Last year the Bay City Rollers toured Australia for the first time since 1985.
It was bonkers.
The concerts sold out quickly and more shows were added in almost every city. The shows themselves were an absolute Gold Standard in how to do a tour as a ‘heritage’ act. The set was nothing but hits and fan favourites, band was tight as a ducks butt, playing the songs the way they were on the records. Note perfect and brimming with rocking bubble gum goodness. Lead singer Les McKeown was in great voice and had a playful twinkle in his eye. Two packed out, capacity crowds at The Gov, were a sea of tartan clad ladies in their forties and fifties and a lot of younger fans making up the second and third generation of Roller fans.
Les is on the phone and keen to let people know about the forthcoming Roller invasion of Australia.
Clearly Australia was hungry for a Roller Show, but apart from a couple of brief trips, that hunger had gone unsated for over three decades.
The best time was the Countdown Spectacular in 2007. There was a lot of other great artists on the same bill as me. It was really good.
They were great shows, but I know a lot of people who wanted you to do more than the two or three songs you got to do before Plastic Bertrand or Samantha Fox came on.
Aye I think I was on for a few seconds and then I was gone.
Was it a leap of faith to do the tour last year after not being here for so very long?
Yes it was. I mean, I’ve got a great response from Australia over the years with people wanting me to come back. I was really waiting for the right kind of organisation to come back with. I wanted to work with a professional outfit and I have really found that with Metropolis Touring. They are top class, you can’t beat them. So I’m really happy with the arrangements and while we were there the boss guy Fraser, asked if we’d come back this year and we did the deal on a handshake. Yeah I’ll come back.
Was the reaction here what you expected it to be? Or is this just normal when you tour Internationally? People here seemed extra happy to see you after such a long break.
It was beyond my expectations actually. I don’t set expectations too high, then they are always exceeded. We do about six months of the year in the UK every year. We do two weeks in Japan every year and now we want to do Australia every year. I can’t complain, I have the best job in the world I think.
The band is so tight but I see a lot of ‘nostalgia’ bands who sometimes are just walking through it. The thing I loved about the Bay City Rollers gig last year, was the songs were played in the original spirit of the originals and everything was delivered authentically.
That is great that you say that, because that is was we are striving for. We play all the time and spend two hours sound-checking every day that we play. We go over everything in the smallest detail. People might not notice, but we try and keep things as close to the original records as possible. We rehearse so much that on stage it is just automatic, nobody is having to think about what chords to play or whatever because we have done it so much it is second nature. That way we can concentrate on entertaining the audience.
I was shooting the show last time and despite being a seasoned veteran of photographing at all sorts of gigs, metal, punk, hardcore, I had some scary moments with the Roller fans. Getting shoved and elbowed (l laugh). They did not want somebody getting in-between them and yourself!
(Laughing) Don’t get in their way Ian! You are invading their space! They’ve waited in the queue for that space, and fought for that spot. They are dead keen and I am proud of them.
It sounds like there is a bunch of fans who are planning to travel to multiple shows this time round, does that happen very often?
It does yes. There are people who travel to see us from America, Scotland and Japan. There is a whole crew of Japanese fans coming down for the Australian tour, partly because it is so expensive to see us in Japan. It’s probably the same amount of money to see us in Tokyo as it is to fly to Australia and see a few shows and have a holiday. We play venues that are six hundred to a thousand people in Japan on a regular basis.
Do you prefer playing smaller venues or do you still miss playing arenas?
No I like being up close to people. Arenas, like The O2, can be a lot of fun, but you have to do a different kind of projection when you are on stage. You feel bad for the people in the cheap seats away up in the back who are watching little dots off in the distance. I’d rather play three nights in a smaller place so you can get a proper connection.
On the last tour you had copies of a CD for sale that had songs written in the Roller days but not recorded by the band back then, are you bringing more copies of the Lost Songs CD this time round?
Oh yes and hopefully there will be copies of my new album pressed in time and we will bring that too.
I was going to ask you about this. This is the one that’s been cooking away for quite some time now?
It has been yeah. It just needs the final touches put on it. One of my producers Judd went off and got married, John has been busy with a country album that is quite successful. So other people have been busy and we are trying to get a time when we are all available to finishing it off. We only need like, two days maybe. It has some great tunes on it. I thought the last one was pretty good too I thought, the producers really captured the original flavour of when I wrote the songs in 1974. I wanted that feeling of the seventies in the production and they really got that. The new one are songs from a bit later 1975 or 76. There is a couple of killer songs on it, one called Valentine and another one called Bones. I’m really proud of. Hopefully Celtic football team are going to take one of the songs as one of their anthems. I’m not much of a football fan myself, I’m more of a petrol head I follow Formula 1.
Your autobiography Shang-a-Lang (co-written by Irvine ‘Trainspotting’ Welsh) came out in 2003. A lot has happened since then do you have plans to release an updated version?
Well the updated version is already written but we are just wondering when we stop updating it. It was going to come out a couple of years ago but then we did the reunion with Woody and Alan for some Christmas shows. That had a whole lot of drama involved in it, so I thought that had to go in the book, so we wrote a bit more. I should focus on it, but I am so busy touring it is hard to find time. You know Ian, I do everything myself. I manage myself, I book the tours, book the hotels, book the PA system, decide on the posters and all that stuff. So it takes so much time it’s easy to forget about other projects like updating the book or even the new record. Maybe not forgotten, but things get put to the side while you are concentrating on making sure the tours are done right. Maybe I should get a manager, but I have never had much luck with managers.
One of the reasons I was asking about your book is I have just finished reading the Simon Spence book about the Rollers ‘When the Screaming Stops : The Dark History of the Bay City Rollers’. It is a pretty harrowing read. For me concentrating on nothing but the bands monster of a manager and various bad stuff and not really covering the…joy of the Rollers, the music and the impact the band had on millions of fans around the world.
It’s a shame, you can obviously focus on the bad stuff, because that is the stuff that irks you or haunts you. But that said, there were great times to be had and great times to be talked about as well. Before all the bad stuff happened, we were happy as Larry. We were having a great time and it was all a great adventure. We were great mates and all that. It is good to talk about the positive stuff as well. I have only read little bits of that book. He asked me to do an interview for it but I declined. I did a bit of research on him and he’s a bit of a sensationalist writer. A bit News of the World, if you remember that paper. I’ve read a few bits of the book, but I don’t rate him as a writer. He has gone for the dirt thinking that’s where the money is I suppose. It’s fine. It’s what people do. But I’d prefer people to hear my side of the story. He doesn’t know us, he didn’t talk to any of us as far as I know. He just put together a bunch of headlines and then filled in the gaps. If you are going to write a book about somebody you should at least talk to the people who are the subject of that book.
I did notice there was no direct input from anybody in the band. All the quotes were cannibalised for other sources.
That’s right, third party, hear say, all that kind of stuff. People write stuff with impunity these days because you can’t take them to court because that costs a fortune and can take years of your life. I don’t think many people have paid much attention to that book, apart from you Ian (laughs).
Interview by Ian Bell
Les McKeown and the Bay City Rollers play nationally around Australia from mid July and return to The Gov in Adelaide on August 2.