6 months ago
We recall the erotic terror and the erotic glee, the yellowing photos of sobbing girls clawing the air, the shuddering animal noises that shook a sagging old Empire; but let us also honor the thin, fish-belly pale grinning sinless milk-drinking sons of Eddie Cochran, Troggs and Hollies who caused it all, true rock ’n’ rollers at the beginning, end, and middle.
Amidst the brick-dust and smoke of the shattered mid-1970s, they made women out of children and created confusing shivers that yet had no name (but it wrote its bliss in crayon and lipstick). The supernova of sensation they caused may now seem like a dervish spell of badge-covered madness, but this must not obscure the honesty and purity of the feeling, nor the I/IV/V beauty at its root. I am not here to ask any of you to reconsider the Bay City Rollers. I am here to ask you to remember the Rollers, exactly as they were:
Remember the joy they gave you. Remember the flurry of strange feelings you had when you thought of them, and how you wrote their names in the margins of your notebook, and in soft blue Biro on the back of your hand. These were honest feelings, friends. These were the real you, these were the real Rollers.
Remember them, with the fingers of your teenage heart, but with your adult cognition: They did not just invent you, a screamer and a schoolroom daydreamer. They also invented you, a listener, lover, chaser, and canvasser of music. You needed those records, you flew down far corners and strange corridors to find those import copies; you memorized those songwriter and producer names, just like you would again and again in the far future when the music was ever-so-much-more serious. But the Bay City Rollers were your first. Because of Les, Woody, Eric, Alan, Derek, even Pat, and Ian, you learned the difference between a bass and a guitar, a Fender and a Strat, a harmony, and a melody, didn’t you?
Face it: The Bay City Rollers were your gateway drug, not just to every crush you had since, but to every band you have loved in their wake.
You did not know it, did you, but you have been measuring every act since against the standard set by the bubbles of heat in your diaphragm and the bumps in the flesh on your forearms that the Bay City Rollers first made you feel.
Stuart John Wood is 61 years old. He lives in Edinburgh, and in the last few decades has had some success producing a series of ambient albums based on Scottish traditional songs. He also teaches Music Technology at a local college, instructing young people on how to set microphones and use computer programs to advance their creativity. He is also a past, present, and future member of the Bay City Rollers, and millions of (now middle-aged) women will recall the time they sat in class, wrote their own name, then the name “Woody,” and drew a heart around both of them.
When you are on the bus or walking around town, do you sometimes stop and think, “Okay…when I was a teenager, I was in the biggest band in the world.”
“I know, probably better than anybody, that it’s not real,” says Stuart “Woody” Wood. “That whole world, it’s not real, it’s just a normal person that goes into character. Sometimes when I watch a movie, especially when you’re in a cinema, I get engrossed in it and become part of the film – you become part of the film, and you’re not aware of the fire exit signs and other people around you. So it’s a wee bit like that. When you’re up on stage, you perform, and you put on a show, and you’ve got to be aware that there’s people up there to entertain, can you project a good feeling, that’s our job. And if you manage to become a big success, and people are shouting at you and screaming at you – I mean in a good way – and get paid lots of money for it, that’s the bonus. But the reality of it is, I am just sitting here looking at my computer, and I’ve got a music program up on it, and I am working away at some guitar parts, that’s the reality.”
Stuart is now touring with a new version of the Bay City Rollers. He hopes to summon some of the turbulence, some of the Scottish rip and stomp and strum, that he felt were part of the Rollers when he joined the band in 1973 (and which have been absent from other recent versions of the band).
“There are various versions, but there is only one official Bay City Rollers, and that’s this one. What’s interesting is that the new band are all Scottish guys – some of the variant bands that have been out there have not been Scottish, they’ve had English guys and Irish guys and even Americans in them, but this new band is 100 percent Scottish. I felt that was important, to get that feel back that the band had in the early days.”
Stuart Wood is underlining something that was intrinsic to the Rollers, and which all that teenypopism may have obscured: The Bay City Rollers were a rock ’n’ roll band.
My friend Jahn Xavier is a punk rock legend. As a child, he ran down the aisles of the Fillmore East, and barely a teenager, he played bass in Richard Hell’s Voidoid’s and scrawled his graffiti tag – X Sessive – all over the walls of smashed, shuttered 1970s lower Manhattan. He remembers seeing the Bay City Rollers at the Palladium in New York City in 1977: “I figured I was going to have a laugh and maybe meet some girls. Instead, I got my mind fully f*cking blown by one of the coolest rock shows I’ve ever seen. They rocked out like kings to a sea of fainting girls, and they could play. Up there in my all-time concert list, something I never could have imagined a moment before they hit the stage.”
The silhouette of the Rollers was a rock ’n’ roll band, even if they cast the shadow of a teenypop/proto boy-band. They had electric guitars, they played big, wet, bug-fat chords over rumbling drums, they were not the bloody Osmonds, they were Slade via Herman’s Hermits via Joe Meek, and they laid the gravel on your path to punk rock and beyond.
Mind you, there were also a lot of screaming girls. Hundreds of thousands of them, especially in the U.K. circa 1975/’76, where the level of hysteria attached to every Rollers’ live appearance defies memory and seems mythical (it’s unlikely that many Americans realize quite how giant the Rollers were in the U.K., what a national obsession they were).
I have seen pictures where the Rollers are being stalked with a fervor, a panic, a mania, that surely must have been terrifying to someone who was, in fact, the prey, the goal of all those outstretched hands and pounding fists. Did it leave scars?
“I could make up a story and say, oh, it was so scary, Tim!, but I was 16, 17, so it was all just a big laugh!” recalls Stuart. “I don’t remember ever being scared of fans. We were never afraid of the fans. It was just all excitement, pure excitement. It was just a laugh – I mean, you didn’t want to get caught – thankfully, I didn’t. I don’t know what would have happened. Thankfully, our security was always bang-on, and they always had things figured out. I can’t remember ever finding fear in that – only excitement. It was like, here we go out for a game of football, we are taking on another team, and our object was to get to the stage and do the show and get back to the hotel.”
If you want to make sense of the Bay City Rollers, real sense, consider that they are the logical connection between the Faces and the Sex Pistols; it’s all just loud, louche, lusty, strummy, grinning lads wearing tartan. Picture it in your minds, man! The Rollers were the causeway between these two shores, as it were. The Bay City Rollers were ludicrous and magnificent, they were the Faces-via-the Muppets, the Tartan Army-via-The Goodies, they were five toy Spiders from Mars on top of your 14th birthday cake. The Bay City Rollers were the moth wings against the light bulb seen in the delivery room by 880,000 future hipsters, the tartan Tardis that zipped you to everything flash and noisy that followed.
I asked Stuart Wood: When you saw the early pictures of Johnny Rotten, wearing tartan and with the spiked hair, did it seem, well, familiar to you?
“Yes, definitely. It’s funny – I might be wrong here, but I’m pretty sure I’m not: There was a party thrown by the person who used to make our clothes, Bambi Ballard – by ‘make’ them, I mean we would come up with the designs, and she’d measure us up and put them together and put the tartan where we wanted it — and she became a friend of the band. There were a bunch of music business people there, and I am pretty sure I ended up talking to Malcolm McLaren – and this is before the Sex Pistols had started – and he was asking lots of questions about the fans, and the tartan, and all the other bits and pieces. I might be wrong, but this is something that stuck in my mind from way back. When I first heard of the Sex Pistols and the name Malcolm McLaren came up, I thought, ‘Wait, that’s the guy I was talking to at that party!’ – and maybe he was finding a few things out.” (Note: There is some independent verification for this story).
And then there are the Rollers’ peculiar Bowery cousins, the Ramones, who also mastered simple songs, thumping rhythms, a consistent costume, and memorable chants to reach fame. The resemblance may not have been accidental.
Craig Leon produced the very first Ramones album, and he told us this: “Though it was decidedly uncool to be a fan of the Bay City Rollers in 1975, members of The Ramones were proud to announce their fandom. Obviously, there’s the musical homage to ‘Saturday Night’ that occurs in the opening chant of ‘Blitzkrieg Bop,’ and the band embraced many of the same marketing principles that the Bay City Rollers did. For instance: a specific uniform look and style; First name recognition; Short pop songs; unique graphics. In early discussions with me about the band, Tommy (i.e., band visionary and drummer Tommy “Ramone” Erdelyi) mentioned that he was certain that the group was going to be ‘as big as The Bay City Rollers.’ Was he joking? Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
Now, you might be asking, why doesn’t the world take the Bay City Rollers more seriously? Where did it all go wrong?
Let’s go back to 1976. The Rollers had just released their fourth LP, Dedication. It’s a damn strong album, with some toes fluttering in the sparkly waters of glitter, the hot sands of punk-inflected pub rock, and the crunchy, amphetamine’d candy of hard power pop. It contains two of the Rollers’ very best and most powerful power pop recordings (“Yesterday’s Heroes” and “Rock’n’Roll Love Letter”), plus an oddly touching cover of “Don’t Worry Baby” and the snarling “Rock’n’Roller,” which sounds like a very convincing cross between Dr. Feelgood and Status Quo.
But just after that, in 1977, the Rollers made the first of two catastrophic mistakes.
After Dedication, manager Tam Paton (more on him in a bit) and Clive Davis, the head of the Rollers’ American record label, decided the Bay City Rollers should appeal to an older and more sophisticated audience. This was a massive error; the Rollers should have been attempting to age with their audience, not reach out to an older audience. It probably would have been a good time to turn to a young and credible record producer who would have been sympathetic with the thumpy powerpop at the heart of their sound – someone like Nick Lowe, Chris Thomas, Craig Leon, Ed Stasium, or Mutt Lange. But instead, they enlisted producer Harry Maslin, who had scored soppy M.O.R. hits with Barry Manilow, and been involved in Bowie’s trés adult Young Americans record.
The result was It’s a Game, a soft, soapy, saggy collection that held virtually no charm for the Rollers extant audience, and completely failed to engage older middle-of-the-road listeners.
“I think we were doing fine, and then we got stuck doing the wrong sort of music, the wrong producers,” notes Stuart. “Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as they say. If I could go back, it would have been nice if we stuck to the direction we had on our second and third albums, but it started to get a bit too sophisticated sounding, a bit too clean; the Rollers, way back, we were always a bit rough around the edges. So in a way, it was quite punk at the beginning, and it just got cleaned up, it got too sophisticated.”
The second equally massive error is something that seems so clearly ridiculous I still wonder how it happened.
In 1975, the Bay City Rollers had done a highly successful television series in the U.K. called Shang A Lang. Although essentially aimed at the Rollers’ teen base, it did not talk down to them, and it featured segments and humor aimed at bringing in an older and wiser audience (for instance, a regular spot featured the legendary English guitarist Big Jim Sullivan, and guest performers included Sparks, the Drifters, Johnny Nash, Alan Price, Marc Bolan, etcetera). Shang A Lang even included a weekly segment where the Rollers spoke to their audience about legacy musicians who influenced them.
But in 1978 when the Rollers had a shot at a regular American television series, they literally committed career suicide. Their American series, The Kroftt Superstar Hour Starring The Bay City Rollers (later renamed The Bay City Rollers Show) was a Saturday morning show aimed at pre-teens; it virtually ensured that no reasonably sophisticated music fan – heck, no one over 10 – would be watching. Not only did it alienate any potential new fans, it actually offended existing ones.
Wood: “The Kroftt show, that was another big mistake. Great people, they looked after us very well, we had a great time in Los Angeles, but we shouldn’t have been doing a show with big puppets. It was just completely the wrong thing to do. But again, hindsight is a wonderful thing. It should have been a harder-edged kind of show, or similar to the Shang A Lang show. But the Kroftt show put off any older fans, who would have seen it and gone, ‘Oh, god, no, this is too young for me.’ It’s a shame it went that way, but that was another bad move on our part or the management.”
Also in the dark days of 1978, the band released Strangers in the Wind, another Harry Maslin-produced venture that further attempted to tie the Rollers into easy-listening, sub-Air Supply-ish mainstream rock. It was the anticlimactic ellipses on the Bay City Rollers reign as masters of space, time, and screams.
But the story wasn’t actually over. In 1979, the band replaced vocalist Les McKeown with South African pop-rocker Duncan Faure (imagine a cross between Robin Zander, Kenny Loggins, and Chris Wilson from the Flaming Groovies); they formally shortened their name to The Rollers; and they released the best album of their entire career.
Elevator, a ripping exercise in state of the art power pop with some gently prog touches (picture 10CC meeting the Rubinoos), is absolutely comparable with contemporary work by the Records, Bram Tchaikovsky, the Motors, and even predicts the thoughtfully-produced hard-edged janglepop of the Bangles, Soul Asylum, and the Goo Goo Dolls.
Wood: “It was at that point that the band found itself again, but unfortunately the record company disagreed, and I don’t think we got the promotion or the support we should have had. Had that been our fourth album, things might have gone a lot better. For us, Elevator was us back on track again.”
Personally, Elevator is the album that sold me on the Rollers; and from there, I worked back and discovered that elements of this joy and energy could be found on all of the Rollers pre-1977 recordings.
Two more albums followed by the Faure-fronted Rollers. Though neither had the high quality and consistency of Elevator, the final album, 1981’s Ricochet, has a certain appeal if you like “Love Is Like Oxygen”-era Sweet, or Trevor Horn-era Yes (not entirely a coincidence since prior to the Rollers, Faure had been in a band with future Yes member Trevor Rabin).
In the ‘80s and ‘90s a few sporadic reunions were attempted; most recently, in 2015, Woody, Les, and the late Alan Longmuir reassembled for some reunion gigs.
“That did not work, it was pretty horrendous. There was good reaction from the audience, and it should have been really nice and really easy and a lot of fun, but it was a bit of a nightmare. I don’t want to get too much into it, because I was brought up being taught that if you have nothing nice to say, it’s best to say nothing. But that got me back to the idea of getting the band active again, so I started looking for other players, and people who were committed, the right sort of people with the right image and the right attitude, and I think I found them. It’s all very exciting, and it feels like a new lease on life. Is everyone going to go for it? Probably not, because you can’t please all the people all the time, but you can give it a good shot. Though maybe one day Duncan might jump up and do something with the new band, do a guest appearance, that would be great. Maybe even Ian Mitchell, we’ve been in touch, he’s a supporter of the new band. It’s just the original guys that don’t talk (laughs).”
Even as Stuart Wood moves forward optimistically with his new young and powerful Bay City Rollers, there is something else I am compelled to address.
Once upon a time, it was difficult to give the Bay City Rollers a fair assessment because of the teenypop detritus that prevented many listeners from seeing the breathing, thumping band beneath the hysteria, puppets, and ballads. Today, the dialogue about and perception of the Rollers – especially in the U.K. – is clouded by the revelation of the sordid life and crimes perpetrated by their Svengali-like manager, Tam Paton. In 1982, Paton was convicted of “gross indecency” with teenage boys, and sexual abuse charges dodged him for the rest of his life (Paton died in 2009). Former members of the Rollers have even come forward to claim that they were propositioned – and in two cases, raped – by Paton. Although Paton’s predatory behavior deserves to be addressed at length (something I won’t do here, though I strongly suggest you seek out the extensive reporting on the subject; I especially recommend the account in Simon Spence’s When The Screaming Stops: The Dark History of the Bay City Rollers, and the reporting and commentary of Samira Ahmed), the abuse headlines had the unfortunate effect of doing the same thing that the silly Kroftt show did forty years ago: deflect the dialogue from the power of the Rollers music and the way they shaped a generation of music fans.
What are Stuart’s thoughts on Tam Paton?
“Tam was a great P.R. guy – terrific at market insight – useless as a business manager. He did employ somebody to do the business side, who ended up ripping us off as well. He certainly knew which guys to pick to get the look, what a good blend was going to be, and who teenage girls were going to get into — Alan, he had that kind of more polished look, Eric and myself were definitely rough around the edges, Les kind of had the bad boy look about him. I think Tam was good at that, and you can’t take that away from him. As to whether he fancied anyone in the band or not … I really don’t know, I think he fancied Les. Les came out years later and said that was the case. The rest of the guys I can’t answer for. But myself, not a chance. He became a disgusting character, but that was long after Alan and myself sacked him in 1977. It was about three years later, I was living in Los Angeles, actually, and I read that Tam had been arrested for videos, underage boys, that kind of stuff. It was quite disgusting to read. And I’ll be honest with you, I just didn’t want to know…he was never like that, not that I had ever seen. I don’t hate the guy, though clearly towards the end he became quite a disgusting individual.”
Wood has a curious and even charitable thought regarding Paton’s legendary control over the Rollers, which extended to virtually every aspect of their life:
“In some ways, perhaps, it was good for us that he had kept us so much under his thumb – we were 16, 17, 18-year-old guys, and if there hadn’t been anyone there, there would be a lot of Bay City Roller babies all over the place. If we hadn’t been so closely watched, god knows what would have gone on.”
Does Stuart Wood miss the days of Rollermania?
“It’s not something I miss, I don’t miss being a big sort of idol that was shouted after and chased by thousands and thousands of people, and was getting chased down hotel corridors, and into lifts, I don’t miss that at all. As long as I can play with some decent guys and do some music, I’m fine. The past is important, because that’s where you made your mistakes, and you hope you don’t do the same for the future. But I am very, very much into what’s going to happen in the next five minutes.”
This piece is dedicated to Bay City Rollers’ founding member Alan Longmuir, who passed at age 70, between the two interviews I did with Stuart Wood for this piece. Let me also thank Russell Webb, Kate Harper, Jahn Xavier, Craig Leon, Binky Phillips, and Samira Ahmed for their help thinking through this piece. The website for Stuart Wood’s Bay City Rollers is here.