Next Stop, Power Pop: When 1979 Saw The Rollers Elevate from Teen-Pop to Serious Rock
June 22, 2017 | by Andrew K. Lau
Anyone with an ounce of creativity will want to try a new direction now and then; it’s just part of being an artist. Some do it quietly, while others publicly wrestle with their image.
Fleetwood Mac fought like passive-aggressive dogs while recording the followup to their 1977 behemoth Rumours amidst much speculation in the press about their imminent demise. The result was the unwieldy but satisfying Tusk two years later. Lou Reed kicked everyone in the proverbial nuts when he released his notorious Metal Machine Music in 1975, only to turn around the next year and kick everyone in the nuts AGAIN with the kinder, gentler Coney Island Baby.
Then there’s Neil Young and David Bowie, who both made a career out of quick stylistic shifts (even mid-tour). And remember that time when Garth Brooks released a record posing as a washed-up rock star named Chris Gaines? That was something, wasn’t it? Problem was, he never really let on that it was a warm-up for a movie he was starring in, so the album didn’t do well. But let’s face it, the country music fan base has never been a great place to find sympathetic ears for grandiose artistic statements.
The award for a band struggling the hardest for control of their public image, however, goes to the Monkees, who were often ridiculed by the rock ‘n’ roll cognoscenti as being a fake band, which they kinda were, but kinda not at the same time. The two musicians in the group, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, chaffed considerably at the whole scenario and were determined to prove themselves; the former famously slammed his fist through a hotel room wall during a heated meeting with the Monkees’ “creative director” Don Kirshner. Although they did make an album themselves, without the use of session musicians, their frustration was eventually put to fantastic visual use in the opening scene to their brilliant 1968 film, Head, where they’re seen committing artsy, allegorical career suicide by jumping off a bridge while being chased by an angry mob. For anyone able to read between the lines, this was the first public airing of the band’s frustrations regarding their creative control and public persona.
One of the more unusual, if not completely forgotten, public struggles by a band is the ninth album by bubblegum/teeny-bopper megastars, the Bay City Rollers. Between the years 1975 and 1977, this Edinburgh quintet were the epitome of teen idols and found themselves facing worldwide fame with hits such as “Saturday Night”, “Shang-A-Lang”, and “I Only Want To Be With You.” Let it be known, they did create a handful of great singles: “Rock N’ Roll Love Letter” and “Yesterday’s Hero” are both amazing and stand alone as important works within the genre of pop-rock or whatever one needs to call it. Of course, as with all pop musical phenomena, their popularity wasn’t to last, and by 1979 the band’s career was in a fatal swandive. But did that keep them from trying? Nope, and you gotta give them credit for the effort.
Elevator is the band trying to reach a wider, more adult listening audience, but it’s also an attempt to pull the lid off their bubblegum world and expose seedy off-stage lifestyles. And it’s a cry for help. Interestingly, this shift was predicated three years before during the height of their popularity when they released their single “Money Honey.” Briefly ditching the bubblegum/disco hybrid sound which was their trademark, the song was harder, and hints the boys were aware and possessed a deeper understanding of the world in which they were ensconced. It was that awareness which was brought to fruition on Elevator.
By the time they were ready (or able) to record an album’s worth of material, they band had lost its momentum. Their popularity wasn’t even close to what it had been before, they were distracted by legal issues, and worst of all, there had been lineup changes, all of which made the group unstable to write to their potential. Judging by the better songs on this record, they most certainly had the creative stamina to drive them to success had things been different. To pull off this kind of shift, it’s almost essential for a group to strike while they’re in the middle of a crest in order for it to work.
What they needed within their ranks was someone on par with Michael Nesmith or Peter Tork to take control and act as an anchor. Their lineup change included the exit of their lead singer/heartthrob Les McKeown, who was replaced by Duncan Faure. Ironically, it was Faure who wrote most of the lyrics, which detailed the claustrophobic life in a band he had only just joined. To further complicate matters, the group decided to shorten their name to just “The Rollers” in hopes of ditching their bubblegum reputation. Even the artwork for this new record (a giant red pill inside an elevator) didn’t seem fully realized. The overall result is a contemptuous batch of songs with an almost panicked atmosphere, fascinating as it is cringe-inducing.
Wasting no time signaling their abrupt change in direction, the first sound you hear on the record is that of a minimal throbbing Moog synth and a doom-laden ringing bell. This funeral march is quickly overtaken by the peppy title track (“Laughing at their situation / Backs against the wall / Waiting for their celebration…”) Immediately, the sounds of Kraftwerk, Bowie, Raspberries, and even ELO all bubble to the top at various points in the record.
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s Cheap Trick who has the biggest influence here; producer Peter Ker makes the music all high-end and mixes it so it’s way up front, much like the shining brilliance of Tricks’ first three albums. Some of the song’s arrangements sound as if they were copied straight off In Color, and Faure’s phrasing and high tenor resembles Robin Zander’s to a point of distraction. But maybe I’m just splitting hairs.
At any rate, side one is bookended with the two-part “Stoned Houses”, a loose concept about growing up, wanting to play music, and eventually falling into the trap of superstardom. Whether it’s Faure or longtime guitarist Eric Faulkner writing the lyrics, each song’s protagonist is always looking back, and while that may seem to be an unusual writing technique for someone still in their 20s, it’s great evidence to the fact that being a teen idol must age a person considerably. The side’s best moment is “I Was Eleven”, a great pop song that carries just the right amount of sincerity and nostalgia before the record dives back into cynicism, this time with “Stoned Houses #2” (“I’ve never been, I’ve never wanted to go / Another line and it’s another show / Philadelphia, Atlanta, Bel-Air / Then off to London but I don’t really care…”)
Side two takes a more current look at their career and turns up the heat on their image. “Who’ll Be My Keeper”, “Back On The Road Again”, and the record’s only single, “Turn On The Radio”, are all pessimistic and frustrated vignettes pushed through the Roller’s new power-pop sound. The band forces themselves into topical subject matter of the time, with “Instant Replay” wandering needlessly into political jargon, even namechecking Ayatollah Khomeini, a name which they smartly avoid trying to rhyme.
“Tomorrow’s Just Another Day” may’ve been used as a nice little love song in the middle of all this confusion but instead comes off as bitter and insincere, further throwing off the listener. These guys (guitarist Faulkner, drummer Derek Longmuir, his guitarist brother Alan and bassist Stuart Wood) were never fiery musicians, but they get the job done in a stately economic fashion. For his part, Faure often falls into the Rock Singer trap by singing too high for his natural range. Still, the good songs here only hint at what could’ve been.
It’s “Back On The Road Again” that lifts the veil on what it’s really like to be teen idols on the road.
“Spend my life making out in a limousine
Checking out all the bars and the mezzanines
Won’t someone throw me a line
Let me out let me make it this time
Cocaine – back on the road again”
That last line is used as the song’s main refrain and done so frequently one is led to believe what the Rollers really wanted, more than even respectability, was street cred. If this was the group’s last creative gasp, they’re going out trying to convince everyone they were the Rolling Stones of ‘70s pop.
Which brings us to the bizarre closing track, “Washington’s Birthday.” With its wonderfully heavy backbeat, sleepy, layered vocals, and endless guitar line, this jam sounds amazingly similar to the Pretty Things’ best work in the early 1970s; it’s so shockingly good I laughed out loud when I first heard it, because it may be the best song on the record. But that’s not really the weird part. No, what’s odd here is why the band decided to end the record with this track: It’s bizarrely out of place, having nothing to do with being in a band, snorting drugs, or trying to crawl out from under the suffocating weight of being a teenybopper band. In most cases, the last song on an album with even a vague concept running through it is normally the summation of the intended narrative, the grand finale tying up any loose ends. By tossing this gem at the end, the Rollers sacrifice the album’s storyline. And yet, it’s really the best song on the record.
Who knows, perhaps if they would’ve released Elevator under a different name entirely they would’ve had a chance at being a formidable power-pop band. For all their work, however, Elevator went unnoticed. It’s a cruel world out there, and nobody wanted to hear from the Bay City Rollers or the Rollers, just as no one wanted to hear Garth Brook’s grand ideas years later.
Incredibly, there were two more albums recorded under the Rollers’ name (1980’s Voxx and 1981’s Ricochet), each with miserable diminishing returns. But isn’t that how it kinda turns out for most bands? You work hard, get some fans, eventually find yourself misunderstood and tossed into the gutter as the next popular rockin’ combo takes your place. Happens all the time. It’s happening right now to some unlucky chumps as you read this sentence. So, in that way, the Bay City Rollers achieved what they wanted all along, which was to be more than just candy for teenage ears. Unlike many other groups, however, the Rollers went out swinging. And good for them.
Speaking of loose concepts and garbage heaps, since this column is about records pulled out of an actual trash bin, it should be mention there’s no reason why this particular record ended up in mere litter at work. The cover is in great shape, and not surprisingly, the vinyl itself looks as though it was hardly played. So, what’s the reason for its dismissal? Well, my employer (who did a lot of the pricing out of records as a sort of meditative practice late into the night) obviously didn’t know what he was holding; he could’ve made this a steal at $1.95. (I’m sure the hipsters running their small record shop on the other side of town would price this thing out at five bucks.) But no, thinking it was crap (and maybe it is), he lazily cast it aside, leaving it for me to discover the next day during my usual pick-through-the-discards morning routine, and, ultimately, bringing it to your attention here.
Hopefully, you’ll seek out this gem yourself and find something tragically wonderful about it, because the Rollers deserve whatever small amount of karmic justice is awaiting them.
Listen to "Back on the Road Again"
Listen to "Washington's Birthday"