THE Rollers’ big break came in 1971, when the boss of Bell Records, Dick Leahy, happened to be in Edinburgh one night having missed his plane back to London. At least, that’s the story Tam Paton, our manager, always told. The real reason was that a guy called Chas Peate had seen the Rollers and suggested to Dick that he might be interested.
The Rollers’ first single, a cover of The Gentrys’ 1965 US Top 10 hit Keep On Dancing took six months to make the charts, but make the charts it did, ending up at No 9.
Having watched the young Rollers in action at the Palais de Danse, before he got involved with them, manager Tam Paton had ‘realised the popularity was due to how they looked and how tight they wore their trousers’. He’d probably had a lot of fun researching the theory and was obviously still hung up on it when he and Eric came to see Threshold in Dunbar. In fact, I’ve often wondered whether he would have offered me the job if I’d just been wearing the jeans and T-shirts we normally wore before my dad had gone to work on the stage gear...
TWO YEARS LATER
By now it was June 1973, two years since Keep On Dancing had charted. Bell Records were on the verge of giving up, as were several members of the Rollers. Nobby Clark, still the lead singer, recorded the song Remember (Sha-la-la), saw it released and promptly decided it was time to quit. He agreed to stick around, though, until a replacement lead vocalist could be found.
When Tam appeared backstage on that fateful night and introduced himself the conversation that took place between us wasnae a lengthy one, Tam asked me if I’d like to join the Bay City Rollers. I said I’d think about it and get back to him. I was pleased to have been asked, dinnae get me wrong, but remember at this point the group owed large sums of money and was on the verge of splitting up.
The Rollers wouldnae have been high on the list of bands I’d have wanted to join. They’d had their hit, done nothing since and they dressed funny.
Taking the job would mean slashing my income from £70 to £10 a week. I decided I would need a contract to cover myself. I also talked to my family, especially my brother Roni.
Roni felt this was an opportunity not to be missed: whereas Threshold was definitely an up-and-coming band, the Rollers were already there - if only in the sense that they still had a recording contract. However good Threshold were, there was just no guarantee that they would one day have a hit record.
Before I told Tam I would accept his offer, he asked me to step in at the last minute for Nobby at a gig at an American air base in Perth. I’ll never forget that first gig. Talk about in at the deep end - I didnae know any of the words of a lot of the songs we were to play, and there was no time to learn them, so Jake [our roadie] had to stick bits of paper with the lyrics on all over the stage.
Another challenge I had to deal with were the Nobby fans, the girls who hated me. I think they would have been nicer to someone who’d killed their pet dog. They showed their disgust at Nobby’s sudden departure and this skinny wee kid who’d been brought in to fill his shoes by spitting at me throughout the set.
The set was quite similar to the kind of thing I had been doing with Threshold - covers of rocky chart hits. One exception was Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine. This was a song I hadnae performed before, so the lyrics were stuck on one of the pillars on the stage. I was able to take a rest while Eric played his ‘jig’ on the violin - the very same jig he would perform at the Edinburgh Millennium Festival more than 25 years later - and swot up on the lyrics for the next number.
On the way home after the gig I decided to formally accept the position of lead vocalist with the Bay City Rollers.
The next thing I had to do was tell the Threshold guys I was leaving the band. When I started writing notes for this book, I realised I’d forgotten a load more than I thought I had, so I took myself back home to do some research. Roni and Hari could remember bits and pieces but not enough, so I asked the Edinburgh Evening News to help me track down the former Threshold members.
It took less than a week to find them all, and a month later we all met up again at the trendy Point Hotel on Bread Street, a stone’s throw from the Americana, where we had played so often. Before meeting the guys, I’d been apprehensive. I didnae know what to expect.
We met at six-thirty and after a quick drink, we went to Calton Hill and reconstructed some ancient publicity shots that Jon Gillam had brought along. Then we went back to the hotel for a few more beers. I was relaxed and in a strange sort of way I felt immediately cleansed of all the other shite that had happened since I left the band - it was like we’d never been apart. At midnight, having spent nearly six hours reminiscing, drinking and having a really good time, I realised I’d had nothing to worry about, the guys were brilliant.
So I’d cut loose from Threshold and was officially a Roller, so help me God. Almost immediately I found myself in London for the first time.
It was off to Mayfair Studios for me. When I got there, I was greeted by Phil Coulter, who was in charge of production that day. I relished being in the presence of a real songwriter; a songsmith who wrote mega successful songs; a songwriter who had written songs that I now had to sing before him.
Phil was a kind, gentle, softly spoken Irishman and he put me at ease straight away.
The agenda that day was to re-record the vocal for Remember yet again, and to attempt Shang-A-Lang, which was intended to be the follow-up.
The priority was to get the new version of Remember out in the shops pretty damn quick. It was selling and selling but the lead singer on the single was no longer in the band. Literally as soon as I finished singing, the tape was couriered off to the record factory so that my version could be pressed...
With ‘Shang-A-Lang’ done and dusted faster than anyone had dared hope, we were left with studio time to spare. By then, the other half of Martin/Coulter, Bill Martin, had arrived, like a bull in a china shop and suggested we re-record Saturday Night. It seemed to me there was little point because the song had already been released - and flopped. It had also been recorded by Tam’s other band, Bilbo Baggins.
We did it anyway and thanks to Bill Martin jumping around, stamping his feet, clapping his hands and screaming out the “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y . . . NIGHT” chorus, which resulted in the song’s affrettandic, anthemic quality, the record later broke the States for us. It got to No 1 there and ensured that many more people would make many more millions out of the Bay City Rollers. But thanks, Phil and Bill, for the great memories.
Abridged by Liam Rudden
TOMORROW: And We Sang Shang-a-lang
Shang-a-lang: My Life With The Bay City Rollers, by Les McKeown with Lynne Elliott, is available from Amazon, £13.99 (Paperback)/£7.99 (Kindle) Twitter: @LesMcKeownUK Facebook: /LesMcKeownUK
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
The dramatic events of 2020 are having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive. We are now more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription to support our journalism.
Subscribe to the Edinburgh Evening News online and enjoy unlimited access to trusted, fact-checked news and sport from Edinburgh and the Lothians. Visit https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.
By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.