If you ever wore tartan in the 1970s, chances are you remember the Bay City Rollers. The Scottish pop band with hit songs like ‘Bye Bye Baby’, ‘I Only Wanna Be With You’ and ‘Shang-a-Lang’ was described as the biggest group since the Beatles, prompting the tagline Rollermania.
Lead singer Les McKeown, speaking to Starts at 60 from London, said the big times lasted five years for him. From screaming fans to magazine covers, not to mention selling 70 million records worldwide, McKeown said they were certainly good times. “It was a fantastic adventure on many levels,” Les McKeown said.
As good as they were, the following years were not so good for the singer. He said he had a battle with alcohol from 2002 to 2008. “I definitely hit rock bottom.” Going into rehabilitation for four months in California switched him back on to his natural self. McKeown admits he probably wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t. At the time his doctors told him in August that he probably wouldn’t make it to Christmas, but even that wasn’t a wake-up call. “I just went out and bought some more alcohol,” McKeown admitted. It was his wife and son who encouraged him to make the decision to go into rehabilitation. “It made me appreciate who I am.”
Because of his own experiences it has also made him appreciate how hard it is to deal with someone dealing with substance abuse, who can become rude, nasty or even violent. That’s why he feels more money needs to be spend on mental health. “You can’t see it, it’s not like an injury.”
He came out the other end ‘reasonably OK’, and realised he had been part of something big, and the best thing he could do is to keep that thing together. And that is exactly what he does now. McKeown still performs all over the world singing the songs that made Bay City Rollers a big hit. “I want the live show to sound almost like the record. The whole idea is to get people back to the past, when they first fell in love with the Bay City Rollers, and have a really good night remembering. People come to my shows because they know that is what they are going to get. You want good things to last forever, don’t you?”
In the UK he still does over 100 gigs a year, and travels to other countries such as Japan, Sweden and Canada. “There are people all over the world who want to remember the Bay City Rollers.” In fact, last year he did 246 shows, although that took him to the limit, so he has slowed down to just 86 shows this year. That includes an upcoming Australian tour in June and July. “I was born in a suitcase, I’m sure. I have the most organised suitcase in the world.”
To get through, 61-year-old McKeown admits he has to stay fit by eating healthy and exercising when he can, especially as he is a type-two diabetic. “I’m no spring chicken,” he laughed. “I get a lot of exercise on stage.”
Music is still a big focus in McKeown’s life. He is still writing new songs, but it is some of his earlier songs, written when he was only age 18 to 20 that hadn’t seen the light of day, that feature on a new album titled The Lost Songs. As well as writing new music McKeown is also working on a new album of covers. “I’m 61-years old now, I want to get in as much as I can.”
While he was still at school McKeown was encouraged to get work with a big project in Scotland with the North Sea oil and gas industry. “I told the careers officer no, I was going to be a pop star… I had the last laugh.”