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Review: The best band ever to begin with "B" - the Bay City Rollers "Singles Collection"

Bay City Rollers

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The Singles Collection

(7T’s/Cherry Red - 3 CD box set)

“Shimmy shammy shong.”

The history of rock is littered with what the grown-ups considered to be imbecilic nonsense.

“A wop bop a loo bop…”

“Yeah yeah yeah…”

“Gabba gabba hey.”

The Bay City Rollers (or, to be pedantic, songwriters Bill Martin and Phil Coulter) slide effortlessly into this exalted company.

“Shimmy shammy shong.”What does it mean?What should it mean?What could it mean?”Liberation from the rigid strictures of boringly formulaic language?An arcane Gaelic curse condemning all who mock it to a lifetime spent listening to Gentle Giant?Or absolutely sweet nothing at all?

It doesn’t matter.Raising the curtain upon the Bay City Rollers’ period of complete and utter dominance of pop with the mighty “Remember,” the Edinburgh quintet cemented their place in pop lyrical history with an opening line that still overflows with joy and laughter and… tartan?

Yeah, those trousers were always a little dodgy.

The story of the Bay City Rollers is not one that the average mature music fan pays much attention to.They came, they saw, they were screamed at a bit. A lot.But they also, for the first time since the Beatles, succeeded in uniting the teens of three different continents in blind devotion.

Across the UK first, Europe soon after, the United States and Japan, the Rollers steamrollered all and any opposition, and we can argue all night as to whether they deserved it.Whether Woody, Waddy, Willy, Wally and Wilbur were as handsome as the hordes insisted, whether or not they played on their own records… whether or not they could even play their instruments? The fact is, for five years straight, the Rollers were merciless, the most streamlined singles machine in the land, and The Singles Collection is the glittering jewel that proves that fact.

The box set is split over three discs, just as the Rollers’ career was split into three separate phases.There were the early years, consuming the first half of disc one - a tumultuous opening with the hit “Keep on Dancing,” and then a handful more that were less successful.

Time passed.1971, 1972, 1973… and then a line-up change saw frontman Nobby Clark displaced in favor of Les McKeown, and Martin/Coulter take over as songwriters, and all the pieces fell into place.

“Remember” was not as big as it ought to have been.Maybe the kids were still digesting that opening line.Maybe they’d been fooled so often by manufactured teendream fodder that they weren’t going to play ball quite so blithely this time.Or maybe it took a while for its genius to sink in.But it pushed the band back into the British chart, and that was all it took.Other groups might have cruised for a while.But the Rollers went for the jugular.

“Shang A Lang” was a monster, an all-consuming Behemoth that didn’t simply crush everything in its path.It ignited Rollermania, here, there and everywhere, and the Rollers weren’t simply huge.They were unstoppable.

The hits rolled out like boulders down a mountainside.“Summerlove Sensation” ruled the summer of 74 like nothing else, the sound of every fairground and youth club and disco you walked past.“All Of Me Loves All of You” followed it up, and then there was “Bye Bye Baby,” the old Four Seasons song restyled for the seventies, and it spread like the plague.

The Rollers’ first British chart topper, it kicks off disc two with such panache and power that… well, history suggests that they went off the boil now, because there simply was no way of following it up. “Give a Little Love” proves that.

But this was also where the United States entered the Rollers’ scenario, beginning with a rerecording of their fourth and final flop 45, “Saturday Night” - still one of the most insistent chants of the era.And now their stock soared.Even you can’t argue with that.But the magic was definitely faltering.

Time for another line-up change, bye-bye to bassist Alan Longmuir, hello to teenaged Ian Mitchell.And hello, too, to a touch of weariness, disguised as a stab at gaining, at last, critical respectability.

The Rollers’ latest album, Dedication, was as big as its predecessors (Rollin’, Once Upon a Star and Wouldn’t You Like It?).But no more did an outside hit factory control the songwriting credits.Their last couple of singles, “Money Honey” and “Love Me Like I Love You” were penned by the band’s own Eric Faulkner and Stuart Wood; now the group looked even further afield - Tim Moore’s “Rock’n’Roll Love Letter,” Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Wanna Be With You” and… irony of ironies, Vander/Young’s “Yesterday’s Hero,” the sad and, suddenly, strangely autobiographical saga of a rock band distinctly on the way down and… not out, because there’s another disc’s worth of singles to come.But definitely falling.

I loved the Rollers.Loved, loved, loved them.At least through “Bye Bye Baby,” they didn’t put a foot wrong, on either side of each single. “Jenny,” “Hey CB”… oh, and “Bye Bye Barbara”! An obnoxious relative had just been unceremoniously discarded by a girlfriend of that name, and nothing was more entertaining than playing the b-side of “Remember” at every available opportunity.

“Are You Ready For That Rock’n’Roll,” “Bringing Back the Good Times”… their b-sides were as great as the a-, and don’t take my word for it. They're all included here, lined up alongside their other sides and, if you're still not convinced, ask Mickie Most-managed pop hopefuls Kenny. Their first hit was a cover of the Rollers’ flip “The Bump.”

It didn’t even bother me when Alan left.Mitchell may have been a kid, but he was a hot guitarist who would soon become a scintillating frontman and, five years later, I was running the fan club for his new Ian Mitchell Band… at the same time as reacquainting myself with the old Rollers collection that had been gathering dust for too long.

I wasn’t the only one doing that, either.Gigging around the London pubs and clubs, delivering a diet of sleazy glam and punky pop, the Ian Mitchell Band (or La Rox, as they became) used to encore with “Shang a Lang,” and entire audiences, male and female, would erupt into the kind of frenzy that is normally reserved for the Stones playing “Satisfaction.”

So yeah, I loved the Rollers.Up there with Bananarama they are.The two best bands beginning wth “B” that there has ever been.

But looking at disc three of the box… I remember their cover of String Driven Thing’s “It’s a Game,” mainly because I loved the original so much.Vaguely recall a couple of the follow-ups.Regret that their version of Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” never made it out on 45.But it was all so confusing.Ian left after a matter of months; his replacement, Pat McGlynn lasted one single.The four piece Rollers limped on for a while, then McKeown was replaced by Duncan Faure, the Bay City was replaced by nothing.

The band became the Rollers alone, and some folk insist that they turned into a remarkably enjoyable power pop concern… I think it was Trouser Press magazine who championed that idea, sometime around the end of the seventies.But it was too late.They were firmly yesterday’s heroes now, and the box… like their career… closes in summer 1981, a full ten years after it began.Bye bye babies.

Oh, how fashionable it was to mock the Rollers.Not one of my schoolfriends was yet old enough to shave, but still they would stroke their long, pointy beards and remark that Eric was no Ritchie Blackmore, and Derek was no Carl Palmer, as though that meant absolutely anything.

No, the Rollers could never have come up with anything as spell-bindingly virtuosic (and most definitely not mind-numbingly tedious) as Tales from Topographic Oceans, but why would they have wanted to?Any more than Yes could have come up with something as instantaneously, heart-poundingly, wave-yer-fists-in-the-air-y glorious as “Shang A Lang,” without adding a ten minute drum solo to it.

There are no drum solos here.No wailing wah-wahs or double-neck, bottle-necked twelve string guitars with built-in shower attachments and optional violin bow holders.There is nothing here that any group of half competent kids with three chords and a rhyming dictionary could not have replicated.

But I’ll tell you what the Rollers did have, that no other act of their era came close to.

They had “shimmy shammy shong.”And that’s all we ever wanted.