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Still on a roll: Former Bay City Roller Les McKeown

He was the fresh-faced frontman of 1970s pop idols Bay City Rollers, but away from the spotlight Les McKeown struggled with drink and drugs. Now, 40 years on and about play to Northern Ireland, he tells Helen Carson why life's never been so good.

Published 25/05/2015

Roller-coaster ride: Les McKeown has had a testing journey since gaining fame with Bay City Rollers
Roller-coaster ride: Les McKeown has had a testing journey since gaining fame with Bay City Rollers
Tartan teens: Bay City Rollers in their heyday
Bay City Rollers' famously loyal band of fans in Belfast
Tartan teens: Les with the new incarnation of the Bay City Rollers

He was the frontman of the biggest band in the 1970s and every teenage girl's pin-up boy, now Les McKeown is back on the road again bringing a rebooted version of Rollermania to the fans. While he's happy to sing Bye Bye Baby, he's not stuck in the past, having battled the booze and found new inspiration in the form of Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon.

Anyone who grew up in the 1970s will remember Bay City Rollers. With their tartan-trimmed flares worn at half-mast and platform shoes, they racked up a string of hits such as Shang-A-Lang and Saturday Night, which had young girls everywhere swooning and in hysterics.

Now, over 40 years later, the most fanciable Roller, Les McKeown (59), is talking about his life and how everything changed from the moment he joined the band. Since the heady days of the Bay City Rollers - when the fresh-faced young Scot became a heart-throb overnight - he has won, lost, then won the war with his drug and alcohol addition which were a consequence of his hard-partying lifestyle.

Although still living with his Japanese wife PekoKeiko in London, (they have a son Jubei, 30) he has spoken openly about affairs with other women, and in recent years admitted to leading a secret life where he had trysts with men as he struggled with his sexual identify.

While his troubles are now well documented, the event which turned his already turbulent world upside down was the loss of this beloved parents in 2002, both of whom were from Northern Ireland. His mother, Florence Close, was born in Banbridge, growing up to marry a soldier from Ballymena, Stephen McKeown - beyond that Les knows very little.

"When we were kids growing up in Scotland we never had any contact or connection with any family back in Northern Ireland," he says. "My mother never talked about it, and I don't know why. My older brother was born there, but I was born in Edinburgh. Maybe it was to do with the Troubles in Ireland, or perhaps some deep dark family secret? It could've been that my mum got pregnant with my older brother before they were married? I don't know because it died with my parents, and I'll probably never know."

He describes his parents, who died within two months of each other, as "his rock" and he is currently researching his family tree in a bid to find any remaining family members in the province who may be able to tell him more about his mum and dad's families, and why they left for Scotland, severing all contact with those back home.

"When I lost both my parents I had a breakdown," he admits. He embarked on a period of self destruction drinking "one, two, maybe three bottles of whisky a day", with all the bad memories from his days with the Rollers coming back to haunt him.

"I was in complete denial," he says. It was a while, but the wake-up call came in 2008: "My doctor had taken some blood tests one Christmas and called me in to see him. I remember walking into his surgery and being in denial about the state of my health, I told the doctor it was all in his head."

And it was PekoKeiko's efforts which made him see sense: "The wife got to me just in the nick of time. I got an offer of a rehabilitation programme at the Passages Centre in California and I didn't want to refuse it - although, I didn't really want to go, either. I was supposed to be there for two weeks and stayed for four months. When I came back from it I said sorry to everyone I had p***** off."

The transformative powers of his stint in US-style rehab, though, does appear to have changed Les' attitude and he is evangelical about the power of counselling: "I would encourage anyone who is suffering or drinking too much to talk to an expert."

He also believes personal issues do not simply go away, but must be faced and dealt with in order for people to move on and have a better life.

"If someone asked me how to deal with any issues they have I would recommend they get counselling. Bad things happen and you put them in the bank and try to figure them out and get on with your life. At some point in the future, though, you might have to pay the price for not dealing with them."

Les says the dark days in his life have been a lesson and he feels the bleakest of his memories - if not totally consigned to the past - are now in a place where he can move on and find happiness.

He has fronted a new line-up of Bay City Rollers since the 1990s which tours the world, playing all the old hits and a few new songs, too.

The band recently hit the road to sell-out shows in the UK and abroad and he is more than happy to be belting out Bye Bye Baby almost four decades after the song was a hit. He attributes this new found positivity to the spell on the American West Coast: "I am looking to the positive in my life, and I cannot think of anything more positive than Bay City Rollers - and going out and singing those songs - it reinforces everything that I learned at rehab. I have been given my life back, it is as serious as that. I'm just so happy that I have been given a second chance. I realise that life is beautiful now ... and all that hippie s***."

But there was a time when he was anything but grateful for the fame given to him by the band: "I used to think the worst thing that ever happened to me was being in Bay City Rollers, now I think it is the best."

And he'll be back in Northern Ireland in July for the province's biggest cultural family event, The Dalriada Festival (July 18-25). Les is set to headline the Saturday music concert, and he is looking forward to the event.

"I can't wait to come over to the festival. It's brilliant, it has Highland Games including caber tossing," he says.

Despite his enthusiasm for the traditional Scottish past-time, Edinburgh-born Les admits he has never participated in caber tossing ... quickly adding he will be doing what he's best at - belting out all those familiar Bay City Roller songs to sing along with on the night.

Interestingly, his current bandmates have been with him longer than the original members: "I have had the same band now for over 20 years and we enjoy doing all those 1970s songs and that is appreciated by fans, it brings back memories of their youth and they don't want to forget what it was like to be young."

He is most proud of sell-out gigs at the O2 arena in London where he joined other 1970s legends The Osmonds, adding: "It felt really good to be back - I was happy to be there."

While the reinvented Bay City Rollers are still going, albeit with just Les the only surviving member of the 1973 line-up, as recently as last December he was talking about a reunion with his old bandmates. Les is on speaking terms with his fellow Rollers and says he would "never say never".

He admits dealing with his past has been key to moving on from the Rollers: "I learned when I was in rehab to deal with any bad things that happen to you in life, ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away."

While he was fortunate enough to be offered a free course at Passages, he has called for a similar level of intervention and support for those struggling with desperate psychological issues from the UK government which he claims need to make mental health a priority.

"The government really needs to spend more money on help for people with mental health issues. You may not be able to see their scars, they may not be missing a limb but there are so many people out there who are in pain," he says.

He claims to be "quite political" now, so what does he think of Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party?

"I think the SNP is more a national party than a nationalist party. I think they want to have a stronger voice for the people in Scotland without it becoming completely self-governing. Maybe this is a good idea? It would give people in Scotland more control over what they do while still being part of the UK - and maybe this would be good for people living in other regions such as Northern Ireland, Wales and even England.

"It seems to me the Tories just want to do things to help the private sector. The National Health Service seems to be at risk as they just want to sell off all the family silver - and, who knows, maybe if the SNP became powerful they wouldn't be any different?"

He is a fan of the party's leader, though: "I think Nicola Sturgeon is always very positive, she is always good. I don't think it was fair the way she was criticised about the way she looked. The first time I saw her - the way she was dressed and in her heels I thought 'wow, she's the one for me'."

He is convinced the fear factor among the UK electorate led to the Conservative Party's victory: "It was a really good move of the Tories to keep focusing on 'what happens if the Labour Party get in and they do a deal with the SNP' - this was a good scare tactic. I think that is why so many people in the UK voted for the Conservative Party but I hope they don't end up regretting it. Who knows, David Cameron might turn out to be a good guy?"

For Les, though, life is about singing and making music and he is working with young producers to make sure the Rollers attract a new wave of fans. "I'm working with songwriters John McLaughlin and Jud Mahoney who have written for bands like McBusted and Westlife, and I have a new album which is being backed with a good budget," he says.

The reinvestment in Les by the music industry is clearly another element in his recovering from the legacy of Bay City Rollers which he now sees as a double-edged sword. And he is confident people will want to tune in again.

"No-one else is doing what I'm doing," he adds. "I am bringing all the old hits back as well as new songs, and there is nothing like getting on stage, performing and seeing all those smiling faces in the audience. I've never had a proper job ever because I was in a band when I was 15 then I joined the Rollers. My first performances weren't that good but you learn - now I know it was what I was born to do."

  • Bay City Rollers, Dalriada Festival, Glenarm Castle, July 18, Saturday night tickets, £28.50,

The Seventies stars that were top of the pops

  • Abba were the supergroup of the 1970s, a hit-making machine which comprised the talents of songwriting duo Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and the singing prowess of their partners Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. After winning the 1974 Eurovision song contest with Waterloo, the Swedish pop group dominated the charts with a string of global hits from 1975 to 1982, including SOS, Money, Money, Money, Fernando, Mama Mia and The Winner Takes It All
  • English pop band The Rubettes formed in 1973 hitting the charts with their doo-wop and 1950s American pop-influenced songs which had been rejected by a number of existing acts. They were famous for their distinctive white suits and cloth caps on stage. Their first hit was Sugar Baby Love, which was a UK chart topper for four weeks in 1974
  • American music family, The Osmonds came to fame in the 1970s in a career which saw them all grow up on stage. The brothers Alan, Wayne, Merril, Jay and Donny performed to screaming teenage girl fans at the height of their fame. Younger brother Jimmy and sister Marie joined in later with successful solo careers which included hit singles and a TV show
  • Hailing from Wolverhampton and Walsall, Slade began in the early 1970s glam rock era, achieving 17 consecutive top 20 hits and six number ones. The British Hit Singles & Albums names them as the most successful British group of the 1970s based on sales of singles. They were the first act to have three singles enter at number one; all six of the band's chart-toppers were penned by Noddy Holder and Jim Lea. Their most famous hit Merry Xmas Everybody has sold in excess of one million copies. Artists who cite Slade as an influence include Nirvana, the Ramones, Sex Pistols, the Undertones and the Clash.
  • Although they formed in the 1960s, English glam rock band, Mud are best remembered for their 1974 hits Tiger Feet and Lonely This Christmas, the latter of which was number one. The band had 14 UK top 20 hits between 1973 and 1976, and three number ones

Belfast Telegraph

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