Photo by – Ted Van Boort
By Keith Sharp
Les McKeown, frontman for the Scottish pop group the Bay City Rollers which sparked `Rollermania ’across North America, Australia and Japan in the mid-1970s, died Tuesday, April 20, 2021. The news of his sudden passing at his home at age 65 from a heart attack, was shared by his family on his Twitter account on April 22.
— Les McKeown (@LesMcKeownUK) April 22, 2021
Formed initially by bassist Alan Longmuir (who died in 2018) and his drummer brother Derek, along with Gordon “Nobby” Clark, and known as the Saxons in 1966. They then called themselves The Rollers and to `Americanize’ their name, one band member threw a dart at a map of the United States and it landed in Bay City, Mich (at the second attempt, the first dart landed in Arizona!)
McKeown, born in Edinburgh, Scotland on Nov. 12, 1955, joined the group in 1973 replacing former frontman Clark, and with the two Longmuir brothers plus guitarists, Eric Faulkner and Stuart `Woody’ Wood went on to spark ‘Rollermania’ in the UK and signed to Bell Records domestically. They first hit the UK Singles chart in 1971 with “Keep On Dancing”, “Remember Sha La La La” and a cover of The Four Seasons “Bye Bye Baby” which reached No 1 in the UK in 1975.
U.S Arista Records President Clive Davis had been alerted to The Rollers when he saw them on a British televised concert and could not help but notice the band and their rabid teenage fan support all decked out in Tartan-inspired clothing.
Feeling he could rekindle Beatlemania with Rollermania, Davis signed the band to Arista, repackaged the major hits from their first three Bell releases and kicked off their American hype by releasing “Saturday Night” as their first single – a song that had totally failed to chart in the U.K two years previously. The group ultimately scored two more top 10 singles in the U.S., “Money Honey” (1976) and “You Made Me Believe in magic” (1977). A cover of the Dusty Springfield hit “I Only Want to Be With You” made the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K.
Despite high profile appearances on the key U.S shows like Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special in 1976, The Rollers never quite reached Beatlemania hype in the States but their North American debut album did go to No 1 in Canada and they were also a huge draw in Japan, Australia and of course the U.K.
In gathering feature stories for my debut Alberta Music Express issue in October 1976, I interviewed all five group members who at the time were `imprisoned’ in their Edmonton Plaza hotel suites by a crowd of marauding teenage fans assembled outside.
They were in the midst of a Canadian tour at that time and each date seemingly caused riots with news coverage of young girls passing out and being carried out of the venues, a situation created by their manager Tam Paton who insisted on the stage being lowered to ground level (to encourage stage invasions) and the band performed with limited security.
The members were pleasant enough, describing their early evolution with such strong Scottish accents that even I, (being English) still felt I needed subtitles on my tape recorder.
Their biggest complaint was that Paton was keeping them on such a tight leash, they couldn’t venture out at night and explore the cities they were visiting. McKeown and Faulkner in particular wanted to go out for a drink to a local bar but their manager insisted on perpetuating an image of them being wholesome milk-drinking lads even though they were both of legal age (McKeown was 21 at that time).
So I naively asked them what was stopping them from going out for a drink. “Just ditch the Tartan outfits and no one will recognize you,” I suggested. “Can you arrange this,” McKeown shot back. “Sure, said I, you were set to play at the Calgary Corral on Saturday, so Friday why don’t I take you and Eric to the Refinery Nightclub.” (the rest of the band, wary of incurring the wrath of Paton, declined the offer).
So having made security arrangements with Refinery Club manager, Lou Blair (who later co-managed Loverboy) to sneak the pair into the venue by the back entrance, I parked my wife’s Gremlin outside the Calgary Inn and snuck the two Rollers into the back seat of the vehicle.
At first, Messers McKeown and Faulkner enjoyed the anonymity of not being recognized at the club. They had a couple of beers and seemed to be relaxed but obviously, the blues band playing at the venue that night wasn’t to their liking and they started to get perturbed that no one was paying attention to them.
After about an hour, they wanted to leave but also asked if we could visit a local Taco Bell restaurant which they had heard so much about. So this was going to be a challenge, taking two Bay City Rollers into a Taco Bell where they were sure to be recognized by a predominantly teenage clientele.
But as we headed into a Macleod Trail outlet, all they got was a few strange stares with no one believing that two Bay City Rollers would actually venture into a local Taco Bell!
So McKeown, Faulkner and I drove back to the Calgary Inn and I rejoined them backstage the following night at the Corral for their concert only to incur the wrath of Tam Paton who accused me of corrupting his boys.
Paton was eventually fired by the band, for shady financial indiscretions and in 1982, was imprisoned for one year for gross indecency with two minor boys. He died from natural causes at the age of 70 in 2009.
McKeown got to re-live those memories in 2013 during an updated phone interview with ME when his Les McKeown Bay City Roller Experience band performed at the Hamilton Place Studio before a capacity crowd of some 750 still rabid fans. Amongst the audience was ME photographer Ted Van Boort and his wife Karen who finally got meet a Roller after her mother had not permitted her to catch the band’s initial 1976 Hamilton appearance, from a rooftop at Jackson Square.
He remembered that `night out’ experience, lamented that Rollermania declined rapidly in the late 1970s despite numerous lineup changes, he talked about the band’s lawsuits against Arista Records, where literally millions of dollars were unaccounted for (they finally settled out of court in 2011, received a total settlement of $3.5 million dollars that was split between the various band members).
McKeown was authoring a book about his Roller experiences and said at that time his band was still going strong and there was still a strong, existing fan following for The Rollers in certain pockets of the planet.
Interestingly enough, McKeown was due to perform in Toronto last March when COVID-19 first struck but had to leave Canada immediately to avoid the borders being closed. At the time of his death, his Experience band still had a number of Scottish and British dates on his 2021 itinerary and he was battling it out with another version of the band, headed up by former guitarist Stuart Wood.