Lynn Cochrane meets Les McKeown
|Les keeps rolling
|W hen I was 14 and growing up in
Scotstoun, Glasgow, my best friend's sister Joanne was among the vast
tartan army of Bay City Rollers fans. On winter evenings she could be
found bowed over a sewing machine, transforming a pair of white denim
flares into half-mast tartan loon pants to be worn with the obligatory
plaid scarf tied around the wrist.
She once queued up all night outside the Apollo, Glasgow, for tickets to see her squeaky-clean heroes. Joanne did a lot of hanging about in the mid-1970s: at the entrances to five-star hotels, at chilly stage doors, on airport balconies. Why, 23 years on, do I find myself with ample time to reminisce about Joanne's obsession with the Rollers and their story of lost cash and lost innocence? Could it be because I too am waiting for the band's former lead singer Les McKeown to show up?
McKeown might be middle-aged and minus a hit record for two decades but he still knows how to play the star. For an hour and a half I have been sitting in The Elbow Room, a pool hall bar in north London.
Every Tuesday McKeown, a 46-year-old father, DJs here, playing retro-cool Barry White hits for customers too young to know that the Rollers - shaggy-haired Eric Faulkner, Stuart "Woody" Wood, brothers Alan and Derek Longmuir and, of course, McKeown - sold 80m records worldwide.
As a venue The Elbow Room makes the dingy Apollo look upmarket. The ladies' toilet has a two-way mirror to let women spy on men using the urinals. When the photographer asks where McKeown is, the young girl at the ticket desk says: "Les McKeown, who's she?"
Just as I begin to feel sad for the singer - the Rollers might have been a glaikit-looking bunch, but to come to this? - McKeown swaggers in the door.
His square-jawed face has filled out and he's ditched the mullet for dark brown spiky locks, but there's still the same jack-the-lad grin. In black jeans, a black T-shirt and brown suede jacket with collar turned up, it's impossible to tell whether his trademark scrawny chest, flaunted naked below his Rollers jacket, is still hairless.
He is accompanied by his glamorous Japanese wife, Peko, and their 16-year-old son, Richard, whose shaved head and delicate features make him look like a cross between a Vivienne Westwood model and a Buddhist monk. While Peko embraces the PR guy, McKeown shakes my hand with a cheeky tickle of my palm.
There is no apology or explanation for his lateness, just the first of a series of suggestive retorts. When I ask if there's somewhere quieter we can talk, he quips, "Well that's a bit much, we've only just met." When I later put a pen in my mouth while scrabbling for my notebook, he jokes that I'm being provocative.
But then McKeown was always the cheeky chappie of the pack, the loud-mouthed wisecracker. Being the closest the Rollers got to good-looking ensured that the lead singer was the boy band's focal point. At the height of their fame, that was a lot of adoration.
Two decades before Take That, these working-class lads from Edinburgh were the first British boy band, primped and coiffured to global stardom. Screaming hordes of fans greeted their every move. They were even bigger in America and Japan than in Britain. Between 1975 and 1978 they had 18 top five hits in America, including Give a Little Love and Bye Bye Baby. They hosted their own TV series, Shang-A-Lang.
But that was a lifetime ago; before the royalties disappeared, the drugs took hold and the band fell apart.
Lighting up a Marlboro in the manager's office, McKeown whinges about being stuck in a time warp. "When I go into a pub with a mate and someone recognises you, it drags you back," he says."It's all, 'What are the lads doing, how's Woody, what's your favourite Rollers' records?' I'm someone from the past which, right now, is a bad thing because I want to move on."
His complaints are a tad disingenuous given that like the rest of the band, with the exception of Derek, he scrapes a living by trading on his former fame. Take his latest ploy and the reason for our interview. He has just launched a trendy training shoe with the hip designers Acupuncture - the Bay City Runner.
The limited edition shoe, in the shops just in time for the Christmas rush, features - surprise, surprise - a white fabric and tartan upper and McKeown's embroidered signature. What market are they aiming for?
"Maybe those terrace boys at Ibrox," says McKeown, who is wearing black boots. "Would it look nice with a bit of blood on the toe?"
The manufacturers are hoping the thirtysomething editors of lads' magazines such as Loaded will regard the shoes as hilariously kitsch and just the job for the December edition. It helps that McKeown knows most of these guys by name. When not belting out his former hits with his band, Les McKeown's Seventies Bay City Rollers (he's the only
member from the original line-up) McKeown is DJing at trendy parties for The Face magazine or Loaded.
In the fickle world of fashion, could this be the first stirring of the return of Rollermania? Are the Rollers on the brink of becoming strangely cool again? Tartan and cropped trousers have, after all, been revived already this year.
Mocked at the height of their stardom, they are about to be given the Hollywood treatment by Courtney Love, the widow of rock star Kurt Cobain.
She is raising £40m to make a film based on Caroline Sullivan's pop memoir Bye Bye Baby. It recalls a youth spent touring America on a mission to sleep with one of the band. Sullivan was successful but never names her conquest. But it's easy to spot it was Woody, and not her first choice, Les.
McKeown has yet to meet Love, a huge fan since she saw the Rollers play in San Francisco as a teenager, but he will be a consultant if the film goes ahead. "I can just see it," he muses. "I'll be saying, 'No, that wasn't the tartan I was wearing on the '74 tour'. "
McKeown can be self-deprecating and engaging, but his humour just as often slips into arrogance. He tells me Cobain once insisted Nirvana's music was a cross between the Bay City Rollers and Deep Purple. I ask when that was. "Go and look it up. Just type in Kurt Cobain and Rollers. Do your research," he says, adding that Keanu Reeves could play him.
And for someone anxious to leave his past behind, McKeown is reticent about discussing the present.
Asked where he lives and about his family, a reasonable question given he's introduced them, he says stubbornly: "No, I don't want to do that."By all accounts, he lives modestly. He drives a Honda and, as his wife tells me later, lives near Hackney. The band never recovered financially from tax demands for cash they claim they never received. Allowing for inflation, the alleged missing royalties of £20m are now estimated at closer to £170m. The band are suing their former record company, Arista, in America.
"Initially, the blame lies with Tam," he says, referring to Tam Paton, the band's former manager, whom they sacked in 1979 after 11 years.
The former potato merchant from Prestonpans was infamous for the control he exercised. He banned them from having girlfriends in public and fostered their boy-next-door image by making them drink milk at press conferences.
In 1982, Paton served a year in prison for indecent acts against teenage boys. He went on to become a millionaire property developer with a ranch-style bungalow outside Edinburgh.
So what was Tam like? "Let's not go down that road," says McKeown, looking bored. But then I tell him Paton is quoted as saying the Rollers were "musically atrocious" when he first heard them. "Did he say that?" asks McKeown. "What a horrible geezer."
McKeown joined the Bay City Rollers when he was 17. The son of a tailor, he was brought up in Edinburgh's working class Broomhouse. "I already had a band called Threshold that was on its way to the top," he assures me.
"The singer from the Rollers left, they asked me to join. They were a one-hit wonder with Keep on Dancin'. For me, the Bay City Rollers were a stepping stone."
He stayed, however, caught up in an endless rock'n'roll cycle of going from limo to aeroplane to gig. The band wanted to do more of their own material, but Arista insisted they stick with cover versions.
More bitterness ensued when Alan was sacked in 1976 for being too old at 27 - they'd lopped seven years off his age when fame beckoned.
Within two years the pressure had taken its toll on McKeown. "It was mass orgies, mass drinking binges," he says, only half joking.
Disaster heaped upon disaster. There were even reports of suicide attempts by Faulkner and Alan Longmuir.
McKeown couldn't take any more and in 1978 quit the band to go solo, the same year he met Peko, who was managing a nightclub in London's Cambridge Circus. They married in 1984 and she is now a kung fu teacher.
Richard is considering a career in acting. He's worked as an extra on Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Asked what he thinks of his father's fame, he gives a bored shrug. Is it a little embarrassing? Richard allows himself a gentle smile.
But his father has no intention of hanging up his Bay City Runners. On the advice of the Rollers' new manager, Mark St John, four of the members, including Les, buried the hatchet and reformed. It was the best move to recover their lost money, according to St John. They performed in front of thousands of screaming fans for Edinburgh's millennium celebrations.
Derek Longmuir left the Rollers for good in 1984. In March this year he was convicted of possessing child pornography and sentenced to 300 hours community service. He was dismissed from his job as a nurse at Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary.
"I can't comment on the case but I was sad to hear he'd lost his job. That was his passion," says McKeown.
Ten minutes into the interview a minder comes to ask how long it will take. When I say half an hour at the least, McKeown guffaws.
"Aye right, I'm on in a few minutes," he sneers, forgetting that I have flown down from Scotland and he has kept me waiting for more than an hour.
I follow him downstairs to see how the former pop legend fares behind the turntable. There's no microphone, so no cheeky patter. I can't help but feel relieved. I think Joanne would be too.