Abba, Cheap Trick, that-guy-from-the-Boxtops. if the modern preoccupation with prehistoric kitsch maintains its current apocalyptically alphabetical course, we’re in for the DeFranco
Family revival next, and we’ll never see the Bay City Rollers again. Sometimes life is so unfair.
Ah, the Bay City Rollers. For a few years in the mid-1970s, they were bigger than the Beatles, the tartan-clad center of a firestorm which burned fiercer than fame. In some circles, in fact, they still are. The Beatles had Revolver, the Rollers had Rollin’. The Beatles had Sergeant Pepper, the Rollers had Once upon a Star. The Beatles had the white album, the Rollers had tartan trousers. You do the math.
Even today, the devotion which the Bay City Rollers once inspired still nurtures wild nostalgia in the hearts of those who were stricken. And if you ask why there has never been a Bay City Rollers revival, the answer is perfectly simple. Because they never really went away. Shimmy shammy shong!
Through the mid-late 1960s, three Edinburgh-based schoolboys, brothers Derek and Alan Longmuir, and vocalist Nobby Clarke, occupied their free time in a makeshift band called the Saxons.
Unabashed good-time pop merchants, the Saxons made their live debut at Cairns Church Hall in Edinburgh, in mid-1967, and over the next year or so, the band built an enormous following on the local youth club circuit.
The group’s line-up seemed to change with every gig. Dave Paton and Billy Lyle, later to find fleeting fame as members of Pilot, were apparently members for a time, but through it all, Clarke and the Longmuirs remained stubbornly constant. And when they left school in 1969, the threesome made the decision to turn professional.
They celebrated the move by changing their name. According to legend, having decided on something American-sounding, they unfurled a large map of the United States, then threw darts at it. One struck Bay City; Rollers would added simply because it sounded good, and that was it.
Newly christened, the band made its live debut with a Saturday night residency at Edinburgh’s Top Storey Club. It was there they met Tam Paton, a bandleader at the nearby Edinburgh Palais. He would become their manager, and over the next year, guided the Bay City Rollers ever higher up the Edinburgh live scene, which intriguingly also meant driving them further underground, to a venue called The Caves.
A regular hang-out for those record company talent scouts assigned to the Edinburgh beat, the Caves on this particular night were playing host to one who had come up from London to catch another band entirely. With time on his hands before his scheduled departure, the scout followed a local booking agent’s advice and hung around for the Bay City Rollers, a band, he was told, with one of the most fanatical followings in the City.
According to legend, the scout signed the Bay City Rollers sight unseen. The crush at the door was too great for him to penetrate!
Whether or not this story is true (and one sincerely hopes it is), he took the Bay City Rollers’ reputation back with him to London, and deposited it enthusiastically in the lap of one of
Britain’s top record producers, Jonathan King. A month later, “Keep On Dancing” gave the Rollers their first British hit.
King explains, “the reason I recorded the Bay City Rollers is that I thought the time had come for a teenybopper idol to emerge, and the band had already got a following in Scotland of
“So I thought, ‘Give them a hit and they’ll start selling automatically.’ So I did that, but there was one terrible thing. As per usual with my art I was ahead of the times. In 1971, the kids were not ready to accept a teen idol. Then Cassidy and the Osmonds, everybody else who everybody knows, came along, and it was infuriating.”
The Bay City Rollers’ link with King was sundered forthwith. Bell Records, with whom King had placed the group, showed more faith, however, and by the summer the Bay City Rollers were working with another established hit-making team, Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, the erstwhile brains behind Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.
“Manana,” the first record under this new regime, did little in Britain, but elsewhere, it sent the Bay City Rollers’ stock soaring. A hit throughout western Europe, it topped the chart in Israel, and would eventually be voted Best Song in Radio Luxembourg’s 1972 Grand Prix Song Contest.
Slowly the Rollers took on the form which would conquer the world. Lead guitarist Eric Faulkner had already been recruited from another local band, the Kip. When, in January, 1974, rhythm
guitarist John Devine bowed out, he was succeeded by Faulkner’s replacement in the Kip, Stuart Wood. Tam Paton added occasional piano.
Without realizing it, of course, and probably with no more sense of permanency that any past incarnation had enjoyed, the Bay City Rollers were finally approaching what would become their
“classic” line-up: Alan and Derek, Eric, Woody… and Nobby.
Nobby? What they needed now was a classic image to match.
For their next release, the anthemic “Saturday Night,” the Bay City Rollers had been paired with Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, veterans of countless British campaigns through the trenches of
the annual Eurovision Song Contest. Two years later, of course, a rerecorded “Saturday Night” would become perhaps the most successful record in the Bay City Rollers’ history. On this, its initial release, it flopped, and within a month, Bell Records was readying a follow-up.
Like “Saturday Night,” “Remember” (the principle lyric of which was the subtitled “sha la la”) seemed tailor-made for chart success. Unfortunately, Tam Paton mused as he awaited its release, mere music was no longer the criteria by which such things were determined. With a genius few people ever gave him credit for, Paton set about coming up with a solution.
When the Bay City Rollers appeared on Top Of The Pops to promote “Keep On Dancing”, that was all they had been doing, promoting a record. They were simply a group playing a song. There was no image, no point of reference, nothing to make any young, impressionable mind latch onto the band and want to emulate it. And that, in an increasingly image-conscious teenaged market, was a dangerous omission.
This time around, Paton was adamant that his boys should be instantly identifiable. In February, 1974, he introduced the Bay City Rollers to the tartan uniforms which they would henceforth wear everywhere they went, and which were destined to become the fashion accessories of the next two years.
The outfit itself was modeled around the skinhead image which had swept Britain around 1970/71; long-sleeved shirts and braces, rolled up trouser bottoms and big boots. Its most obvious antecedent, however, was the dress of a London band, The Jook.
The Jook, too, were poised on the brink of a very major step forward. Just recently, they had attracted the attentions of no less a personage than Micky Most, who signed them to a publishing deal without even having heard them play, so much did he like their look.
One evening, however, the Jook played a ballroom in Edinburgh – and it was there that their death warrant was signed. The show was over, when an admirer appeared backstage. He represented what Jook drummer Chris Townson remembered as “a very scruffy local band, and had dropped by to rave about yon bonny image.”
A few weeks later, The Jook sat back in disbelief as that very same admirer and his cronies cavorted around the TV in the Jook’s own skinhead outfit, a touch of tartan trim watering it down enough to stop it scaring people. The Bay City Rollers had arrived (“and that was the end of the Jook”).
“Remember” was still rising up the chart when the Bay City Rollers underwent another, and perhaps their most important, personnel change yet. Founder member Nobby Clarke quit, citing his desire for a solo career (which never materialized). He was replaced by Les McKeown, vocalist with the Edinburgh band Threshold, but more importantly, a regular backing singer at the Bay City Rollers’ live shows.
Few people watching the band on Top Of The Pops, of course, realized that McKeown was miming to someone else’s vocals, but in concert, he admitted, there was considerable resistance to the change. “A lot of Bay City Rollers fans find it hard to accept the group without Nobby at front.”
A top ten hit in the spring of 1974, “Remember” was followed into the chart by “Shang-A-Lang”, a masterpiece of fluff which found its insidious way into every heart which heard it, whether they would admit it or not. Six years later, latter-day Roller Ian Mitchell was still performing it live, clad in gymslip, fishnet stockings and fur stole. “And why not?”, he’d growl. “It’s a great song.”
It was with “Shang-A-Lang”, which reached number two in April, 1974, that the phenomenon which became Rollermania was first sighted on the streets of Great Britain, platoons of hard-faced Rollergirls stalking the streets in their immaculate tartan uniforms and daring anybody to denigrate their heroes.
Within a year the platoons had become an army, united in their love of the Bay City Rollers and apparent hatred for the rest of humanity.
When visiting Americans Milk’n’Cookies insulted the band on the radio, their manager insists the ensuing furor drove them out of the country. When London glam rock hopefuls Hello performed a similar faux pas, manager David Blaylock recalled that they weren’t forgiven until they took out a full page advertisement in one of the pop papers to apologize.
Beginning that spring of 1974, fan loyalties had never been so divided as they were over the next twelve months or so. Supporters of the previous kings of the teenybop pile, the Osmonds and David Cassidy had at least regarded one another with a mutual respect, tempers flaring only when the subject of looks came about.
Rollergirls, however, had no time for any of that. They would fight, to the death if necessary, for the honor of the adored objects. Even internal warfare was not beyond the reach of their loyalty.
When the Bay City Rollers played the English seaside town of Bournemouth, full scale fights broke out as Woody’s Wonders did battle with Les’ Lovelies, and the Ladies bathroom was a scene of unremitting chaos as stewards tried to deal with the tidal wave of boys breaking in through the window to discover why their womenfolk had suddenly gone haywire. And everywhere you went during the summer of 1974, “Summerlove Sensation”, the Bay City Rollers’ finest hour by far, was to be heard drifting out of beach transistors and fairground Wurlitzers all season long.
The Bay City Rollers’ debut album, Rollin’, followed; it became a predictable #1 smash, remaining on the UK album chart for a solid 62 weeks. And it remains superlative.
It took them four years to make it (in every sense of the phrase), but the Bay City Rollers’ debut album could not have kicked off more explosively, with the mind-mangling chant of “Shang-A-Lang” -, their third hit single but the first to truly state the band’s business in mile-high neon lit tartan letters. And the fact that two more major smashes still lurked on board only amplifies the album’s achievement – at last, a teenybop idol that wasn’t afraid to spread its wings and fly.
Rollin’ is a dynamic collection, even once you’re past the singles. Indeed, almost every track on the album could have been a single – and several more of them were. “Jenny Gotta Dance” had been released by John Kincaid just a few months earlier, while “Give It To Me Now” was originally recorded by “Heart of Stone” hitmaker Kenny during 1973.
But still the album sparkles, from the fan-base baiting version of the old Phil Spector- chestnut “Be My Baby”, through to the handful of band originals that proved the Rollers would probably have made it, regardless of who pulled the songwriting strings. In the event, it is impossible to overstate the contributions of Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, a pair who thought nothing of rhyming “things we used to say” with “shoo-be-doo-ay,” and who have a wall of golden discs to prove it. See, the kids don’t need literature, they don’t need art. They need something they can sing along to, and Rollin’ delivers from beginning to end.
The album was joined in the upper echelons of the chart by “All Of Me Loves All Of You,” a great choice of single, backed by a song which itself would take on a life of its own shortly, Martin-Coulter’s “The Bump.” As the starting point for a whole new dance craze, the sole purpose of which seemed to be to knock your partner flying with one burlesque-like sideways swing of the hip, “The Bump” was a sensational record. It was also the last Martin-Coulter song the Bay City Rollers would record.
Following in the same headstrong footsteps as had recently seen so many other bands (Mud and the Sweet included) break away from proven hit-making teams in a bid for artistic credibility of their own, the Bay City Rollers split with Martin-Coulter, at a cost of £20,000. The split, according to press reports, was amicable, and based solely around the Bay City Rollers’ desire to become more in control of their own destinies. (This was later translated to wanting a larger slice of the songwriting pie.)
But still Martin-Coulter took immediate revenge, rerecording “The Bump” for a Christmas, 1974, release under the name of Kenny – a band, legend insisted, which the duo discovered rehearsing in a banana warehouse in Enfield, North London, and nothing to do with the aforementioned “Heart of Stone” guy.
Unfortunately, no-one ever thought to ask what two such renowned songwriters as Bill and Phil were doing in a North London banana warehouse in the first place, but right then, it didn’t matter. “The Bump” reached #3, and for a moment, it looked as though Kenny would continue racking up the hits with just as much aplomb as the Bay City Rollers.
Sadly, it didn’t work like that. Evidently not learning a solitary lesson from the mistakes made by others, Kenny themselves went on what can only be described as an anti-Roller rampage. They paid the penalty with their careers.
“Our image is better, more clean cut than the Bay City Rollers” was not a quote guaranteed to endear Kenny to their intended audience. Neither was the leaked news that Kenny’s first hit had been recorded with session musicians long before the band itself was discovered. Pop as artifice was one thing, but even the dumbest pop kids don’t want their idols to look like complete buffoons.
It later transpired that the Bay City Rollers, too, did not play on the records recorded with Martin-Coulter. Tam Paton was smart, though. He waited until his charges had proven that they could play before telling anyone his secret, when a reworking of the Four Seasons’ “Bye Bye Baby,” the band’s latest single (and their first with Sweet producer Phil Wainman) catapulted their very own musicianship to the #1 position they’d been challenging for so long. And only then was another reason for leaving Martin-Coulter was revealed; “they wouldn’t let us play on our records.”
While Kenny glowered their back to the banana factory, the Bay City Rollers still smelled of roses.
Yes, it was maybe a little lame to replace your songwriters with a cover version. But what a cover! Just as chart rivals Mud had completely retooled Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy” for their own contemporaneous chart-topper, so the Rollers dismantled the Four Seasons staple and redesigned it utterly in their own image.
A gentle spoken intro leaves the song teetering on the edge of indecision – is it going to be a ballad or a rocker? There’s a delicious pause just fourteen seconds in, while the song makes up its mind – and then it’s into the archetypal Roller stomp, soaring vocals (the Beach Boy harmonies previewed on “Summerlove Sensation” really come into their own here, and a beat which still compels you to stand on a chair and wave a scarf in the air.
And catch that guitar solo round the two minute mark!
1975 saw Rollermania reach its peak, in Britain at least, and in April, the first episode of the Bay City Rollers’ own 13-part television series, Shang-A-Lang, was broadcast. Viewed today,
Shang-A-Lang is riotous, a reminder of the sheer extravagance of the Glam Rock era. Once Upon A Staï, the group’s second album, followed, crashing straight into the chart at the top and, like Rollin’, remaining on the chart well into the life of its successor.
“Give A Little Love,” their next single, duplicated that same chart-topping feat, while the nationwide tour which accompanied it was not only sold out weeks in advance, it was also given rapturous coverage by a media which had finally awoken to the fact that a British act was at last challenging the American idols’ stranglehold on local youth affections.
“Roll over Donny, tell David the news, the Bay City Rollers are coming for You, You and YOU!” was one of the more (or less) innovative headlines, set in inch thick capitals over a grainy picture of the Bay City Rollers’ latest in-concert triumph.
It mattered not that the band were of only average musical ability, nor that barely half the band was even remotely super-model good looking. The fact that the Bay City Rollers had inspired this kind of support without the aid of any but the most blatant pin-up orientated magazines, suggested that the Bay City Rollers were more than a teenage fad, they were the REAL THING.
Maisy, a 16 year old Scottish girl, explained to Record Mirror magazine how she felt about her particular favorite, Eric: “He’s my dream come true, my god. I thought it was just a fad, but now
I’ve really grown to love him deeply. My parents think I’m crazy and the teachers at school have lectured me about my failed exams, and the way my standard of work has dropped since I became a Bay City Rollers’ fan. They just cannot begin to understand that Eric is the most important thing to me.”
The Bay City Rollers were not adverse to taking advantage of this kind of thing. “Before I joined the Bay City Rollers I used to have my fair share of birds running after me”, Les once said, “But it wasn’t like it is now….”
Only partially veiled tales of on-the-road debauchery grew up around the band, while their off-stage behavior, too, was beginning to cause their mentors some very serious concern.
Feted as gods, the band tried to act accordingly. Les confessed to a sexual proclivity quite unbecoming in a person of his stature, and was then involved in a headline grabbing manslaughter case after he knocked down and killed a senior citizen on a crosswalk. Having painted them as angels, the press was fast coming to the conclusion that the Bay City Rollers might, in fact, be demons. It was time, Tam Paton astutely determined, to turn their attentions elsewhere.
The Bay City Rollers hit America in the fall of 1975, and found the P.R. men already priming the publicity pump. On September 20, the band made its American debut on Howard Cosell’s Saturday Night Variety Show, performing their next single, the rerecorded “Saturday Night,” and their hit-less past was forgotten overnight.
Rollermania followed the band across the ocean, and “Saturday Night” stormed all the way to #1. “Money Honey,” a Faulkner/Wood composition which made #3 in Britain, followed it to #9 in the new year, a pulsating rocker which has a lot more in common with the Sweet than it does the Rollers of old, even down to the layers of synth and kind-of-Queeny backing vocals. It’s not the best, or the most memorable, of the band’s biggest hits, but it was certainly among the most unexpected.
Rock’n’Roll Love Letter, an album based around the Bay City Rollers’ latest British release, Wouldn’t You Like It?, made #20. Suddenly the whole thing was starting again, and this time, it was the Bay City Rollers who were calling the shots. A cracking cover of Tim Moore’s “Rock’n’Roll Love Letter” was the only non-original on the album.
But as the Bay City Rollers’ stock rose in America, so it started to dip in their homeland. British fans felt they had been deserted by the Bay City Rollers. Wasn’t their love strong enough to keep the boys at home? From a period of maximum visibility, the band were apparent now only in the pages of those newspapers who had bothered briefing their Stateside correspondents to cover some aspect of the outing, and they, too, grew progressively thinner on the ground as the band’s absence grew longer and longer.
Tam Paton’s solution to the Bay City Rollers’ increasing chart delinquency, however, had nothing to do with the quality of their music, or the length of their American sojourn. Instead, he announced that bassist Alan Longmuir, at 26 years of age, the oldest in the group, had quit, and would be replaced by someone a little younger… a little tastier. In fact he’d been sacked, sacrificed to Paton’s urge to recreate the adoring frenzy of old, and in years to come, 17 year-old Ian Mitchell would write a song called “Jailbait.” It wasn’t autobiographcal, he insists, “but it could have been.”
Paton had been keeping tabs on Mitchell, whose own band, the Young City Stars, was widely regarded as Belfast’s own nascent Bay City Rollers, for some time.
Mitchell remembers, “They were touring with ‘Summerlove Sensation’, and my manager at the time booked them into the Ulster Hall in Belfast, and took us over there as the support group. They came back four or five months later, with ‘All Of Me Loves All Of You,’ and I did the support again; then they came back again, with ‘Bye Bye Baby’ at number one, and I supported them yet again.”
When McKeown was called to account over the manslaughter charge in February, 1976, Paton immediately contacted Mitchell, as a possible replacement for the singer. “When Les went to court, I was actually at Tam’s house, getting fitted for the clothes. You can imagine how I felt when he got off, and I had to go back home!”
Just six weeks later, however, Mitchell was back in Edinburgh, ostensibly auditioning for a band called Bilbo Baggins. “One of the guys was leaving, and they wanted me to replace him, so that’s what I thought it was. But Tam had other ideas, which I literally knew nothing about until the night before. I was just hanging out with the Bay City Rollers, jamming and stuff, and that night, there was a Radio Luxembourg DJ, Peter Powell, around as well. Suddenly he turned to Tam and said, ‘can I congratulate him now?’ Tam said ‘I guess so,’ so Peter asked how I felt about joining the Bay City Rollers?
“I looked at Tam and he just nodded, and I was like – what? I wasn’t even asked, it was just ‘okay, you’re in.’ I do wonder what they’d have done if I’d turned round and said ‘piss off.'”
Mitchell’s appointment was announced on April 1, 1976. “Even I thought it was an April Fool’s joke.”
Mitchell made his live debut with the band a week later, in Copenhagen. “I was shitting myself. There were four or five thousand people out there, and there was one ‘Alan’ scarf. There were lots of Ian scarves and Woodys and Erics, but I couldn’t get my face away from that one Alan scarf. It kept going up in the air and i was hypnotized by it. Whoever that one person was,” he could laugh later, “I hope she rots in hell. She scared the shit out of me.”
Surprisingly, Mitchell received little, if any, hostility from Alan’s other fans. Indeed, many of them seemed to simply adopt him without a second thought. “They knew Alan was with his girlfriend, so he was kind of unavailable. The rest of the Bay City Rollers were available, no girlfriends, no wives, no babies. But Alan was with this girlfriend, he’d had his picture in the papers with her. And I was 17, fresh and untouched. Virgin blood.”
The pressures continued mounting, however, culminating on April 14, 1976, when Eric Faulkner was rushed to hospital suffering from a drug overdose, just days before the band was due to fly to Los Angeles. It was Mitchell who discovered him.
“We were doing an interview for John Craven’s Newsround, and Eric had gone to lie down. Tam told me to go check on him, and he was lying on the floor; I immediately thought he was messing me around, so I poked him in the stomach with my foot, and he just spewed up all these tablets.”
With the media having been informed that the guitarist was simply suffering from exhaustion,
Faulkner was rushed to hospital.
This latest North American visit was essentially a promotional exercise, dominated by the series of television engagements which saw the band’s latest single, “Rock’n’Roll Love Letter”, rise to #28. However, with the Bay City Rollers having already arranged to record their next album in Canada, the highlight of the tour was surely a show in Toronto, at the massive Nathan Phillips Square.
“Well, it would have been if it had happened,” Mitchell says. “The gig that wasn’t a gig. We kinda got there, and we kinda left.
“There were 65,000 people there, and it was mayhem. There was a lake in front of the stage, and the fans were pushing the police, and the police horses into it.” A DJ from the local station got up, and was trying to induce some calm, but it was a lost cause, particularly after Mitchell himself, exiting the band’s limo, took the wrong turn on his way to the dressing room and ended up on stage, in full view of the crowd.
Finally the police regained control, and caused the show to be cancelled, but it wasn’t a completely wasted afternoon. The DJ’s desperate attempts to restore order were recorded, and used over the intro of one of the songs on the new album, “Yesterday’s Hero.”
Elsewhere in the song, around the three minute 40 mark, an unguarded expletive which escaped the DJ’s lips is also audible. “Just before the key change, you can hear him say ‘fuck off,’” Mitchell laughs. “Someone was trying to pull the microphone from him, one of the policemen.”
Dedication is a remarkable album, if only for the sheer audacity of its contents. The title track, a ballad highlighted by a touchingly authentic spoken passage from Mitchell, evinced a maturity which deserved far better than the meager #60 chart placing it received upon release as an American single.
Masterful versions of Eric Carmen’s “Let’s Pretend,” Russ Ballard’s “Are you Cuckoo” and, not so masterful, but charming at least, the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby”, established Dedication as by far the Bay City Rollers’ best album yet.
The album’s centerpiece, however, was “Yesterday’s Hero,” a Vanda-Young composition whose message was only compounded by the aforementioned snatch of uninhibited Rollermania which precedes it.
On the surface, the inclusion of “Yesterday’s Hero,” not to mention that bizarre interlude, was a masterpiece of irony. To Mitchell, however, it was also a sign of the fear which was now reverberating through the Bay City Rollers’ camp.
It was agonizingly plain that they had sacrificed their British popularity for what they assumed would be the greener pastures of American adulation. It was in personal terms, however, that the group was shakiest. Says Mitchell, “Eric, who was writing most of the songs, wanted more financial security than he actually had. Les was going totally against the image, screwing anything that moved and there were a lot of upheavals regarding Tam. Everyone was arguing and fighting and kicking each other in the head, stabbing each other in the back just to get an inch. And all of us realized the era of the Bay City Rollers was coming to an end.”
(Five years later, in 1982, any last surviving vestiges of that era were conclusively despatched when Tam Paton himself was convicted of gross indecency, and sentenced to three years in prison.)
For Mitchell himself, that end came remarkably suddenly. Despite the growth evidenced by Dedication, his own feeling was that in order to survive, the Bay City Rollers needed to completely shrug away their teenybop following, before the following did the same to them.
Two singles, “Love Me Like I Love You” and a tremendous version of Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To Be With You” made at #4 in Britain (the latter also reached #12 in America); Dedication did just as well.
“But then we played Dundee, the heart of Roller country, and the place was barely half full,” he remembers. “It was obvious it was over, and at 17 years of age, I didn’t want to be part of a dying act. I was only just getting started!”
The band resisted him, refusing to acknowledge what was so painfully obvious, and so, just seven months after he joined the band, Mitchell quit, a 17 year old depressive insisting, “my sanity was at stake. I had to get out before I put my head in the gas oven.”
He returned home, reformed the Young City Stars as Rosetta Stone, and was immediately rewarded with a UK hit single, an audacious reworking of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love.” He also became the only former Bay City Roller whose subsequent career was not to be completely overshadowed by his past, musically at least.
When Rosetta Stone petered out after two albums, and a couple of subsequent singles, Mitchell put together the Ian Mitchell Band, for a further pair of albums, and the stunning “Jailbait” single. Well-received both in Japan and America, an excellent compilation drawing from these albums, and sundry subsequent Mitchell recordings, Rearranged, was released in the US in October, 1994.
In July, 1980, the Ian Mitchell Band became La Rox, going even further towards shaking off Mitchell’s past by disguising everything beneath a barrage of color, charisma and cockiness. With a live set written by future Fastway guitarist Lee Hart, La Rox was essentially an updated Glam Rock band, with the emphasis on Rock. Drummer Kim Wylie, better known as ex-Generation X/Adverts sticksman John Towe, described their music as a cross between the New York Dolls and Mott The Hoople, and as the band was getting off the ground, added some remarkably arrogant predictions as to how they would fare.
“We’re completely out on a limb. We know we’re ultra-untrendy, but we don’t care. We’re prepared to suffer at the hands of unbelievers because we believe in what we’re doing. We want people to have a good time when they come to see us, and we want to put on a show rather than just stand around with dirty teeth and dandruff, churning out Ian’s old hits” (both “Shang-A-Lang” and “Yesterday’s Hero” survived from his Bay City Rollers’ past).
They succeeded in every respect.
Mitchell was replaced in the Bay City Rollers by another Irish unknown, Pat McGlynn. Interestingly, McGlynn and Mitchell had known one another since their mid-teens, when they would jam together in McGlynn’s parents’ garage. “But he also used to play with Woody, which is how he got into the Bay City Rollers.”
Sadly, this transfusion was even less successful than the last. “Pat didn’t really do a lot of TV or tours,” Mitchell remembers, “because after the Japanese tour, they went to Sweden to record the It’s A Game album. They were doing that for a couple of months, so they were off the road, and Pat didn’t really get a lot of coverage. And then he was sacked.”
Like Ian Mitchell, McGlynn opted for a solo career, and was also granted the honor of a solitary solo hit, albeit with a lukewarm rendition of the Turtles’ “She’d Rather Be With Me.” That is more than he received from the Bay City Rollers, though. In the aftermath of McGlynn’s dismissal, all his guitar parts and harmonies were erased from the as yet unreleased album. It’s A Game appeared, in early 1977, credited to a four piece Bay City Rollers.
Further proof of the Bay City Rollers’ predicament was brought home to all when McGlynn’s replacement was eventually announced. Alan Longmuir was brought back into the fold, the final admission that even they realized that the hysteria of yesteryear would never return. If the band was ever to survive, it had better start concentrating on its music.
There was a glimmer of hope. Released just when you thought it was safe to start wearing a kilt again, “You Made Me Believe in Magic” was the second single from the new album (following a fine reading of the Incredible String Band’s title track), a stately disco ballad that was truly a notch or two above the norm for that genre. And while Britain all but ignored it – it peaked at #34; and Germany was barely more forgiving – it made #25; America fell completely in love with it, slamming it into the Top 10 and, just for a moment, all bets were off.
Japan, too, remained profoundly in love, and the Rollerworld live album is unimpeachable proof of that, the repository of some of the wildest hysteria in the entire Rollerworld.
Rollerworld was the band’s first and only live album, which is a shame, because an earlier recording would have featured a very different, and far more representative live set. Wherefore “Shang A Lang,” “Remember” and “Summerlove Sensation”? Not even reserved for the encores, the band’s greatest hits have been filed under futile, to be replaced by… an Incredible String Band cover.
”It’s A Game,” opens a show which has Serious Musicians stamped all over it. The handful of “oldies” which do survive are, without exception, the ones which likewise have a degree of classic class stamped on them. “Wouldn’t You Like It” and “Saturday Night”\ alone hail from the days of true tartan terrorism; “Rock’n’Roll Love Letter” and “Yesterday’s Heroes” wryly represent the Dedication era; “Money Honey” and “I Only Wanna Be With You” are the only prime-era hits.
There’s also a sterling version of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” spiraling out with even more aplomb than its (already unexpectedly superlative) studio counterpart. But the heart of Rollerworld remains unremittingly grim. No matter how solid the wall of screams behind them, there’s no denying that the Rollers lost a lot more than a few catchy choruses when they finally stopped chewing the bubblegum. They also lost heart, and songs like “Don’t Let The Music Die,”, “Don’t Stop The Music” and “Eagles Fly”) aren’t simply barely memorable AOR noodles, they are also utter tripe, crucifyingly soul-less in a way which only reformed pop idols seeking artistic integrity can be.
The final word on this sad affair, however, contrarily falls at the dawn of the disc, as they launch into “Yesterday’s Hero.”. When the Rollers first recorded it, in 1975, Rollermania was at its peak, and the irony was lost on no-one. Now the scenario had come painfully true, but it wasn’t the kids who had deserted the band. It was the band who’d deserted the kids. Rollerworld captures them in full flight.
A new album, Strangers In The Wind appeared in late 1978, an excellent easy listening album which, had its makers only been more respected, might well have done better than its eventual American chart placing of #129.
Respect, however, was one thing the Bay City Rollers were never going to receive. Based now in Los Angeles, any adult kudos they might have been in line for were constantly eroded by the band’s weekly presence on NBC’s The Krofft Superstar Hour Featuring The Bay City Rollers, a Saturday morning children’s show. When their contract expired, the band’s sigh of relief was almost deafening. It meant they could finally get down to business.
And doing that meant ditching the tartan, ditching the short trousers, and most of all, ditching their singer. Yet when Les McKeown was sacked, in November, 1978, his passing rated barely a mention in the Anglo-American press. Only in Japan did it seem to matter, as distraught fans went so far as to threaten suicide unless he was reinstated. He wasn’t, and to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the fans got over it. So did McKeown. With commendable humor, he titled his solo debut All Washed Up.
McKeown was replaced by Duncan Faure, keyboard player with Trevor Rabin’s South African band Rabbit. His recruitment, too, passed by all but unnoticed, although Trouser Press did applaud his arrival, describing Faure’s “classic British pop tenor” as “far better suited to the band… than Les.” Two years earlier, one would have been crucified for saying something like that!
Revamped but still Rolling, the band marched on with surprisingly palatable results. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to see perceive their dying days as forgotten voices from the end of the universe, three albums cut from an almost unrecognizable musical cloth, and so laden down with power pop jewelry that, if they’d only changed their name to Cheap Trick or something, they could have been huge all over again.
McKeown should have been a hard act to follow, but Faure showed no fear in replacing him, as the band readjusted to life post-fame by unearthing all the musical tricks and twists that had previously been confined to b-sides alone. Across Ricochet and Voxx, two albums that even the fans have largely forgotten,the Rollers step determinedly into their new world, still kicking out the tightly wrought choruses and fist-pumping melodies that made their name in the first half of the decade, but acting their age as well. Stuck for a rhyme, they write a different verse – in the past they’d have simply sung “shimmy shammy shong”; stuck for a theme, they follow their hearts, and turn out some surprisingly dramatic concoctions.
Despite such high praise, the album turkeyed, and by the end of 1979, Arista and the Rollers had parted company. They signed to Epic in 1980, for one last desperate fling, and the semi-conceptual Elevator is stunning, a rumination on the Rollers’ founding ambition, compared to the fate they ultimately attained – and how swiftly it all fell away again.
And continued falling.
Reclaiming their original name, and maintaining a Far Eastern profile which has never lost its sheen, the Bay City Rollers rolled on regardless, with an often shifting, but essentially pure line-up.
Ian Mitchell returned to the ranks in 1983, for the Live In Japan album; two years later, he was back for another Japan-only album, Breakout. That same year, the Bay City Rollers undertook
their first major tour of the decade, taking in Europe, Britain, Germany, Japan and Australia, following which, Mitchell and Woody relocated to South Africa, where they joined a short-lived band formed by Duncan Faure’s old Rabbit colleague, Neil Solomon.
Mitchell continues, “then we got a phone call from Japan, wanting Les, me, Woody and Pat McGlynn to do a tour. So we did that, then I came back to London, recorded a solo album (one of three he released during the 1980s) and toured once more.” The night before the first show, in Japan, this reconstituted Ian Mitchell band was joined by Pat McGlynn.
Mitchell followed this by joining the legendary punk japester Splodgenessabounds, and remembers a British tour highlighted by Splodge’s traditional audience-ful of skinheads singing “Shang-A™Lang” as joyously as the wildest Bay City Rollers audience! He also rejoined Les McKeown for several tours and another album, Love Letters.
And still the Bay City Rollers roll on. Mitchell led several fresh variations on the Rollers theme out on tour through the eighties and nineties, filling venues across California and the west. Other members, too, still appear under the old tartan flag, while further proof of the group’s enduring popularity is provided by CD releases of all their original albums, plus what seems an endless supply of greatest hits collections.
Today it seems hard to believe that the Bay City Rollers’ reign lasted little more than a couple of years on either side of the Atlantic. But they will be back; will receive the rehabilitation that so much less-deserving debris has expefrienced. And, once again, we will – in the words of the song – “remember all the little things we used to say.”
And until then – keep on dancing!