Yesterday's hero: Les McKeown at the Bay City
Rollers convention, Edinburgh, 2000.
Roller coaster of love
|Back in the Seventies crowds of 70,000 teenagers
would turn out for the Bay City Rollers. Now its 75 middle-aged die-hards
at the Apex hotel in Edinburgh.
|Vicky Allan meets the fans who can never say
bye bye baby. Photographs by Martin Hunter
|SET the soundtrack in your mind. If youre old enough (and
Im not). The year is 1976. Shang A Lang is playing on the
radio. The Rollers are in town. Youre 14 years old and, as you gaze
swooningly at the posters on your bedroom wall, theres nothing you
would like more in the world than to kiss the milk-shake lips of Eric, Les,
Alan, Woody, or for that matter, even Derek. Now, hold on to that feeling,
and fast forward to the year 2000, the Apex International Hotel Edinburgh,
and this years Bay City Roller Convention. Saturday Night
is playing on the disco. A woman you never knew before but who is now your
latest best friend is shaking her middle-aged tush across the dance floor.
Youre screaming out the lyrics Doo-op a dooby doo-ah. Youve never
felt so uncomplicatedly happy since you grew up and ditched your fan memorabilia
back in 1978. But whoever said growing up was such a good thing?
Well, here goes. Im probably taking my life in my hands writing this
one. That much was clear as I walked out of the Apex, passing a string of
tartan clad ladies lined up along the corridor, flushed and sweaty from
screaming, laughing, sobbing and jumping up and down waving scarves, each
of them hoping that maybe, just maybe, the Bay City Roller in the room along
the end will come out and whisper sweet nothings to them.
As I sloped by, one of them caught me: the one with the big ponytail and
white jumper. "Youd better not make us sound stupid," Candace Latourelle,
a day-care provider from Minnesota, warned. "Remember Ive got pictures
of you dancing. I have evidence." And I was reminded. These fans are scary.
Not in a Misery, number-one-fan-with-a-vengeance way but an everyday scariness:
like that neighbour you know with a cranky obsession they cant stop
going on about. As event organiser Jan Stevenson tells me: "Never insult
the Rollers because youll just get a tirade of abuse from the fans."
Back on the dance floor, there was a palpable tension, an over-excitement.
Some 75 fans, generally aged between 36 and 38, most of them women, jammed
into the events room of the hotel and the corridor that led to the dressing
room of Les McKeown, the one Roller present. A heady mix of oestrogen and
adrenaline filled the air. Some had already met the man. Some were going
weak at the knees at the thought of even just being in the same building.
One American sidled by, flushed with excitement. "Oh s***, I cant talk,"
she stuttered. Shed just caught a glimpse of him through the open
Louise, a red-head in tartan-trimmed trousers, white polo-neck and a neck
brace, had been in the lift with him earlier. "It was so awesome. Someone
said: Theres Les and everyone just sat there, but I pelted
up the stairs and I pushed on the lift button and the door opened and I said:
Can we get in with you? I was really surprised actually, cause
I got all gooey. He got out of the lift and my heart was racing and my hands
were shaking and I ran over to the other girls. I mean this is a guy that
well, for four or five years I completely ate, slept and breathed the Bay
Fans. They had come from Australia, Canada, America, the Netherlands,
all over the world. Sonia Neale, for instance, a tall blonde
with sugar-pink lipstick, seemed twitchy and nervous. She was due to do a
presentation of gifts, including boxer shorts and socks, from Ian Mitchell
(one of the eight band members regarded as genuine Bay City Rollers) to Jan
Stevenson. "The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up right now. This
is a childhood dream. I worked part-time to get the money to come out here.
And Im going to have to get a full-time job when I get home to pay
for the trip," says Neale.
Few men were present, but the ones that were were committed. As Tony Little,
aka Tartan Tony, a Billy Bunter-like character sporting a Rollers tank-top,
says. "You wont get a much bigger fan than me. Even my boats
called Shang-A-Lang." As a kid he used to keep it quiet after all,
any boy that declared a liking for the Rollers would be branded a cissy
but between 1984 and 1998, he claims he never listened to any other music.
"Weve been robbed of 15 years, their last record was 1985. The fans
are still here and we want a new album."
Most of the fans found out about the event through the internet. That is
no surprise, after all the web is the home of a million fan shrines, but
this is something of a phenomenon. I hear the same story over and over again.
"I thought I was the only Bay City Roller left on the planet. I thought I
was alone. Then, one day, I was on the internet, and I thought why not just
type it in. Bay City Rollers. And it came up with thousands of hits and I
realised there were loads of people out there, other people like me."
All this bewilders me. I dont get it. Ive never been a fan. Not
really. Not fully-fledged. Not posters over every inch of my wall, photos
in my pencil case and name carved into my desk. The nearest I ever got was
a brief flutter for A-ha around the time of Take On Me, and even
then I didnt buy the album. So, I cant help thinking, why? What
makes a group of mature women want to slip back into the cosy bubblegum world
of childhood? Theyre bright, successful women, not stupid by any means:
Louise is a clinical psychologist, Jan is a personnel manager, Lisa works
Is it a never-ending phase? Just like a Freudian stage of development, is
the pre-pubescent fan stage one that you can simply find yourself stuck in?
Or, do these women grasp something I havent yet grasped: that the passions
of childhood are so much more satisfying than the informed tastes of later
years? Theres certainly a lot to be said for nostalgia. As Liz Evans,
one of the few Scots there says: "It brings back the memories, and I was
saying to the girls last night, youre remembering friends, you know,
that youve not seen for years, that used to be like you. Youre
remembering all your young life."
Her memories are intense. Back in the Seventies Liz used to go to school
dressed like the Rollers, would hang around outside their houses, skive lessons,
get chased by the police, and was part of a gang of more than 30 Roller kids
from her housing estate.
I wandered through to the dance floor, hoping to find some further explanation.
Jan was on the microphone. "Round of applause for the committee please."
Huge whoops filled the room. "Caroline Sullivan will be coming down in about
15 minutes to read from her book, but for now, enjoy yourself and lets
party!" As the chords rang out for the start of Shang-A-Lang
on the disco, screams filled the air. Already I could see why Jan had told
me: "Roller fans have an in-built ability to scream. And it never leaves
you. Roller fans can scream better than anyone I know. Roller fans can party
better than anyone I know."
Is this what Boyzone and Westlife fans will be like in 20 years time? The
Roller girls are quick to reject any comparisons with the latest sensations.
"Were a cult. Weve got the tartan uniform, were the tartan
army, were a gang. And the new boy bands dont, because they
havent got an image. They havent got a gimmick."
Back in the Seventies, the tartan and the milk-shakes sold the boys. Well
enough certainly, to sell 120 million records (despite this the Rollers only
earned about £40,000 each) and bring crowds of 75,000 fans to Toronto
airport and 120,000 to Tokyo airport. "I think the whole tartan thing brought
fans together. Because you dressed up as your favourite Roller. You were
a Roller fan and you could wear your badge with pride," says Lisa.
"I guess they filled an emotional need we all had going through puberty,"
adds Sonia. "They didnt smoke, they didnt drink. Therefore we
didnt smoke, we didnt drink. It was a good thing until I saw
Les with a cigarette in a magazine and I thought he was so naughty. I was
disgusted and excited. He was a real person."
So, what now? What happens when their idols have grown up and revealed they
werent the clean-living, milk-drinking, fresh-faced kids they were
marketed as? Do the fans still love them? Yes. Warts and all. And some of
their warts are fairly ugly. Most recently, Derek Longmuir admitted to possessing
child pornography. He admitted to making indecent photos of children at his
home in March 1998. He lost his job as a nurse at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary
and was sentenced to 300 hours community service. Manager Tam Paton was jailed
for three years at the High Court in 1982 after admitting to charges of sexual
abuse against a 16- and a 17-year-old boy. Eric became addicted to amphetamines.
Even while the band was on its high, Les McKeown was charged with reckless
driving after running a woman pensioner over in his blue Mustang, killing
But its the issue of Derek Longmuir thats particularly troubling.
Theres a silence in the party about his recent conviction. A seeming
suspension of judgment. Only Candace Latourelle still confesses to holding
him as her favourite. "The one who holds a special spot in my heart is Derek.
Always has, always will do. Even now. Hes just special." Meanwhile,
Jan explains: "It really has nothing to do with why were here you know.
Thats somebody elses personal life. I mean whatever they do in
their private lives is for them, not for us. The thing is youve got
the poster on the wall in your head, and youve got the real person.
Two totally different things. What we celebrate is the poster."
Real fans dont jump ship when the going gets tough. Chaplins
didnt. Gary Glitters didnt. Michael Jacksons
didnt. George Michaels didnt. Real fans arent morally
discriminating in their affections. They choose to reject that inevitable
Caroline Sullivan, rock critic from the Guardian, understands this. Back
on the floor, she was reading from her book, Bye Bye Baby, the story of the
teen years she spent chasing round after the Rollers. No tartan, big, tressy
hair, she looked too glamorous to be a fan, but I guess theres no
accounting for taste.
The girls in the audience were roaringly hungry for details. Caroline, you
see, had slept with one of the Rollers, and they wanted to know more. "How
many inches?" "Did you spit or swallow?" "Who slept on the wet patch?" Most
of these she neatly side-stepped in her Loyd Grossman-like accent, to dwell
more on the questions about the film adaptation of her book, set to be directed
by Courtney Love. "This will actually be the first time that Ill have
been in the same room as any of them since I wrote the book," she confesses.
"So Im not sure whether to take evasive action or just be loud and
proud in front of Les."
Although Les wasnt the Roller she slept with (you can pretty much guess
from her hints it was Woody), it was Les shed been infatuated with
through all those years. "Leslie," she wrote in her book, "was the Robbie
Williams of his day the Roller who smoked, drank and was generally
a bit naughty
I knew from the first time I saw McKeown, that, if the
circumstances were ever right though I couldnt imagine how they
ever would be Id do it. I wouldnt have to think twice."
Later when I took her aside to ask her how a major rock critic justifies
loving the Rollers, she says: "It was really like love at first sight, even
if you cant understand why. I was hopelessly devoted and they could
do anything they wanted and I just said yes. And even though all along the
whole time I liked the Rollers, I was also going to gigs by Led Zeppelin
and I saw the early punk gigs of Blondie, the Ramones, and I knew which I
preferred musically. Its like being in love with some guy, and you
cant understand the attraction, but youre hopelessly gone."
Even so, she confesses to being, "very Rollered out", "very, very over them,
after writing the book". She tips me off: "Youve got to watch a bit
of Less gig. Its gonna be so tragic. You just have to be sorry
for the guy because, I mean, hes about 45-years-old and hes forced
to do Bay City Roller songs for the rest of his life."
I was beginning to be seduced. Who was this Les McKeown everyone kept talking
about? As the disco played Bye Bye Baby for about the fifth time,
I even succumbed to having a tartan scarf wrapped round my arm. Secretly
I wanted to dance, wanted to stop being the boring journalist, the adult
sitting on the sidelines, but I didnt, not yet. Instead, I sat beside
an American woman who had been intriguing me since shed made a comment
about the "weird s***" shed seen while chasing the Rollers around LA.
"OK, so this is going to sound really, really rude," she says. "But there
were two types of fan. There were those of us that got in the hotel rooms
and there were the others that just sat on the sidewalk."
Instantly I knew that here we were entering the territory of the
ever-so-slightly-scary fan. Not the sort that sat around in her bedroom listening
to records, but the sort that was out there stalking, like Caroline, only
better because this woman, Diane, claimed she spent most of her time in their
rooms. I wondered if this was what Jan had meant, when shed said, "99%
have a sense of humour about it, but there are a few odd ones."
Wearing a large jumper and jeans, with a whiny LA accent, she told me about
some of her times with the band. "They did booze, they did pot, they did
drugs. Sex, drugs and rock n roll. Eric, I used to watch TV with
him. I had a boyfriend, so me and him were cool. I was 18. Eric was just
sad and lonely. He couldnt go out. It was very weird because I had
a boyfriend and he knew that Id go up, see Eric, hang out, get drunk
and then come home again. They were fun guys. You know, I mean they were
just fun guys. And we would laugh at them, at their face, we wouldnt
kiss their ass. I never got any autographs, never got any pictures."
I ask what the "weird s***" was, shed talked about. "You know, there
were some suggestions to me from some Rollers about mnages a trois, that
kind of thing."
Dianes youth, if this can all be taken to be true, seemed to be one
haze of bands: not just the Bay City Rollers but the Clash, Siouxsie and
the Banshees, Billy Idol. I was struck by the way some fans graduate, slide
with ease out of one bands hotel rooms into another, out of one record
collection into another. Now a recovering alcoholic in AA, she adds: "You
know the weird thing is you try to escape it and it follows you. Because
now Im in a recovery programme and a lot of these people that I used
to see, Im seeing in other places."
Talking to her I felt like Id slipped from the light bubblegum world
of teenage fandom into darker territories.
I decided I preferred the light. Time to hit the dance floor. Besides, Les
McKeown was on. This was the moment. The girls were yelling. The scarves
were trailing through the air. Doo-op a dooby doo-ah. And there was the man
himself, like any other middle-aged man, slightly ordinary though quite
good-looking. Dressed in black jeans and tartan-trimmed shirt, his words
were slightly slurred, and for all the energy there, I couldnt help
feeling, as he launched into his first number, that his heart wasnt
really in it. Still, the music pounded on. Gonna keep on dancing to the rock
n roll on Saturday night, Saturday night.
Die hard fans truly never die, do they? And they never stop dancing either.
With tartan scarves flailing above their heads the convention organisers
look like a cross between Pans People and the Bay City Rollers themselves.
Dancing to the rhythm of our heart and soul, on Saturday night, Saturday
night. The voice lower and coarser than in the old days, less milk-shakey
and more cigarette-smoked.
Between numbers he cracks a joke. "Heres a song dedicated to Derek...
Young boy. Theres a hushed gasp. It is the first time it
has been openly mentioned. Then the next song starts, and he confesses that
maybe he does have an odd sense of humour. Soon it is Shang-A-Lang
time and the girls are joining in as the microphone is passed around. They
laugh, they cry, they scream, but Les keeps on going. It is like a superior
pub band running through all the old favourites. Everyone joins in.
A blonde woman starts running round and throwing herself at our photographer.
Cautiously swaying from foot to foot at the back of the crowd to The
Way I Feel Tonight, one of the Rollers smoochier numbers, I found
myself grabbed by Tartan Tony, who thrust his arm round my shoulder to bring
me in line, while singing loudly in my ear. Now, I felt, I could understand.
What man wouldnt like the opportunity to sway and hug with 70 hysterical
Then came the last number: Bye Bye Baby and OK, yes, I was jumping
up and down with a scarf in my hand, but what else can you do? The heat had
risen, the hysteria had started to take over. "Before we go is there anything
you want to ask of me?" said McKeown. "Will you shag me?" someone yelled.
There were screams. "Can you give me a kiss?" from another. It was all too
much and I was starting to wonder if the girls might eventually just jump
up on stage and lynch him. Then he finally retreated, promising to emerge
again for a Jack Daniels later.
Forget the Jack Daniels, though, this was my moment. I strutted past the
lines of women
to the object of their affection. Within seconds I was
in the bands room: just as you would imagine any band dressing room
to be, tables stacked with bottles, fan sitting on one of the band members
knees, plenty of rude jokes. Only, of course, everyone was older.
So there I was. Les McKeown was talking to me, well slurring. If I was a
fan that would have meant something, but Im not and he just seemed
like any slightly drunk man in his 40s, who reminded me of the bloke in the
Flash ad, but with added ego. "Are you recording me?" he asked, then grabbed
hold of my microphone and stuffed it in his mouth, making a large, "Auhhh"
sound. I snatched it back off him, laughing nervously, and asked him if he
felt like he hadnt grown up. "Musically maybe, Ive wanted to
grow up for years. Theres just not the opportunity because they always
want you to play a certain number of the hits. But Ive decided to move
He began to trail off. His eyes slithered up and down me. "Youre a
good-looking chick you are." Then, before I knew it, he had lunged at me
and had his arms around my waist and was demonstrating to the photographer
what he thought would be a good shot. "Were all p*****, weve
had a good time. So I recommend you dont stay here because well
all get very rude."
Good tip, I thought, and handed him over to the fans.
I sign off here. If I die under suspicious circumstance in the next few weeks,