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The Roller Coaster

The following article appeared in "Weekend" the magazine that came with The Guardian newspaper for 18th June 2005. Although most of the article is about the tragic story of the Bay City Rollers there is a section about Tam Paton, manager for both Bilbo Baggins and The Rollers.

If you do not want to read the whole article click on the following link to go to the section on Tam. Go To Tam's section.

Guardian Weekend CoverSince they split in the late-1970s, the one-time superstars who were the Bay City Rollers have been riven by bitter squabbles over a fortune in unpaid royalties - though that should be the least of their worries. One is battling drugs and depression; another was caught downloading child porn; a third has suffered a stress-induced stroke. But are things finally looking up? Simon Hattenstone investigates. Main portrait: Jake Walters

When the Bay City Rollers were big, they were the biggest. For two years, everything they touched turned to gold, then platinum. There was a national Rollers uniform — up and down the land, kids wore tartan culottes, scarves dangling from the wrist and Doc Martens boots. ‘We want the Rollers!” was the only cry heard in the 1974 the Top Of The Pops studio, whoever was playing. The band sold 120m records, generating income worth £5bn in today’s money and conquering the UK, US, Australia, Japan — everywhere. They were the world’s biggest band since the Beatles.

When the Rollers failed, they failed like nobody else. Suddenly no one wanted to know. By 1976, the Rollers were twee and trite, yesterday’s teen icons. Horror story piled up on horror story: apocalyptic fallings-out, a fatal car crash, drug and alcohol addiction, heart attacks, strokes, poverty, child porn convictions and suicide attempts. The story of the Bay City Rollers became an awful cautionary tale of fame and its fallout.

Fewer have fallen more spectacularly than Les McKeown. He was the Scottish band’s second lead singer, hired after Nobby Clarke quit in 1973. Before McKeown, the band looked destined to be a one-hit wonder, with the Jonathan King-produced Keep On Dancing. But by 1974 Rollermania was in full flow. McKeown, aged 18, was the biggest heart-throb in a band stuffed with boy-next-door heart-throbs, a magnet for millions of screaming teenage girls.

It’s hard to track down McKeown and his fellow Rollers these days. Not because they live in splendid isolation on their country retreats — they don’t. It’s because they don’t want to talk about their Roller days. The memories are still too bitter and, a quarter of a century on, too fresh. At the same time, it becomes apparent that Rollerdom is ever-present in their middle-aged lives — not least because they are still fighting for the royalties they are owed.

I speak to former agents and bookers. None can lead me to the Rollers. They have heard all the stories over the years, and recount how Alan Longmuir has had a heart attack and how Derek Longmuir has been convicted for downloading child pornography, how Eric Faulkner has disappeared, how Stuart “Woody” Wood has made a new start for himself, and how Les is apparently in a very bad way. One former agent tells me he has heard that Les has passed away.

A contact of a contact of a contact leads, eventually, to Les McKeown. He agrees to an interview so long as he can mention the missing money.

We met in a restaurant in London’s Camden last summer. He is still handsome, though a little bloated and pasty, like somebody who has taken more drugs in his time than is sensible. He is wearing black jeans, black T-shirt and shades, his hair is largely black with streaks of silver, and his teeth are flecked with black. We talk about the old days — how he had dreamed of being in a serious rock band when he was a kid, how he was offered the job of lead singer in the Rollers and his best friend told him he’d be mad to turn it down because if the group did take off, then he could go on to be anybody; how he could have anything he wanted —women, hotel rooms, alcohol, drugs. Anything, that is, except for his own space and time.

I ask McKeown, now 49, when he was happiest. He urns and ahs, and mentions a time just after he left the Rollers, when he was signed as a solo artist by a Japanese label. Really? He muses before giving an answer that could have come straight out of a 12-steps programme. “My happiest days are here and in the future.” I’m not sure even he thinks this is true.

Tam Paton with Les McKeown and WoodyWhat is certain is that he doesn’t mention the Rollers when asked about his happiest times. Yes, he tells stories about groupies and international travel and selling out venues, but there is a weariness to his voice. It is the downside that comes readily to mind — the rows, the exhaustion, the exploitation by manager Tam Paton. Having to jump out of the back window of his house and into a waiting van to get away from fans, never sleeping, not having Christmas off, the band being given speed to keep themselves going.
What about the adulation, the luxury, the lovely house he could buy for himself and his parents, the car he treated himself to when he was 19 — a turbo-charged Ford Mustang 351? But even as I say it, I feel slightly sick in my stomach.

In away, this car tells the story of Les and the Rollers perfectly. The Mustang 351 represented everything he had aspired to, the dream realised, and the subsequent nightmare. In 1975, he was driving in Edinburgh when he hit 76-year-old Euphemia Clunie and killed her. It’s still clear in his head. He describes the road’s four lanes, how she had crossed the first two lanes, and there was no traffic coming on that side of the road, and how she just continued walking till the car hit her. “She only lived across the road from me, and I wanted to knock on her family’s door and say, ‘I’m really, really sorry’, but I wasn’t allowed to do that. I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral.”
At the time, he was told to try to put it to the back of his mind for his own sake and for the sake of the band. ‘They didn’t see it from a helpful, human way. It wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to get through this together’, it was more like, We need you on stage tomorrow, you wee cunt, so you better stop fucking crying.”

McKeown has always insisted he was driving at 40mph, but witnesses claimed the true speed was 70mph, and he was charged with causing death by dangerous driving. Another witness came forward, though, and McKeown was found guilty of the lesser charge of driving recklessly, fined £150 and banned for a year. He says it still upsets him that he has never gone to make peace with the family and tell them that he was neither drinking nor speeding. “I won’t say that l think about it every night, but there’s elements of what happened then that have something to do with head trips today.”

McKeown was never the same again. The band continued to dominate the charts for another few months, but by 1977 punk was on its angry march, and the Rollers were no-hopers in the UK. In 1978, they left for Los Angeles to try to reinvent themselves, but McKeown was more interested in taking cocaine with his rock ’n’ roll heroes such as Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and the Who’s Keith Moon than playing with the Rollers. It didn’t last long — Moon died that year, Bonham was dead by 1980, both drummers barely into their 30s, legendary rock casualties.

It was in 1978 that McKeown told fellow Rollers that he wasn’t happy with their plan to make an American TV series for little kids and they should all leave the band. They wrote back saying, “Fuck you, you’re fired.” In the end, he left by mutual agreement. By the age of 22, he was a has-been. “It was horrible. I was fucked, basically.” He orders another glass of white wine. “I was looking after my mum and dad in a hotel in Edinburgh because the house had been repossessed. It was really... I can’t tell you…”

Even now, after all these years, he breaks up when he thinks about it. Because he was thrown out of the band before they split up, he was the only one to have his house repossessed. “It was shite. Thank God I wasn’t as worldly as I am now, because I probably would have topped myself then, but I still had loads and loads of enthusiasm about my potential. I was convinced that, if I could get myself a deal, I’d crack it as a solo artist.”
There’s a sweetness to Les McKeown, alongside a burning intensity, a heaviness, an anger, a desperate sense of dejection. I keep thinking, please, Les, tell me something good. What about the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll? Yes, he says, there was all of that, but it wasn’t how he had envisaged it — he was a teeny idol, not a rock ’n’ roll star; he wasn’t allowed to admit that he had sex or girlfriends in case it made him damaged goods, and initially he was given drugs as a controlling mechanism.

“Tam started us on drugs. Well, he started me on drugs. When we got a wee bit tired, he’d give us amphetamines. He’d keep us awake with speed, black bombers, and then it becomes a little culture, doesn’t it? ‘I’ve got this great stuff from a chauffeur', mandrax, whatever, so you end up almost showing off to each other what stupid drugs you’ve taken.”

Tam PatonTam Paton is probably the key to understanding the Rollers. While it is indisputable that Paton made the Rollers, McKeown would argue that he was also largely responsible for destroying them. He compares the band’s relationship with Paton to that of a child with an abusive parent.

Last year, Paton, now a property dealer, suffered a stroke after being cleared of child sex abuse allegations and being fined £200,000 for supplying cannabis. He was sacked by the Rollers in l978. In 2003, former guitarist Pat McGlynn accused him of trying to rape him in 1975 — Paton dismissed it as a cynical attempt to whip up publicity for McKeown’s autobiography, Shang-A-Lang, which was just about to be published (McKeown accompanied McGlynn when he went to Howdenhall police station in Edinburgh to lodge his allegation against Paton). In a separate case, Paton was given a three-year jail sentence in 1982 for gross indecency against two teenage boys.

Paton has always claimed he was unfairly convicted. “All l am guilty of is being gay, and enjoying the company of young people. I have been made an outcast and have been living like a recluse. I have even grown a moustache so people won’t recognise me,” he said in 2003.

McKeown calls Paton’s interest in young boys diseased, and says people like him can pass their disease down the generations and fill people with hate. Was he sexually abused by Paton? No. But, he claims, Paton’s bullying and misogyny infected the band. “Tam Paton was constantly, constantly, constantly ramming the concept that women were dirty fish, dirty, smelly fish, you don’t want any of them, you want to be one of the boys, look at all these people who are successful and gay, and he’d say, that’s how you do it in this business blah blah blah, that’s how you get good proper friends...In one way what he said was kind of true; if you toe the line you reap the benefits.”

But he didn’t reap the benefits. Today, McKeown has still not seen his Rollers royalties. In 1978, it was estimated that he was owed £1.8m. The most recent estimates suggest that the band as a whole are owed up to £50m. Often, McKeown walks into record shops and comes across new compilations featuring Rollers hits — between 1996 and 1998 Bay City Rollers hits were released on 118 albums worldwide. So what happened to the money? The answer is complex, messy and uncertain. At various times, band members have accused Paton of making off with the cash. But Paton says he signed a dodgy record deal and was as much a victim as the musicians were.

Certainly, accountants, lawyers and acolytes have taken more than their fair share. But, bizarrely, most of the money appears to be held in trust for the band by the record company Sony-BMG, which bought out Arista in 1976. Sony-BMG has told the Guardian that it has been unable to pay royalties because there is no copy of the initial contract and the band have been feuding so long that they are unable to agree who is owed what. The company says progress has been made recently, the money is being held in an escrow account and that Sony-BMG has no interest in holding on to it. “The company continues to work in good faith with representatives of the Bay City Rollers to resolve this matter’ a spokesperson says.

McKeown passes on my request for an interview with other band members he is in touch with, and a few weeks later Alan Longmuir emails me. Alan, the band’s bassist, is in his mid-50s. He and his drummer brother Derek started the Rollers in Edinburgh in 1967, and he was still working as a plumber when they cracked the charts in 1971. He tells me he wants to set the record straight. “People thought we were a manufactured band like Take That; no disrespect to them, but we weren’t. We started off at school and built up.”

What he loved about the early days was that the Rollers were a hobby. “You’d finish work and then go and rehearse and look forward to playing live all over Scotland.” Through the years, the line-up continued to change. Alan reckoned there were 27 members in all. Before long, he says, the band became a prisoner of their own success. When he looks back on those years, all he thinks of is hotel rooms, and running away from fans to have a drink in peace. “You couldn’t walk the street. There were 100 girls outside my house every day. You never had your own time. In 1974, I had one day off, and that was to go to a wedding.”

He says he wasn’t exactly a rebel, but he did stand up to Paton, whom he refers to as a control freak. He talks about how Paton would work them to the bone, and how he’d bring in young men, in their early 20s, to manage them in Europe even though they had no experience in the business. “There was a 24-year-old boy supposed to be managing us in Germany, and he didn’t have a clue. But Tam was coming on to him, and he was more interested in that.’

Did Paton come on to members of the band? “Aye, but I was too old. I’d say, go fuck yourself. I liked to go for a pint, I was like a man’s man, so he didn’t really bother me, to tell the truth.” I ask him if there is anything to be said in defence of Paton. “I think Tam was a good guy who went wrong.” The thing is, he says, Paton always wanted to be a star himself. “Tam was a very good musician. I remember seeing him at the local Palais—he played the accordion and the piano. We used to call him the one-handed piano player because, when people walked in, he’d wave with one hand and continue playing.”

Alan says he enjoyed the initial success; it’s just a pity that they were so thoroughly exploited. “For 30 years, I have been asking questions and I’m still awaiting answers.” I tell him that Paton claims not to have made much money out of the band. Alan laughs. “Why has he got so many flats and houses and cars, then?” He’s not seen Paton for 15 years, since he visited him at his home. “I was in his house once and I thought, ‘Ach..’ There were all these young guys hanging about and I thought it was pretty pathetic. He seems lonely.’ Alan brings me up to date with members of the band he is in regular touch with. “Woody is producing a lot of Scottish stuff, and Derek is still doing his nursing thing — he went to the Open University and got a BA.” As for himself, after some health problems, he is back working as a plumber in Bannockburn. “I had a slight heart attack and a slight stroke. Just stress and worry and everything.”

“Big stroke,” his wife mutters in the background. Alan laughs. “Aye, big stroke. I lost the power of my left side. I got the fright of my life. It’s OK now. I still get twitches, but I’m all right.”

Does he think the stress was Rollers-related? “Definitely.” He speaks to so many people who assume he must be living the life of Riley, a former Roller running around in a Roller, and they are amazed when he puts them right. “I don’t feel bitter because I’m quite happy. I’ve got a lot of friends.” Would he do it all over again? “Yes, if I knew what I know now.” Sometimes he misses the music and he’d like to go back into a studio — but really, he says, he’s too old for that now. A more realistic goal is to get the money they’re due.

To do that, I point out, you'll have to stop arguing and get your act together. “That’s right, yeah. Let’s get a business head on us. I’ve always said that.” He dreams about what he will do with the money when it finally comes through. “I could get a boat or something and do a bit of fishing.”

Another few weeks pass before I receive an email from Derek Longmuir, Alan’s younger brother. Derek, who is now 50, has had an eventful and troubled post-Rollers life. In 2000, he was convicted of downloading child pornography from the internet and sentenced to 300 hours community service. He was subsequently sacked from his job at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where he worked as a psychiatric nurse, but in October 2001 was allowed to resume his nursing career.

There is much I want to ask him, not least the influence of Paton on his subsequent life. I wonder if there isn’t almost a twisted inevitability about former teeny bop idols being attracted to teenagers. After all, such kids are the very people the band appealed to in their early adulthood and, in a weird inversion of normal rules, teeny boppers were their paymasters — they bought the records and determined how successful the band were. But Derek isn’t interested in being interviewed, further than answering a few questions on email. Asked if fame is traumatising, Derek replies, “I don’t think it’s the fame, but some of the experiences of just how ruthless the business can be. It is definitely something you have to recover from.”

Woody, who played guitar in the band, has written several successful “Celtic mood” albums in recent years. He doesn’t even want to answer email questions. Nobody knows where Eric is.

After McKeown left, the Bay City Rollers officially changed their name to the Rollers and struggled on for another few years. Members joined, quit and rejoined, to little avail — they never had another hit single. Meanwhile, McKeown called his new band Leslie McKeown’s Ego Trip (it was one—they were very much his backing band) and his first post-Rollers album, All Washed Up, topped the charts in Japan. He was the only one to have a sniff of a successful solo career. For the first time McKeown found himself with money in his pocket. The Japanese label that signed him paid him a total of £300,000 for three records, but he spent a fortune on production and design, changing his mind time and again. He overspent, the records didn’t make their money back, and once again he found himself broke and unwanted.

What difference would the outstanding royalties have made to McKeown’s life? It depends what mood you find him in, and that can change by the minute. “I wouldn’t be here talking to you, that’s for sure, because I’d be dead,” he says at first. So perhaps it’s worked out for the best? “Maybe it has...” He stops and this time imagines all the good things he could have done with the money. “If I close my eyes, I can imagine a beautiful, two-storey white cottage with a thatched roof and a little river running by, just what anybody would imagine — idyllic, the type of thing they give away in the Daily Mirror.”

Today, McKeown lives in a flat in Hackney, East London, with his Japanese wife Peko and their 20-year-old son, Richard. He is the Roller most ready to talk about the toll that fame and its aftermath have taken. “The bit I don’t like is that it’s brought a darkness that sometimes I can’t get rid of:’ Is it there often? “Yeah.” He looks away. “It’s definitely some sort of depression. It’s kind of relentless.” He points to his head. “In a visual sense, it’s sitting there right on your shoulder, just waiting. And it’s like talking to me, saying the world’s shite, you know the world is shite.”

McKeown says matter-of-factly that he had a bit of therapy when he was suicidal. When was that? “Various times in my life. That particular time could have been 1984. There were some family problems and money problems — just stupid stuff that everybody else has to deal with. I’ve never actually been bothered about dying. I can’t think I would ever really miss being alive.” Did he tell his family? “Nah.” He stops. “Nah. They do worry if I just go off, because sometimes I do that. But I’m not going to remortgage my flat to go into one of those rehabilitation centres for three grand a day and find out at the end of it that I’m more depressed. I tried it with the smoking. I used to smoke about 10 fags a day, went to a counsellor and came out smoking 20 a day ...The only person who can fix you is yourself.”

What does he mean when he says he “goes off’? Well, just that, he says — disappears for awhile, to sort himself out, or mess himself up more. It’s usually a couple of days, but it has lasted longer. One incident lasted several months. “I went over to Thailand, smoked opium for three months and just sat like that.” He does an impression of an automaton.

Sometimes, he says, when you feel bad, you can just make yourself sleep and you wake up feeling better with a wee glimmer of hope, and “sometimes I think, ‘You’re such a weak little shite. You’re on the wagon, you’re off the wagon? It’s always been with me. One day I might be able to beat it.”

Things haven’t gone as well for McKeown over the past year as he would have hoped. Soon after we first met he was charged with drink-driving — he pleaded not guilty, and the case is upcoming.

When Paton eventually gets in touch, he apologises for not returning my calls until now. He says he’s not been the same since his two heart attacks and stroke. His voice is strong, though, and he’s lost none of his old belligerence. He talks about the early days managing the Rollers — the good old days, before they really hit it big, when he used to drive them all over Britain for a gig and a few quid. All along, he says, he knew he was flogging an image and little else.

“They were five young inaccessible men, untouchables. I tried to form a total mystery about the band in the same way Elvis Presley and the Beatles were put together. You could hear them but, by God, you couldn’t get near them. The difference, of course, was that Elvis and the Beatles had great talent.”

Paton says it was his dream to be a big star, and when he realised it was unlikely to happen he settled for second best — becoming a famous svengali. He claims that most of the band couldn’t play their instruments properly and performed on few of their records. “They had absolutely no musical ability but people went crazy for them. I took a drummer friend to see them one night, and he came away and said, ‘What the fuck was that? How did that lot get such a reaction?’ I said to him, ‘They are five pairs of tight jeans and big hairy bollocks hanging out at the front', and he said, ‘Thank Christ for that, because you’d never give them a contract on musical ability.’”

I tell him what McKeown has said. He laughs at the suggestion that he introduced him to drugs, and says if McKeown really believes he robbed the band, he should take him to court, “I’m reckoned to be worth about £7m; come and get it. I know how l got my money. My money can be accounted for.”

All the accusations have destroyed his health, he says — not least the allegation of attempted rape. “The police investigated Pat McGlynn’s claim and found it was rubbish?’ What Paton does admit to is financial naivety. “I wasn’t the brightest spark on the block at the time. The straw was coming out of my ears. Or was it potatoes? Hehehehehe!” Paton’s father ran a potato business. Yes, he says, if he had been wiser, he would have driven a harder and better deal with the record company. If he had his time over, would he manage the Rollers again? “I wouldn’t even go near them with a barge pole if they were all standing with their knickers round their ankles. I wouldn’t even think about it. Honest to God. It was nothing to do with sex. I didn’t even fancy any of them.”

So if he didn’t think they were any good, and he didn’t fancy them, and he didn’t like them, why did he take them on? “I was just determined to make something that had nothing famous.” Anyway, he says it’s not true that he didn’t like any of them — he’s always had a lot of time for the Longmuir brothers, especially Derek, “a very caring person”.

As for the money, he says, most of the band had plenty by the time they quit, but they didn’t know how to look after it. He has little sympathy for them. “I think they should get their heads out of their arseholes and start growing up. They are desperate men clutching at straws at the side of the river. Look what it’s done to them — they have become bitter and twisted old men.” And what about him? He sighs. “I would say I’ve become slightly bitter and twisted.”

Les McKeownThrough most of the 1990s, there were two Bay City Rollers bands. They were rarely active and more like tribute bands to their original selves. Even here, there was a bitter dispute over the right for McKeown, the latecomer, to call his band the Rollers. It cost the original members £208,000 in legal fees to ensure his Rollers would be called Les McKeown’s Legendary Bay City Rollers, so that they were not confused with the original Rollers; now only McKeown’s version survives.

Occasionally, however, the Rollers have risen above their differences. The most famous line-up, the fab five, last reunited for a millennium concert on New Year’s Eve 1999. Now the band have come together again — this time not to perform, but to mount a sustained campaign to get the royalties they are owed. They are meeting regularly in Scotland — even guitarist Eric Faulkner has re-emerged, though where he disappeared to and where he now lives remain something of a mystery.

McKeown is still fighting his demons, but there are little things that give him pleasure. “Just the other night, a friend of mine who is going through a divorce came down to rehearsals, and he plays a good lead guitar, and next morning he left me a message. We’re gonna play fuckin’ Wembley next year, and I am the new member of the Bay fuckin’ City Rollers! Hi Les, it’s Tony? And that’s the effect music can have, and that gave me such a buzz just listening to his message on the machine. It’s nice to think you can make somebody’s dreams, and they don’t have to be drug-influenced?”

McKeown himself is preparing for a Rollers tour — alongside the Osmonds and David Cassidy as part of a 1970s nostalgiafest — that will take in venues as grand as Wembley Arena. I ask if any other one of the fab five will be joining him. “No, it’s just me,” he says, “the only one who matters.” At times he can’t help himself. When he leads Les McKeown’s Legendary Bay City Rollers, he improvises and reinterprets some of the old jingly-jangly tunes with samples and big Japanese drums. “I do a really good ballad of Bye Bye Baby. I’m fed up with all that happy shit because I always thought those words were very sad.” He sings the chorus slowly and quietly to me. “Especially if you’ve been through my life, they are extremely painful.”

But what gives him his biggest kick, he says, is playing in his new band, where he is just a guitarist who does a bit of singing. I ask him what the band is called. “Damaged,” he says.

Morley Enterprises

Page Last Updated: 4 March, 2010

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