By Erik Lacitis
It wouldn't have surprised me to meet a burn-out case, but Les McKeown was quite the opposite.
He used to be a pop star, the kind over whom teens faint and promise their undying loyalty. But the girls grow up; the Top-40 hits stop; the money evaporates. Pop stars - in particular, teen idols - are a disposable commodity in rock 'n' roll. When the ride is over, you end up playing a three-night gig at some bar. The first night, there were 200 paying customers at the Ballard Firehouse.
Les McKeown meets me in the lobby of a Ramada Inn, and we find an empty reception room in which to talk. Nobody takes notice. He's just another guest who goes to the nearby Denny's for a meal. It's actually quite mindboggling how popular the Bay City Rollers were in the mid-'70s. One estimate is that they sold around 70 million records. Rock 'n' roll is not known for its bookkeeping. It's all gone
Once, when he was 21, a teen idol with no notion about finances, he could pick up the phone and order a car. He could buy a home on nine acres outside of Edinburgh. It was all a financial quicksand, and it's all gone. The Bay City Rollers were a Scottish quintet that sang bubble-gummish tunes, wore platform shoes and costumes with lots of tartan.They churned out hit single after hit single: at least a dozen in Great Britain, eight in the U.S. "Rollermania" was compared to Beatlemania, and, as far as their live performances, that wasn't too far off. In 1976 or 1977, I saw the Bay City Rollers play a sold-out show at the Paramount. The audience was nearly all teen girls, and every one of them was standing on the theater seats, shrieking. Not just the seats, but the handrails of the seats, jumping up and down on them. I literally saw the floor of the Paramount roll in waves from the jumping. The Bay City Rollers were and still are held in disdain by the critics. How can you take seriously a group singing "Shang-A-Lang"? I bet a band would have a nice hit with a punked-up version of the Rollers' biggest hit, "Saturday Night." If you don't let your preconceptions get in the way, it's an infectious chant song: "S-A-T-ROCK! T-ROCK!"
Here's a summarized history of what happened to the Bay City Rollers: split-ups, a lawsuit, huge debts. One of their hits, "Yesterday's Hero," forebode what would happen: "When we walk down the street . . . people stop and stare and say . . . haven't I seen that face a long time before . . . We don't wanna be yesterday's heroes . . ." It got so bad that Les McKeown, lead singer in the band for its biggest hits, was involved in a lawsuit with other band members. They got to keep the name of the band. That's why the show here was advertised as " Les McKeown's '70s Bay City Rollers, " with McKeown the only original member and the rest new additions. Not so lucrative anymore. He's now 40, married since 1983, with a 12-year-old son. He lives in a working-class neighborhood in London. If a promoter lines up the bookings - a guarantee of $ 2,000 or $ 3,000 for a night - he'll get on the jet and travel. With five band members, a stage guy, travel and motel costs, it isn't exactly lucrative. That's all right, McKeown says. He is proud of the Bay City Rollers' music, of new tunes he has written. "What did I miss?" he says about playing the bars again. "The big swimming pool, the mansion? I also have gained a lot. My wife, a great son, a good band, and I'm playing my music. I've gained more than most."
It is a crowd of mostly thirtysomethings who went to his show here, women such as Tiara Thomas, 32, married, mother of a 5-year-old. "I had a very nice time. He looked very good, very well kept," Thomas tells me. "I liked that they're playing some new stuff, too." Some of the women wave their arms and scream out when McKeown sings, but it's not the same, as McKeown knows too well. "They want you to be Les from the '70s. I almost feel like I'm disappointing them. I'm not Les from the '70s. I'm not the little good-looking singer in a multi-colored pop group. Maybe I want to be appreciated with what I now have to give musically," he says. Soon, he hopes to cut some tracks at a studio. He's got good songs. Maybe some record company will pay attention. In some ways, it's like it used to be, when McKeown was a young kid working paper mill or brewery jobs.
The day after seeing a David Bowie concert, McKeown decided he wanted to be a rock 'n' roll singer. Seventy million records later, that's still what he wants to be. "You can't lose the reason you do all this. It's because you love playing the songs. Everything else gets in the way," McKeown says. It is now a few hours before the next show at the Ballard Firehouse, time for McKeown to rest up for his show, which will go past midnight. So he is yesterday's hero. So what?