“You’re gonna interview the Rollers? They’ve been together six years. Ask ’em what they’ve been doing all that time.” Anonymous English journalist.
It is too easy, of course, to come right our and declare everything that is true of the Bay City Rollers – that they are probably the most mindless collection of individuals ever to play what approximates music. That their status as England’s biggest all-time music sensation is as insulting as it is baffling. That they are a synthesis of every crassly commercial success formula since Pat Boone. And that there is little redeeming value in any of it.
All of these facts, at first exposure to the Bay City Rollers, are much too obvious to bother evangelizing about. After a while, it all boils down to one basic question. “Are America’s boppers sucker enough to follow suit?” Tam Paton and Barry Perkins – the band’s managers – sure think so.
On a summer vacation in Denmark, the writer caught up with the Scottish quartet one morning after their performance at a Copenhagen convention hall. As has become the custom, the Rollers’ hotel was surrounded by a crowd of pre-pubescent girls, most of whom had kept a nightlong vigil. Some had traveled all the way from Britain.
In Europe, where the band is absolutely unavailable for interviews, there are only infrequent press conferences where Leslie McKeown (vocals, guitar), Stuart “Woody” Wood (vocals, guitar), Alan Longmuir (vocals, drums) sip milk and watch Paton answer their more difficult questions for them. But for CREEM, a magazine distributed only in the unRollerized gold mine that is America, Paton declared the group in a talkative mood. A photographer was even welcome, just as long as he signed a contract forbidding him sale of the shots outside this country.
In an interview situation, it is immediately apparent that the Bay City Rollers – all nice enough guys – themselves have little to do with anything. Asked how much they anticipate an American following, McKeown answers in a thick Scottish brogue that stops just short of intelligibility.
“Theresnot…we…bit…nottin in grit detail yit. Weir goin oover tu America…when is that?”
“September 27th“, answers Perkins, an Englishman. “The Howard Cosell Show“.
“Siptoomber 27th,” says McKeown. “The Howard Coosell Show“.
The writer brings up the theory that the fickle English pre-teens have a void that is filled every year with a new idol. Case in point being the roller coaster careers of T. Rex, Slade, Suzi Quatro and Gary Glitter – all of them commercial wash-outs in the States.
“Yeah”, replies Tam in a slightly less cryptic accent, “but none of these groups have put albums straight at number one. None of these groups have sold 300,000 advance orders in singles and LPs. Their first album went straight to number one and has been in the charts for ten months, in the top ten.”
Why the phenomenon?
“I think it’s just the gulls,” says Leslie. “We don dress up in glitter and poot make-up on and things like that. They cin identify with us. We’re just like the buoy next door…”
“I would like to say on thing,” Tam cuts in. “I’ve always recognized there’s been a massive vacuum. The Woodstock era has slightly gone…I mean it has gone completely. And it’s left behind a massive vacuum of kids…I wouldn’t even say kids, I’d say people – all different kinds of people. And they’re looking for something new. And they’ve grabbed on to the Rollers. And this is what has happened in the U.K.”
Which is true. In England, the Rollers may very well be the boys next door. But to a 12 year-old girl in Des Moines, these five young men dressed in tartan scarves, Bozo the Clown bell-bottoms and happy face buttons might seem more like un-hip invaders from outer space.
“You mean girls don’t fall in love in America?” Tam counters. “They don’t fall in love with boys?”
Barry Perkins is far more realistic about The Rollers. “Gary Glitter and Slade and all the rest went to America and said ‘Here we are, we’re big in England, take us.’ We haven’t done that. We want America to take us because they want us.”
Tam: “We want them to forget that we’re number on in the U.K. We want to be an American phenomenon. Not an English phenomenon. People showed me the vast campaigns for the Wombles and it was a joke. We want to be accepted for what we are.”
“We don’t want to be haped,” declares Leslie. The other four Rollers bob their heads in silent agreement.
Which is not to say that their U.S. publicity firm hasn’t been churning out volumes of press releases and clippings attesting to the band’s staggering popularity. And who can blame them. Any European pre-teen mag would be a fool to fill their pages with anybody else but the Rollers. One publication went all the way, re-named itself Bay City Rollers and now only publishes articles about one band.
Leslie, apparently the only Roller that talks, finds the fame easy to cope with. “Nu problem. We tray and keep ourselves healthy. We coot go arind saying “Ah, what you want with us. Take yer magazine and bit it’ or ‘Weir stars, git loost.’ But we dint. Weir normal geeze, just like yew. You know, we stee want to keep the same gackegee gorn, ish joost…” He slips into total gibberish. “Ish tee. Rollers. Backageet. Nuthin like that. People accept us thit way.”
Tam follows up with a well-honed “They-never-said-we-would-happen-but-we-have” tale. “It’s really amazing,” he sighs.
In England, the Rollers are almost unanimously held in contempt by anybody older than fifteen. That includes, needless to say, most other musicians. Rumors abound that the band lies about their youth, don’t even play on their own records and use tapes for live concerts. Tam takes offense. “Elton John wished us the best of luck in the States. He did an interview where he said we deserved it. McCartney, Elton John – all the really big stars never criticize the Rollers. That’s how professional these people are…”
“Elton John has a farm in Scotland,” cracks photographer Barry Levine. “He probably doesn’t want it burned down.”
Tam chuckles politely, then charges back into the meat of his discourse. “Paul McCartney understands. He went through the same thing with the Beatles. He was screamed at. He couldn’t hear himself on stage…”
Eric Faulkner, silent all this time, comes alive. “But the-coatle fullbig grumme cabinets. In he picastel sconover. And…you cin’t help it.” The other four Rollers start bobbing their heads again.
The writer brings up yet another winning Rollers topic. Injury and Death. Leslie, it seems, ran over and killed an old woman on an Edinburgh street early this year. Three weeks before, his brother had achieved the same distinction. European newspapers thrive on accident reports from Rollers concert riots.
Perkins: “The papers insist that death follows us around. The most horrific instance was when we did a TV show in Lancashire. The day before, a policeman had a coronary thrombos. The next day he showed up for work at the station and died. The day afterwards the headlines said ‘Rollers riot kills policeman.’ It’s just incredible.
“Nobody has ever died at our concerts.” Paton states proudly.
Are they concerned about their career longevity? Faulkner responds once again. “Everybody puts us down. Everybody says that we can’t play. But we know ourselves that we can. And we know in 4 or 5 years time, they’ll be gone.”
Tam: “We’re not saying we’re bigger than the Beatles. I’m not even bringing the Beatles into it…they were fantastic. They were great. And at the time, they were the biggest thing since sliced bread.” He pauses. “I just hope people will talk about the Rollers the same way they talk about the Beatles in ten years time. And I believe, deeply, that they will.”
Does the band agree? Bobbing heads. “Yep,” they answer in unison.
Barry picks up the thread. “I think Tam and the boys are far more mentally attuned to success that the Beatles were. You know, there were management problems and all sorts of funny people who got involved with them. I would like to say that this management and the boys are at a far more even key than the Beatles.”
Tam continues: “We learned from the mistakes the Beatles made over the years. Look at the hassles they got into. Money hassles, publishing hassles. Then they all got on their Hare Krishna kick. I don’t know if that will happen to us. I don’t think so. We’re all very sensible.
“You know, Melody Maker printed that I had said that the Rollers would do anything I want them to. That if I thought it was a good idea, for publicity, to jump off the Fourth Road Bridge, then we’d all do it. But that wasn’t the way I said it. I said that if I thought it was a good idea, for publicity, for us all to jump from the Fourth Road Bridge, then we would all do it. Which was completely different. Isn’t it amazing how papers twist what you say?
“I think people do themselves a lot of harm by writing nasty things about the Rollers. I don’t think they understand this band’s power. If a magazine in the U.K. puts down the Rollers, the kids won’t buy the magazine…I really think the Rollers will happen in the States. There’s a lot of people still sitting back, I know, saying that it can’t happen. I remember when they said that in Scandinavia. I remember when they said that in Australia. Now, in those places, it’s just as bad [sic] as it is in the U.K. It’s neurotic in Australia… New Zealand…Africa…we’re number one in Germany now, too. I almost forgot. Japan is next.
“We realize it’s difficult to understand the Bay City Rollers, especially if you’ve grown up with a group like the Stones – who we appreciate too. We can see they’re very good. The Stones and Dylan and James Taylor and all these people. They’re very good too.”
Courtesy of Creem – Cameron Crowe – January, 1976