This week’s blog comes from Dr Kristin Lindfield-Ott, Programme Leader for the BA (Hons) Literature and BA (Hons) History and Literature at the University of the Highlands and Islands.
Earlier this week the BBC aired a new documentary about the Bay City Rollers, ‘the world’s first international boyband’. The tagline – in the introductory section of the programme – is ‘how they turned the whole world tartan’ – the title for this week’s blog.
Rollermania: Britain’s Biggest Boy Band celebrates the Bay City Rollers 40 years after they made it on the world stage. In this blog post I want to look at the language and imagery used by the documentary – such as the title page, above. Here, we see the members of the band dressed not in their famous (and increasingly more eccentric) tartan outfits, but instead in ’70s clothing that isn’t particularly Scottish. The background, however, is tartan-fied.
Intriguingly, Alan and Derek Longmuir – the Bay City Rollers’ bass guitarist and drummer – first founded a band called The Saxons. Where’s the tartan in that? Alan and Derek discuss the name on the programme: ‘The Saxons’, they say, is ‘a bit bland’ – they wanted a ‘more American name’, and this is how they arrived at ‘Bay City Rollers’.
When discussing the early 1970s, and their lack of success after ‘Keep on Dancing’, the narrator make the point that ‘in London, Bell Records enlist a new writing and producing team to work with the band’. Now, we’d already been told that they were signed with Bell Records, and there was footage of them in London, so why point out that London input was needed to make the band commercially successful again? Is this just a throwaway comment to contextualise the point, or a hint that London-centric Britishness isn’t a recent invention? Indeed, the next part of the programme, on the ‘new sound of the Rollers’, is populated with contemporary images of London.
Bill Martin, one of the songwriters, says ‘I was always looking for a Scottish band’, and that the Bay City Rollers were ‘special’ – ‘quite different from any other pop group’. Special because they were Scottish?
Delightfully, Les McKeown wears a tartan-ish shirt for his interviews. He is the only one of the Rollers to do so:
In fact, it’s self-admittedly similar to the shirt that Eric Faulkner wore here, in the centre:
McKeown talks about this on the programme:
‘The iconic look that I’m wearing at the moment didn’t really happen til album number 3’. The look, it turns out, was drawn by fans – from Liverpool! ‘I don’t think you could comprehend’, Bill Martin throws in, ‘the dress-sense of the people under 14 in Birmingham, Grimsby, Aberdeen, Dundee, all walking about like little Rollers’. Indeed, ‘at the start of 1975 the Rollers were the biggest-selling act in the British Isles, with a look unlike any other’
The programme also discusses the music as particularly Scottish. ‘Shang-a-lang’, for example is interpreted as peculiarly Scottish by Stuart Cosgrove: ‘I sang shang-a-lang when I ran with the gang’: ‘The weren’t running with their school rugby team. They were running with a gang! And the gang that they were referring to was the gangs of their neighbourhood, the gangs of industrial working-class Scotland, and the gangs of the late 60s/early 70s. It’s actually quite a powerful song’. Indeed, Bill Martin joins in, ”Shang-a-lang’ […] should be the national anthem of Scotland!’. (Better, he says, than ‘Flower of Scotland’, which is ‘a load of rubbish’)…
The programme also engages with how the band was presented to American audiences. Caroline Sullivan recalls that ‘you could tell they weren’t American. There was something smaller, scrawnier, paler about them… almost unhealthy looking, which I loved’. For their first American TV appearance, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, the band’s Scottish origin proved a selling point: ‘They put us in a big tartan box with a big ribbon on it and he goes ‘Ladies and gentlemen, from Scotland, like Scotland – England, or something like that, the Bay City Rollers’, MacKeown remembers. They were piped in, of course.
Later, there is an interview from when Alan Longmuir left the band, to be replaced by Ian Mitchell. Mitchell is Northern Irish, and the interviewer asks the band ‘How does it feel to have an Irishman amongst all of you?’ They respond: ‘It’s really great’; ‘It’s different’; ‘It’s different’; ‘Aye’; ‘It’s better than having all these Scottish guys’.
Finally, a note on tartan. On Marc, Marc Bolan’s short-lived TV programme, the band is introduced as ‘tartan terrors’ – despite the fact that they had largely done away with tartan at that point. Indeed, on It’s a Game tartan is mostly gone, except for Woody and the name on the album cover:
The Bay City Rollers are an intriguing case of tartanry. Of non-clan tartanry! Tartan here symbolises Scotland, and the Highland is happily matched with lads from Edinburgh. I’d love to see an article comparing Bay City Rollers tartanry with George IV’s tartan spectacular of 1822…