The Bay City Roller’s main man Les McKeown is coming to Australia in June and July to show us what made his band the biggest in the World for a time in the mid 70’s. We caught up with Les to talk about a long and winding career, nights out with Bowie and Freddie and queuing for tickets to see led Zeppelin.
Imagine this: at a point in the mid-seventies the Bay City Rollers were as big as The Beatles and everything they touched turned to Platinum and across the land kids copied their clothing in an explosion of white culottes and tartan trim. For two years the band were at a height that modern day stars could only dream of, and then inexplicably it all went wrong. While the others soldiered on Les McKeown left the band before it made its final lurches into the annals of rock history, hoping that he’d catch a break as a solo artist, it was a break that never really came.
The Rollers story is far more than a spectacular rise and equally spectacular fall, it’s a tale of Rock and Roll excess, a controlling manager, millions in unpaid royalties and the fickle nature of the music business. Thankfully Les made it through after even more heartache along the way and he’s here in Australia in June and July to celebrate a band that meant so much to so many.
Les: Hey Mark How You doing?
Mark: I’m good thanks Les. I’ve been really looking forward to having a chat. I’ve been sat here all afternoon wondering what my five year old self would ask you if he was doing this interview and all I could come up with are those sort of questions you used to see in kids pop magazines in the 70’s – what is your favourite colour and what did you have for tea?
Les: (laughs) And another favourite we always used to get asked was “What is it like to fly on an aero-plane”?
Mark: How times have changed!
Les: You look back now and you think where did it all go, eh? (laughs)
Mark: I know! I was playing a few of your old singles before I called and it was getting me in the mood to don some white knee length trousers again!
Les: Man you must have looked cute! (laughs)
Mark: (laughs) it’s so great to see that you’re coming back in July. What sort of show are you bringing us?
Les: Well it’s sort of the Bay City Rollers story really; it’s a lot like the show I do in the UK, Germany and Japan, I just change the actual content to reflect the hits that we had in Australia. So we do all the hit songs, we do one song from my new album called ‘Beautiful’ which is coming out in the UK on the 24th. And we’ve a launch gig from that in Glasgow on the 25th (May). But since we’ve focussed on let’s say ‘reproducing’ the records, note for note, harmonies, guitar sound, everything, and we’ve been doing that for the last ten years now it’s great to be able to hook up with such a great company down there in Australia, Metropolis Touring.
Mark: They’re certainly doing a great job of promoting the tour. We’ve a lot of ex-pats over in Western Australia too so I think you’ll have a few of your countrymen in the audience reliving a few memories, I think there’s a second date been added in Perth too.
Les: Yeah they keep adding stuff, but that’s OK. We’re over for a month and they can add as many shows as they like, I’m up for it! I’m not saying it will be the last time, but it’s a long time since I was there last which was 2007 on the ‘Countdown Spectacular’ show and I’ve been looking for a promoter to bring me back and thought it might not ever happen so I just continued touring in the UK, but Fraser eventually got in touch with me last year and we decided to come over in your Winter time which would be like an extreme summer for a Scottish person like me!
Mark: (laughs) You’ll be going back with a tan definitely! I was catching up on what’s been happening with you over the last few years, and as you said you came back to touring about ten years ago after a period I guess of being rather ‘out of love’ with the music and the band, then there was the ongoing royalty court case, other revelations, lots going on. But what was it that made you come back, if not exactly falling back in love with the music then at least coming to terms with the past and realising that people out there still wanted to hear you sing?
Les: I think it was a lot of things that happened to me, I was sort of half-heartedly doing the Bay City Roller thing from 1992 to around 2002, and then I started to get a problem with bad memories creeping in and then I got flipped over to the dark side when both of my parents died within a month of each other just before I was releasing my autobiography. And then things went crazy and I hit the bottle bad for the next four of five and ended up for four months of rehab in Malibu California to try and sort out my drinking problem. And what was at the bottom of all that was some pretty nasty stuff that had to do with my old manager and we sorted my head out and it put me back on the straight and narrow. I came out of there with the focus to only do things that were positive in my life. And what was the most positive thing that ever happened? Well getting in the charts, singing on hit songs, having happy people to sing to: and I realised there was no reason why I couldn’t come back. So the first tour was in 2009 – when I did a show called ‘Rollermania’ and that was scripted, I had it all laid out on the computer, I had a screen set up on the stage and a ‘clicker’ so I could do it the same every night. Then after 2009 I got to feel the script was a little bit restrictive so I started doing it off the top of my head, just changing it a bit every night according to the crowd and that’s been working well since then and it’s just got bigger and bigger and better and better and gone from small venues to bigger and bigger theatre tours. I do a hundred UK theatres every year, I’m going to Japan in February and if all goes well fingers crossed I’ll be back to Australia again next year around the same time.
Mark: And the best thing about that is that you’ve built it and it sounds like you’re enjoying it as well.
Les: Yeah, I’m definitely enjoying it. You know people have different regimes every night before they go on stage and I just do the one thing – I go to the guys and say “this could be the best gig that you ever do, everyone out there wants us to be great so let’s go out there and do it”. And that always gets us geed u, but it’s also true, some people out there might not have seen me since they were kids so I just want everyone to be the best that they can be.
Mark: I’ve never actually seen you I’m sad to say. I managed to catch a lot of the bands from back in the day, I saw Slade, saw Bowie, saw Sweet before Brian passed, even saw Mud but never the Rollers so it’s great to finally get the chance.
Mark: One of my abiding memories from your heyday was watching shows like Top of the Pops and seeing all the great bands on there and thinking it must be so great to be there, I bet all those guys have great fun backstage and get on really well, but it wasn’t really like that was it?
Les: Well the Bay City Rollers management had this method of management which was “steal as much money as you can and don’t let any of the guys in the band have any kind of relationship with anyone who could upset the apple cart”. I think there was a fear that if we made friends we might get some radical ideas like asking “Where’s my money?” (laughs) So part of the image was that we were ‘untouchables’ we’d leave the stage, be straight into a limousine and off. We would certainly never do the ‘meet and greets’ with fans like we do these days. We were there but we were apart, and that’s the way he managed us, and part of that was that he kept us away from all other bands. Whether backstage or at the TV studio we were apart from everyone. Of course we were the ‘happening’ thing at that stage so it was all part of the image and we came to accept it because we were the Bay City Rollers. But we didn’t really like it that much, but we put up with it I guess and weren’t too bothered because we were kept very, very busy. We didn’t have time to think about it.
Mark: It’s hard to comprehend how big you guys were at your peak and not just the music and the touring – you had your own TV series in the UK and I remember watching that every week.
Les: ‘Shang-A-Lang’ – fantastic! The reality of it makes me smile, you could tell on that TV show that we were just normal guys from the block, just normal guys, not professionals by any stretch, we didn’t have the polish of The Osmonds or something like that – who had had years of training on how to present and look good on TV. It’s something if it pops up on YouTube – The Bay City Rollers Shang-A-Lang that’s worth a look- when you see all the links and we’re talking I still think ‘Jesus! How can anyone understand that’! (At this point by way of example Les breaks into a thick comedy Scottish accent, laughing)
Les: It was crazy.
Mark: And then there was another series later in The States that was a bit more produced and not half as fun?
Les: Yes, I didn’t get along with the people on that show at all.
Mark: You also did my favourite David Bowie cover around that time, I think on the ‘It’s a Game’ album – ‘Rebel, Rebel’.
Les: Yeah that was good. They asked me to sing that and I said “I can’t sing that it’s a David Bowie song are you crazy!” These days we do a tribute section in the show to all of my friends, because I was quite friendly with David Bowie when we were recording ‘Strangers in the Wind’ (The Rollers 6th album that was produced by then Bowie producer Harry Maslin). He lived close to our recording studio in Lake Geneva and when we were recording I bumped into Bowie’s female, um… ‘Kids-looker-afterer’! (we both laugh at that great description) or whatever you call it! So I got a little involved with her and we stayed up at David’s house a few times, and he’d turn up with people like Iggy Pop and such like, so we had a few good chats. And as I was such a fan I showed him a picture I’d had taken with him on one of his first tours – the Ziggy Stardust tour. I went to the hotel where they were staying and we sat at the bar waiting for them to come back and have our picture taken. And he said is that you with the long hair?
Mark: Those were the days, such great music.
Les: And that’s why we do the tribute, to him, to Freddie as well. And how many nights I’ve been clubbing with Freddie it’s amazing, never toured with him but he was a great guy. People like Marc Bolan who was on our Shang-A-Lang show quite a lot and used to have us on his show, Brian Connolly (singer of The Sweet) who I toured with extensively before he passed away, and Les Grey from Mud, he was a good friend of mine too. So we put together this medley to celebrate them all and it really goes down well, it’s topped and tailed by Queen.
Mark: Sounds like a great part of the night.
Les: We’re not just a band that gets there does the songs and goes, we love playing, I’m bored right now sat at home with no gigs till later in the month. I’ve already done Japan and 48 shows in the UK so far this year!
Mark: There’s no stopping you! I know it’s a really big question but of all the years in the Rollers and all the fame and all the chart topping singles and albums, what was the most important thing for you about that time?
Les: I think the most important thing for me was losing myself and finding myself again because that’s a deeply personal thing. It’s changed me and it’s brought me back to a place where there are all these fantastic ideas in my head again like there was when I was 16, 17, 18. I’m really back in that mindset now and I’m so happy that everybody is helping me and helping us to do that again. Sure external things mean something too but I just think I’m super lucky that people can still be bothered to see us! It’s amazing.
Mark: That’s so great to hear. If you could have been a ‘Fly on the wall’ for the creation of any great album from any period, just to see how the magic happened and it all came together, what would it have been for you any why?
Les: That would have been Pink Floyd ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.
Mark: Wow! A rocker at heart!
Les: I am, I don’t know if I told you but I stayed out two nights with my best friend in 1971 to get the best tickets centre font row to see led Zeppelin. I used to have long hair right down past my shoulder blades and we were pretty much rockers back then. The after that David Bowie came out with Ziggy Stardust and we went crazy about that, and then Roxy music. In fact on the Ziggy Stardust tour they had Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, then they had Roxy music and then they had Queen! Can you imagine that! It was the best ever line up and gig I’d ever seen and I’ve been to all kinds of shows and concerts since and there’s been no show before or since that ignited my interest in music more than that had!
Mark: What a line up! The seventies has to have been the greatest decade for music so much going on, so many great bands and so many different sounds. I don’t think we’ll ever see artists like those ever again.
Les: No music’s just not the same anymore, I mean there are some great bands around, l quite like the ‘sightly depressing’ Radiohead because I think they’ve got brilliant ideas and the way they do stuff is really interesting. But there’s no Top of the Pops anymore and there’s no central focus for things anymore, everything is just ‘find it on the internet’. You can find some good bands on YouTube, an 8 or 9 year old girl who can sing beautiful opera or a 7 year old kid that can sing great Rock, there’s talent out there but it’s so hard to find.
Mark: I don’t know the answer either. In the 70’s it seemed like music could still change the world but it seems these day that the passion has waned, kids don’t care as passionately as we did and because you can get everything at your fingertips there’s no anticipation any more. Like you queued for those tickets I can remember standing in lines for new albums on the day they came out – now you just click and sigh…
Les: I know. Don’t get too down though there’s still some great people out there!
Mark: I’m luckier than most in that I get to listen to a lot of it and hopefully filter it a bit for people. It’s been great to talk today Les, just time for one last easy one: the final question we have is ‘What is the meaning of life’?
Les: (laughs) the meaning of life is to be happy and treat everyone the way you want to be treated yourself.
Mark: Thank you so much Les, it was great to talk.
Les: It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you Mark, do come and say hello when we get down there. Thanks buddy, take care.
Want to see what Les has been up to recently? If you go to I-tunes type in Les McEwan ‘The Lost Songs’ and you can get a 2 minute preview of the new album.