Saturday, April 24, 2021

"Shang-a-lang" by Les McKeown (in memoriam)

I was puzzled to see a vintage photo (c1976) of Les McKeown pop into my Instagram feed last Thursday morning. And then I gasped as I read the caption below it:  Les, the lead singer of the Bay City Rollers, was dead at the far-too-young age of 65.  He died two days earlier, on Tuesday, April 20th, "suddenly" at home (no cause has yet been revealed), and his Japanese-born wife of 43 (!) years and son were requesting privacy. (He was a diabetic and had previous problems with drugs & alcohol.) 

Les's death followed on the heels of the also way-too-young deaths of guitarist Ian Mitchell just last fall (at age 62), and of founding member Alan Longmuir in 2018 (age 70). I wrote about both of them on this blog, here and here

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know that the Rollers consumed my life for a couple of my teenaged years in the mid/late 1970s. (My poor mother will tell you it seemed like an eternity, lol.)  My sister saw them in their first appearance on the short-lived Howard Cosell TV variety show (!) in the fall of 1975 and called me to come watch. I was in my bedroom, absorbed in a book or something, and ignored her. "You'll be sorry!" she told me, and she was right, lol. (No such thing as VCRs or PVRs or YouTube clips in those days, kids! -- you snoozed, you lost...) We saw them together the following summer, when I was 15 (live, at the old Winnipeg Arena on August 15, 1976 -- 15th row floor seats -- although we didn't stay in them, lol -- which cost $6.50 each).  It was the first concert we'd ever attended.  Les was her personal favourite (mine was the bass player, Stuart "Woody" Wood). (I emailed her within minutes of reading the bad news.)  

As the band's frontman, Les naturally got a lot of the attention, and the girls. He had a crooked smile and a swaggering stage presence, and something of a bad-boy image -- cemented when, driving his new sportscar, he struck and killed a 76-year-old woman. (He was fined and lost his license for a year.) He left the band in the late 1970s for a solo career, has taken part in various reunions over the years, but has mostly toured with his own band, doing Rollers oldies. 

As I wrote a little while back, I had an opportunity last March to see Les again with his current band (called "the Legendary Bay City Rollers" -- to distinguish them from the "official" Bay City Rollers, whose name is now owned by that band's only original member, my teenaged favourite, Stuart/Woody). But the logistics of getting to and from the concert venue -- not to mention the small matter of a looming pandemic -- led me to turn down the invitation. 

I will admit I was torn:  Woody was my favourite (and his version of the band played a gig at a casino north of the city a few months earlier) -- but Les was the voice. I didn't really want to see either of them by themselves:  if either one had at least one other band member from the classic lineup with them, I might have gone. Would I have gone if I'd known it was my last opportunity to see Les and hear that voice sing those songs from my youth one more time? I'll never know for sure (although I suspect I would have still stayed home).  

And so I spent Thursday afternoon and part of the evening wallowing in YouTube clips, smiles intermingled with tears. There is nothing like the music of the boy bands of your youth, be they the Osmonds, the BCR, NKOTB, the Backstreet Boys, 'NSync, One Direction, BTS, or whoever it is that's hot right now.  The Rollers were not the "new Beatles" (by a long shot) -- but they did sell more than 120 million records in just a few short years, and that's not too shabby (even if, sadly, their bank accounts never reflected it). They were young and cute and a little exotic (Scottish! -- those irresistible -- if indecipherable -- accents!!  lol) -- and some of their songs were pretty catchy. Days later, I am still humming "Remember" and "Shang-a-lang" and "Bye Bye Baby" and "Rock and Roll Honeymoon" and "Let's Go" and (of course) "Saturday Night."

Those were more innocent times. I don't think I'd ever want to relive my teenage years -- way too much angst! -- but it would be fun to experience the dawning of Rollermania, and the hysterical wonder of that very first concert again. (Although I think this time I'd bring ear plugs and save a little more of my hearing, lol.)  

*** *** *** 

I knew Les had written a memoir (originally published in 2003), but when I'd checked it out a few years ago on Amazon, it was out of print and used copies were priced higher than I was willing to pay. When I heard of his death and stumbled on a link to the book again, I discovered that a Kindle version was available.  I happily downloaded it to the Kindle app on my cellphone and started reading. That was Thursday, and I finished the book this (Saturday) morning. 

"Shang-a-lang: My Life With the Bay City Rollers" (titled "Shang-a-lang: My Life as an International Pop Star" in some editions) was written by Les along with Lynne Clarke and Irvine Welsh, who wrote the foreword. There's a section at the end with fan comments about the impact Les and the Rollers have had on their lives. 

Les grew up in a tough neighbourhood of Edinburgh, with a chip set firmly on his shoulder -- the youngest of four brothers from a poor Irish immigrant family  As a teenager, he started singing with a local band called Threshold, which put him on the radar of Rollers manager Tam Paton. When the Rollers' lead singer, Nobby Clark, abruptly departed the band, Les was called in to replace him. He bought his mother an electric dryer with his first big Rollers paycheque.  

Les's voice comes through clearly here -- including the use of Scottish dialect ("couldnae," "didnae," "wouldnae," etc.).  Some of the terms I was familiar with from my teenaged Rollermaniac days (e.g., "trews,"chip butties"), while other references (Mary Whitehouse? Will and Gareth??) went right over my non-British/Scottish head. These could have been clarified/explained for a non-UK audience. There are also some typos/continuity errors, particularly near the end, that should have been caught by an editor. (As a former editor/proofreader, this kind of stuff matters to me!)   

Typos and head-scratchers aside, the book is also somewhat marred by Les's snarky comments about the other band members -- Eric Faulkner in particular. He also doesn't have much nice to say about the band's ultra-controlling manager, Tam Paton (although he is far from alone in that respect!). (After Paton's death in 2009, Les claimed the manager raped him.)  Personality clashes are one thing, and some of Les's criticisms about how the band was run are valid -- but I also think some of his personal insinuations were uncalled for and could have easily been left out. 

Those reservations aside, I mostly enjoyed this trip down memory lane. It's ultimately not a very happy story, but Les tells it with wit and humour. This comment, for example, about the advent of punk rock, cracked me up: 

The birth of punk rock did nothing to make me feel more secure in my job. I daydreamed about what it would be like to spit and puke along with the best of them, but I quickly realised the idea was just a hopeless dream and downed the rest of my glass of milk. 

I'm obviously pretty familiar with the Rollers' story by now, but I was glad to have the opportunity to read Les's side of things, and to learn more about his life over the past 40 years. The book ends in 2003, with Les promising to start work on a sequel. I am beyond sad that we'll never see a full reunion of the classic lineup (or that promised sequel), but thankful for the memories, and for this book that brought them flooding back again. 

3.5 stars on Goodreads, rounded up to 4, because I'm feeling generous and nostalgic. :) 

This was Book #22 read to date in 2021 (and Book #6 finished in April), bringing me to 61% of my 2021 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 36 books. I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 11 books ahead of schedule. :)  You can find reviews of all my books read to date in 2021 tagged as "2021 books." 

(My 2019 reviews of Alan Longmuir's memoir and another book about the band, here. All my BCR-related posts on this blog can be found here.) 

1 comment:

  1. Oh, wow. I hadn't heard.

    I'm with you about teen years. I completely agree with your paragraph on that.

    Mine was Eric. Sigh....time passing...