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.