Remembering Bay City Rollers frontman Les McKeown's West Sussex gigs

The death of former Bay City Rollers frontman Les McKeown, aged 65, will have thousands of people in West Sussex remembering his concerts in the county.

Friday, 23rd April 2021, 8:02 am
Les McKeown during his Petworth Park gig
Les McKeown during his Petworth Park gig

Five years ago, he played the Hawth in Crawley on the back of a massive tour which took in Japan, Canada and Europe. A few years before that, he played a great 70s showcase-style gig in Petworth Park, sharing the bill with The Osmonds and David Essex – and eclipsing all of them. In between times, in 2010, he played Worthing.

I interviewed him each time… and each time, he was the perfect interviewee, friendly, chatty, charismatic, charming and effortlessly interesting, willing to open up about the enormity of the great Bay City Rollers experience and its impact on him all those years ago, willing also to open up about his battle with the bottle.

There was a thrill speaking to him. Whatever you thought of the Bay City Rollers at the time, they were a huge part of our growing up. It is so sad to think that he has now gone.

By way of tribute, we reproduce here a couple of my interviews with him:

PLAYING CRAWLEY 2015

2015 has seen the Bay City Rollers starring Les McKeown tour Japan, Canada and Europe.

Now the band is gearing up for an extensive UK tour, following summer appearances at shows and festivals. They play the Hawth, Crawley, on Monday, October 19 at 7.30pm

This September also marked the release of the band’s new single Boomerang as they team up Scottish producer and songwriter John McLaughlin (McBusted).

The music of the Bay City Rollers became the soundtrack for a generation of teenagers growing up in the mid-70s. Front man Les McKeown was the voice of the Bay City Rollers as they were propelled to superstardom, with massive hits including Bye Bye Baby, Shang a Lang, Summer Love Sensation and Give A Little Love and their USA number one Saturday Night.

“I started in 71,” Les recalls. “The Bay City Rollers had had a hit in 71 with a song called Keep On Dancing and then they had several records that didn’t do very well at all, and their singer just got fed up with the lack of success and decided to hop it.

“I was in a little up-and-coming band in Edinburgh. The Bay City Rollers manager came to me with the guitarist to ask if I would be interested in joining them.

“At the time I had a part-time job in a studio. I was learning the tricks of the trade. I remember consulting a friend about it. He was saying ‘They have got a bit of an iffy image. He was saying ‘It is going to be backs to the wall, Les’ and all that stuff

“But he said ‘What are they offering you?’ I said ‘£10 a week’. He said ‘How much are you earning with your current band?’ I said ‘I am down on it. I am spending my dole money on it’. He said ‘Well, there’s your answer’. So I said yes... and the rest is history.”

Though not always terribly happy history. There were difficult moments among all the highs.

“I wouldn’t say we gelled straight away. I remember after the first gig, I had a fight with the guitarist Eric. We were not getting on very well in rehearsal. He kept telling me what to do. I didn’t like it. That’s why I got kicked out of school. I had a problem with authority figures! But after a while, we got a professional respect for each other.”

And then the whole thing became massive.

“From the middle of 74 it was clear that we were on our own little ego trip wanting to conquer the world, which we did pretty successfully, I am proud to say.”

If he knew how, he’d do it all again, says Les who maintains that he is still 17 in his head. UK fame spread to the colonies. They became huge in Australia and then Japan and then their debut single in the States - a single which had failed in the UK with the previous singer - hit number one.

As to how he coped with it all, Les admits he doesn’t really know: “But at the time it didn’t seem very hard to cope with anything. I was having a great time. We were travelling first class everywhere. We were being molly-coddled and treated well. We didn’t really have to think about anything apart from work and having a bit of fun - and it just all happened very very fast.”

The band would go from filming TV material in Sydney to flying to Japan for more TV to flying back to London for Top Of The Pops and another number one and then off overnight to Helsinki.

“I suppose we coped because of our age and because of our diet. We ate well and we drank well. None of really drank at the time... certainly not the hard stuff of later years.”

The adulation was huge - but not scarily so.

“I think it all went over my head. The only time I felt fear of anything was for someone else, for the fans that would just throw themselves in front of the limousines.”

*****************

PLAYING WORTHING 2010

With the backing of friends and family and with a new Bay City Rollers-inspired show on the road, former Rollers lead singer Les McKeown is adamant: he’s never going to hit the bottle again.

Three years ago in the grounds of Petworth House, Les gave one of the great concerts of recent memory in West Sussex - a great night which saw him relive all those Rollers classics before thousands of ecstatic fans.

He shared the bill with David Essex and The Osmonds on a night which underlined all that the 70s still have to offer.

But sadly, at that point, Les’ worst moments were still ahead of him - though thankfully Les, who plays the Assembly Hall, Worthing, on Thursday March 11 at 8pm, is now convinced that’s he’s finally turned the corner.

Think back to the huge explosion which announced the arrival of the Bay City Rollers all those years ago. There was mass hysteria, not least in the press who insisted they were the new Beatles - a claim Les is happy to brush aside. Nothing could equal The Beatles, he insists.

But it was certainly manic, a crazy time of excess and adulation. It’s a wonder anyone survived it. As Les says, he can think of plenty of people who fell by the wayside.

“There were people that got involved in all sorts of things and you are always thinking that that will never happen to me. And then it almost did. It would be the summer of 2008. I was heavily drinking and went to see the doctor about all the pains I was having. She said ‘Your liver is well dodgy.’ They put me on all these tests and said you will be lucky to see Christmas. I had been binge-drinking for 11 years. I lost my parents in 2002 and I would weave off after a gig and be gagging for a drink.

“I went into rehab in California. It was paid for by TV. They did a little thing on TV about it. I spent four months in rehab, and I am now much better. I have got a lot of support from my fans, and there is no drinking backstage, no drink anywhere near me. My liver is properly recovered.

“It wasn’t the first time. You always think that you are still young and that your body can take all kind of ****. But you don’t realise that you are changing. But I am well on the mend now. In August I will be two years off the sauce.”

If something catastrophic happens now, Les is confident that he won’t turn back to the bottle: “But it is like a self-destructive thing in you, that creeps up on you. You don’t notice it. Before you know it, you are drinking too much. You drink when you get up in the morning and then you drink to get rid of the headache and then you are drinking so as to be clever in front of your mates. It just gets into an awful downward spiral where you lose your self-respect and all that goes with it. When you are addicted so something, you are not really interested in anyone else but yourself. It’s poor little me. You don’t really take into account anybody. It’s a self-destructive cycle you get into.

“I think it was boredom. When you are an old pop star like me, you look back at what led to 2008 and it was low self-esteem. I felt pretty lonely even though I am married with kids. You would think I had a quite happy-go-lucky lifestyle, but it is what is inside that counts. And I was not really doing anything practical to help myself. Because I was drinking, I wasn’t really able to do anything.”

Part of the problem in hindsight was that he didn’t have a penny to show for the huge success of the Bay City Rollers - something the former Rollers have been trying to remedy in court in New York.

As Les says, it’s ironic: the Bay City Rollers split over money, and it was money that brought them back together again, in court at least.

“There are lots of reasons why you go off the rails. The question is whether you can get back on the straight and narrow again. I have had more than a year and a half now and I have changed my habits. I just stopped drinking and changed my attitudes, got myself back on the road and developed the Rollermania show. It’s really part of my rehab.

“And it means that I can now talk about all the good things that happened in the Rollers rather than just all thinking about all the rubbish that happened. We have buried our differences.”

And if he can win the court case, then yes, it will make him feel better, burying a source of resentment. It will also allow him to develop a more elaborate show, he promises.

But in the meantime, he’s just happy to be out there, feeling fine and rolling on…