Les McKeown, who has died aged 65, was a rock star trapped in a boyband. As lead singer of the Bay City Rollers at their eardrum-shattering height, he was the odd man out; while the other four members of the Edinburgh quintet were obligingly chaste and upright in their public lives, McKeown was made of wilder stuff. He gloried in the screams of their young female fans, but refused to live the unimpeachable existence expected of a 70s teen idol. His heroes were Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant, and he was a swaggerer in their mould – sexy and insolent on stage, darker and more complex off it.
When Tam Paton and Eric Faulkner, the Rollers’ manager and guitarist respectively, invited him to join the group in November 1973, McKeown was not keen. “The Rollers wouldnae have been high on my list of bands I’d have wanted to join,” he wrote in his witty 2003 memoir, Shang-a-Lang: Life As an International Pop Idol. “They’d had their hit, done nothing since and they dressed funny.” Besides, the band he then fronted, Threshold, were starting to turn a profit from tireless gigging in Scotland.
But he decided to cast his lot in with the Rollers, who had the advantage of a record deal – their 1971 debut single, Keep on Dancing, had reached the Top 10, though the next two had flopped – and a ready-made following. The “funny” clothes, consisting of midriff-exposing tight jumpers and tartan-trimmed trousers cut off just below the knee, were just to be borne.
The fame he had craved since his early teens was swiftly realised, but turned out to be a mixed blessing. With the 18-year-old McKeown at the helm and a string of breezy songs lined up for release, the Rollers were energised, and by the end of 1974 they were the biggest boyband in Britain, with four more Top 10s to their credit: Remember, Shang-a-Lang, Summerlove Sensation and All of Me Loves All of You.
Much of the success was linked to McKeown. Where the other Rollers – Eric Faulkner, Stuart “Woody” Wood, Derek Longmuir and Alan Longmuir – were puppyish cavorters, he was feline and slinky, qualities that made him the most howled-at member. His singing was feathery, sweet and capable of bringing out the best in the perniciously catchy songs; moreover, he had a sharp wit that stood him in good stead in interviews.
But McKeown had not bargained for the lack of privacy that accompanied the band’s success, nor for Paton’s predatory interest in his young charges. In an interview with the Guardian in 2005, he likened the manager’s relationship with the group to that of “child[ren] with an abusive parent”. He claimed Paton “started me on drugs”, providing Mandrax and amphetamines to keep him going during long days of touring and recording and, after Paton’s death in 2009, McKeown said the manager had raped him in the 70s, telling McKeown he would kill him if he reported it. (In 1982 Paton was convicted of molesting 10 boys over a three-year period and sentenced to three years in prison.)
The summit of the Rollers’ career was 1975, when the song Bye Bye Baby stayed at No 1 for six weeks and the follow-up, Give a Little Love, also topped the chart. In May of that year, McKeown, who had recently passed his driving test, struck and killed an elderly woman, Euphemia Clunie. The rest of the band pressured him to fulfil a concert commitment the next day: “It was like, ‘We need you on stage tomorrow … so you better stop fucking crying,’” he told Simon Spence, author of the 2016 biography When the Screaming Stops: The Dark History of the Bay City Rollers. Convicted only of reckless driving, he was fined £100 and banned from driving for a year.
His relationship with the rest of the band had always been fractious, and when he left in 1978, it was by mutual agreement. A year later, there was a bid at a solo career with an album called All Washed Up. It was memorable less for its pop-punk tunes than for its cover artwork. It showed McKeown wading out of the sea; in the distance was the wreck of a plane and crash victims holding guitars, clearly meant to be his former band, dying in the water.
The album was a hit in Japan, and McKeown followed it with a couple of other – unsuccessful – Japan-only releases. He settled into a life of touring with his own version of the Rollers, known as Les McKeown’s Legendary Bay City Rollers. In 2008, he was an inpatient at a California treatment facility for four months and succeeded in overcoming longstanding alcoholism.
There was a musical reunion with Wood and Alan Longmuir in 2015, and a run of sold-out shows McKeown hoped could be parlayed into a major comeback. Differences of opinion led to Wood leaving six months later, and McKeown resumed life with his Legendary lineup. Two days before he died, he had announced new concert dates.
He was born in Broomhouse, Edinburgh, the youngest of four sons of Frank McKeown, a tailor, and Florence (nee Close), a seamstress. After he left Forrester high school at 15, his primary goal was to become a professional singer. He formed Threshold with friends, and “embraced the rock’n’roll lifestyle for all it was worth”, which was not much, considering that the band were making £20 a show. Between gigs, he worked at a paper mill.
He is survived by his wife, Peko Keiko, who he met in 1978, and their son, Jubei, also known as Richard.
• Leslie Richard McKeown, singer, born 12 November 1955; died 20 April 2021