It may be a wintry night in the Black Country, but Les McKeown is in the warmest, cheekiest of moods. “I recorded that last song when I was 18”… chuckles the deadpan Scotsman after a particularly buoyant rendition of Remember (Sha La La La): …“it was only about 20 years ago…och no, you’ve ruined all my dreams now …” The fact of the matter is, though, if you look at the bloke from a distance, he could easily pass for 43 (ie my age) rather than his actual 62 years, which considering everything he’s been through, is quite some achievement. Not to put too fine a point on it, ‘young Leslie”’ – after umpteen years of alcohol and coke abuse, arrests, struggles with his own bisexuality, more managerial embezzlement and maltreatment than any other frontman ever and a life story that would make even the Laughing Policeman burst into tears- looks and sounds fucking amazing.
It wouldn’t even be too far a stretch, in fact, to suggest that he looks and sounds even better now than in his mid-1970s heyday: 40-plus years of touring, accompanied by a fair old nicotine intake, have given his vocals a gravellier texture (OK, not exactly Rod The Mod, but not the voice of a fey young lad either) than the recordings ever displayed, and where once he bounced nervously, he now approaches the likes of Summerlove Sensation, I Only Want To Be With You and Love Me Like I Love You with relaxation and confidence. True, this is one of only three Rollers line-ups currently in operation- rather confusingly, both he and Eric Faulkner have also recently participated in a revival of the ‘classic’ incarnation as well as running rival bands for touring purposes – but it’s a good one, with a genuine ‘rock n roll’ looking guitarist and a bassist that’s worked alongside Les since the mid-80s. In other words, Butlins it ain’t.
And, despite this being a pre-Christmas gig in front of a largely nostalgia-craving (not to mention milf-tastic) audience, the set list doesn’t rely entirely on the obvious: hence why we also get Keep On Dancing (a hit Les didn’t sing on first time round, released three years prior to his enlistment) and the surprising addition of The Air That I Breathe, which anorak Rollers fans (what do you mean, ‘like me’?) will know Albert Hammond originally wanted the band to cover before the Hollies beat them to it. And yes, that is where Radiohead nicked the bassline to Creep from. Even more impressively, mid set, we get a true deep cut in the form of fan favourite Let’s Go. By comparison, a specially-compiled medley in tribute to fallen friends such as Bowie, Brian Connolly, Freddie Mercury and Les Gray edges the show slightly back into cabaret territory, but it’s important to remember that as the Rollers covered Rebel Rebel as far back as 1977 (on the criminally underrated It’s A Game album) McKeown has far more right to play it than many of the other johnny-come-latelys heard peddling their half-arsed homages since The Death Of Dave.
In fact, outside that six-minute selection, there’s not a single cover in their set tonight (Be My Baby, The Bump) that the band didn’t actually record in the 70s- and if that’s not your cup of tea, then there’s always the hard-stomping, butt-kicking thump of Saturday Night (“S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y- NIGHT!!” bellow the throng in uproarious unison, almost bringing to mind those infamous Nationwide reports) to set the record straight. Many a ‘serious’ hard rock band over the years could have done a lot worse than learn from this record, and going by much of the 80s hair metal I grew up with, I think it’s fair to say several of them did: similarly, if it’s power-pop balladry you’re after, look no further than Give A Little Love, which with its trademark, crying guitar signature and descending melody, broke the hearts of an entire generation. Seriously, if you’re not slowly waving your scarf in the air by the time of the first chorus, then there’s something seriously wrong with you. And, more to the point, why the fuck are you here?
As I finally give into the inevitable, piling down the front to bop, hop and rock to the Shang A Lang sound, I’m an extremely happy man for once: yet far more importantly, from the look on McKeown’s face, it would seem he’s happy too. And, might I say, not before time either. What would please me even more, however, would be to see him (either with or without the other Rollers) make a really decent new album that didn’t try too hard to be modern or trade too much on past glories: on the other hand, with past glories as sparkling as the ones he has in his back catalogue (my personal choice of ‘deep cut’ for next year is Wouldn’t You Like It, in case you wondered) it won’t take much persuading to drag me back next year anyway. Les Get Rocked.