Bay City Rollers' Les McKeown - 'Shang-a-lang is actually an old Gaelic battle cry...' - Part 4
In our final collection of anecdotes from My Life with the Bay City Rollers, Les McKeown reflects on the legacy of being a Roller.
Next stop: Top Of The Pops. We’d had about 48 hours to think about what to wear for our first national television spot.
SETTING THE TREND
Luckily for me, it had been decided that the hideous cabaret look had to go by the time I joined the Rollers. They had a new look which was better but really nothing special. It was basically a street look mucked around with a bit.
In Scotland, a retro Mod craze had just ended and the kids’ clothes were made up of a weird mix of Mod and skinhead influences, but as well as that there was a heavy-metal element. Taking a bit from each look, the mixed-up kids around Edinburgh were wearing faded Levis that had to have been bleached and slashed a bit.
They also had to be shorter than normal, so that when you wore them with a pair of Dr Marten’s boots, other kids could see how far the boots came up your legs and how many laces you had. The higher your laces, the cooler you were. On the top half we wore braces over a Ben Sherman short-sleeved shirt. We took this trend and exaggerated it by getting some flared trousers and shortening them to mid-calf length.
The DMs were substituted with softer, friendlier baseball boots or platform boots from the King’s Road, as worn by any other glam rock star of the day worth his salt. The V-neck skinny-rib sweaters we wore at the beginning were knitted for us by my mum and other relatives of the band.
Bill Martin decided this mish-mash of clothing wouldnae do for Top Of The Pops. He had us all decked out in red-and-white American college-style sweatshirts, each with a different team-member number. These were supposed to be our ages, but as Derek ended up with 41 and Alan with 5, someone, presumably Tam, clearly didn’t agree with that idea, probably because he didn’t want people to know that Alan was knocking on 26.
TOP OF THE POPS
Arriving at Shepherd’s Bush, we were taken to our dressing-room and then straight to make-up where we were plastered with pancake and prettied up.
Our hair was washed and blow-dried, teased and lacquered - the whole process took about five times as long as the filming, which was over and done with in a flash.
We wanted to hang around and soak up the scene, but once we’d mimed our bit, it was back to the dressing-room to scrape off the make-up and then back into the real world. Tam didn’t think it was a good idea for us to mix with any degenerate rock musicians that might be lurking in the bar.
We drove straight back up to Edinburgh in time to see ourselves on our black-and-white tellies the following night.
THE TRAPPINGS OF SUCCESS
Within four weeks of joining the Rollers on £10 a week I’d earned enough money to buy a tumble drier for my mum for Christmas. She’d always wanted one and it was brilliant to be able to get it for her. Within eight weeks, mum and dad were the proud owners of the first fridge-freezer on the estate, and their youngest boy was the singer of a song in the ‘hit parade’, as mum told her pals.
Life was good, but already the pressure was on to repeat the success of Remember with our next single, Shang-A-Lang. Shang-A-Lang is actually an old Gaelic battle cry first used by Robert the Bruce. The rest of the song was about the hero’s battles and his eventual triumph at Bannockburn in 1314, where Bruce ‘ran with the gang’ (his army), who would ‘rip up’ and ‘lay down’ their foes.
At least that’s the story that should have been put out when the single was released on April Fools’ Day. The song, in truth a nostalgic little number about rock’n’roll and good times in the ’50s, charted on 27 of April. A week later, we were back on TOTP, which sent the song rocketing to No 2.
POMPOSITY AND POP
Before the album came out, we’d had some pretty good press in the music journals. The favourable press was short-lived. It was absolutely horrifying that Tubular Bells could be taken out by the likes of [Bay City Rollers’ first album] Rollin’; that a bubblegum band like the Bay City Rollers could outsell ‘proper’ music.
It used to make me laugh. No one was trying to say Bay City Rollers songs were any more than feel-good pop tunes, but for some reason we were seen as a threat to the likes of legends like Deep Purple and Led Zep. Our only crime was to shed a light on the pomposity of some of the acts around at that time. Rock versus pop, a simple case of musical snobbery.
The snobbishness comes from the arrogance of some of the ‘proper musicians’ who, in our day, were all busy trying to out-serious each other by not releasing commercially oriented singles and concentrating purely on albums. These were no longer called albums, by the way, but ‘bodies of work’. Of course, it was all bo**ocks because there was room enough for all of us and no competition between rock and pop.
I believed then, and still believe today, that pop has its place. If it makes kids happy that’s great, but more importantly, it might get them interested in music and the music industry generally.
SECRET OF SUCCESS
So what was it that made the Bay City Rollers so successful? Was it me on lead vocals? Was Dick Leahy’s vision the crucial factor? Or was it Bill Martin and Phil Coulter’s song-writing genius? Were Tam Paton’s mass mailings the catalyst or was it his unique management style that paid dividends?
Maybe it was just that we made nice, happy pop songs that took kids’ minds off their teenage angst and their mums’ minds off a serious economic depression for a few minutes every now and again. Probably the most sensible attitude to take is that it was a combination of all of the above, although on days when I’m feeling a bit more obnoxious than usual, I’ll swear blind it was all down to yours truly’s charisma.
The one thing I’ve realised is that I’ve always been in denial about how Tam has affected me. I’ve continually told myself and other people I was the one he couldnae dominate or control; I was the one that stood up to him. And while there’s some truth in that, I can see now that it’s not 100 per cent right. To say I was immune to his games would be a lie.
At the time, I really did tell myself I was untouched by his power, but looking back, there are a number of events where my judgement was more than questionable. While I’m not looking for someone to blame, I believe his influence was a major factor in most of them. I may have thought he couldnae get to me at the time, but I can see now I didn’t escape unscathed. He did get inside my head, and he did cause disruption there.
I just wasn’t as scared as the others. Maybe my in-built disrespect for authority prevented him from having total control over me... he knew as well as I did that as the lead singer I wasn’t as instantly replaceable as other band members.
Abridged by Liam Rudden
To read more, My Life with the Bay City Rollers by Les McKeown with Lynne Elliot is available via 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.