Edinburgh's Les McKeown gets spotted by the Bay City Rollers, thanks to stretch yellow flares and no VPL - Part Two
IN his republished biography, My Life with the Bay City Rollers, Les McKeown recalls escaping Edinburgh and getting his big break.
He writes: 1971, aged 15, I had to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I had to think about finding a job, and having been cast out of the education system before my time, the prospects were even worse than they were for the kids that stayed the course.
I loved Broomhouse when I was a kid, but as I grew older, childish perceptions dissolved into grim, ugly realisations and I saw people’s lives as they really were. I didnae like what I could see coming my way. Edinburgh was not an inspiring place and I needed to escape. I’ll try and describe what it was about living in Edinburgh that I found depressing.
First, there was the grey stone buildings; big blocks of battleship-coloured rock hewn from the hills, each one soaked with the sweat of the poor bastards who broke their backs to get them out and to the town. Put a backdrop of cloud and drizzle behind those grey buildings and you begin to get a feel for the place. A lot of people who’ve visited the town, and some of the better off who live there, are going to disagree and say how fantastic it is. Remember, I’m talking from a very different viewpoint.
Life in the schemes, riddled with crime, drugs and prostitution, is not something you’re going to read about in a Rough Guide. If you want to know the real Edinburgh, read Irvine Welsh’s literature. After a few chapters you’ll maybe start to see the way social conditions like we had make people think.
As a wee kid you dinnae see all this. As you grow up, it all comes into focus and the picture ain’t pretty.
A LIFE AT SEA
My friend Jimmy Redpath’s dad was a captain in the Merchant Navy. To a forlorn, puberty-ridden 15-year-old, the idea of sailing the high seas, far and away from Edinburgh, was very, very attractive.
Jimmy’s dad’s ship was moored at Leith Docks, so it was arranged for me to go and have a look around. The tour of the ship and the people I met that day were brilliant and I couldnae wait to join up. I filled in the forms and fell asleep each night imagining the exotic places I would go to, the interesting people I would meet and the beautiful women I would seduce.
I was absolutely devastated when my application was rejected because I’d been expelled from school. I cried and carried on crying for ages.
Eventually, when the disappointment died down, I began to work on another escape plan.
MUSIC, MY FIRST LOVE
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved music, not just listening to it, but singing it especially. People used to say I had a good voice.
My first public performances were at the local community centre. There’d be bingo and sometimes there would be a band. When they’d finished they would invite members of the audience up to sing.
I was always the first to volunteer and when I’d finished, everyone would stand up and applaud the wee gadgie with the brass neck to have a go. One day it dawned on me that this was something that could possibly provide me with another means of getting away. If I couldnae be a sailor, I’d be a pop star. Getting into music was definitely the only exit route left open to me. It was my last chance.
At weekends, I began visiting the Radio Edinburgh Studios, which despite its name was nothing to do with radio. It contained recording studios and I used to hang out there, just to be in the thick of it and soak up the atmosphere. I was in awe of the bands and wanted more than anything else in the world to have one of my own. That would of course require money... there was no alternative but to get a job to finance my dream.
I had a girlfriend at the time whose dad was a foreman at the Scottish & Newcastle Breweries. They were looking for a lab assistant. The interview was a formality. I got the job and started on my 16th birthday. I was given a proper lab assistant’s white coat and an access-all-areas pass... it didnae take long for me to catch on that these special access rights were a highly exploitable perk. For instance, I could go to where the beer was brewed and siphon off the unpasteurised beer, which was an elixir to my fellow workers.
This made me very popular and to capitalise on that and ensure our enjoyment was undisturbed, I set about building a pile of wooden pallets with my forklift truck, leaving a hole in the middle big enough for several people to hide in. There we would secretly sup my bacterially superior pilfered brew. Sadly, our pallet party piss-ups didnae last too long. One day we were discovered and I got fired.
I used my pallet-truck-driving experience to get a new job at a soft drinks factory. My new truck was a nifty little number. Having mastered it, I whizzed out of the warehouse one day and turned the steering wheel the wrong way. Before I’d realised what I’d done, I’d driven straight through the MD’s Merc.
Red as a beetroot and shaking like a leaf, I got off the truck and went home. I didnae see any point in hanging around, waiting to get fired.
I had god knows how many different jobs after that, you name it, I did it. All the time dreaming of the day when I would have my own band.
I set about finding other members for my new band by advertising in the Edinburgh Evening News and Bruce’s Records, a music store on Rose Street in the town. Once I’d started taking positive steps towards finding a band, my brother Hari was on the case, supportive and encouraging.
Hari knew a lassie called Pamela Cormack who ran the fan club for the Bay City Rollers from the Prestonpans home of their manager, Tam Paton. As Tam was an important, if not the only, music industry figure in Edinburgh, Hari felt I should meet Pamela. While we were at Tam’s house visiting Pamela, a phone call came through from a guy called Alan Wright. He was putting together a band called Threshold with his friend, Alex Valente, and told Tam they were looking for a lead singer. Within seconds I was on the line.
The conversation went something like this: Alan: “Hi, Les... are you a singer?”
Alan: “Have you sung in a band before?”
Alan: “Oh, aye, and what were they called?”
Me: “... Teabags.”
Despite lying my way through my first music-world interview, my ‘brass neck’ got me the job with Threshold. Threshold was a surreal, enjoyable apprenticeship and I was living the dream.
TIGHT PANTS & NO VPL
In November of 1973, we had a gig in Dunbar. As usual I was wearing really cool gear that my dad had made for me, on this occasion, a pair of bright-yellow flares, made of stretch nylon fabric and measuring 36 inches at the hem.
Now, most people know that it’s part of Scottish tradition to not wear underwear, but you might not realise this is not only the case when the top garment is a kilt. Yellow stretch flares looked much better without a visible panty line. At the time, I thought I looked the dog’s bollocks. I didnae much care that most people were finding it hard not to look at mine. I didnae know, on stage that night, that one member of the audience in particular was especially drawn to those tight trousers.
After the show, Tam Paton came to see me backstage.
Abridged by Liam Rudden
TOMORROW: The Bay City Rollers - Coming Together
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)
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