I’ll be on top form for Ipswich Corn Exchange come Sunday says Bay City Rollers’ Les McKeown
- Credit: Archant
Bay City Rollers’ frontman Les McKeown talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage about fame, the importance of a positive attitude and how the years slide away on stage.
Forced to postpone last December’s gig at Ipswich Corn Exchange after losing his voice, Les McKeown still sounds croaky when I call, so much so I feel bad keeping him on the phone so long.
“I’ve not been very well, but hopefully it’ll be top form by the weekend,” says McKeown, playing with his four-piece band this Sunday instead. He blames burning the candle at both ends.
“I set up my own tour more than a year ago... By the time we got halfway through 2015 we’d already got into this Bay City Rollers reunion thing, they were looking for dates to fill in and of course they started filling all the dates I was supposed to be resting which just over-taxed everything - not just the voice, sleeping patterns... I go on stage at 7.30pm, come off at 10pm, I’m in my bed by 11pm.
“I must say it really knocked me back. I thought I was strong enough to do it but of course there were 76 dates on (my) own tour to do, then these others (with former original members Stuart Wood and Alan Longmuir) and I think that’s just too much for a period of a few months,” he laughs. “Also you don’t want to put on a crap show you know? You don’t want to get out there and be ‘oh I’m half dead, sorry about that’.”
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Bay City Rollers songs such as Bye Bye Baby, Shang A Lang, Summer Love Sensation and Give A Little Love became the soundtrack for teenagers growing up in the mid-1970s. Propelled to worldwide super stardom, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing their trademark Scottish tartan.
Skipping places where there was unrest - South Africa was also out due to apartheid - or required a reluctant McKeown to get jabs, they were welcomed by screaming fans across Japan, Australia, Canada, America and the whole of Europe. It gave rise to the phenomena dubbed Rollermania. None of it phased McKeown, he’d been ready for fame since he joined his first band at the age of 15-and-a-half after being “invited” to leave school.
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“Definitely ready for it, yeah. I had a couple of years behind me touring all the little tiny places in Scotland sleeping in Luton vans and all that kind of stuff. It’s priceless, you really need to do that if you want to be able to connect with people.”
And enjoy a long career?
“I’ve never had a job apart from this one.”
“It (Rollermania) wasn’t like a tsunami wave that came and hit us, it was more like a slow build up to a storm. Then the storm was a near hurricane, we were in the middle of it and it was all spinning around us. It was only weird if you were on the outside, you slowly got used to it over a period of months and then years.
“When we were younger I saw that with other bands like David Bowie, Roxy Music so I was quite prepared if we got famous that would be the end result. People would act like that towards us. Of course, with our band it was magnified so many times. If it’s a sold out audience it’s a great atmosphere and that’s what I’ve be able to achieve working hard over these last five to six years - being able to build it up from maybe 150 people in a 600-seater (venue) to 600 people in a 600-seater.”
There have been as many downs as there have been ups. Rehab, his sexuality, claims of being assaulted as a youngster, his acquittal of conspiring to supply cocaine... That’s all in the past as far as he’s concerned.
“It’s all out there, people can read about it. My attitude is it’s in the past, let it be, let’s get on with a positive future. Other people who may be suffering (will see) it’s possible to change, it’s possible to get your life back together and have a nice, positive outlook. It’s your attitude, how you deal with it (and move on that matters).”
Back to the tour. Many years have passed, but the Tartan Army remains faithful as ever.
“That peak, the hysterical part, didn’t last a huge amount of time but it certainly stood the test of time. We recently announced one gig in Scotland and it sold out in three minutes, the rest of them sold out in four - that was four gigs. Then we announced two in Edinburgh, they sold out in under 10 minutes, a bit slower in Manchester, a bit slower in London... So it says something about the attraction of the Bay City Rollers.”
Fans are still happy to get dressed up and have fun as he performs all the hits sprinkled, with a couple of new things and stories about those manic days. There’s a new Rollers single Boomerang to look forward to around March.
“I love singing and I’m very proud of the hits my voice is on. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be the singer on Bye Bye Baby, Give a Little Love, Shang A Lang, Summer Love Sensation. My voice has been an inspiration to so many people,” says McKeown, who’s all about connecting with fans in every way he can. He even gives young bands lectures on the value of social media.
“I’m well happy about that and think about it when I’m going on stage - ‘you’d better be good because this could be the first time people have you heard you sing and perform so you’d better knock ‘em out’.”
He loves how the decades just slide away at his concerts.
“Music takes you back to another period of time in your mind, each of us have a memory associated with Give a Little Love or Bye Bye Baby, the same way the first time I heard Dark Side of the Moon or something like (brings back) where I was or who was I with... People come along, have a bit of a laugh, everybody relaxes, we’re all pals again - suddenly it’s 40 years ago. If (you’ve) happy people it’s brilliant so get dressed up in some tartan and be prepared to hear some Bay City Rollers songs, cry a lot and laugh a lot, it’ll be great.”
See next Saturday’s East Anglian Daily Times’ EA Life section for fans’ Bay City Rollers memories.