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The Bay City Rollers’ ROLLERMANIA: A Hard D-A-Y’s Night

Teen idols seem to have a built-in obsolescence, virtually guaranteeing a short career for any artist whose primary appeal is to a fickle preteen female market. For the self-consciously hip, the teen idol tag carries a stigma beyond easy redemption, and the artists who cater to this market risk being forever branded as uncool.

In this context, no band was less cool in the ’70s than The Bay City Rollers, whose management went so far as to tout this harmless Scottish quintet as the “next Beatles.” That claim may seem ludicrous now (just as it did then), but the Rollers were nonetheless one of the biggest pop phenomena of the decade.

We’ll dispense with the standard rap on The Bay City Rollers’ tartan-clad teenybop image and all the hype. At this point, suffice it to say that the Rollers were an often-underrated, occasionally (if infrequently) terrific power pop group.

The Bay City Rollers began circa 1967 as an Edinburgh, Scotland cover band called The Saxons. The Saxons included brothers Alan and Derek Longmuir, on bass and drums respectively, with singer Nobby Clarke. That trio remained through various Saxons line-ups. Seeking a more American-sounding name, a pin was struck randomly into a map of the United States. The pin landed on Bay City, Michigan, and The Bay City Rollers were born.

The Bay City Rollers’ first single, a cover of The Gentrys’ “Keep On Dancing,” became a # 9 British hit in 1971. But follow-up singles, including an early version of “Saturday Night,” were comparative flops. By now, Clarke and the Longmuirs had been joined in Rollerdom by guitarists Eric Faulkner and Stuart “Woody” Wood. Clarke himself soon quit, to be replaced on lead vocals by Les McKeown.

The Rollers didn’t play on any of their records until “Bye Bye Baby,” a cover of The 4 Seasons’ hit. Rollermania took Britain by storm, and was eventually exported to America via a new, McKeown-sung version of “Saturday Night” (a song which directly inspired the Ramones’ own chanting “Blitzkrieg Bop,” believe it or not).

The Rollers’ recorded legacy is a mixed bag, offering a fair amount of drippy ballads and some bona fide rockin’ pop. The debut album Bay City Rollers is notable mostly for “Saturday Night.” Rock N’ Roll Love Letter contains four of the group’s best power pop tracks, “Money Honey,” “Rock And Roll Love Letter,” “Wouldn’t You Like It” and “Too Young To Rock & Roll.” “Wouldn’t You Like It,” in particular, is a dynamic power pop number that should have been a single.

Alan Longmuir was replaced by Ian Mitchell on Dedication. Produced by Raspberries veteran Jimmy Ienner, Dedication suffers from weak material, including very lame attempts at Beach Boys and Raspberries covers, but is redeemed by the rockin’ Faulkner-Wood “Rock ‘N Roller,” a reasonably cool cover of Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To be With You” and a superb reading of Vanda and Young’s terrific “Yesterday’s Hero.” Mitchell then split after a scant six-month stint; his replacement, Pat McGlynn, didn’t even stay that long.

As a quartet, the Rollers released the slick It’s A Game album as an attempt to bridge the adult and teen markets, eschewing both standard teenybop ballads and power pop. Instead, it offers an unlikely melange of Manilowesque crooning, disco styling and even a cover of David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel.”  Greatest Hits represents the final cash-in at the end of the group’s commercial reign. A perfunctory best-of, it includes the American singles, both hits and misses, but omits essential LP tracks “Wouldn’t You Like It,” “Too Young To Rock & Roll’ and “Rock ‘N Roller.” Arista reissued it on CD in 1991.

In 1978 the group (with Alan Longmuir back in the fold) starred on NBC in a Saturday morning kiddie TV show produced by Sid and Marty Krofft and released the forgettable Strangers In The Wind. When the TV show ended, McKeown split.

Duncan Faure, formerly of the South African group Rabbit, was McKeown’s replacement. The group changed its focus, dumped the tartan outfits and teen image, and shortened its name to simply The Rollers. Elevator was the result, the most aggressive-sounding album the group had made to date. Granted, there’s nothing on Elevator to equal “Rock And Roll Love Letter,” “Wouldn’t You Like It” or “Yesterday’s Hero,” but it is far more consistently listenable than any other Rollers album. Key tracks include “Elevator,” “Playing In A Rock And Roll Band,” “I Was Eleven,” “Turn On The Radio,” “Instant Relay” and “Who’ll Be My Keeper.” The resulting sound could be compared to The Babys, or a more AOR-oriented version of The Records. If nothing else, it shows The Rollers as contenders, if not quite the next Beatles. It stiffed horribly, and was the last Rollers album issued in America.

The rare and little-heard Voxx was a contract-breaking set of odds and ends (if not sods), and it’s pretty damned good. Ricochet follows in Elevator‘s footsteps, but is not quite its equal. I have never heard or seen the very rare, cassette-only Rollers album Burnin’ Rubber, the soundtrack to a very obscure Rollers film.  The original group got back together in the mid-’80s for a reunion concert, and released one awful synth-dominated album, Breakout, and the 2-LP Live In Japan, before splitting yet again.  A later version of the group, still featuring Faulkner and Wood, released Bye Bye Baby, a pathetic collection of remakes of old Rollers tunes. It is surely not representative of how one might wish to remember The Bay City Rollers.

An attempted reunion in late 1999 ended badly, but did last long enough for the group to welcome 2000 with a live New Year’s Eve concert in Glasgow. Almost all of the original Rollers albums have been reissued on CD, with bonus tracks; there is also a solid Bay City Rollers career retrospective called The Definitive Collection, and a ’70s Japanese concert preserved on a CD called Rollerworld. Only Breakout, Burnin’ Rubber, and Live In Japan remain unavailable. McKeown, Wood, and Alan Longmuir reunited as The Bay City Rollers in 2015; Derek Longmuir has retired from music, and Eric Faulkner did not rejoin his former bandmates. Alan Longmuir, Les McKeown, and Ian Mitchell have since passed.

That neither The Bay City Rollers nor the just-plain Rollers were the next Beatles is hardly a startling revelation. Maybe they were the next Herman’s Hermits, or the next Banana Splits. Who cares? No matter how many self-appointed arbiters of hip despised the Rollers, there were nonetheless others who thought they were… well, kinda neat. Dee Dee Ramone was a Rollers fan; according to Johnny Ramone, The Bay City Rollers were a much bigger influence on The Ramones’ brand of pop-fueled punk than anyone would have ever thought likely. And Nick Lowe’s “Rollers Show,” whether parody or pastiche, had to have some affection behind it.

Evidence for the Rollers’ case still survives in the grooves. A quick spin of “Wouldn’t You Like It,” “Yesterday’s Hero,” “Who’ll Be My Keeper,” “Too Young To Rock & Roll,” “I Only Want To Be With You,” “Rock ‘N Roller,” “Saturday Night,” “Money Honey” and “Rock And Roll Love Letter” makes a convincing argument for The Bay City Rollers as power pop savants.

And, perhaps more importantly, there are thousands of grown-up little girls who will cherish a memory of The Bay City Rollers forever. For that, even by itself, The Bay City Rollers were cool.

LOST IN THE GROOVES: ELEVATOR by THE (Bay City) ROLLERS

We’ve spoken of the 2005 book Lost In The Groovesthe self-described “capricious guide to the music you missed” which contained two entries written by me, covering Subterranean Jungle by The Ramones and Tell America by Fools Face.  I also submitted a short piece on Elevator, a 1979 album by The Rollers, the act formerly known as The Bay City RollersLost In The Grooves editors Kim Cooper and David Smay took a pass on that one. I can’t find my original manuscript so I wrote a new one for you:

THE ROLLERS
Elevator (Arista, 1979)

By 1979, The Bay City Rollers were clearly on the ropes. The hits had stopped, and the group’s fan base of screaming young girls had chosen not to grow older with their formerly-cherished tartan-clad heartthrobs. A Saturday morning TV series had not kindled a new audience; on the contrary, it was a tacit surrender, an admission that The Bay City Rollers’ S! A! T-U-R! D-A-Y! night had ended. As even the TV show faded to black, lead singer Les McKeown couldn’t split fast enough.

But the remaining members of the group–Eric FaulknerStuart “Woody” Wood, and brothers Alan and Derek Longmuir–remained together, determined to become the solid, successful rock ‘n’ roll group they felt they could be. They recruited a new lead singer, Duncan Faure, previously of a South African group called Rabbitt, and attempted to distance themselves from uncool, unfashionable teen idolatry, ditching the tartan togs and shortening their name to just The Rollers. And so The Rollers sought fame fortune anew, with an album called Elevator.

Elevator was neither new wave rock ‘n’ roll nor FM rock fare, but it was a splendid work that could have been appreciated by fans of The Babys or The Records. Faure’s vocals were identifiably influenced by John Lennon, lending a palpably Beatley sheen and edge to a confident collection of rockin’ pop tunes. The Bay City Rollers had been an underrated pop group, capable of creating a few unforgettable power pop tracks amidst the prerequisite morass of balladry and goop expected of lads gracing the covers of teen magazines. But Elevator was the group’s most consistent and listenable album to date. Sure, the drug references were winkingly and obnoxiously self-conscious–C’mon, an LP cover depicting a giant red pill in an elevator going up? Really?–but the songs and performances were first-rate. The single, “Turn On Your Radio,” was catchy and engaging, and it combined with terrific album tracks like “Playing In A Rock And Roll Band,” “I Was Eleven,” and “Who’ll Be My Keeper” to convey a compelling tale of the yin and yang of the good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll road show. The title song rocked, and the aforementioned “Who’ll Be My Keeper” was one of the best tracks of the year. Seriously!

And yeah, Elevator was stuck in the basement level from the get-go. There were some attempts to promote it; Trouser Press ran an article on this supposedly more mature edition of The Rollers, and the group appeared on The Mike Douglas Show hyping its new direction. But honestly, The Rollers could have released a record that cured cancer, fed the hungry, and reunited The Beatles, and none of it would have made any difference; in 1979, the public was done with The Rollers–with or without a “Bay City” prefix–and that was that.

This line-up of The Rollers released two more albums–an Arista contract-breaker called Voxx (one of the best odds-n-sods contract-breakers I ever did hear) and an album called Ricochet–that are well worth seeking out and enjoying; neither has ever been issued in the U.S. Later on, there was a terrible synth record called Breakout; in between Voxx and Ricochet, there was a cassette-only release called Burning Rubber, which I’ve neither seen nor heard (though the Rollers film for which it serves as soundtrack is on YouTube, I think). The Rollers’ career ended in obscurity. ElevatorVoxx, and Ricochet deserved a better fate.