Somewhere in Edinburgh, a pensioner clicks open an old suitcase and slowly pulls out clothes: a tartan catsuit, a tartan kimono, a pair of tartan-trimmed shorts (24-inch waist). Some styles of the Seventies are just the thing right now; as I write, I look like the star of an old shampoo ad in broderie anglaise and clogs. But no one’s ever going to hanker after our friend’s scraps of denim and nylon. The pensioner, sporting an expression of infinite doubt, laughs. Only the yellow Lennon-glasses perched on the end of his nose connect the man he is now to the man he was in 1975, when every teenage girl in Britain knew the words to “Shang-a-Lang”, “Summerlove Sensation” and – six weeks at number one – “Bye Bye Baby”.
The man in the specs is Stuart “Woody” Wood, the guitarist of the Bay City Rollers. I’m too young to remember the plaid pandemonium that followed his band – by 1977, their bizarre, semi-manufactured popularity was already on the wane – and they’re hardly the kind of group you get into later; even at the time, it wasn’t the music that mattered but the bog-brush haircuts and half-mast trousers. Nevertheless, the Rollers are, for me, part of a kind of folk memory, their rise and fall seamlessly blurring in my mind with so much other terrible stuff. The pop star Jonathan King, later convicted on child sexual abuse charges, produced their first hit; the DJ Jimmy Savile, one of the most predatory paedophiles this country has known, attended parties thrown by their manager, Tam Paton, another predator. Even if I hadn’t read some of the tabloid stories about the Rollers’ struggles post-fame, they’d be top of my list in the Seventies PTSD stakes.
Paton’s predilections are well known: while the police found there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him for the alleged rape of another band member, Pat McGlynn, he was convicted of gross indecency with two teenage boys in 1982. So it was odd that Nicky Campbell’s documentary about his abusive behaviour was called Secrets of the Bay City Rollers. Even if its tone was sometimes half-breathless with anticipation, it contained no real revelations. But it was interesting all the same. Campbell was also abused as a boy; thanks to this, his interviewees trusted him. (Only Wood, his first, insists he is not traumatised by Paton’s acts – though he was not one of those who was sexually abused.) At last, they were able to talk of the terrible toll Paton had extracted for their fame; of the way they sometimes feared going to sleep, lest they might awake to find him on top of them.
Again, I’m struck by the quotidian strangeness of this period, its drab peculiarity. Paton was originally a potato merchant; in the early days of the band, deliveries often delayed him. Some insist he had a genius for publicity but as Svengalis go, he seems to have been oddly cack-handed. In 1975 he arranged for the Rollers, appearing at a Radio 1 Fun Day, to do an interview on an island in a man-made lake in Mallory Park, Leicestershire. Predictably, this was too much for their hysterical girl fans, some of whom tried to swim there and had to be rescued. One such rescuer, in a speed boat and doubtless hoping the breeze wouldn’t spoil his hair, was the DJ Tony Blackburn. He was, it seems, accompanied by a Womble. History does not record whether this was Orinoco, Tomsk or Great Uncle Bulgaria.
Paton ruined both the Rollers’ lives and those of many other young men besides. But Campbell, whose instincts as a presenter are for tears followed by swift uplift – the wraparound catharsis of the TV studio – wanted somehow to end on an optimistic note. And so it was that we got to see Wood onstage with a band that still calls itself the Bay City Rollers, an outfit now much more than halfway to being a tribute act (he’s the only original member who tours with it). He appeared happy enough, but I couldn’t feel it myself. He looked out on an audience of tartan-clad sixty-something women, and in their jigging and clapping and whooping I sensed only more blank disillusion; so many dreams gone bust.
Secrets of the Bay City Rollers
ITV1, 29 June, 9pm; now on catch-up
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia