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Saturday 24 February 2018

Bye bye baby? No, the Rollers return...

An emotional Barry Egan remembers the Bay City Rollers - singers of songs like 'Shang-A-Lang' in maddeningly indecipherable tones

The Bay City Rollers outside Dublin’s Gresham Hotel in 1975
The Bay City Rollers outside Dublin’s Gresham Hotel in 1975
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

My earliest childhood memory was of the Tartan Army. Not overly exuberant Scottish fans tearing down the goalposts at Wembley Stadium after beating England, 2-1 in 1977; it was a pre-pubescent Tartan Army of the early 1970s, camped on the southside of Dublin...

A tiny tot Tartan Army which became especially rowdy on Thursday evenings when their mewling superheroes the Bay City Rollers came on the telly to sing songs like Bye Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye), Remember (Sha La La La), and Shang-A-Lang, in maddeningly indecipherable tones on Top Of the Pops.

My big sister Karen, then 12, and her friend Annette White were hard-core Rollers. They wore tartan scarves (tied around the wrist) and three-quarter-length flared trousers to round off the perfectly hideous look of the day at the end of glam rock and before punk. (Malcolm McLaren allegedly wanted his band the Sex Pistols to be "a ruder version of the Bay City Rollers".)

There were posters of her favourite Roller - Woody - on the bedroom wall. Her pre-teen heart was fully pledged to the aforementioned Woody should he ever become available. (He didn't and Karen married a local Bee Gees fan with a 1970s moustache instead called Barry O'Neill.)

For those of you who don't know, the Bay City Rollers were (Eric Faulkner, Stuart John Wood, Les McKeown, Alan Longmuir and brother Derek) in fact, like The Beatles of the early to mid 1970s, without the songs; but with the tartan, the bog-brush haircuts and the piercing screams of teenage (and younger) girls in excelsis.

Woody and his flared-trousered co-workers inspired moral panic and hysteria wherever they went in a manner that made the teenage fans of One Direction seem practically sedated.

The New York Times giddily wrote in 1975: "At one performance, for example, rioting females ranging in age from 10 to 15 forced the group to abandon the stage in the middle of a set and take refuge on an island in a nearby lake.

At another, 50 youngsters suffering from 'Rollermania' had to be carried out of the auditorium and into the theatre lobby, converted for the occasion into a makeshift first-aid station, where they were treated for hysteria."

Seeing the Bay City Rollers in concert in 1976 was akin to being present for The Beatles at the Shea Stadium in 1965.

In Sydney in 1976, 4,000 fans managed to surround the band's limo with echoes of former Tanaiste Joan Burton at the Jobstown water protest. "There was a feeling we were about to die," Woody recalled.

For a time, the baby-faced pop stars were the biggest - and most divisive - band in the northern hemisphere, selling over 100m records. It didn't seem to matter that the Rollers didn't play their instruments, weren't the greatest of singers and didn't write their own material. British record producer Phil Wainman put it succinctly in 1975: "Their strengths were not in singing and not in playing, but they looked great."

Woody, Les, et al carried all the hopes and dreams of their fans in their songs. As Caroline Sullivan wrote in her book, Bye Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair With The Bay City Rollers: "All we ever asked of them was to stop us growing up."

Alas, it was to all end in tears when the band split up in 1978 amid much rancour and in-fighting (they were allegedly ripped off by their controversial manager, Tam Paton.)

It might be too late to stop their fans from growing up now but there is some good news for them (and Karen): Les McKeown's Bay City Rollers are playing Dublin's Olympia Theatre on December 11.

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