Dan Burn-Forti Nick Lowe has worn more than a few hats during his four…
- Posted on Dec 3rd 2010 4:30PM by James Sullivan
Keith Morris, Redferns / Getty Images
It's as good a time as any to revisit the fleeting pop phenomenon of the Bay City Rollers, who took Highland plaid to the top of the charts in the mid-1970s. The Rollers, perhaps the first post-Beatles teen-idol boy band to enjoy international success, evolved out of a '60s band from Edinburgh, Scotland, called the Saxons, taking their new name by throwing a dart at a map of America and landing on Bay City, Mich.
With a string of Top Ten hits and back-to-back No. 1 albums in the UK, the Rollers inspired a delirious fan base that was quickly dubbed the Tartan Horde. By 1975 they were pin-up superstars with their own TV show, 'Shang-A-Lang.' In America, record mogul Clive Davis replicated their British success, beginning with a remade single called 'Saturday Night,' which had failed to chart in its original version in the UK but reached the No. 1 spot in the US and Canada in January 1976.
In 1975, British songwriter Nick Lowe, after several years with the pub-rock group Brinsley Schwarz, was about to embark on a solo career. Still signed to the Brinsleys' label United Artists, however, he dreamed up a plan to get himself released from his contract. He would create a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the teenybopper Rollers that would be so ridiculous, it would surely get him dropped. Lowe and his colleagues named their prank project the Tartan Horde.
But like Max Bialystock's Hitler musical in 'The Producers,' the scheme backfired -- by succeeding. Marketed in Japan, where the Rollers were enormously popular, the single 'Bay City Rollers We Love You' was a surprise smash -- for about two weeks, as Lowe once told the Vancouver Sun.
"They had no idea I was taking a rather jaundiced view of their heroes," he said.
In 1977, Lowe followed up his accidental hit with a similarly themed Tartan Horde single titled 'Rollers Show' (which later saw issue on the US version of his solo debut LP, 1978's New Wave classic 'Pure Pop for Now People' -- the album bore the more provocative moniker 'Jesus of Cool' in the UK). It wasn't until Lowe's next farce, a disco knockoff, that the label bent to his wishes. "They said, 'Look, we can't keep this idiot on the books. Let's get rid of him,'" Lowe recalled. His hard-earned freedom led to a stint in the great, short-lived band Rockpile with Dave Edmunds, production work for the young Elvis Costello and a long-running, craftsmanlike solo career that has featured, among many other highlights, collaborations with Lowe's onetime father-in-law Johnny Cash.
The Bay City Rollers, meanwhile, never fared quite so well again. Their wild success was a distant memory by the late 1970s. And their chaotic fame may have led at least one member to a suicide attempt. When a 17-year-old replacement was brought in to replace the group founder, bassist Alan Longmuir, who was feeling queasy about his status as a teen idol as he neared 30, the new kid quit within the year. He had to get out "before I stick my head in a gas oven," Ian Mitchell told Rolling Stone.
In recent years, despite repeated attempts by various members to put their own versions of the group on the road, the Bay City Rollers have been noted mostly for their financial headaches and their sexual escapades. Rollers drummer Derek Longmuir, Alan's younger brother, pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in 2000. More recently, singer Les McKeown acknowledged that he was an alcoholic and "a bit of a George Michael." Former manager Tam Paton, a sexual predator who contrived a wholesome image for the group -- he claimed they preferred drinking milk to alcohol -- died in his bathtub in 2009.
Nick Lowe, meanwhile, is aging gracefully.