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Interview: LES MCKEOWN (BAY CITY ROLLERS)

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Back in the 70s, there was a time when hordes of young, mostly female, pop music fans were under the spell of a craze dubbed Rollermania. The Bay City Rollers were riding high on the charts and being besieged by devoted, tartan clad female fans everywhere they went, and Australia was certainly no exception with their popularity here hitting fever pitch in the mid-70s when they toured. Fast forward four decades later and those fans have been reliving those crazy days of Rollermania.

Lead singer of the classic line-up of the Bay City Rollers, Les McKeown now tours with his own band and Bay City Rollers (UK) featuring Les McKeown toured Australia last year, performing songs  like ‘Bye Bye Baby’, ‘I Only Wanna Be With You’ and ‘Give a Little Love’ and more that took the original band to the top of the charts in the 70s and the fans loved it! Now Australian audiences will have the chance to do it all again when the guys return to our shores this July and the singer was pretty excited about it when I spoke to him recently for this interview.

It’s been a year since they were last here for a tour but, as Les puts it, “It feels like it was just a few weeks ago.”  That tour was a great success; so much so that the boys are back twelve months later to do it all again. “The fans came out and reminisced with me and the guys and wore their tartan and went a bit crazy,” he tells me. “It was brilliant! And I must say the touring company Metropolis Touring is absolutely top class. It’s been great being involved with good people.”

Once again, the band will be performing the hits from the Bay City Rollers’ back catalogue and, if the previous tour is any indication, the audience will be singing along to those memorable songs from the days of Rollermania. But Les reveals that they will be mixing it up a bit. “There might be a little Scottish set, a couple of old Scottish songs; a couple of old favourites.” He sings me a few lines from an old Scottish ditty as an example. “But mostly, it will be similar to the last show, as close to the original songs as possible.”

Les put out an album last year called ‘The Lost Songs’, comprised of songs he had written in 1974. “And I’ve got a new one coming out which is songs I composed in 1975. I might call this one ‘The Found Songs’”, he laughs. He had hoped that that some of these old songs would eventually make it on to digital albums. “But that wasn’t to be for different reasons and they just languished in an old briefcase in the attic. I’m glad I kept them, because I met up with a producer in Scotland, a guy called John McLaughlin. One day I read in the newspaper that he was a huge Bay City Rollers fan and his one ambition left in life, apart from having hits all over the world, was to put the Bay City Rollers back at No. 1 in the charts so I gave him a call and we got on really well.  We put some stuff together and he asked me did I have any songs that I had actually written back in the old days? I said ‘Yes, I’ve got loads of them. I’ll try to find them’. Then I went on a hunt for my own songs with the help of my son and my wife and we managed to find these little micro cassettes. I had to go and get the micro cassette recorder player fixed because it was so old and rubbish but once I did, there were lots of great ideas for my album on those old micro cassettes, so it was really exciting. People say you should always chuck everything away if you don’t use it. Well, that’s one case where I should never have tried to throw them away.”

Listening to these old songs after so many years, he says, “Brought back a lot of nice memories because I was on an adventure, coming from a little part of Edinburgh and suddenly being exposed to the whole world. Coming to Australia, going to Japan and Canada, America and all these things… it was just like one big, long adventure for about three or four years and I was really happy at that time. You can hear that in my voice on the tape. I’m not just singing on the tape. I’m talking on it as well, so you get an idea where your head was at and it’s kind of strange. Some part of me wished that I still had that kind of innocence in my head if you know what I mean…  like a kid in a way.”

“When we came to America, it was strange,” he recalls. “At that time in 1975 /76, there were bands that were big in the U.K; bands like Sweet who went to America and not had the kind of success that they probably expected. We were kind of nervous because we thought ‘We’ll never get big in America!’ It was really unique because the boss of Arista Records, Clive Davis, picked a record that had already been a flop; a song called ‘Saturday Night’ which had been released in springtime 1973 and it didn’t even go into the charts in the U.K. so when I joined the band, he picked that song for our first recording in the U.S.A. and it just stormed to No. 1 and we came into America on a No. 1 record. We thought ‘What?! Life can’t get any better!’ A helicopter picked us up from the airport and swooped into Madison Square Gardens which was filled with adoring fans. It was just the best thing ever!”

And reminiscing about Australia at the peak of their popularity here, he remembers “Australia was completely mad for the Bay City Rollers. It was great, but I’d never been to a place that’s as hot as Australia! I mean, I’d been to Spain before but even if it’s very hot, it’s about half the temperature of Australia. It was great, though. The fans really loved us in Australia back in the day.” He recalls that the band travelled to their gigs in the back of a security van. “And you can imagine, being stuck in the back of one of them in 30 or 40 degrees Celsius, how hot it was! It was like I was being cooked. It was terrible. And there were these people in the limousines who pretended to be us. They got to ride in air-conditioned limousines while we had to travel in security trucks to escape out of back doors and all that sort of stuff but I do remember the shows were outstanding and last year when we came back, all the work we’d done back then paid off because everyone who came to see us had a great time.”

Their upcoming Australian tour will see the band visiting a number of regional centres as well as the major cities, ‘spreading the love’, as Les puts it. “Everybody always plays in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth etc. and then that’s it but we want to get around and go to some smaller places. It’s a lovely country. I wish I could live there but I’m still in London,” he sighs and adds, with a laugh, “I don’t know why I’m still here but anyway…”

But the guys might have a chance to see a little bit of our country while they are here. “I can’t tell you exactly where we will be when we have time off but we’re going to be there for about five weeks and each week we’ve got a couple of days off, so we will be able to do something. Last time we went to a couple of zoos, had some time at the beach and all that sort of stuff but, you know, it’s hard enough just getting to Australia!” he laughs.

The Bay City Rollers (UK) featuring Les McKeown will be kicking off their Australian tour July 11th in Canberra. Check out all the tour info and book tickets here.

 

 

by Sharyn Hamey

 

Copyright © Sharyn Hamey 2018.  All rights reserved

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