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Bargain Bin Babylon: Bay City Rollers: Wouldn’t You Like It?

This tale begins not in a bargain bin or thrift shop, but in a real, serious record shop, the kind where high-priced collectables are displayed on the walls to prevent the casual browser from accidentally downgrading an item from “near mint” to “Ex++” with greasy fingermarks. It was the mid ‘90s, and I had recently discovered that, while even attempting to collect the works of favorites like David Bowie, Lou Reed or the New York Dolls quickly became financially non-viable, those artists were just the most critically respected tip of a vast, vibrant and glittery iceberg. Mott the Hoople, T-Rex, Jobriath, Slade, Wizzard and – sliding down the respectability scale – The Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Arrows and (whisper it) Gary Glitter – then still just an embarrassment rather than the taboo figure of today– proved much more affordable. And although their albums mostly weren’t exactly world-beaters, they looked cool, had a couple of good songs and were easy to find.

While browsing the bargain bins, I overheard a conversation that immediately caught my ear and which turned out to not be as extraordinary as it seemed at the time. A hapless ordinary member of the public had foolishly wandered by in the hopes of offloading their record collection – at this point, older readers may remember, people were still replacing vinyl with CDs – and was having it mercilessly dissected by the gatekeeper at the counter. After agreeing on a disappointingly low price for some treasured albums, I heard the shop owner say, “and I can take those out back and smash them with a hammer for you.” A joke, you might think, but no; the shop had a genuine policy of destroying anything that came in by a particular group. And it just so happened that the group was the answer to the question I’d been asking myself recently – what of Scotland? Had we produced no glam rock of our own?

It was the Bay City Rollers. Because they were a phenomenon – one of the handful of bands to really have a genuine, worldwide “mania” – the Rollers were rarely mentioned in the context of glam. Indeed, growing up in Scotland in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they were rarely mentioned at all; seemingly in the decade between having number one hits in the UK, USA, Japan and all over Europe and Asia they had gained the status of something like a national embarrassment. So ‘70s, so “cute” – those weird half-mast trousers, all that tartan – and over the next few months I was to discover several other record shops which had a similar Rollers amnesty. “Hand in your records, we’ll destroy them and never speak of it again” seemed to be the kindest way to deal with middle-aged ex-Rollers fans.

But why all the hatred? Even as it emerged that Gary Glitter had been a repellent sexual predator of children, his albums still clogged up the bargain bins in respectable record shops and his songs still popped up – and even now still do – at events or on movie soundtracks. It was as if the Rollers had never existed. But now, my Roller radar was up and it turned out that charity shops had none of the record store’s qualms. Within weeks I had bought – for 50 pence – the Roller’s third album, Wouldn’t You Like It?, which was their second full length of the peak Rollermania year 1975, coming just 14 months after their debut, Rollin’ had topped the UK album chart while also selling strongly in Australia, Canada, Finland, New Zealand, Japan and, somewhat randomly, Zimbabwe.

Finding the record was initially pure chance – flicking through the usual selection of Andy Williams, Lionel Ritchie and Jim Reeves LPs, what first caught my eye was in fact the back cover, revealing, whatever their other fashion faux pas might have been, a ‘70s band that wore cool shoes; Converse, Dr Martens. It was only on turning it over that the band was revealed in all its slightly ridiculous mid-‘70s pomp. Hardly off-putting to someone looking for glam rock, although the Rollers’ own look was a weird hybrid of glam, clean-cut ‘70s teen idol, classic skinhead and Scottish tourist board approved styles. As it turned out, despite lacking some of the gimmicky fun of earlier releases – there had been, I later discovered, some kind of pin-up insert thing, but it was missing – Wouldn’t You Like It? was a good place to start with the band. Three albums in 14 months seems, by modern day standards an unimaginable output for a high profile band, but the Rollers who were, at the same time, almost constantly touring – hadn’t yet started to flag. In fact, album number three was something of a breakthrough as, struggling to keep up with demand for new Roller material, the label – ‘70s pop behemoth Bell Records – gave in to the band’s demands to play everything on the album and to include more of their own songs.

In comparison with Rollin’ – which was based around a core of ebullient songs by seasoned hitmakers Phil Coulter and Bill Martin and its Rollermania follow-up, Once Upon a Star with its child-pleasing gimmicky sleeve, cover songs (including the Four Seasons’s “Bye Bye Baby,” the Rollers’ signature song in the UK) and teenybopper confections by producer Phil Wainman and Johnny Goodison – Wouldn’t You Like It? featured only one track not written by the Rollers themselves. The band’s songwriting duties fell to guitarists Eric Faulkner and Stewart Wood and although their songs had been relegated to filler status on the first two albums, it’s the Rollers originals that give those albums a sense of character, rather than being just the kind of teenybopper jukebox effect that presumably the label was really after. For all their fluff and flaws, the Rollers albums were albums in a way that the singles-and-filler of artists like Gary Glitter and Alvin Stardust weren’t.

Wouldn’t You Like It? is – by some distance – the most authentically rock ‘n’ roll album of the band’s peak years. Although the Rollers shamelessly pandered to their fans’ perceived demand for sappy ballads – not just the only non-self-written song, “Give a Little Love,” but also the slightly cloying “Maybe I’m a Fool to Love You” the oddly fragile “Here Comes that Feeling Again” and the borderline sleazy “Shanghai’d in Love” – in comparison with their first two albums, it’s a guitar record. Although the Rollers – in this incarnation at least; the lineup that went stratospheric in 1974-5 was something like the band’s fifth configuration – had no keyboard player as such, the sound of their early hit records was often based around a piano melody. On Wouldn’t You Like It?, even the token old-fashioned teenage rock ‘n’ roll song (something that plagued the glam scene and surely in part led to its demise), “Too Young to Rock & Roll” is notable for the gritty tone of the guitars that propel the song.

Likewise, the opening “I Only Wanna Dance With You” – essentially a rewrite of the Beach Boys “Do You Wanna Dance” – and the peculiar title track with its distorted voice on the chorus have the same kind of Slade-ish heavy guitar tone that the non-album single “Money Honey” that heralded the album’s release had featured. “Don’t Stop the Music” is the band’s more-or-less successful foray into disco, but even stranger is the bouncy pop of “Love is…” and “Lovely to See You”, which both feature fairly simple but elegant twin melodic lead guitar lines that work surprisingly well given that that kind of thing generally has no place in this kind of music. “Eagles Fly” meanwhile, is perhaps the first and last example of mellow teenybopper biker rock in the history of music, while the album closed with something even more bizarre; “Derek’s End Piece,” a showcase of sorts for the band’s drummer and co-founder, Derek Longmuir. It’s strange enough as a drum solo, being slow and heavy rather than a “Moby Dick” extravaganza, but then it morphs into a languid, soaring instrumental with melancholy guitars and – since, presumably, they might as well at this point – an awkward spoken word statement of love by Derek himself, delivered in his best Edinburgh accent.

The Faulkner/Wood team wrote good, catchy tunes and was surprisingly versatile, but as is perhaps clear from the song titles, their lyrics tend to be functional rather than inspired. But Derek’s short, saccharine spoken passage “But you know darling/ Every time I heard them say our love would die/ It only made me love you more and more each day,” undeniably gauche though it is, arguably marks the beginning of a kind of existential angst that pervades everything the band recorded from this point on.

While their first three albums are concerned almost entirely with love, dancing and innocent teenage sexuality, after Wouldn’t You Like It? their main theme seems to become – uniquely, for the kind of band they were – fame, regret and the awareness of being last summer’s teen sensation. Within a year of topping the Billboard chart with a rerecorded version of their 1973 flop single “Saturday Night,” the band was just missing the top 50 with an energetic, desperation-tinged and all-too-appropriate cover of John Paul Young’s “Yesterday’s Hero.” The flame that burns twice as bright, etc.

But the long, bitter decline lay ahead, and on Wouldn’t You Like It? – no masterpiece, but as good a glam rock record as any of their youth-oriented peers were making at the time – the Bay City Rollers played music that was sometimes twee, but also vibrant and inventive. Rollers history is long and fascinating and takes the curious to strange and unexpected places – from the respectable world of Kate Bush and the Alan Parsons Project to HR Pufnstuf to the array of dubious spinoffs like Rosetta Stone and Pat McGlynn’s Scotties, to tributes like Nick Lowe’s Tartan Horde and The Rollettes and even to the Ramones’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” – but it would be misleading to say they have cast a long shadow over British – or even Scottish – pop music. And while it’s nice to be able to collect the work of an iconic band for pennies – and really, you have to get into the arcane world of Japan-only releases etc to spend very much money on the Rollers – they deserve better.

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