EXCLUSIVE: Edinburgh's Les McKeown reflects on life as an international pop star in lockdown and his hope of another Bay City Rollers' reunion
LEGENDARY Bay City Rollers’ front-man Les McKeown was mid-way through a tour of Canada with his band when the global pandemic sent the world into lockdown.
Rollermania is alive and well it would appear, the authentic 70’s boyband sound still very much in demand worldwide. At the age of 64, the singer and his band, Les McKeown’s Bay City Rollers, are happy to oblige, belting out hits such as Bye Bye Baby, Summerlove Sensation and Give A Little Love during their annual 150-date concert tours.
Ahead of the Evening News’ serialisation of extracts from McKeown’s updated biography, Shang-A-Lang: My Life with the Bay City Rollers, I caught up with him as he dealt with lockdown life in London, where he lives with his wife of 37 years, Peko, and their son Jubei. It’s been a worrying time for the former Forrester High pupil who was expelled from the school in 1969 at the age of 15, just four years before he found international fame with the Rollers.
“On average, I’m on the road half the year and in 47 years I’ve never had this much time off,” he says, as he adds with a laugh, “I’m spending too much time on YouTube watching things about conspiracy theories; apparently we are about to be invaded by the Chinese Communist Party and President Trump is going to start a nuclear war... all that sort of stuff.”
McKeown was in Toronto when the pandemic struck, and with underlying health conditions himself, he had to get himself and his band home quickly and safely. He admits that 13 March was a day that made him feel very vulnerable.
“That was the day the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic and I found myself sitting in Toronto airport trying to get our backsides home. The Canadian Government had closed down all the theatres, so we couldn’t perform, and we couldn’t stay in hotels as they were closing too. There was nothing else to do but get myself and the band home so we wouldn’t be stranded. It cost several thousand pounds to change all the flights and when we got on the plane, it was almost empty,” he says, obviously less than impressed.
On a more positive note, he reveals he has already re-booked the tour for November 2021. “Hopefully, if everything goes well with the virus and 2021 is viable, I’ll be starting in Australia in August, touring the UK in September, then off to Canada before returning to finish the UK tour which includes a vast tour of Scotland.”
One good thing to come from lockdown, however, is that it has allowed McKeown to spend more time with Peko and Jubei than he would normally be able to. “Me and the wife and the son have been out in the garden growing all sorts of things - my favourite things just now are nasturtiums, they’re edible and I munch lots of nasturtiums flowers and leaves with my salads.”
He continues, “It’s great to spend time with the family, going out for walks, but where I live, in Hackney, people are not complying so well with the face mask thing.”
To combat that, McKeown’s trips to the shops and such like tend to be in the morning or “half an hour before the shops close... when there no crowds of people standing in line, coughing and spluttering.”
A type-two diabetic, the singer was forced to confront the risk Covid-19 posed to his own health early on in the pandemic when he was told he could no longer take part in a volunteer programme, collecting prescriptions for the elderly in his neighbourhood.
“I just thought, ‘I’ll help a little, I’ve got a car and I’m pretty fit, I can go out and deliver prescriptions for people, it isn’t very hard, it’s not like walking on the moon’,” he says. “At the beginning they were happy to have me come along and help but then they asked us to fill in a form and declare any preconditions. Because I have some preconditions they said, ‘Well we won’t be asking you to help anymore’.”
It’s all a long way removed from the world McKeown normally inhabits. A workaholic by nature, he has now played more gigs with his Rollers than the ‘Famous Five’ line up of the Seventies ever did. “By multiples,” he confirms. “The amount of gigs the actual Bay City Rollers did, from 1974 to the end of 1977, pale into insignificance compared with the number I have done.”
"Lots of things” keep his passion for performing alive he insists, but one in particular has never changed. “Just getting out there and making people say, ‘Wow! That was some f**kin’ band.’ To put on a really great show. A show that people want; the hits, no muscial ego, no dramas, just a good time.
“To make it as professional as possible, that’s what it’s all about.”
He cites the Bay City Rollers reunion gigs of 2015 as a typical example of this. “I like to make the show as entertaining as I can, which we showed off nicely when we played the Usher Hall - that was my show, just with Alan [Longmuir] and Woody. It was great to have something called a reunion so we could do something for the fans. I just really wish that Derek and Eric had taken part, that would have been good. But to come back to Edinburgh, my home town, and get that reaction was brilliant.”
Sadly, the reunion proved short-lived, backstage tensions bringing it to a premature end.
“It only finished because of the different ways people think about things,” says McKeown philosophically. “Woody’s done his own thing now, but I really do wish we could get together and do something because what happened with the reunion could happen again, if it was done in the right way.”
It’s a comment that reopens a door McKeown firmly closed after the reunion fell apart. Then he was widely quoted as ruling out ever getting back on stage with Wood.
“I think I might have said something in a quip somewhere,” he offers by way of an explanation, “but it’s one of those things. With the reunion concerts there was no time to try anything new as I was on tour at the time, we were more or less preparing the gigs by post. So, the idea was to present the show I usually do just with Alan and Woody, two of the most important guys, included in it. But the public didn’t know that, they enjoyed what they were presented with, which is the most important thing.”
Pausing to pay tribute to Longmuir, who passed away in 2018, McKeown remembers, “Alan and I knew each other before I joined the Rollers.
“His passing made me feel very human, very vulnerable. It’s something that is waiting for all of us. He was a very, very nice guy and people did take advantage of his kind nature.”
McKeown’s vulnerability is also fuelled by the state of the world today, he acknowledges. “The world is a very confusing and dangerous place right now... it feels like a tinderbox and I just feel for my son and the younger generation. You’d have thought that by now love would have made a change to the world... it keeps raising it’s lovely head but then just gets battered down again.”
TOMORROW: Solved. The great Broomie crisp robbery of 1965
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
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