Friday, January 20, 2017

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, January 21-22, 2017

How long is too long for a book about the Bay City Rollers? 550 pages would seem to be pushing it, for a band whose heyday has started to seem, in sober retrospect, more like a heyminute. It’s not even clear that the Rollers were a “band,” in the strict sense of the word. For the most part they didn’t play on their own records. Session men supplied the musicianship. The Rollers supplied the toilet-brush hair-dos, the three-quarter length flared trousers, and the tartan accoutrements. At the time this look caused a sensation, but it has not aged well. Nor has the sieve of posterity been kind to their songs. If you can name or sing one of their hits – leaving aside the cover versions – your grasp of Scottish ephemera is surer than mine. 

Simon Spence, author of this hefty new book on the Rollers, thinks it’s time that our memories were jogged, or clobbered. Perhaps, in theory, he has a point. It would be fun to have a literate, stylish, self-consciously pulpy book about Rollermania. Unfortunately, that book would have to be written by somebody other than Spence, whose prose is at best barely competent, with frequent lapses into the deplorable. The nicest thing you can say about him is that he’s done a lot of research. But you know this for a bad reason: he seems to have dumped every last bit of it into the book. If he has weeded anything out for the sake of narrative symmetry, or because he’s aware that life is short, it doesn’t show. At times he lays on a level of detail that would be excessive in a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill. 

The first version of the Bay City Rollers was formed by a trio of Edinburgh youngsters in 1966. Right from the start, they displayed a flair for the synthetic. Wanting a name that evoked far-off lands, they stuck a pin into a map of the United States. It landed on, or near, a town named Bay City. The Rollers bit came because they liked wheels. 

The Rollers’ lineup never stayed the same for very long. Keeping track of their constant personnel changes is like following the plot twists in a Vin Diesel movie: difficult, and not all that rewarding. At one stage there was something that fans call the classic lineup. This tufty quintet became the object of Rollermania, an international craze that peaked in 1976, and took especially zany form in Australia. In Sydney, 4,000 fans got into a parking garage and stormed the band’s limo. “There was a feeling we were about to die,” the lead singer would recall.

If the story of the Rollers remains relevant, it’s because they were post-modernists before their time, accidental pioneers of pop’s long swerve away from substance. “Their strengths were not in singing and not in playing,” said one of their early producers. “But they looked great.” In other words, they helped to inaugurate the age of the empty image. 

Or rather, their manager did. The Rollers’ Svengali, or Mephistopheles, was a deeply unsavoury man named Tam Paton. Paton had studied the career and techniques of Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles. Unlike Epstein, whose influence waned as the Beatles quit touring and grew into their talents, Paton had the slyness to attach himself to an act that was, to put it mildly, in no danger of conceiving the next Sergeant Pepper’s. This meant that Paton could be the indispensable one, while the band members could be shuffled in and out at his whim. Paton ran the Rollers, said one of his associates, as a “musical chair situation. If there were five Rollers on stage, he always had another couple in reserve in case anyone stepped out of line.” 

Paton was a control freak, and several other kinds of freak too. On the road, he didn’t let the Rollers room with each other for more than one night on the trot. He didn’t want them forming alliances. Nor did he want them having girlfriends. Ostensibly this was a publicity thing: he wanted them to seem available, for the sake of the fans. Non-ostensibly, Paton had darker motives. He fancied the Rollers himself, because they looked like underaged boys, whom he fancied too. He warned the band that heterosexual intercourse was hazardous to the health: he said men and women could get stuck together permanently while doing it. He said women had an internal mechanism that could slam down and trap you in there. Some of the Rollers, who seem to have joined the band as virgins, were traumatised for life by such stuff. 

Tellingly, Paton invented no parallel tales about the perils of homosexual congress. On the contrary: he convened all-male orgies in the Rollers’ hotel rooms, and heartily urged them to join in. Considering his habit of firing recalcitrant band members, the Rollers’ ability to turn him down was compromised. To blur the issue of consent further, Paton plied the band with Quaaludes. Two Rollers would later allege that he raped them. There were hints and rumours that he violated other band members too. In time, he would be convicted of committing acts of gross indecency on teenaged boys. 

As the Rollers aged, Rollermania abated. By the early eighties, the band was definitively in decline. This part of the story is not pretty. The Rollers try to remake themselves as New Wavers. At one point they are reduced to recording a Buck’s Fizz cover. One of them gets busted for possessing child pornography. A former Roller stars in his own adult feature, after befriending a luminary of the porn industry named Ben Dover. 

All this would be less dispiriting if Spence could write with panache, or at all. Instead his slapdash English deepens the general sense of squalor. “During the interview, Bendoris reported gleefully how Paton had mistakenly left his trouser zip undone.” It seems far likelier that Bendoris reported this later on, after the interview was over. Spence’s jumbled syntax wears you out, after a while. Almost certainly you spend more time unscrambling such sentences in your head, and reassembling them into coherence, than he spent writing them in the first place. He makes five hundred pages feel like a thousand. 

Still, there are some incidental amusements, as when Spence refers to the “two-armed men” that Paton hired for purposes of security. A quiz for hyphen buffs: did Paton’s security detail consist of two men with weapons, or an unspecified number of men with two arms? Probably Spence wants to evoke the former scenario, but it’s hard to be sure, because he can be a stickler for the superfluous detail. On page 526, by which time Paton has died but hasn’t quite been buried, and the reader is weeping for release, Spence finds it necessary to note that Paton’s funeral occurred “at Edinburgh’s stark, modernist Basil Spence-designed Mortonhall Crematorium.” Even if Paton were Mozart, let alone Mozart’s manager, one could live without knowing quite this much about his crematorium. 

Spence claims, somewhere near the start of his book, that “the story of The Bay City Rollers is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions and complexity.” This is going a bit far. Certainly the wide-eyed young Rollers deserved a far less vile mentor than Tam Paton, who seems to have ruined several of them psychologically, as well as ripping them off to a man. The Rollers never saw more than a meagre fraction of the wealth they generated. One of them wound up working as a plumber, and wished he’d been a plumber all along. All this is very sad. You could even call it tragic. But to qualify as Shakespearean, the sad end must be preceded by greatness, of one sort or another. Mere fame, and unmerited fame at that, is not much of a height to fall from.