Of course the Bay City Rollers were on drugs, you have to be to look that ridiculous
Les McKeown is eating his full English very daintily, carving teeny strips off his fried egg, neatly dissecting his grilled tomato, sawing his fried bread into immaculate soldiers, and talking in startling detail about his sex life.
‘I basically tried everything, threesomes, foursomes, women, men, all the extremes,’ he says brightly. ‘At one stage there were whole rooms of girls, but I got fed up with that. That was way too much action…exhausting.
‘It was a joke really, when I think back on it. A real joke. And brilliant fun of course. But I was a rock star and it was the Seventies and it was almost expected of you.’
For the benefit of anyone under 35 who might not remember, Les McKeown was the lead singer of the Bay City Rollers.
The Rollers were the supposedly squeaky-clean boy band from Scotland who drank milkshakes and Coca-Cola and sported platform shoes, blow dries and appalling calf-length brushed-cotton tartan trousers.
The same band that, after five manic years, 70 million album sales and generating more screaming hysteria than the Rolling Stones and Beatles put together, with songs that included Shang-A-Lang and Bye Bye Baby, imploded in a cloud of drug abuse, alcoholism, law suits, court cases and sex scandals.
More than three decades on, they are still fighting to reclaim over $100 million in unpaid earnings and royalties.
Today, Les, 55 and still very twinkly, if a bit squishy-looking around the middle, appears remarkably unscathed, though God knows what my insides look like by decades of self-destructive excess, which culminated in cocaine and heroin binges, two bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon a day, being ‘banned for life from Butlins for lewd behaviour’ and a stint in rehab in 2008 where his withdrawal was so bad he spent the first few days strapped to his bed.
‘It turned out I wasn’t so much an alcoholic as full of guilt and low self-esteem. And one of the main root causes was problems with my old manager, Tam Paton, and all the ups and downs with the band.’
Which might sound a rum old excuse for some truly shocking behaviour, but there were certainly plenty of ‘ups and downs’.
Such as the screaming rows with band members Eric Faulkner, Stuart ‘Woody’ Wood and brothers Alan and Derek Longmuir; the cocaine-fuelled orgies; and the arrests, for running over and killing a 62-year-old pensioner in 1975; for allegedly shooting a fan in the head with an air rifle in 1976; and for hurling a beer can at fans in 1983.
Not forgetting his alleged rape by Tam Edinburgh’s answer to the Beatles’ gay Svengali, Brian Epstein in a hotel room in 1977, and Les’s sex sessions with actress Britt Ekland.
Then there were the hysterical fans who broke into his hotel rooms, and the time he was threatened at gunpoint by his U.S. promotions manager. As he puts it himself: ‘It was the ultimate rock ’n’ roll movie, but it never got filmed.’
Blimey. And it all started so wholesomely…or so it seemed from the outside.
November 1973, they were five nice lads from Edinburgh, barely out of their teens, tartan trousers made by Les’s deaf tailor father and jumpers knitted by his mother, and a name picked by chucking darts at a map of America.
No one drank, girlfriends and smoking were banned by Tam, shiny, clean hair was a must and, just three months after being signed for £10-a-week as lead singer, Les was on Top of the Pops.
‘Suddenly we were the biggest band in the country, the biggest in the world.
‘We never carried cash, but if we wanted something we just pointed at it and they’d get it for us – a Porsche, a Jensen car, clothes, food, booze…though the ironic thing is that none of us really drank at the beginning. So all the stories about milkshakes were true.’
On the inside, however, it was carnage.
‘Right from the beginning it was always me against the rest of the band,’ says Les. ‘We argued about everything.’
Who got the most fan mail (Les did), who got the most close-ups on TV, which songs to record, which venues to play, who had the best spot on stage, who was the most talented.
But most of all, there were vicious rows about sex. Which, according to Tam’s draconian rules (enforced by making them all share rooms in order to spy on each other) was banned, completely.
‘It was madness,’ says Les. ‘We were rock stars, why couldn’t we act like it?’
But they weren’t rock stars…they were the Bay fucking City Rollers…who did pop songs…that haven’t lasted the test of time.
And while the others stuck to the rules, he didn’t, sneaking out for countless rendezvous, driving the others mad and, when they toured America in 1977, embracing absolutely everything that was on offer.
‘It seems like we went to America and never came back. Everything changed. Everyone changed. Everything was freely available. There was always someone on hand with a little vial and a “you’ve got to try this stuff, it’s great”’.
So they did.
Soon Les was snorting his way through six grams of coke a day, smuggling it through airports in the turn-ups of his tartan trousers, living separately to his bandmates and partying with Jack Nicholson, the rock star Alice Cooper, Ringo Starr and the Rolling Stones.
‘I had a laugh with the Stones, did a few drugs and all that. They thought I was really great because Keith Richards’s security man burst a blood vessel in his leg and I saved his life by tying a tourniquet round his leg with my tartan scarf!’
And there were women everywhere. ‘There were fans knocking on my door saying, “please sleep with me” and girls flying all the way from Japan begging me to take their virginity.’ And, er, did he oblige?
‘It was rude not to. Let’s face it, sex isn’t all about love. It can be quite separate. Completely separate in fact.’ And it wasn’t just the fans who proved obliging either.
His six-month affair with Britt Ekland was a bit of a head-turner. Not just because she was a Hollywood A-lister and 13 years his senior, but also thanks to her penchant for entertaining more than one lover at a time…Les, her housekeeper, her son’s nanny, even her beautician.
Today Les goes pink and twitchy at the very mention.
‘All I can say is she was a lovely lady and she was very, very good to me.’
Were all the stories true? Even the bit about the massive wine goblet in her sitting room that never had less than $90,000 worth of cocaine in fat sachets in it?
And that he was also sleeping with Britt’s then 16-year-old daughter Victoria?
‘Er, yes,’ he mumbles. ‘The guys all said, “Les has gone all Hollywood”, but why not? We were rock stars and we were in Hollywood and it was the Seventies!’
Perhaps not surprisingly, relations with his bandmates unravelled pretty quickly.
‘We couldn’t bear to be together. I ended up rehearsing in a studio in Hawaii and they’d rehearse in LA.’
On their 1978 tour of Japan, things were so out of control that Les was bugging his fellow Rollers’ hotel rooms. They in turn switched off his spotlight on stage and changed key without warning so he sounded out of tune.
‘We had loads of fights on stage, barging each other out of the way and grabbing each other’s places. They had their security and I had mine. It was mad.’
And untenable, even for a bonkers rock band. So Les wrote to the others suggesting they all leave. They threw a custard pie in his face on live television and wrote back sacking him.
And that was that. Les was out, after five years of luxury and snapping his fingers for anything he wanted. ‘When it stopped, everything stopped,’ he says.
‘I had an American Express card with $50,000 racked up on it from a two-week stay at the Hermitage hotel in Hollywood, a great two weeks, I should say, especially the Jacuzzi on the roof, and no one paid it off. Tam controlled everything, so everything went.
‘My house was repossessed and Tam had power of attorney for me. He could open and close my bank accounts.’
The band continued arguing and suing until all their money was gone and, desperate for funds, they reformed in 1985 for a disastrous tour of Japan and Australia.
‘It was a nightmare. None of us had grown up. We were still like children.’
Finally, after countless more rows and headbutts, that really was that. Scotland’s most successful rock band parted ways.
Now, Eric writes folk music and tours with his band. Woody runs a music production company in Edinburgh with his wife Denise. Alan was a plumber until a heart attack forced early retirement. And, the most disturbing twist in the whole, sorry saga, his brother Derek, then a hospice nurse, was sentenced to 300 hours’ community service in 2000 after admitting possessing child pornography.
Les, meanwhile, tried everything He married his long-suffering Japanese girlfriend Peko, launched a techno band called The Tartan Army in which he emerged on stage from a coffin draped with fairy lights, carried on endless gigging, and fought a long battle with drugs, alcohol and bisexuality, ‘I did a bit of a George Michael but rehab sorted all that out. Sex isn’t my driving force any more.’
And now, after yet another costly lawsuit with Eric to allow him to use the Bay City Rollers name for his current band — Les McKeown’s Legendary Bay City Rollers (he’s the only original Roller) — Les is full of the joys of recovery, new beginnings and redemption.
He’s even keen for a reunion tour though the others aren’t biting.
And are they still, erm, for want of a better phrase — up for it?
‘Some throw their knickers, but it’s all a bit tongue-in-cheek these days. Though there was a woman who threw this big bra and I thought, that’s a whopper, and when I looked over, she’d got them out!’
And was she an original fan?
‘Well, she still looked quite fit, so she can’t have been that old, ha ha!’
And finally, what does he think the attraction was, and by all accounts, still is, for all those women (he once estimated, optimistically even for him, that he’s slept with over a million)?
His good looks, his boyish charm, of which he still has plenty, his sparky chat, his fame?
‘The fame,’ he says without hesitation. ‘That’s all it is. That’s all it ever was. It was never really about me.’
But doesn’t that bother him?
‘No. Anyone in this cafe would have done exactly the same, I promise you,’ he says, gesturing at our fellow diners tucking into their chips and beans. ‘Every single one of them would have grabbed the chance if it’d come their way.’
And I can’t help thinking that they’ll all be far happier that it never did.
by Wallace MvTavish