Les is More: Bay City Rollers frontman headed to P.A.

Matt Gardner
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The lead singer of seminal Scottish pop band The Bay City Rollers is bringing his old band’s classic tunes to Prince Albert.

Vocalist Les McKeown, who fronted the group during their ’70s heyday, is scheduled to perform at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre on May 13 with his new band.

Billed as Les McKeown’s Legendary Bay City Rollers, the concert -- which starts at 7:30 p.m. -- will feature all the Rollers’ biggest hits.

“It’s going to be great to be in Prince Albert for the first time,” McKeown said. “I’m looking forward to rocking the night with everyone.”

While the tunes themselves will evoke old memories for many audience members, the tour as a whole is a testament to how much has changed since the heady days of “Rollermania.”

“It’s been an amazing trip for me,” McKeown said.

“Of course I had a big time back in the ’70s and that was all kind of controlled and manipulated by other people, and now I’ve got the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat and create a little kind of cottage industry for myself … I arrange things, I employ the band and get the guys into the band. I arrange the tour with an agent, I book the hotels, I book the flights, I book the tour manager.

“Every day I go over the schedule for the next few days, make sure everything’s right, make sure we’re getting the right check-ins to the hotels, the right equipment … and I feel very, very much involved and much more involved, of course, than I used to be. And it keeps me a lot happier to be this much involved.”

McKeown was barely 18 years old when he joined the Bay City Rollers in 1973.

Beginning with UK hits such as Remember (Sha La La La) and Summerlove Sensation, the band’s worldwide popularity exploded in 1976 when they reached No. 1 in North America with the song Saturday Night.

The Rollers became global teen idols and were celebrated in some quarters as “Britain’s biggest group since The Beatles.” They attracted a fervent following, identifiable by their distinctive dress of calf-length tartan pants and tartan scarves.

“It’s kind of weird now that I’m older and I’m looking back in time to put into words what it could be like for a person who wasn’t me, if you know what I mean, and it’s really very difficult,” McKeown said.

“I’ve tried so many times to try and describe what it was like. It’s like heaven on earth. It’s like your wildest dreams coming true. It’s completely unexpected brilliance …

“To be able after three years (of singing) to be in a professional band like the Bay City Rollers was part of my dream coming true. But to be then on television and then on Top of the Pops and to be at No. 7, then No. 3 and then No. 2 and then eventually No. 1 in the hit parade was mental. It was just crazy. I was 18 years old and I was on the very program I used to sit and watch faithfully.”

At the time, the Rollers’ tunes were mostly written by the songwriting team of Phil Coulter and Bill Martin, who catered to a teenage audience with their bubblegum-flavoured sound.

As the band’s popularity grew, the young members began to bristle against the creative limitations imposed on them. Their manager, who McKeown described as a “patriarchal figure” and “pretend parent,” exerted firm control over their behaviour that the Rollers were increasingly anxious to escape.

“I think it was all mixed up with those teenage hormones and a bit of wanting to break out and be rebellious,” McKeown said. “All those things came together and we felt we wanted to write our own songs and it was very, very difficult. We had to push very hard to do that … and we got to play on our own songs, we got to write some of our own songs.

“A couple of the guys wrote a big hit called Money Honey, which was famous here in Canada. But unfortunately, the businesspeople -- the people with the business ties to us -- couldn’t let us go that easy and kept trying to drag us back into where they could be in complete control of us.”

The resulting struggle increasingly led to bad blood among the band members. Although time has healed many of those wounds -- McKeown mentioned that his fellow Rollers recently expressed interest in joining him on the road -- they eventually led to the demise of the classic Bay City Rollers lineup.

In 1978, McKeown departed the band for a solo career.

“I’m very proud of my solo years,” he said. “It was a kind of forced situation where I wanted the guys in the band to keep making good music … but we couldn’t see eye to eye on the direction of the band. I had some songs that I wanted to sing, they had some songs they wanted to play, so they got a new singer and I got a new band.”

It’s going to be great to be in Prince Albert for the first time. I’m looking forward to rocking the night with everyone. Les McKeown

Because McKeown’s American record label refused to release his songs domestically or in the UK, the vocalist signed with an independent record label in Japan and began the next phase of his career, in which he was able to take a more hands-on approach to writing and producing his music.

Along with a series of solo albums, McKeown frequently collaborated with other artists, including goth band This Mortal Coil on their 1986 album Filigree & Shadow.

During this time, McKeown began to develop an increasing dependence on alcohol and drugs -- a long, drawn-out process that started after the Rollers’ stardom declined and gradually worsened in the ensuing decades.

“As you try and have some success and you try harder … you get kind of beaten down by the system, really,” McKeown said.

“There were lots of things going on. We were chasing money owed to us from the old record company. We were trying to make new records. We were doing reunion tours. I’m a very, very active, busy man, and when you are as active as that and you keep working very hard and there is no reward coming back … not just a financial reward ... you kind of get ground down.

“I think what happened to me is that I started to drink a little bit, then a little bit more, and started to dabble in some drugs, and then a little bit more, and sort of fell into that … kind of underworld.”

In 2002, both of McKeown’s parents died at almost the same time, which triggered what he refers to as a “catastrophic decline into self-pity and self-loathing.”

That dark period lasted until August 2008, when McKeown woke up in a hospital after a weekend of drinking and was told by a doctor that he likely would not live until Christmas.

Prompted to seek serious help very quickly, McKeown -- encouraged by his wife and son -- took advantage of an opportunity to attend rehab at a California facility called Passages.

Initially reluctant, by the second week McKeown was feeling better and decided to give rehab a chance. Though originally slotted to spend one month at the facility, he ultimately remained there for four months.

“It really, really helped me turn my life around, made me see all the great things that I’d done in my life and all the good reasons that I should be happy about where I am, and I haven’t looked back,” the singer said.

“I’ve not drunk a drop of alcohol since going into that rehabilitation centre and I feel great about my life. I keep myself busy, I’m happy and well-adjusted and my wife is back in love with me, and my son and I have a great relationship.”

Coming out of rehab with more positive feelings about his old group, McKeown decided to go on the road again, singing the old hits and telling fond anecdotes about his relationship with the other band members.

An initial 2009 tour proved highly successful with 45 dates, and the following year it expanded to 60.

This year McKeown is scheduled to play 35 dates in the UK, and will stop by Japan in December for a sold-out tour there.

“Everything that I’ve been doing since I came out of rehabilitation has been very positive, and it’s been reinforced by the fact that it’s been successful,” he said.

Besides the improvements in McKeown’s own life following his personal renaissance, the singer has developed a renewed appreciation for the Rollers’ songs.

“I have a brand new kind of feeling about them and it’s very positive,” he said.

“Every night I go out there and I’m singing Saturday Night, it’s the first time I’m singing it to the people in Saskatoon. It’s the first time I’m singing it to the people in Prince Albert, and it’s the first time I’m singing it to the people in Kelowna, Edmonton. So every night that’s the attitude I go out with.

“They haven’t seen me for 36 years or 15 years or whatever -- and I want them to remember a great show.”

Tickets for Les McKeown’s Legendary Bay City Rollers cost $43 and are available online or at the box office.

Organizations: E.A. Rawlinson Centre, The Beatles

Geographic location: Bay City, California, Britain Prince Albert North America Japan Canada Saskatoon Kelowna Edmonton

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Recent comments

  • Tracy
    September 14, 2013 - 22:28

    I attended your concert at the Casino Rama Orillia Ontario!!! IT WAS FANTASTIC!!! I have wanted to go to your concert but didn't get a ticket until 2 hours before u came that nite May 4th....I was ESTATIC to be able to go that nite!!!AND i hope u come back again!!! Loved the BCR when i was 16ish...a way-back-then......omg, yes! I was so glad i could finally attend a concert! LOVE THOSE SONGS and LOVED the Bay City Rollers!!! Keep it up!!! YOU are a great singer and love your new songs too!!! Waiting for a new album to come out! LOVE Tracy! xo

  • Dawn C
    May 06, 2013 - 13:18

    PS: Les, you must remember City Hall in Toronto, ON where the BCR fans rocked the whole open space! OMG Cathy and I were there and it is something we will never forget!! Thank YOU! :) Dawn

  • Dawn C
    May 06, 2013 - 13:16

    My highschool gf bought us tickets to see Les and the guys at Casino Rama in Orillia, wow what a fantastic trip back to being 13/14 again! Luved the show and I agree with Margaret, Les is one handsome fella! My friend Cathy and I were able to meet Les and the guys after the show for autographs and pics, that was a dream come true after all the years! Thanks Les for bringing the BCR's back, we would definitely come and see you again! Keep up the great work, you are awesome and the show is fantastic!!

  • Margaret Smith
    May 02, 2013 - 23:29

    I first saw the Rollers in Montreal at the Forum as front band for April Wine in the early 70's. At that time I had never heard of them but went out and bought an album and more after that. I saw them preform on TV and enjoyed that too! My son knew I liked them so when he saw they were coming to Belleville Ontario he just had to get me a pair of tickets for my birthday. I'm so glad he did. The show was great and even though Les said they had gotten heavier I said "you look better now!!" he said "pay that lady!" I laughed but I was glad to see that he had aged well. I have aged too and had no intrest in seeing skinny kids playing great music. So to Les and the guys in the band" Great Show!!" Loved every minute of it.

  • thomas Hartleif
    May 02, 2013 - 08:11

    Brilliant Leslie Rock em` have lotz of fun........Germany is with you!!!!!!!!