Preview: Les McKeown’s Bay City Rollers

Bay City Roller Les McKeown. Pic: Comp
Bay City Roller Les McKeown. Pic: Comp
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HYSTERIA followed Les McKeown everywhere he went. From 1973, when he joined the Bay City Rollers, until 1978, when he parted company with Alan, Erik, Woody and Derek, a chorus of screams provided the sound track of his life - they called it Rollermania.

Four decades later, as each of the ‘famous five’ Rollers celebrate the 40th anniversary of hitting the big time with Remember (Sha La La La) in their own way, McKeown is back on the road with his own band, Les McKeown’s Bay City Rollers.

They stop off at Livingston’s Howden Park Centre on Sunday, the closest his tour comes to bringing him home to the Capital, where fans can once more don their tartan and relive the hormone-fuelled days of their youth while singing along to classics such as All Of Me Loves All Of You, Summerlove Sensation, Bye Bye Baby and Shang-a-lang.

McKeown, born in the Simpsons Maternity Hospital in 1955, confesses he’s enjoying it a lot more this time around.

“It is really good fun to do and to be involved again. Recapturing and reliving the positive stuff that happened in my past,” he says, admitting that he never thought he’d still be singing Bay City Rollers hits 40 years on.

“I don’t suppose I ever did. I thought other things would happen in my career, which could have been the case had the right things been in place. I could have been like an elderly Tom Jones now,” he chuckles.

He becomes more serious as he reflects, “Actually, it was never a dream of mine to have a solo career. I was forced into it really. I would much rather be in a band, to share the load.”

The band he was in was one of the biggest in the world at one time, as massive in Europe, the States, and Japan as they were in the UK.

Looking back, McKeown believes there was never really any doubt that singing would become his life.

“I grew up singing. It was part of my life, I took after my mum. She was always singing around the house, and so was I. I didn’t really think it was anything special. Then as you get older, people say, ‘Oh, you’ve got a nice voice,’ and one thing leads to another. You sing some more, you listen to the radio, you pick up lyrics, and then you discover that girls like you singing, there’s a plus...

“Suddenly you have a confidence when singing that other people don’t have, and you realise it’s something you can do that is unique to you in your peer group.

Answering an advert in the Evening News (See Page 3) brought McKeown to his first band, Threshold. It was while fronting them one night that he was told Bay City Rollers’ infamous manager Tam Paton had turned up to see him in action.

“He asked me to join the Bay City Rollers - that was on or around the 18 November 1973,” says McKeown, adding that at first he was hesitant.

“At that time the Rollers were a one-hit wonder band. After speaking with them I asked a friend in the business what he thought. He asked what money they were offering me. I said ‘£10 a week, all the fags I can smoke and all my expenses’.

“Then he asked what I was earning with Threshold. I said: ‘We’re not earning anything really, actually it’s kind of costing me money.’

“He said, ‘Well, there’s no two ways about it. They’re a professional outfit. They’ve got lots of dates booked. They have their own van, their own roadie, PA and lights...”

“That was it. That helped me make my mind up because, although they had enjoyed success with Keep On Dancing, they’d had a lot of bad luck with songs since - I was told Bell Records were going to drop them. The song Remember, was their last chance.”

With all the band’s hope of success now pinned on their new front man, McKeown headed to London to impress the head of Bell Records and the band’s producers.

“I had to sing Remember (Sha La La) to a backing track. To be honest, at the time I wasn’t too fussed if I got the job or not. It was just a great experience. I was confident I could sing it... but when I got on the stage, in this theatre, I became quite nervous.

“I was the only one on the stage. It was almost like there was a 60 watt light bulb above my head. There was a microphone and some headphones through which they played the backing track, and there was just this bunch of shadows in the background, assessing me.

“I was that nervous my knee started to go. I think that shaky knee added the right kind of vibrato to my performance. Even now I’m not sure if it helped or not.”

That was the start of a meteoric rise that saw the Rollers in huge demand on TV.

“I knew then we were on our way,” says McKeown, who paid a high price for fame.

Life after the Rollers was difficult for the singer, he battled drug and alcohol addictions throughout his adult life until taking part in a Celebrity Rehab TV series in the US allowed him to turn his life around.

“There a public record of me car-crashing and train-wrecking all the way through the years after the Rollers,” he says. “Unbeknown to me, it creeps into your subconscious that, where you had once been this superstar, now you weren’t. You want to get back to that again without quite realising your day is done for the moment, but that there might be another day for you further down the road.

“I did a lot of great things in the intervening years, things I am very proud of, but I fell off the planet in 2008. I was in a pretty bad way and in order to get back I did rehab. It was paid for by a television company but I didn’t care, I just wanted to get better. I ended up staying in that place for four months. Four months of intensive psychotherapy and all sorts of things, until I was strong enough to go back into society.”

It wasn’t an easy journey, he admits.

“I wanted a chance to get better but I didn’t really believe it was going to work. I thought I was done. Even when I was there I remember thinking ‘These f**king hippies, what the f**k do they know?’ That was my attitude. It was all about me. ‘It’s all sh*t. Nothing is real. It’s all crap.’

“That’s what I had to get away from. It took a long time to stop me thinking like that and start playing ball with the people who were trying to help me. Once I accepted that they could, my recovery started.”

Now 58, McKeown is a picture of positivity. That new mind-set is evident in his new approach to life. Just this week, stories in the press that he was ‘angered’ by a chapter in the autobiography of Rollers’ previous singer, Nobby Clark, leave him bemused rather than enraged.

“I’m not angered about the book, I haven’t read it. I have nothing against the guy,” he says.

Life’s too short it seems, and having found the real Leslie Richard McKeown, it’s clear the singer values that rediscovery.

“I found my true self again. A big part of that, which helped me, was forgiveness. Not in a religious sense, but in the way that you can forgive people for being human, and being complete bast*rds. Once you forgive them, you don’t carry it around with you anymore.”

It works both ways, he concedes.

“Quite a lot of people know my recent history as well as my long-term history and they are forgiving. They know most of us have been in situations where we have suffered loss and illness and can relate to that. I am just happy I don’t have any hang ups anymore.”

Les McKeown’s Bay City Rollers, Howden Park Centre, Livingston, Sunday, 7.30pm, £19.50, 01506-777 666