Former Bay City Rollers lead singer Les McKeown passed away in April of this year. This memorial piece originally ran at BOPPIN’ (LIKE THE HIP FOLKS DO) on April 23, 2021.
Les McKeown, lead singer for The Bay City Rollers during their 1970s hitmaking heyday, has died at the age of 65. I was and remain an unapologetic fan of the Rollers’ uptempo material; I like a lot of the stuff the Rollers did when McKeown was a member, and I like a lot of what they did after he split from the group in ’79. I don’t have a specific eulogy to offer for McKeown, but I find myself thinking back now on some of what I’ve previously said on this subject of The Bay City Rollers.
My first feature article for Goldmine was a Rollers retrospective called “Rollermania: A Hard D-A-Y’s Night.” The article was published in 1987, and much later updated for the 2001 book Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth (as seen here). When I was in high school, I had a vague fantasy about trying to write a Bay City Rollers movie. More recently, I’ve had a slightly more concrete fantasy about trying to write a book called The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1), which would include a chapter about the Rollers’ “Rock And Roll Love Letter;” I also made a video about that chapter.
For all that, I don’t feel that I have anything fresh to add now about McKeown’s life, career, and body of work. Here’s what I’ve had to say in the past about a few of The Bay City Rollers’ songs:
THE BAY CITY ROLLERS: Saturday Night
Never feel guilty for digging a pop song. I reject the ludicrous notion of guilty pleasures in music; you either like something or you don’t like something, and no amount of misplaced hipsterism should be allowed to alter that. Stand your freakin’ ground, and dig what you dig.
I dig The Bay City Rollers. I pretty much always have, at least once I got over the absurdity of them being hyped as the next Beatles. As a teen, I owned the Rollers’ “Rock And Roll Love Letter” and “Saturday Night” 45s. I did not care whether or not my peers approved of the choice. Guilty? Not me, man–your rules do not apply.
THE BAY CITY ROLLERS: Wouldn’t You Like It
When I was in college in the late ’70s, I had a friend named Jane, who was a DJ on the Brockport campus radio station. We hung out together a few times, including one night when I kibbitzed with her in the studio while she did her radio show. And I requested one specific song….
By the end of the Me Decade, former teen idols The Bay City Rollers were persona non grata to the buying public, an embarrassing relic of adolescence for those (mostly female) fans who’d outgrown their puppy-eyed crushes on this Tartan-clad combo. And most music lovers who identified as older, male, hipper, and/or more mature just despised the Rollers all along.
But not me. Once I learned to ignore that ludicrous “next Beatles” notion, I found that I liked some of the Rollers’ records just fine, thanks. I was especially taken with “Rock And Roll Love Letter” and “Yesterday’s Hero.” When I became aware of the notion of power pop, I was delighted to learn that the writers of Bomp! magazine included The Bay City Rollers as at least a tangent to that discussion.
I saw the Rollers lip-sync an album track called “Wouldn’t You Like It” on the Midnight Special TV show, and I was instantly captivated by its power-chord riffs, chugging rhythm, and sheer overall oomph. My interest in the Rollers wasn’t then sufficient to prompt me to buy many of their records, but my girlfriend’s pal Debi was an unrepentant Rollers fan; she had the Rock And Roll Love Letter album, and played “Wouldn’t You Like It” for me. Man, what a great track.
So some time later, when I was chilling with miamiga pequeña Jane as she did her radio show, I bugged Jane to play “Wouldn’t You Like It.” Bugged. Begged. Pestered. Pleaded. No, Carl!, she insisted, I’m not playing the freakin’ Bay City Rollers on my show! She finally relented just to shut me up. The song played…and, to her surprise, she liked it, and said so on the radio. Gotta give her credit for that. She went so far as to say that if the Rollers had just come along a couple of years later than they did, they would have been considered part of the new wave.
It’s been more than forty years. We were pals, and we parted as pals. I still think of Jane whenever I play that song, a Bay City Rollers album track that illustrated the transcendent value of ignoring prejudices, and embodied the enduring strength of friendship. And I dedicate the song once again, as I did on the radio just the other night, to an old comrade. This one goes out to my friend Jane, wherever she is. Thanks again, my friend.
THE BAY CITY ROLLERS: Sweet Virginia
By 1977, teen idols The Bay City Rollers were nearing the end of their hitmaking tenure, but not quite done yet. The It’s A Game album yielded the Tartan-clad group’s final American radio hits, “You Made Me Believe In Magic” and “The Way I Feel Tonight.” I recall my friend Dan Bacich being amazed that a group like the Rollers (whom he normally detested) was capable of making a record he liked as much as “You Made Me Believe In Magic.”
Me, I liked the Rollers’ earlier hits just fine, and thought the new stuff okay, too (if nowhere near as pleasingly exuberant as the previous year’s “Rock And Roll Love Letter”). The album as a whole seemed like an attempt to groom a slightly more mature BCR audience, though our Rollers may have been undecided about exactly what kind of mature audience to target. MOR? Disco? The rock crowd, via a cover of David Bowie‘s “Rebel Rebel?” Album track “Sweet Virginia”‘s tragic tale of a young lesbian taking her own life (Was it really such a crime, to be lovin’ your own kind?) is certainly grown-up in its subject matter, its sprightly, boppin’ arrangement providing an odd juxtaposition with its downbeat storyline.
The Bay City Rollers’ next album didn’t sell, and they wound up hosting a Saturday morning kiddie TV show. The mature audience didn’t materialize.
THE BAY CITY ROLLERS: Yesterday’s Hero
We want the Rollers! We want the Rollers!Released late in 1976, The Bay City Rollers’ single of “Yesterday’s Hero” did not match the American chart success of “Saturday Night,” “Money Honey,” “Rock And Roll Love Letter,” or “I Only Want To Be With You,” missing the Top 40 and peaking at a mere # 54 in Billboard. Nonetheless, I’d rate
“Yesterday’s Hero” with “Rock And Roll Love Letter” and an LP track called “Wouldn’t You Like It” as the best of The Bay City Rollers, vibrant proof that the Tartan-clad poster boys were capable of transcending their teenybop image and delivering genuine, exciting power pop.
In ’76 and early ’77, I wasn’t aware of the phrase “power pop,” which had been coined by The Who‘s Pete Townshend in the ’60s but was not yet a part of the everyday rock ‘n’ roll lexicon. I heard “Yesterday’s Hero” on WOLF-AM in Syracuse, and I loved it. I was in a transitional period, just starting to transfer my allegiance from AM Top 40 to the wider rock ‘n’ roll vistas of album-rock WOUR-FM. I didn’t know that George Vanda and Harry Young, the authors of “Yesterday’s Hero,” had been members of 1960s Australian pop gods The Easybeats, nor that they had written The Easybeats’ signature hit “Friday On My Mind.” In fact, I didn’t know The Easybeats or “Friday On My Mind” at all; that knowledge would come later. I just knew there was a song on the radio that deserved to be on the radio, but that it disappeared from radio almost immediately.
I was a senior in high school. Boys weren’t supposed to like The Bay City Rollers, and I don’t think that girls my age were much interested in the Rollers by that point; although the group would bounce back with two big hits in ’77 (“You Made Me Believe In Magic” and “The Way I Feel Tonight”), they were themselves about to become yesterday’s heroes.
We don’t wanna be yesterday’s hero.Not me. Not yet. As I turned 17 in January of ’77, I was already tired of people trying to tell me what I could or couldn’t, should or shouldn’t. Piss off. Whether it was superhero comics or oldies records, The Monkees or The Marx Brothers, Marilyn Chambers or Suzi Quatro, if I was into something, the matter wasn’t up for debate. Dig what you dig. AM and FM influences would merge and converge. Catchy singles. Deeper cuts. Varying styles. Folk. Prog. Bubblegum. Metal. Soul. Punk.
And power pop. We don’t wanna be yesterday’s hero. Haven’t I seen your face before? We want the airwaves. We want the Rollers. When we walk down the street, tomorrow’s gonna take yesterday along for the ride.
It had better. If it knows what’s good for it.
Rest in peace, Leslie.
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