Three ageing rockers are holding up big glasses of milk in a toast. There’s always something poignant about seeing how teen stars have aged, but the Bay City Rollers really were angelic faced teeny boppers, and I am stung by a feeling of something darker when I see the image all over news websites announcing their (partial) reunion.
Pretending they only drank milk was the idea of their manager Tam Paton, who would have it on the table at news conferences. Paton is now regarded as the Jimmy Savile of Scotland for his predatory abuse of vulnerable young boys over decades. Though he served jail time for gross indecency, the scale of his abuse was never confronted. Only after he died in 2009 did it emerge that the NHS had strong evidence putting Paton at the centre of an alleged paedophile ring.
It was also Tam Paton’s idea that the Rollers always left the top button undone on their trousers. Rock journalist and erstwhile super-fan Caroline Sullivan (author of Bye Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair With the Bay City Rollers) remembers seeing them – a “weird mix of street gang and strange tartan dolls” at a shopping mall in her native New Jersey: “I was almost face to face with Woody and I said, ‘do you know your top button’s undone?’ And he was going to do it up. Tam was a couple of feet away and said, “leave it alone”. I thought he was an incredibly intrusive person. A big burly guy. Quite an intimidating presence.”
Sullivan at the time didn’t see anything sinister. She and her teenage friends thought it was just silly; smart enough like most teenage girls to see a “sexy” marketing gimmick.
Having spent time with Rotherham abuse survivors, and reexamining the Yewtree decade of my own childhood, I see something different; linked to why this band, who influenced The Ramones, and sold up to 75,000 records a DAY at their peak, are still pariahs in the rock world: They are a visual proxy for the sexual predator culture of that decade. Baby faced working class boys and their girl fans – innocence in the arena, and bemusement from male news reporters at the female hysteria of “Rollermania”; but “jailbait” for powerful movers in the entertainment business. It’s because they were so hideously exploited and no one wants to admit that. How much easier for the rock industry to continue to mock them and look away.
Lead singer Les McKeown and fellow band member Pat McGlynn say they were both raped by Paton while drugged. Drugs were a big part of the party culture that Paton cultivated to prey on teenage boys. In 2005 McKeown told Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian: “Tam Paton was constantly, constantly, constantly ramming the concept that women were dirty fish, dirty, smelly fish, you don’t want any of them, you want to be one of the boys… In one way what he said was kind of true; if you toe the line you reap the benefits.”
But the Rollers didn’t reap the benefits. They’re still struggling to recover their royalties through the courts. They fell out with eachother. On the internet you can see for yourself the Dante-esque hell of the US kids’ tv show they were forced to appear on thanks to their enduringly wretched management. Some ex-members have battled addictions. Caroline Sullivan wonders if there’s a comparison to Linda Lovelace – the 70s Deep Throat actress whose abuse was only subsequently revealed: “Once she was no use to her manager/pimp she was left floundering.” When Paton died McKeown said: “I can’t imagine a man nor beast who will be mourning his passing.” When I contact him for this article he very politely declines an interview, writing:
“I am in the process of completing my second autobiography and like the first one it is pretty graphic about TP [Tam Paton]. I am compiling a Bay City Rollers book to be on sale on our upcoming tour. I wont be doing any interviews that cover this topic. It’s all Rollermania for a while :)”
I go back to that photo with the glasses of milk held up to the fans. I see three men in their fifties and sixties determined to reclaim ownership of their youth. The tour, they’ve said, is all about the fans.
Caroline Sullivan says: “My experience doesn’t feel tainted now. It was the best time in my life.” If anyone has a right to reclaim the innocence and joy of the 70s, it’s the Bay City Rollers. I wish them well.
This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine – journalism worth paying for
Why was Scottish Savile ignored? (July 2014 Sunday Express)