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Interview with Bay City Rollers frontman Les McKeown (RIP)

Former Bay City Rollers frontman Les McKeown died suddenly last Tuesday. He was aged 65.

The Scottish pop singer fronted the Edinburgh-born band during their most successful period in the 1970s enjoying such hits as I Only Wanna Be With You, Bye Bye Baby, Give A Little Love and Yesterday’s Hero.

His family announced Les’ passing online on Thursday night, saying that he had died suddenly at his home on Tuesday.

Cream digs into its archives to retrieve a classic interview with Les where he chats about fanatic groupies, tartan fashions and tarting it up for the stage…

Popular music in the 1970s fell into three main categories. You had the serious genre of rock that bore legendary acts like Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, AC/DC and the Sex Pistols. You had the middle-of-the-road stuff that caught the attention of radio across the board. We’re talking Supertramp, ELO, Elton John and so on. And then you had the fluffier, Top 40 fodder – where record companies could make a buck from much more than just record sales, with merchandise and costumes featuring heavily in the mix.

Under this sub-genre were bands whose fans wanted to emulate their idols as much as they wanted to listen to them on record, see them live, aspire to go to bed with them. An army of acts, from Sweden’s ABBA to Australia’s Sherbert, boasted fanbases totally devoted to the look and life of their pinup heroes.

Another of these fan-driven acts was the Bay City Rollers whose popularity became so huge that they were dubbed ‘bigger than The Beatles’ at one stage, leading to the term ‘Rollermania’ entering the pop cultural vernacular.

While the band didn’t deliver too much on the original front, they were indeed famous for turning familiar pop songs into even more familiar hits, including I Only Want to Be With You, Bye Bye Baby and Yesterday’s Hero; spraying more than 70 million album sales into the mainstream.

Lead singer Les McKeown speaks with Cream about fanatic groupies, tartan fashions and tarting it up for the stage. 

Interview by Antonino Tati

Hi Les. Where were you based when first enjoying fame with the Bay City Rollers?

We were based in Edinburgh (UK) mainly but for five years we were pretty much permanently touring.

Being only 16 at the time, how did you deal with the responsibilities of touring? Did it ever get tiring?

Not really. It was a big adventure that lasted all the way to our number one in America; one great trip, really.

Did you feel you missed out on your formative teen years having been thrown into the limelight at such an early age?

I suppose you only realise that after the event. We were going to all these fantastic, exotic places. We were just these young guys from the wrong side of town in Edinburgh and we didn’t expect to be travelling the world in first class. But we did and we loved it.

I must say, Les, you have a very thick Scottish accent there. Funnily enough, I’ve just been reading the results of a survey of ‘Sexiest Accents on Men’ – according to American women – and a Scottish accent comes in at number two!

He he! Who beat us then?

The English. And after the Scottish, came the Australian accent.

Ah well. [Puts on posh English accent:] What can you do?

Does that surprise you, that American women are lusting after the Scottish accent?

The Americans always loved to hear me speak. They’ve always been like, ‘Can you say that again? You’ve got such a cute accent.’ All that sort of stuff. I guess it’s kind of expected, from Americans, that’s for sure.

In the Bay City Rollers’ halcyon days, you were worshipped by crowds of adoring female fans. Did this ever go to your head?

I guess it did in a way. It was super flattering. It was easy to get with girls from anywhere in the UK, from Australia, in fact from all over the world. When I was young, I realised there was something kind of cute about me. At school I got quite a lot of attention from girls. And then when we ended up in a band and had all these girls clambering to get a hold of us. There were quite a few times where that wasn’t a challenge, let me tell you.

Speaking of that idol-fan relationship, did you ever look out into the crowd to find the cutest girl whom you could sing to, so that you could feel inspired when delivering a song?

[Laughs]. No, not really. With the audience, it was a general thing. I wasn’t spying on any particular girl.

But we’d hear these stories about girls being plucked out from the crowd, taken backstage and given the royal rock’n’roll treatment…

That’s a very polite way of saying what I think you’re saying but no, not really. There were certain advantages that came with being in a famous rock band. There was a bit of shenanigans going on, but not in public view.

Do you think pop stars have it easier these days in that they’re allowed to do more in public view?

I don’t know who the pop stars are any more, to be honest. There’s no focus; no Countdown on TV in Australia; no Top of the Pops in the U.K. It’s all over the place these days, really.

Getting back to the fans, did you ever experience strange encounters; stalkers camping outside your house?

Definitely. There were a couple of them whom I had to get court orders out against, just to have them stay away from me. But, generally speaking, there aren’t that many people who do that sort of stuff. In the past they did, but not these days.

Why do you think audiences need pop idols to look up to? What’s the fascination?

I have no idea. I’m just lucky that after 50 years of being on stage, the fans are still with me and like to see me perform. I feel privileged to have that life.

With your upcoming tour to Australia, are you going to be incorporating songs from your new album into the setlist?

We might do a few songs from the new album, The Lost Songs. We’ll definitely be playing all the hits people know. And we always do our best to recreate the sound of those original records.

When it came to your outfits on stage, did you guys have a stylist or did you decide to wear the tartan suits on your own accord?

That was a kind of brilliant accident, actually. It was the fans who wrote to the fan magazines. They had a passion for drawing pictures. One time, we got this huge, ginormous card that you couldn’t put through a letterbox, and inside there were pictures of the Bay City Rollers in these tartan suits. First time we’d imagined ourselves in them. So that’s really how it started. My father was a tailor and my mother was a seamstress. My dad made the first Bay City Rollers outfits. I actually still have that original outfit! It’s made up of bits of old jeans, all sewn together, with tartan down the sides. It’s amazing how all that caught on all around the world.

In a sense, you were one of the first bands to deconstruct fashion.

Yeah, maybe. I do think we changed fashion on the whole planet for a while there. Everybody was wearing ‘Rollers’ gear in ’75 and ’76. I mean, the fashion of the Bay City Rollers might look a little iffy these days, but back then it was the thing to be wearing.

And of course you’ve worn a kilt.

Oh, I’ve worn a kilt many times. I’m Scottish. Are you crazy?

Do you wear it the traditional Scottish way, with no knickers?

Absolutely. You’ve got to go commando.

What’s the benefit of that?

A lovely cooling effect, you could say.

What are some of the things you enjoy doing most when you get back to Scotland?

I don’t live in Scotland and haven’t for many years, but when I do go back, It’s just a great feeling being back home. I have a [solo] song called Bones, and that’s about how you take home with you wherever you go.

One of your biggest hits back in the day was the cover of ‘I Only Want to Be With You’, originally made famous by Dusty Springfield. Later down the line, a fellow Scot in Annie Lennox delivered a version of it with The Tourists. What did you think of Annie’s version?

She’s an amazing artist, and has a phenomenal voice. The funny thing about that song is that it’s never gone to number one, no matter who’s performed it. I’ll be singing it on the 25th of this month with Rod Stewart.

Who was at number one when you guys had the number two spot with it?

I’ll have to google it.

You also covered an Australian classic, John Paul Young’s ‘Yesterday’s Hero’. How did that come about?

I just remember listening to it for the first time and thinking it was brilliant. I actually met John Paul Young on my 2007 tour of Australia as part of some ‘Countdown Spectacular’. He’s a really great guy, and that song itself is still a very popular one to sing. If we’re over in Australia, America, even Japan, we’ll always throw that one into the set.

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