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Glen Nott
The Hamilton Spectator

Need to know What: Back To The '70s, featuring former Bay City Roller Ian Mitchell, Pat Curtis, Hidden Agenda

When: Thursday, March 21, 9 p.m.

Where: The Hanging Tree, 484 Plains Rd. E., Burlington

Admission: $15

Web site: www.ianmitchell.com

On August 24, 1977, the Bay City Rollers visited Bay City, Michigan, the town which gave the group its name. But it was already too late for the Bay City Rollers.

By late summer of that year, the glorious, tragic bubble that hoisted the tartan-clad lads aloft had all but burst.

The band's first and only No. 1 hit in the United States, Saturday Night, had peaked in January of 1976, and there was only turmoil and diminishing returns to come for the Rollers.

The Bay City Rollers. The world's first bona fide teenybopper band. There is much to learn here, and almost none of it is pleasant.

And who can forget those pants?

"It's a very sad story, really," says Ian Mitchell, a former Roller guitarist who will be performing the band's hits at a nightclub '70s medley show in Burlington tomorrow.

Mitchell didn't make the trip to Bay City. He was "retired" by then, having replaced a "retired" Alan Longmuir on April 1, 1976.

Then Mitchell himself was replaced by Pat McGlynn, on November 9 of the same year.

By May 1977, McGlynn, too, was "retired."

But wait, you're not confused enough yet.

Mitchell and McGlynn would rejoin another version of the Bay City Rollers in 1983, when the Japanese market was still twitching slightly.

That outfit is not to be confused with The New Rollers, a short-lived band formed by original Roller Eric Faulkner that included his girlfriend, Kass.

Mitchell's right -- this is a really sad story. In all, there are 10 people who can count themselves among the various sonic incarnations that tried to earn mileage from the pop petrol flash that was the Bay City Rollers.

Ten people, one band, and not much of anything to show for it.

Not even friendship.

"There are just too many walls built up now," Mitchell says of the cross-pollinated acrimony. "We spend most of the time suing each other."

It didn't have to be that way, of course. The Bay City Rollers could easily have been another KISS -- re-spending valuable pop culture currency built up over the good years, then laughing their cartoonish, aging mugs all the way to the Swiss banks to cheerfully close out the legend.

Not so for the Bay City Rollers. They were a real band caught up in an unreal situation, and what transpired still serves as a general template of how not to conduct oneself in the throes of overnight sensationalism.

"What a lot of people don't realize is that the whole thing happened by accident," said Mitchell, sucking on an Export and an Export A before a practice in the basement of a home on Barton Street East one night last week.

He's talking about both the hype and those hip-hugging pants -- skinners, they were called -- and they played a big part in what became known as Rollermania.

"Everyone in Scotland was wearing skinners then. But one day Eric put a tartan stripe down the side of his," said Mitchell, "and it just took off."

What's to be remembered, Mitchell says, is that the Rollers were not a pre-fab outfit, "like the Monkees or the Backstreet Boys."

They were, instead, an obscure unfocused pop act in tidy suits with an opportunistic manager, Tam Paton, desperately trying to get the lads noticed. Mitchell relays a story about Paton hitting up late Beatles' guru Brian Epstein for advice at a battle-of-the bands event in Scotland in the early '70s. Slade had stolen the show, and Paton wanted some tips on how to showcase the boys better.

"Brian told Tam he had to create some mystery about the band, so from then on the fans would only ever see us onstage," said Mitchell. "We'd appear onstage, then disappear and not be seen."

It was Paton who orchestrated a new name for the band, from Saxon to the Bay City Rollers -- Bay City, Mich., was simply a spot that a finger landed on a map of the U.S.

The Irish-born Mitchell was 17 years old when he spent his eight months and eight days as a Bay City Roller. He went on to form Rosetta Stone and later the Ian Mitchell Band, but the Roller era follows him around, and he follows it.

On his Web site, there are pictures of Mitchell jamming in Japan with the J City Rollers -- the Japanese version of the band, whose members have names such as Ian Taro and Woody Syuichi.

And Mitchell, who has lived in California for the past 11 years, frequents Hollywood celebrity shows on weekends. "Has-been shows," he unabashedly labels them.

At one such outing recently in the New Jersey Meadowlands, Mitchell shared space with Dee Snider of Twisted Sister. Autographs were going for $15 per scribble.

The Bay City Rollers, in its heyday, was a marketer's dream. They had the tartan cloth, the nicknames, the jangly, innocuous pop love songs, the cuteness and the funny hair.

And the group was not a one-hit wonder phenom. Saturday Night was its mammoth hit (S-a-t-u-r-d-a-y Night!), but there was also Money Honey, Rock-N-Roll Love Letter, I Only Want To Be With You, and It's A Game.

At its height, the Rollers' run was Beatle-esque. At every stop there were young girls screaming and crying and holding tartan scarves aloft, the precious cloth bearing the name of their personal favourite -- Woody, Eric, Stuart, Derek and, near the tail end, Ian.

North America, still nursing a post-Beatles hangover, was convinced all good pop things came from the British and, for a short while, the Rollers were it.

The band broke fast and hard on colonial soil, although something, perhaps the Scottish heritage, let the star burn a little longer in Canada.

Mitchell recalls one scary outing in Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square when 60,000 fans jammed the plaza, and the nervous police prevented the band from playing.

"We were allowed to go up onstage, walk across and wave, and that was it -- back to the hotel room."

It was often that way, Mitchell said.

One of the fallacies of teenybopperdom is that band members are awash with the vices of fame -- the sex, the booze, the drugs.

"It was lonely if you stuck by the rules -- and we stuck by the rules. It was literally milk and cookies with the Bay City Rollers," Mitchell said. "It was maddening. I mean we were all pretty young, and there were all these girls screaming in front of you, then it was off to the hotel alone after the show."

If there's one thing Mitchell looks forward to now, it's playing the music, a lot of which hasn't gotten its due in the whirlpool of pop.

"I can change the songs up to how I think they should've sounded," he said. "We were actually a thrash band live. We played loud and angry and fast, like punk.

"It was nothing like you heard on the radio."

 


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