Behind the fun-filled, facile, fluffy, occasionally inspired, sing-along hits – "Keep On Dancing", "Remember (Sha-La-La)", "Shang-A-Lang", "Bye Bye Baby" – the Bay City Rollers scored in the 1970s lurked the controversial figure of their controlling manager, Tam Paton. A self-styled svengali, with none of Brian Epstein's class, nor the swagger of the Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, Paton was a bandleader with an eye for the main chance. And, it would later transpire, a penchant for teenage boys.
Paton took a little-known group from Scotland to national mid-'70s tartan-clad ubiquity and brief international stardom, hired and fired members at will, and used session players and vocalists on the records in their stead. But he seemed out of his depth, with no back-up plan when the bubble burst, and the Rollers turned on each other in 1977. Worse, he failed to look after his charges' interests, and, while he earned substantial amounts for himself and lived in comfort near Edinburgh for the rest of his life, the former Rollers still have to rely on the nostalgia circuit to remain solvent.
The group's fate was highlighted in Who Got The Rollers' Millions?, a Channel 4 documentary in 2004 which served as a cautionary tale and highlighted both Paton's deviousness and his shortcomings when dealing with their record label Bell, now part of Sony BMG. The Rollers are still in dispute with the company, with no one quite able to ascertain how many millions of records they sold worldwide – figures bandied about go from 70 to 100 million and even higher estimates – not to mention how much their members would have earned if they hadn't signed away their rights in the contracts Paton asked them to sign in a hurry at the most inappropriate times.
Most shockingly, the group's bassist Pat McGlynn alleged that Paton had forced himself upon him in 1977, though the musician waited until 2003 to make the accusation and the manager was cleared. The manager's weak defence that he was gay, and therefore an easy target for his former clients, the media and the police, always rang rather hollow. However, in 1982, Paton served one year of a three- year jail sentence after pleading guilty to committing indecent acts with males under the age of consent. He was also convicted of dealing cannabis and fined £200,000 in 2004.
Paton spent several years in the army and then worked in his parents' potato merchant business in Prestonpans, just outside Edinburgh, while playing piano and accordion at weekends. Certainly, he was aware of his shortcomings on the musical front.
"I wanted to be in a rock'n'roll band after seeing Alex Harvey," he told Brian Hogg in The History Of Scottish Rock and Pop – All That Ever Mattered in 1993. "I formed my own, the Crusaders, but later found out that they only kept me around because I got them work. I was a terrible, terrible musician, but I could really sell an act."
The canny Paton only took bookings three months in advance to fool his customers into thinking the group were popular but came a cropper when he entered the Crusaders into a battle of the bands contest. Having won local heats in Scotland, they came a lowly 10th in London, though Paton made the most of the advice given to him by the Beatles manager Brian Epstein, one of the judges. "He said the music was good but we lacked image," he later recalled.
In the mid-Sixties, Patton became bandleader at the Palais De Danse in the Fountainbridge area of Edinburgh, but grew tired of playing the hits. One evening, in 1969 he noticed that the Saxons, a pretty-boy group he had brought in on Thursdays, went down a storm. "What I heard was ghastly, but they obviously had something because the audience was screaming and shouting," said Paton, who became their manager. He instantly set about rearranging the line-up, and renamed them the Bay City Rollers after drummer Derek Muir threw darts at a map of the US – Arkansas, the first choice sounded too unwieldy.
"I realised that we couldn't keep playing in Scotland," Paton said. "I tried hard to get a deal in London. I spent 14 days going round the companies, coming back to a van each night which I slept in, wrapped up in newspapers. I had no tapes, just photographs, and was trying to sell the group on that."
Paton got nowhere but in 1971, he had a lucky break when Dick Leahy, the UK managing director of Bell Records, got stuck at Glasgow airport and drove across to equally fog-bound Edinburgh. At a loose end, Leahy decided to go and see some live music.
"Ronnie Simpson, the agent, suggested that, if he wanted a laugh, he should see the Bay City Rollers," explained Paton. "The club was packed, there were queues outside, and the band was going down a storm. Leahy pulled me to the side and we did a deal. I was as green as grass. I didn't know anything about advances. It was a completely new ball game for me."
Jonathan King helmed the sessions and suggested a revival of the Gentrys' Sixties US hit "Keep On Dancing", which duly made the Top Ten. However, over the next two years, the group's follow-up singles all struck out.
"I was beginning to think we were one-hit wonders. But I wouldn't give up on them. I had slogged for the Rollers to the point I almost thought I was a member," said Paton, who was certainly one of the most permanent fixtures of the set-up as he kept refreshing the frontline. "Only two members were ever actually sacked. The rest left to get engaged, married or whatever," he maintained.
By the time the Rollers finally scored their second Top Ten hit with "Remember (Sha-La-La)", penned by the seasoned songwriters Phil Coulter and Bill Martin, in 1974, their "classic" line-up comprised Les McKeown – who replaced the original vocalist Gordon "Nobby" Clark – Eric Faulkner, Stuart "Woody" Wood (both on guitar), and the only two originals, Alan Longmuir (bass) and his brother Derek (drums). Paton came up with the ingenious trick of sending a mail-shot – 10,000 Rollers postcards – to girls who had written in to pop magazines and to Bell, also the home of David Cassidy at the time.
"Remember (Sha-La-La)" turned the Rollers into the teenage sensation their manager had envisaged five years before, and between April 1974 and September 1976, the Rollers were unstoppable. They scored a further eight Top Ten singles, including two chart-toppers in 1975, a revival of the Four Seasons' "Bye Bye Baby", and the saccharine ballad "Give A Little Love", co-written by the Sweet producer Phil Wainman.
They cack-handedly hosted two series of their own TV show on ITV. They unwittingly inspired the Sex Pistols and even the Ramones, whose frontman Joey sometimes attempted to replicate the Rollers' chanting. But all was far from hunky-dory, even as Rollermania swept the nation, and parts of Europe, the US and Japan. Alan Longmuir left, and was replaced first by Ian Mitchell and then by Pat McGlynn, though he later returned.
The Rollers' sham of a squeaky-clean image suffered when McKeown killed an elderly pedestrian and was charged with reckless driving. In 1978, the other members sacked the singer and Paton, who had suffered a mental breakdown two years previously.
"They were actually believing their own publicity, the publicity I put out – the biggest thing since the Beatles," Paton commented about the Rollers' attempt to wrestle control of their careers. "[They] thought they were John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and all this kind of thing."
Paton managed another Scottish group, the Tolkien-inspired Bilbo Baggins, in parallel with the Rollers, but their stable-mates stole their Tartan image and they only found limited success with "She's Gonna Win" as Bilbo in 1978, after leaving him.
Following his conviction, Paton made no attempt to re-enter the pop arena though he occasionally gave self-aggrandising interviews, usually in an attempt to clear himself of further charges, or to spitefully declare he would leave his wealth to animal charities. In 1975, he published The Bay City Rollers, subtitled Tam Paton's Sensational Inside Story of Britain's No 1 Pop Group, as told to the writer and broadcaster Michael Wale. In it, Paton called himself the Rollers' manager, guiding light and father figure, yet he lived up to none of these definitions.
Thomas Dougal ("Tam") Paton, pop manager: born Prestonpans, Scotland, 10 August 1937; died Edinburgh 8 April 2009.
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