Arts

Les McKeown's Bay City Rollers frontman has 'drawn a blank' on his northern roots

Bay City Roller Les McKeown may be in his 60s now but he is still ready to rock and roll. Ahead of his gig at the Ulster Hall next week, he tells Gail Bell how his parents helped him on the road to success, though he has ‘drawn a blank' on his Northern Ireland roots

Les McKeown's Bay City Rollers. Picture by Mike S Fowler
Gail Bell

IT'S time to dust down your cut-off tartan trousers and get ready to Shang-a-lang with Les McKeown's Bay City Rollers, who roll into Belfast to Give A Little Love ahead of Christmas.

Those old enough to remember Rollermania, which dominated the pop scene of the 70s for a time, will recognise the re-energised versions of hits including Bye Bye Baby and Summerlove Sensation – along with a few new sounds from McKeown's upcoming Bay City Rollers album.

Although now in his 60s, the Scottish singer – who lives in Hackney with Japanese wife Peko – and member of the original Roller line-up with Alan Longmuir, Eric Faulkner, Derek Longmuir and Stuart Wood, is delighted to be coming back to the city where his mother used to sing.

And he is well aware of the affection in which his distinctive sounds of the 70s are held in this part of the world, after performances at May in the Marquee in Glenarm last year and, before that, the Dalriada Festival in 2015.

Screams may be more muted these days and faces slightly older, but McKeown still has a loyal tartan army of fans for whom the music remains the soundtrack of their youth.

The only original singer with his reimagined band, he is happy to indulge in nostalgia from the Rollers' back catalogue, but also showcase his own songs.

"Back in the 70s, all the other guys got their songs worked on, but mine got pushed to the side until 2013 when a Scottish producer listened to some of them and they made it into my album – The Lost Songs," says the singer, who left school at 15 to join his first band, Threshold. "I had found them in an attic, tucked away in a box."

His new songs still have the "70s Bay City Roller thing" about them as he wanted to harness a similar type of energy:

"I think those songs struck a chord because they had this energy and exuded happiness in a really dark world," he muses. "There was all that austerity – when you think of 1974, you think of power cuts, rail strikes, coal strikes, the world gone to the dogs...

"We certainly weren’t the Osmonds, all sparkly and all that stuff; we were five scruffy guys from Edinburgh, but we were still a wee ray of sunshine."

Since those heady days, McKeown would be hard pushed to describe his own life as anything akin to sunshine, having publicly battled drink, drugs, fallings-out and affairs, but a stint in a US rehab centre – under the glare of cameras for a reality-type television programme – was the turning point in reclaiming his health and sanity.

"A whole bunch of things led to me being there, but it really kicked in the year after I lost my parents," recalls McKeown, father of a grown-up son, Jubei. "I put on this big front, but I started drinking more and more; I just drank every day and, as soon as I woke up, I would go and get drunk again.

"Rehab gave me the opportunity to do something about it, but the first week there, I wanted to go home. Eventually, though, I got with the programme and ended up staying for four months."

He's in a good place now and following the Irish tour, is set to spend time finishing "bits and bobs" on the new album before embarking on a tour of a Japan in February and then joining the Legends Live arena tour 2019 in April alongside Suzi Quatro, David Essex and Smokie.

'Legend' is quite a title to live up to, but McKeown is unburdened by any sense of expectation and, as ever, takes it as it comes.

He met his wife (to whom he has been married for over 30 years) in London, after randomly asking her for directions – she happened to work at the company he was trying to find – and he joined the Rollers just as they were sky-rocketing towards the height of their fame.

The fact that he was even in the band scene in Scotland at all was due to his parents leaving Northern Ireland under what he now thinks was some sort of cloud.

"My mum was from Banbridge and my dad was from Ballymena, and, since they died, I have been unable to find out much about my extended family in Northern Ireland," he reveals. "Something back in the day happened before I was born which was pretty shameful then, I imagine. I'm guessing my mum might have been pregnant with my older brother or something…

"Unfortunately, I've drawn a blank.. it would be great to find out more, but I’m not on a mission to find my lost ancestors or anything."

He was close to both parents and recalls how he loved listening to his mother – a past member of a Belfast women's choir – sing at home and how his tailor father created the first stage outfit for the Rollers.

"When I was a wee bairn, I would mimic my mum singing and we would sing together," he says. "I thought this was the most natural thing for a human being to do. I never imagined doing anything else. I still don't."

:: Les McKeown's Bay City Rollers, the Ulster Hall, December 6 (ulsterhall.co.uk).

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