Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Les McKeown with a look at his group the Bay City Rollers’ first and only Hot 100 No. 1, the timeless weekend anthem “Saturday Night.”
If you read the BBC’s news story from Thursday (April 22) about the recent passing of singer Les McKeown — who died at age 65 on Tuesday, as announced by his family — you’ll find a relatively comprehensive retelling of his history as a musician, from his early days in the relatively unknown band Threshold to mid-’70s superstardom as a member of the Bay City Rollers. You’ll also find a brief analysis of his significance to his home country Scotland, as frontman for one of the country’s most successful cultural exports of the Me Decade, and even a brief divergence into the harrowing story of the 1975 incident where he accidentally ran over and killed a 76-year-old neighbor with his car. What you won’t find, however, is any mention of the song of his that Billboard readers are by far the most likely to actually be familiar with: “Saturday Night.”
In the U.S., “Saturday Night” was one of the defining pop songs of its era, the first Hot 100 No. 1 of America’s bicentennial year, a sing-and-clap-along AM radio killer that briefly made the Bay City Rollers household names in the U.S. But on the other side of the pond, the group had already scored two years’ worth of hits by the time “Saturday Night” took off stateside, including a pair of No. 1s in their cover of the Four Seasons’ “Bye Bye Baby” and the ballad “Give a Little Love” — the former even ending up as the top-selling single in the U.K. for 1975. As “Rollermania” ran rampant throughout Scotland and Great Britain, “Saturday Night” never even charted in the U.K. It was, quite simply, not a major part of their story back home.
It’s an appropriate discrepancy for a band who, despite their proud Scottish roots, always had their sights on an American takeover. In their early days, the group — formed and led by brothers Alan and Derek Longmuir, and then fronted by schoolmate Nobby Clark — even sought a name that would endear them to U. S. audiences, and ultimately selected one by literally throwing darts at a map of the United States, settling on a target struck near Bay City, Michigan. As the group became the closest thing the ’70s had produced to The Beatles in their home country — with a hysteria-inducing national tour, a signature look in their tartan trousers and scarves, and even their own weekly TV series in 1975 — breaking America remained a tireless goal of the band’s.
Luckily for them, it was also a priority for the head of their U.S. label: a 43-year-old exec named Clive Davis, who had held onto the band through the label’s recent transition from Bell Records to Arista. Though the Rollers had failed to even crack the Hot 100 with multiple releases in the U.S., Davis remained determined to find a single that would work for the group stateside. And so he reached back for a song that he thought had more of an America-friendly sound, despite its flopping in the U.K. upon its original release — the stomping bubble-rock anthem “Saturday Night,” co-written and produced by the hitmaking team of Phil Coulter and Bill Martin.
In fact: “Saturday Night” had originally been released in 1973 with Clark, the group’s first frontman, still on vocals — though by the time of the group’s 1974 debut album Rollin‘, he had left due to creative differences, and been replaced both in the group’s lineup and on the “Saturday” track itself by McKeown. Listening to the original version, it’s easy to see why the song might not have been as commercially impactful with Clark’s harsher, flatter delivery barking out the vocals. However, with McKeown’s smoother, more limber timbre leading the way — and the sound of the track’s trademark “S… A… T-U-R… D-A-Y… NIGHT!” intro also being transformed from a military marching order to more of a cheerleader chant — the track’s pop potential could be fully realized.
And that potential was considerable, even West of the Atlantic. The song nestled into a happy medium between two other European acts whose sounds had recently taken hold Stateside: ABBA, the Swedish quartet whose take-no-prisoners approach to full-bodied pop music resulted in some of the most infectious and undeniable global hits of the mid-’70s, and Sweet, whose fist-pumping take on gang-vocaled glam rock resulted in nearly every one of their singles sounding like a generational anthem, regardless of subject matter (and whose “Fox on the Run” was also moving up in the top 10 the week “Saturday Night” hit No. 1). There were also hints of a couple acts much longer familiar to American audiences: The Beach Boys, whose preppier hits of a decade earlier provided the model for the song’s pep-rally vibe, and once again Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, whose trademark ay-yi-yi vocal affectations were lifted for one of the song’s most memorable vocal hooks.
While the formula proved particularly effective for mid-’70s America, it’s sort of hard to believe (even close to a half a century later) that there was ever a time and place where the song wouldn’t have proven a smash. Few singles in the history of popular music are able to harness such incredible energy in just its first 15 seconds — the title chant, accompanied by the most effective pre-Queen musical foot-stomping of the rock era, and a zooming guitar hook (and accompanying bass rumble) that sounds like a fighter jet coming in for a landing — that the verses have no choice but to immediately pull back on the intensity, lest the whole thing short-circuit less than a minute in.
The Rollers should barely even need more than those 15 seconds to ensure the single’s immortality as a ready-for-the-weekend standard. But they also come with about a half-dozen other brain-sticking hooks throughout the song — most of which are just variations of “Saturday night,” which is sung, shouted and stuttered an unthinkable 42 times total across its sub-three-minute runtime. It gets the point across, certainly, and an appropriate Davis-engineered live debut of the song on ABC’s Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell only further helped to drive it home.
And American top 40 audiences were particularly amenable to songs about that time of the week in the mid-’70s. A few years before the Bay City Rollers first hit the Hot 100, Elton John scored a No. 12 hit with his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road scorcher “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” then in 1974 Cat Stevens hit No. 6 with a cover of Sam Cooke’s melancholy “Another Saturday Night” — and in August 1975, Lynyrd Skynyrd had gone to No. 27 with the cautionary “Saturday Night Special.” The trend continued for the rest of the ’70s, with further hits by Earth Wind, & Fire (“Saturday Nite,” No. 21, 1977), Thelma Houston (“Saturday Night, Sunday Morning,” No. 34, 1979) and Herman Brood (“Saturdaynight,” No. 35, 1979). And arguably the biggest musical Saturday Night of the decade wasn’t a single, but a soundtrack: Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees-led set that became one of the best-selling albums of the ’70s. (Studio execs wanted the signature song of that OST, the No. 1 hit “Stayin’ Alive,” to be retitled “Saturday Night,” but the Bee Gees held firm, understandably feeling there had been enough “Saturday Night” songs already.)
Thus, the lone Hot 100-topping “Saturday Night” song of the ’70s belonged to the Bay City Rollers, who first ascended to pole position on the listing dated Jan. 3, 1976, replacing the Staple Singers’ “Let’s Do It Again.” The song lasted just a lone week before giving way to C.W. McCall’s spoken-word story song “Convoy” — part of a period of exceedingly high turnover atop the Hot 100, with six one-frame No. 1s reigning back to back before Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” finally broke the streak with a three-week run on top. “Saturday Night” would stand as the group’s sole Hot 100 No. 1, but Rollermania would last in earnest in the U.S. for the rest of 1976, with the chugging “Money Honey” (No. 9) following it to the top ten a few months later, and the power-poppy “Rock and Roll Love Letter” (No. 28) and the Dusty Springfield cover “I Only Want to Be With You” (No. 12) also hitting the top 40. However, with the emergence of disco and new wave in the late decade, the group’s unthreateningly hooky pop-rock quickly fell out of vogue — though they did manage one club-flavored final major hit, with the sublime No. 10-peaking “You Made Me Believe in Magic” in late 1977.
Though punk and new wave’s emergence may have played a large part in the Bay City Rollers’ fall being nearly as rapid as their rise — in the U.K., where punk had a more immediate cultural and commercial impact, “Magic” only hit No. 34, and the group never even grazed the top 40 again — “Saturday Night” actually played a big part in that scene’s genesis. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” the debut single for New York punks The Ramones that’s often cited as the genre’s big bang, used a “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!” chant as a launch pad — one whose decidedly uncool inspiration the group has been forthright about. “At the time we really liked bubblegum music, and we really liked the Bay City Rollers,” frontman Joey Ramone admitted in the liner notes to the group’s Hey Ho Let’s Go box set. “‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ was our ‘Saturday Night’.” It was perhaps only fitting that the group’s commercial undoing in their home country should come in part from the song that ensured that they’d always have a legacy in the United States.