Sussex Sounds: Rolling through the years with the Bay City Rollers

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Bay City Rollers’ frontman Les McKeown talks frankly to Simon Robb about his rapid success with the band, struggles with fame and going to rehab.

“I feel like my brain has elevated somehow from Neanderthal to well adjusted Joe.”

These are the words of Les McKeown who has been from the top to the bottom in his long career as the vibrant voice behind the Bay City Rollers, but as he gets ready to make a big return with the band’s most memorable hits, the ‘Bye, Bye Baby’ star catches up with me to talk about the good and the bad of pop music fame.

Les speaks frankly: “I look back and try and get inside my own head when I was 17 where everything seemed so easy and simple. I wasn’t aware of anything else, just my own little world. Of course, that proves to be a bad thing when you’re going through some bad times, because everything goes internally – you lose your confidence, you lose your self-esteem and you get wrapped up in drugs and alcohol.”

“I lost myself in alcohol and I had to get myself into rehab for four months to get back to normal, and I was successful in doing that.

“I’ve changed the way I feel towards myself and the way I look at the world.”

Although the original line up had been together since the late ’60s, Les did not enter the fold until late ’73 when the Bay City Rollers’ record label was only prepared to give them one last shot.

“Their last song was ‘Saturday Night’ and it flopped, and the singer said this band is not going anywhere, I’m leaving.

“The record company thought they’d give them one more chance with another song, then that would be the end of it.

“After seeing me they decided there was a future in the Bay City Rollers, and they took a chance, which I’m glad they did. ‘Remember’ became a hit for us in ’74,” says the 58-year-old.

I ask whether he was welcomed by the other band members with open arms, but Les admits that there were suspicions initially.

“I was a lot younger than them and a bit cheeky. Because I had a lot of confidence in myself, they were a little bit – what I would consider – wimpy.

“I was shooting my mouth off and all that sort of stuff and I don’t think they liked it.”

Whether or not the band members were fully accepting in the beginning, ‘Remember’ and following hits like ‘Give a Little Love’ and ‘Shang-a-Lang’ launched the Scottish lads into total fandom that was compared to Beatlemania at the time.

“It was just impossible to go out, but when we started in ’74 the Bay City Rollers were a very hard working band, and even when we were on Top of the Pops that night we would then have to travel to some working mens’ club at 11 o’clock at night – it wasn’t a pop star lifestyle because we had all these commitments.

“The success caused more appearances to happen. It was never ending work – photographs, interviews, photographs, interviews, gig, gig, sleep.

“We worked out that over three years I made it home nine times to see my parents. There was no time to go to the shops. You had people to do that,” he admits.

Top ten hits aside, one of the most memorable components of the pop outfit was their showy Scottish-inspired attire.

“A lot of us were fans of Slade and when it came to think about an image, we thought of the rolled-up trousers of Slade, and then we had Dr Martin boots on because that’s what they had on as well.

“My mum knitted my v-neck sweater - that’s how rock star I was (laughs)

“There were existing trousers that you could buy with black and white stripes down the side of them and we just replaced those stripes with tartan.

“I got my dad to copy that – he just got some old jeans and cut them up, put some tartan up the side and hey presto!

Two of Les’ greatest supporters were his parents who encouraged his passion for singing.

“We grew up in the a***-end of Edinburgh.

“My father was very supportive, although he worked very hard his whole life. He was a tailor and my mum was a seamstress and they met in Belfast and moved to Edinburgh to start a new life together.

“But my father was deaf and dumb so he never actually heard me singing. He had an accident when he was very young,” he says.

Les will be joined by a new band to bring back the Bay City Rollers as part of a new tour, which will be coming to Horsham on September 27 at The Capitol Theatre.

“I still look pretty much the same as I did back then, but the waistband has expanded slightly,” he laughs.

“Every night I now go out with the attitude that this is the first time the people in the audience are going to hear me sing and hear the band play.

“We want to impress them and make them think, wow they sound just like the record.”

To buy tickets, go to www.thecapitolhorsham.com.