The Guardian
October 18, 1999

My tartan heart

By Caroline Sullivan
Page 6 / 1000 words


Caroline Sullivan reflects on the life and love of a teenage Bay City Rollers fan

Everyone has a skeleton in their closet and I'm beginning to think the Bay City Rollers will be hanging around in mine forever. It may be 22 years since the unextraordinary Edinburgh boy-band last troubled the charts, but they have never quite relinquished their grip on my heart. I still feel a flutter every time I see their name - an increasingly infrequent occurrence, sadly. I even remember all their birthdays. (Eric Faulkner, the pretty one with spiky hair, turns 46 this Thursday).

Tragic? I'd be the first to agree. But when a band dominates your life as they did mine as a teenager, you never really cut the ties. Every girl goes through a teen idol phase; my phase just didn't know when to stop. It wasn't enough to catch a glimpse of Eric, Leslie, Woody, Alan and Derek at hotels and airports: my friends and I booked rooms in the hotels, seats on the planes. We conned our way backstage, sat at the next table in restaurants, used fake Scottish accents to convince operators to give us their phone numbers. We cunningly avoided wearing tartan-trimmed 'Rollergear' to set us apart from other fans. And when our devotion finally paid off, one weird night in Detroit, well, let's just say we were never the same again.

Though I finally got over them, they have always been part of my life. I can go years without thinking about them, then it all comes flooding back, as it did in April when they announced on a BBC documentary that they were reforming. They showed some 70s concert footage - Leslie McKeown, the singer, cat-sly and lithe, Eric manfully batting away at his guitar - and I was instantly back in junior high in New Jersey, consumed by lust.

As a journalist, I have interviewed McKeown several times and each time still felt a vestigial frisson. I suppose I always will. I don't think he remembers meeting me in Detroit in 1977, when he and Woody sprawled on the floor of my friend Sue's room and helped themselves to our cigarettes and booze, but it made an indelible impression on me. My first crush changed my life and the process repeats itself over the generations. I always sympathise with kids who sob and faint over Ronan Keating and Robbie Williams because I've been there. They'll outgrow them, but the embers will smoulder forever: it will only take a snatch of Angels in the year 2019 to make 35-year-old women recall the euphoria and frustration of loving a fantasy figure.

When I decided two years ago to write a book about all this, someone advised reading Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch before I started, as 'he was just as nuts as you, but about football'. The use of the past tense was misleading; it was plain Hornby is still hopelessly devoted to Arsenal. The book ends at a match against Aston Villa on a freezing January day, with Hornby reflecting on 'how miserable most of my footballing life has been'. I knew how he felt, for the greater part of my Roller career was just as wretched, as I struggled with the painful knowledge that I was never going to be Caroline McKeown.

Fever Pitch touched a nerve. 'Funny, wise and true,' Roddy Doyle says on the cover, which isn't surprising: being male, he probably spent his formative years weeping over Shamrock Rovers. The point is that obsessions are common to both sexes, but male ones are made into films while female ones are trivialised. There is scant difference between a 12-year-old girl wailing at Robbie Williams and a boy doing the same at Robbie Fowler, but there's a difference in the way fandom is perceived. Guess who'll be dismissed as a 'screaming fan'?

Teenage crushes shape the adult we become. In either sex, they are an outlet for the conflicting emotions of adolescence, a way of experimenting with relationships without being in one. But while Hornby can recount every detail of a 'sleepy nil-nil draw on a sleepy, grey Bank Holiday Monday' and retain the respect of other adults, girls' crushes are treated like mild mental illness (as in the 1985 book Starlust by sociologists Fred and Judy Vermorel, which talks of 'the fantasies of maniacs').

An ex-boyfriend who is a lifelong supporter of bottom-ranked Hull City described my Roller years as 'pathetic', which is pretty damned rich. Is there anything very different, really, about him trudging to away games in Hartlepool and the behaviour of the women I met at a Roller convention last May? Most were married with kids and had rediscovered the Rollers through the internet, where heated correspondence ('Eric is still the most gorgeous man in the world!') thrives on a dozen sites. What they remembered most about the 70s was deep friendships with other fans, formed while trying to outsmart the band's ever-present manager, Tam. The Rollers themselves became almost incidental, while the friendships endured.

Re-reading my diaries from 1975-79 brought it back as clearly as if Sue and I were again standing in a corridor in the Pittsburgh Hyatt Hotel, working up the courage to knock on Eric's door. (As we debated, he suddenly opened it and sauntered down the hall, ignoring us. The fact that they were never especially cordial didn't deter us. We were so delighted to have seen him that we sent champagne.)

We did, as I said, finally get closer than we expected. The Detroit encounter resulted in a brief affair with one of them that made me the subject of my friends' astonished envy. 'Why you?' they demanded. I didn't know why me either, but it was a pivotal moment. Observing the Rollers' boredom and discontent close up was more disillusioning than I could have imagined. I brooded for months, disappointed that their sunny exteriors concealed real people.

But, despite the old saw 'Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it' proving true in our case, I wouldn't have changed a thing. They're touring next year. I'll be the one without the Rollergear.

Bye Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair with The Bay City Rollers is published this week by Bloomsbury at pounds 10.99.