Les McKeown's Legendary Bay City Rollers
They didn't pay to hear his life story - 'a Tesco own-brand Greek tragedy'. He told it anyway
I have been in a Motörhead mosh-pit, got caught up in Jedward-mania and been hit on the head by flying knickers at a Tom Jones gig. In my days as a punk singer, I played German squats, football clubs and some of the roughest pubs in the UK. But none of this prepared me for Les McKeown’s Legendary Bay City Rollers at the Grand Opera House.
The theatre is completely sold out, with a seething mass of 50-something women in various states of inebriation reliving their misspent youths. There seems to be a love-hate feeling from the crowd towards McKeown – love for what he represents (a nostalgic totem of their teenage years) and hate for what he has become (the portly leader of a band of Bay City impostors), presiding over an evening of music and chat.
Certainly, the ladies seated around me become increasingly fed up with McKeown’s lengthy anecdotes. ‘Sing!’ rasps one, her voice wrecked by a thousand fags. ‘We didn’t pay to hear your life story!’ yells her sozzled pal.
The whole thing resembles a cross between a massive hen party and the mob scene from the end of Frankenstein. Sitting in a single seat between two groups of fans waving tartan scarves and spilling their drinks in my lap is probably the most uncomfortable position I have been in since I had my wisdom teeth extracted. The fact that there is a huge pillar blocking my view makes it all the more unbearable.
The woman beside me repeatedly bends my ear about her love for Les, when all I want to do is listen to the singer’s stories. After all, the Rollers’ tale is like a Greek tragedy (well, a Tesco own-brand Greek tragedy anyway).
The Edinburgh-based group went from being wide-eyed superstars to being screwed – in some cases literally, it is alleged – by late manager Tam Paton, a convicted drug dealer and child sex offender, whose name is booed every time it is mentioned tonight. ‘For a minute there I thought you were going to say, “Look out behind you!”’ quips McKeown.
For the most part, the frontman sticks to the good times, ignoring ex-Rollers drummer Derek Longmuir’s child porn conviction and his own drugs busts. He recalls the heady days when the Rollers were the biggest British band since the Beatles, topping charts from America to Japan.
They even had their own US TV series (‘Coast to coast,’ boasts McKeown). Indeed, the Rollers were so huge that decades after their last chart hit McKeown’s hodgepodge line-up (the unwieldy moniker is a result of the usual legal wrangles) can still pull a thousand people in Belfast on a weeknight.
McKeown eventually gets round to delivering foot-stomping versions of most of the Rollers’ glam-rock classics, from 1971 debut hit ‘Keep on Dancing’ through to their million-selling cover of the Four Seasons’ ‘Bye, Bye, Baby’.
At the start of the show, he cuts a bit of a wretched figure, plodding about the stage in stonewashed jeans and an ill-fitting black vest. ‘Even my husband doesn’t have a belly like that,’ tuts the lady next to me. But by the end, when McKeown reappears in a kilt, belting out ‘Shang-a-Lang’, my neighbour is 16 again. ‘He didn’t look gorgeous earlier on, but he looks gorgeous now,’ she swoons.