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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 it’s 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 you’re old enough (and I’m not). The year is 1976. ‘Shang A Lang’ is playing on the radio. The Rollers are in town. You’re 14 years old and, as you gaze swooningly at the posters on your bedroom wall, there’s 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 year’s 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. You’re screaming out the lyrics Doo-op a dooby doo-ah. You’ve 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. I’m 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. "You’d better not make us sound stupid," Candace Latourelle, a day-care provider from Minnesota, warned. "Remember I’ve 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 can’t stop going on about. As event organiser Jan Stevenson tells me: "Never insult the Rollers because you’ll 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 can’t talk," she stuttered. She’d just caught a glimpse of him through the open doorway.

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: ‘There’s 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 City Rollers."

Fans. They had come from Australia, Canada, America, the Netherlands, Denmark… 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 I’m 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 won’t get a much bigger fan than me. Even my boat’s 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. "We’ve 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 don’t get it. I’ve 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 didn’t buy the album. So, I can’t help thinking, why? What makes a group of mature women want to slip back into the cosy bubblegum world of childhood? They’re bright, successful women, not stupid by any means: Louise is a clinical psychologist, Jan is a personnel manager, Lisa works in communications.

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 haven’t yet grasped: that the passions of childhood are so much more satisfying than the informed tastes of later years? There’s 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, you’re remembering friends, you know, that you’ve not seen for years, that used to be like you. You’re 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 let’s 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. "We’re a cult. We’ve got the tartan uniform, we’re the tartan army, we’re a gang. And the new boy bands don’t, because they haven’t got an image. They haven’t 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 didn’t smoke, they didn’t drink. Therefore we didn’t smoke, we didn’t 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 weren’t 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 her.

But it’s the issue of Derek Longmuir that’s particularly troubling. There’s 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. He’s just special." Meanwhile, Jan explains: "It really has nothing to do with why we’re here you know. That’s somebody else’s personal life. I mean whatever they do in their private lives is for them, not for us. The thing is you’ve got the poster on the wall in your head, and you’ve got the real person. Two totally different things. What we celebrate is the poster."

Real fans don’t jump ship when the going gets tough. Chaplin’s didn’t. Gary Glitter’s didn’t. Michael Jackson’s didn’t. George Michael’s didn’t. Real fans aren’t morally discriminating in their affections. They choose to reject that inevitable disillusionment.

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 there’s 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 I’ll have been in the same room as any of them since I wrote the book," she confesses. "So I’m not sure whether to take evasive action or just be loud and proud in front of Les."

Although Les wasn’t the Roller she slept with (you can pretty much guess from her hints it was Woody), it was Les she’d 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 couldn’t imagine how they ever would be – I’d do it. I wouldn’t 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 can’t 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. It’s like being in love with some guy, and you can’t understand the attraction, but you’re hopelessly gone."

Even so, she confesses to being, "very Rollered out", "very, very over them, after writing the book". She tips me off: "You’ve got to watch a bit of Les’s gig. It’s gonna be so tragic. You just have to be sorry for the guy because, I mean, he’s about 45-years-old and he’s 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 didn’t, not yet. Instead, I sat beside an American woman who had been intriguing me since she’d made a comment about the "weird s***" she’d 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 she’d 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 couldn’t go out. It was very weird because I had a boyfriend and he knew that I’d 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 wouldn’t kiss their ass. I never got any autographs, never got any pictures."

I ask what the "weird s***" was, she’d talked about. "You know, there were some suggestions to me from some Rollers about mnages a trois, that kind of thing."

Diane’s 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 band’s 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 I’m in a recovery programme and a lot of these people that I used to see, I’m seeing in other places."

Talking to her I felt like I’d 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 couldn’t help feeling, as he launched into his first number, that his heart wasn’t 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 Pan’s 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. "Here’s a song dedicated to Derek... ‘Young boy’. There’s 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 Roller’s 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 wouldn’t like the opportunity to sway and hug with 70 hysterical women?

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 band’s room: just as you would imagine any band dressing room to be, tables stacked with bottles, fan sitting on one of the band member’s 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 I’m 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 hadn’t grown up. "Musically maybe, I’ve wanted to grow up for years. There’s just not the opportunity because they always want you to play a certain number of the hits. But I’ve decided to move on."

He began to trail off. His eyes slithered up and down me. "You’re 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. "We’re all p*****, we’ve had a good time. So I recommend you don’t stay here because we’ll 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, think tartan.