6.7.18

BAY CITY ROLLERS – Part 2, America



In September of 1976 I had my second close encounter with the Bay City Rollers, in Philadelphia and then Boston, where the havoc at Logan Airport was exacerbated by the police grossly underestimating the threat to order posed by the group’s arrival. They refused to allow the Rollers' limousine to pull up alongside their plane and as a consequence the boys had to make their way through the airport, me alongside them, where over 1,000 fans were waiting.
“We have the situation under control,” a State Trooper told us, when in reality it was nothing but. “Just walk towards the exit and you will be surrounded by other Troopers like myself. There will also be a number of airport security men surrounding you. If any of you fall over in the rush, it will be taken care of. We will drag you out.”
         This didn’t sound promising, I thought, glad that I didn’t look like a Roller. The fans did, though, and the police couldn’t tell them from the real thing in the melee. A fan might end up in the group’s limousine while a Roller might be torn limb from limb. The cops, of course, were livid, not just because they’d misjudged the threat – which made them look foolish – but because they disapproved strongly of the effect the Rollers had on America’s girlhood.
“What followed,” I wrote for MM in a piece headlined ‘Rollers American Civil War’, “was the nearest thing to a nightmare that I have experienced while fully awake. On leaving the plane, the tightly-knit group that comprised the five Rollers and their immediate entourage came up against over 1,000 screaming fans who had waited for their arrival since radio stations announced the time earlier in the morning. The majority were held back by barricades, but it seemed only too obvious that these would soon collapse.
“They screamed as if in terrible pain, as if red-hot needles were being driven into their bodies. They pushed and they broke through. They crushed against the Rollers and fury erupted, suddenly but not without warning. The route to the limousine was, perhaps, just over 100 yards. By the time the party had travelled half this distance, it was surrounded. They fell down and tumbled over one another. The State Troopers, who didn’t know Rollers from lookalikes, yelled angrily at each other at the same moment, confusing everyone.
“Glass doors blocked the way and, in the time taken to open them, the mob engulfed the Rollers, who stood their ground while security people shoved off attacks from all quarters. Fans were waiting by cars and police threw them aside, vainly trying to create a pathway. Ian Mitchell, the newest Roller, was thrown aside too. Some cop didn’t know the genuine article from the ranks of tartan that blurred before his eyes. Mitchell clawed his way back to the car, while Paddy Callaghan, the Rollers’ full-time bodyguard, spread his arms wide so that his charges could slip inside. They climbed on the car as it moved slowly away, they fell off as it accelerated and the scare was past. Only [US tour manager] Gary McPike had been left behind in the melee. He came along later in the luggage van.”
         I came to learn that the Rollers’ American campaign wasn’t helped by the garrulous promoter Sid Bernstein announcing that the group would perform in front of 55,000 at New York’s Shea Stadium, where he’d promoted two famous Beatles’ concerts in 1965 and ’66. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and the Rollers played regular halls, 3,000-seater places, apart from Toronto where they could fill an arena. They also side-stepped the big cities like New York and Los Angeles, perhaps in order to avoid press scrutiny. Elvis Presley did the same, both very early and very late in his career.
I was sceptical about their US prospects until I arrived in Boston but the truth was that what the US fans lacked in numbers they made up in enthusiasm, all stoked by 16 magazine which specialised in promoting toothsome young pop bands to adolescent girls.
         I’d seen Marc Bolan’s T. Rex die a death in New York when the group’s on-stage deficiencies were brutally exposed before an audience that sat and listened instead of screaming, but no such fate befell the Rollers who inspired the same pandemonium they had in the UK. They had a more powerful PA system than before, however, and I tried my best to review their shows objectively, as I would acts whose audiences were more discerning: “The Rollers have improved beyond measure since [I last saw them], probably through the experience of playing together as a band more often,” I wrote. “They’ve developed into a tight, harmony-conscious group, with few pretentions, though their limited repertoire still leaves little or no chance for individual instrumental talent to shine.
“As main guitarist, Eric Faulkner is improving all the time, while Stuart ‘Woody’ Wood, who has taken over on bass from Alan Longmuir, and drummer Derek Longmuir maintain a solid rhythm section which essentially holds the band together. Newcomer Ian Mitchell, who turned 18 on the tour, plays second guitar but contributed little, apart from some vocal harmony, and singer Les McKeown has yet to establish any real identity as a lead vocalist. He blends in with the rest but shows no signs of pushing a limited vocal range any further than necessary.
“The concerts open with a magician, whose task is the least enviable of anyone in the theatre, followed by a short film of the group, which effectively whips up fever. A sort of Cape Canaveral count-down leads into the group’s appearance... three, two, one... a light flashes, a smoke bomb explodes and there they are.
“Much of the Rollers’ material seems based on rock and roll that predates them by up to twenty years. Included in their current set are ‘Party’, the old Elvis Presley number, and ‘Shout’, which was Lulu’s first hit way, way back. Their new single, ‘I Only Want To Be With You’, was a hit for Dusty Springfield in the early Sixties. Their own material, too, is inspired largely by the music of Chuck Berry. Faulkner’s little solos, though expertly played, utilise well-tried notes on well-trodden ground. And they sometimes make mistakes – doesn’t everybody – that Wood and Longmuir manage to cover up before too much damage occurs. Not that the audience would notice.
“Their biggest asset seems to be vocal harmonies, which, with the enlarged PA system, came over as a dominating force. It’s a facet of the band they should work on in the future, rather than relying solely on the somewhat anonymous Les McKeown’s vocal attributes. He spends more time waving to the crowd than singing anyway.
“Each concert builds up to a climax of ‘Saturday Night’ and ‘Money Honey’, and the Rollers are away without encores or fanfare. They play for just over an hour, which means their concerts are over by 9 p.m., a ridiculously early time by rock standards. Presumably their audiences have to be tucked up in bed by 10 p.m. – as the Rollers themselves seem to be most nights.”
         As in the UK, the group was strictly controlled by manager Tam Paton. “At their hotels on the road, the group are prisoners,” I noted. “Outside, a constant vigil is maintained by parties of fans who, as elsewhere, dress up in those rather ungainly short/long trousers with a side stripe of tartan, tartan scarves and badges that denote their allegiance to one particular member of the group. Obtaining tartan material is not as easy in the US as it is in Britain and, as the uniforms are home-made, one can only marvel at their needlework and determination to acquire the raw materials.”
         Meanwhile, inside, the Rollers “lead a strangely celibate and temperate life-style, at odds with just about every other band that’s travelled the Holiday Inn circuit. They drink milk or Coke and girls are chased away by muscular bodyguards before they pick up the scent of their tartan heroes. Even the road crew are obliged to follow the same regulations – no booze on room service and no girls in their rooms. The Rollers, too, exist on a diet of room service and television, though most of them smoke constantly. Visits to radio stations punctuate their days, but they are always obliged to exist in a goldfish bowl into which fans stare, and from which they wave.”
         I spent the afternoon in Bostin in Eric Faulkner’s hotel room, an encounter that the girls outside would no doubt have willingly gone without food or drink for a month to experience. As in the UK I found him the most affable, down-to-earth and musically inclined member of the group, perhaps even a shade embarrassed at the reaction they received and the way they were perceived by many in my line of work. He was certainly embarrassed about the talk of playing Shea Stadium and the constant comparisons with The Beatles. He shook his head gloomily. “That was hype and we really hated it,” he said. “It didn’t come from us but it made the immediate connection between us and The Beatles. We don’t want to be another Beatles, we want to be the Bay City Rollers. We don’t base our music on anything in particular, just pop music.
“The older rockers, like Chuck Berry, appeal to me but when I was in the early Rollers and we were just gigging every night, our material was whatever was in the charts. The only Beatle song I ever played was ‘Get Back’.”

Tam Paton, shortly before he died in 2009

         Tam Paton later talked to me about the group’s forthcoming plans, their potential earnings and the likelihood that they might become tax exiles, all of which is a bit ironic considering the dreadful financial position in which the group would eventually find themselves. This is another story altogether and it would be 40 years until I learned the truth about it, or that Paton in later life ballooned to 26 stone and became a major-league slum landlord and drug dealer. In 2016 I edited When The Screaming Stops – The Dark History of the Bay City Rollers by Simon Spence, a 568-page Omnibus Press biography of the group published that year in which the whole messy BCR saga is laid bare. As the blurb on the back states: “Dazzled by sudden global fame and corrupted by Paton’s unquenchable sexual appetites, the Bay City Rollers soon became part of his world of depravity, victimhood, crime and psychosis.
“Band members became hooked on drugs, and their fall was almost as rapid as their rise, leaving them penniless and emotionally destroyed. Three years after they fired Paton in 1979 he was finally imprisoned, convicted of gross indecency with teenage boys.”
You have been warned.



5.7.18

BAY CITY ROLLERS - Part 1, UK

The death earlier this week of Alan Longmuir, the bass guitarist with the Bay City Rollers, brings to mind my brief association with the group during their heyday in the seventies. It wasn’t all Who, Bowie and Zep – on Melody Maker we were called upon to cover all strands of pop in their unlimited variety and if that meant spending time with ‘teenybop sensations’ whose mastery of their instruments wasn’t quite in the Townshend and Page league, then I was thankful not to be making a living by getting up at five in the morning to milk cows or tiling a roof in the scorching sun.
In November of 1974, during a brief respite from my New York posting, I was sent to Cardiff, Hanley and Edinburgh – their home town – to observe the Rollers in action amid scenes of mayhem not seen Beatlemania gripped the nation in 1963. But while The Beatles would go on to far greater things, their music spiralling into worlds of unimaginable sophistication, and become multi-millionaires in the process, the Rollers would tumble into tragedy, becoming a byword for all that is wrong with the music business, squabbling amongst themselves while the millions they earned slipped through their fingers and into the hands of those appointed to advise them.
Assuming the term ‘boy band’ refers to an act assembled through auditions by businessmen with an eye on their appeal to pubescent girls and the financial return, then the Rollers were the first such act of note from the UK, though in the US they were beaten by the Monkees. But while the Monkees achieved some sort of artistic recognition, the Rollers were deemed too lightweight for serious appraisal. Nevertheless, some of their singles, notably ‘Keep On Dancing’ and 'Bye Bye Baby', were as good as anything else in the pop charts, even if – like the Monkees – they neither wrote them nor played on them.
“In the same week that Muhammad Ali regained his heavyweight boxing title, the featherweight crown of pop, too, has changed hands,” I wrote in MM in 1974. “The fickle crown of pop now rests firmly on the well-coiffured heads of the Bay City Rollers.
“There are five of them,” I continued. “They’re all pretty young and if it wasn’t for the fact that their respective names are embroidered somewhere on their clothes, it’d been kinda easy to get them all mixed up. First there’s Les, the singer. Les is the youngest member of the group at 17, and he talks with a thick Scottish brogue. His surname is McKeown and he likes making jokes at other people’s expense and talking about the Gay Liberation Front.
“More interesting is Eric Faulkner, the lead guitarist and prettiest. His looks have generated the biggest fan mail, and one look at the audience tells you Eric is the favourite. Hundreds of ’em wear Eric badges. Eric’s hair is cropped short on top, and he plays a light brown Fender Stratocaster quite well.
“Woody comes next in the running order. His real name is Stuart Wood, and he plays a dark brown Fender Telecaster and switches to electric piano for the odd song or two. He’s the skinniest Roller. Lastly come the two Longmuir brothers, Alan and Derek. Alan plays the bass and Derek is the drummer. Alan is left handed and plays a right-handed Fender Jazz Bass guitar with the strings set up for a right-handed player, so his technique is interesting to watch. Both brothers are the quietest members of the band.”

(Stuart Wood, Alan Longmuir, Les McKeown, Derek Longmuir & Eric Faulkener)

It seems odd now that I commented on Les McKeown referring to Gay Lib. It never occurred to me at the time that their manager Tam Paton was a predatory sex abuser who did his best to coerce various Rollers into sex acts, all the while barring them from having girlfriends, though I clearly remember him instructing me in no uncertain terms not to bring any girls back to the hotel. Usually when I’d been on the road with groups this was positively encouraged and loads of girls were invited back, the more the merrier, and invariably a few stayed for breakfast. 
Later in life Paton became openly gay and was charged with gross indecency for which he served a prison sentence.
“They don’t have girlfriends and live a claustrophobic life in a tiny circle that includes only themselves and Tam, the manager,” I wrote in MM. “On the road they always stay at a town at least ten miles away from a theatre they’re playing (so the fans won’t get near them) and share rooms, fish and chips and hair dryers. It’s all too easy to be very cynical about a group like the Bay City Rollers whose appeal lies essentially in their looks and mannerisms rather than the music they produce. But however unfavourably they compare with the rock giants of the seventies, the Bay City Rollers are a phenomenon that cannot be ignored.
“The music the group performs is barely audible, partly because of their woefully inadequate PA system but mainly because 2,000 schoolgirls can create a horrendous din if the mood takes them. Their set lasts about 60 minutes and is happily amateurish compared with other groups whose appeal lies within the Rollers’ age group. Musically they’re as competent as the average cabaret band, and as most of their material comprises standards like ‘C. C. Rider’, ‘Great Balls Of Fire’, ‘(Let’s Have A) Party’ and ‘Be My Baby’ it would be easy to confuse them.
“Critical assessment, however, is virtually impossible under the extraordinary circumstances of a Rollers performance, but they do sing in tune, play their own instruments and occasionally Eric Faulkner bounces through with a fairly nifty guitar passage. All four concerts I saw were virtually repeats of the previous evening in every aspect.”
At Hanley I rode with the group in the unmarked white van they used for quick getaways. Its side door was opened as it pulled up so close to the backstage door that not even the slimmest girl could squeeze between van side and wall. “Inside the cold, dark van are five colourful blankets for the five Rollers to cocoon themselves as they lie on the floor of the van to avoid being torn to pieces should their presence be detected,” I continued. “Usually they’re in the van seconds after leaving the stage, and away down the road before even the most determined girl can make it to the stage door. It’s a punishing routine, especially in winter, rushing from a piping hot theatre covered in sweat and being forced to bear the cold van for ten minutes until the panic is over.”
In Edinburgh the Rollers’ show was brought to halt midway, and as I watched the chaos from the side of the stage I couldn’t help but think that someone somewhere would one day be seriously injured in the mayhem. “Using every ounce of effort, hundreds of girls packed themselves at the front of the all-too-low stage in the Odeon Theatre,” I wrote. “Even the 35 firemen hired for the night (at £5 a man) couldn’t stem the tide and the more inexperienced became unnecessarily violent as the push gained momentum. Girls were being trodden underfoot in the melee and the front row of seats became dislodged from the floor and smashed as more and more surged into the crowd. There were at least a dozen cases of fainting, and twice girls pretended to be overcome in order to be lifted up on stage. On both occasions they immediately came to life within inches of Eric Faulkener.”
After the show I joined a couple of the firemen for a pint in a pub across the road. “Better this lot than that Bryan Berry or whatever he’s called,” one of them said to me. “Ferry said we ruined his show by being there at the front. I’d like to have seen him get on without us. That’d ’av bin’ fun.”
The other fireman told me he preferred Pink Floyd to Ferry or the Rollers.
“Outside the theatre,” I continued, “are two anxious fathers and one anxious mother. All three have flown up from London searching for their daughters who have run away to see the Bay City Rollers. All of them are reunited after the show and no doubt a few harsh words will be exchanged between parent and offspring on the night express down to London.
“Outside Tam Paton, in a white suit, is still talking to anyone who’ll listen to him. I bid him goodnight and tell him I’m leaving in the morning. He tells me to keep in touch with him. ‘Ye nivir know,’ he says, ‘one day they might be as big as the Beatles and then I’ll giy’er a beeg exclusive.’”
Two years later I caught up with the Rollers again, this time in America, and I’ll post about that tomorrow.