s true in life in general, but you just felt more like that, you know what you mean. You couldn’t really trust your manager that much, you couldn’t trust the other guys in the band, you couldn’t trust the press guys, it was like you couldn’t trust anyone.