This originally appeared on my old blog in November 2010; I’m reposting it as part of Edinburgh Exorcism, an ongoing series of posts about the Bay City Rollers. The blog entry that inspired it (the “recent roundup of the AT40”) hasn’t been reposted here.
Been thinking a little more about a footnote I tossed into my recent roundup of the AT40 for the week ending Nov. 22, 1975.
As I mentioned, Bay City Rollers singer Les McKeown struck and killed an elderly woman in May 1975 while driving the Mustang he had bought as a token of his success.
In November of that year, McKeown was acquitted of the most serious charges against him in relation to the accident.
(He was found guilty of lesser charges; he lost his license and paid a fine, but did not serve jail time as far as I know.)
I find it interesting that the period of McKeown’s legal problems coincided with the major promotional push that broke the band in America.
In the fall of 1975, the Rollers:
* Got their first significant U.S. radio airplay. (The first local singles chart in the ARSA database to include them comes from WBZ in Boston for the week ending Sept. 19.)
* Were featured in an article in a mid-September issue of Time magazine.
* Dropped their first LP release in North America.
* Performed via satellite hookup on the first episode of Howard Cosell’s “Saturday Night Live” network TV show on Sept. 20.
* Landed at Kennedy Airport for a week’s worth of New York-area promotional activities. (The airport landing received extensive media coverage, including this Nik Cohn story in the Nov. 3 issue of New York magazine.)
* Started showing up in Tiger Beat.
* Cracked the US Top Forty for the first time in the week ending Nov. 8.
That’s a lot of promotion, attention and activity for a band that didn’t know whether its lead singer might be disappearing for an extended prison sentence.
I wonder whether McKeown’s uncertain legal status made Arista Records, the Rollers’ label, think twice about its big promotional campaign.
It would have been awfully inconvenient, to say the least, if the lead singer of this heavily promoted, squeaky-clean teenybop band had suddenly been sent up the river.
(How might Capitol Records’ “The Beatles Are Coming” promotional campaign have been different if one of the Fab Four had been up on similar charges in Liverpool in January of ’64?)
The potential for McKeown’s departure suggests that promoting the individual personalities of the band, Beatles-style, would have been a bad idea.
In the few news stories I’ve seen from ’75, Rollers manager Tam Paton takes the lion’s share of the spotlight in dealing with the media.
Nowadays, boy bands all fit into predetermined personalities — there’s the moody one, the babyish one, the “real singer,” etc.
But contemporary coverage of the Rollers makes them seem like one cuddly twenty-limbed organism, with about as much individual personality as five pieces of Bazooka gum.
Perhaps that was the result of a conscious decision by the Rollers’ management to downplay the individual members. Maybe they didn’t want America to get too attached to any single one of the band members.
(That’s speculation, of course; I haven’t read every single Rollers article out there, and maybe U.S. journalists were doing extended interviews with Les McKeown in the fall of ’75. It doesn’t seem that way from what I’ve seen, though.)
Had McKeown suddenly become unavailable, Arista and the Rollers’ management might simply have replaced him with some other tartan-clad Edinburgh teen, and American listeners probably wouldn’t have been the wiser.
But the damage to the Rollers’ image might have been irreparable once American journalists got their teeth into the story.
Vehicular manslaughter, while not a morals charge, still doesn’t reflect well on a bunch of aspiring boys-next-door.
Clearly, if Arista had any serious concerns about promoting the Rollers, it managed to get over them.
And everything worked out for the best, at least from Arista’s point of view:
McKeown got off on the most serious charges on Nov. 20, and the Rollers were free to conquer America.
“Saturday Night” would become the Number One single in the U.S. about a month-and-a-half after McKeown’s day in court.
Of course, things weren’t so easy on McKeown, who — at just 20 years old — was expected to keep performing and smiling through a time of massive personal stress and sorrow as if nothing had happened.
But if you want the details on that, you can read his tell-all autobiography.