Born: November 12, 1955

Died: April 20, 2021.

TAKE a baby-faced teenager from an Edinburgh housing scheme, dress him a tartan bomber jacket and a pair of platform shoes, offer him a clutch of catchy pop songs and what do you have?

A cultural phenomenon, a single snake-hipped creature who became a catalyst for change and redefined what it meant to be Scottish.

Les McKeown, all smile and hairless chest, didn’t simply lead the Bay City Rollers to international success and 300m record sales, he was responsible for a new Scottish identity. He afforded his homeland a self-belief that until that point had been absent. And just as importantly, he redefined perceptions of Scots by outsiders. (Lulu hadn’t  managed this, thanks to the ditching of the Scots accent.)

The Bay City Rollers of course existed before Les McKeown joined them in 1973, at the age of 18. But they had been one-hit wonders (Keep On Dancing). When McKeown, was added to the line-up he brought an energy and charisma that was to create a whole new dynamic. “Les McKeown was the Bay City Rollers,” said writer Irvine Welsh.

The Rollers then defied expectation, indeed history, to become  the world’s second greatest boy band, (after the Monkees) and almost as much a phenomenon as the Beatles.

But the Rollers had a special appeal in that they weren’t child actors or singers, they were ordinary boys with immense transferable skills.  And one of their greatest talents was to take working class cheek and endeavour onto the world stage.

HeraldScotland:

By 1975, Les McKeown, as the leader, was a poster boy, Blu-tacked to millions of bedroom walls, the classic teenage idol, following on from heartbreakers such as David Cassidy and Donnie Osmond.

The band had a series of hits such as Shang A Lang and Give A Little Love, written by pop writers such as Bill Martin and Phil Coulter and they would storm America, Japan and Europe.

Yet, McKeown’s personal album featured a collection of tragic tales. He killed a pensioner in a car accident and was accused of firing an air rifle at a fan. He revealed he was drugged and abused by his manager Tam Paton and he fought almost endless legal battles to claim royalties for his share of the band’s success.

The Rollers suffered from in-fighting; at one point guitarist Stuart Wood kicked McKeown into the orchestra pit, with Eric Faulkner, Wood and the Longmuir brothers Alan and Derek claiming McKeown continually demanded the spotlight.

When McKeown left the band in 1978, he found himself ‘skint and homeless’. He took to drink and had huge problems coming to terms with his sexuality. (He told me later he considered himself to be bisexual.)

His life became about cocaine abuse and whisky by the bottle. Yet, as a young boy growing up in the Broomhouse housing estate Leslie Richard McKeown could never have contemplated the life to come. The son of Florence and Francis, who came to Britain from Northern Ireland to work for an Edinburgh tailor, McKeown had a trying, but not untypical life growing up with older brothers Ronald, Harold and Brian.

HeraldScotland:

McKeown was always ‘spirited.’  He was expelled from school and focused on becoming a pop star. He formed a local band, Threshold, which brought him to the attention to Tam Paton, who knew the teenager with the 24 inch hips and huge grin could be his frontman to Alan and Derek Longmuir, Eric Faulkner and Stuart Wood,

“I was pleased to join the band,” McKeown recalled in his autobiography, shang-a-Lang, “but the Rollers wouldn’t have been high on the list of bands I wanted to join. They were on the verge of splitting up and owed large sums of money. And they dressed funny.”

But within a few months. Les McKeown was singing his heart out on Top of the Pops.  Remember made the Top Ten. And the teenager bought his mum a new tumble drier.

The hits flowed but personal demands were horrendous. “At times Paton would drag girls from my bed,” said McKeown. Paton also made millions on Rollers merchandising, “But our naivety meant we got ripped off.”

Touring was physically wrecking. McKeown, who would become a Type 2 diabetic, resorted to drugs to stay awake and to get to sleep. And his fractious relationship with Paton saw McKeown’s departure, in 1978, as inevitable. A solo career was moderately successful, – he was big in Japan and released nine solo albums.

Les McKeown never did retrieve the ‘missing millions’ he claimed to be owed. But he did find happiness, living in London with his Japanese wife, Peko.  “If it weren’t for Peko, I’d probably have drugged or drank myself to death,” he said.

What fans wanted to see however was the classic Rollers and they reunited in 2015 and 2016.  “We’re doing it for the fans,” said the tartan-shirted singer at a press conference in Glasgow’s Central Hotel. He grinned; “And of course for the money.”

Yet, that was to be the band's last comeback.  Alan Longmuir died, aged 70.

There is little doubt McKeown could be a divisive figure and was prone to excess. But there is no doubt whatsoever he had the charisma, the energy to front a band and take it to world stardom, paving the way for generations of Scots stars to come.

And he was always fun to interview, quick, and honest about his mistakes.

But what truly defined Les McKeown, who was set to tour Scotland later this year, was his love of performance.  “Just getting out there and making people say, ‘Wow! That was some f****** band.’  That’s what I want,” he said, the passion as loud in his voice as it had been when he sang Bye Bye Baby.

Les McKeown  is survived by his wife Peko Keiko, who he first met in 1978, and their son, Jubei.