In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The mid-’70s were lean times for teen sensations. At the beginning of the decade, the Billboard charts had seen an explosion of bubblegum, and a few key figures briefly became stars: the Jackson 5, the Osmonds, the Partridge Family’s David Cassidy. But the boomer generation did not relinquish its hold over the charts easily. And for much of the ’70s, laid-back and richly orchestrated pop was the order of the day. The big hitmakers were the same age as the people who’d made big hits in the ’50s and ’60s. A lot of the time, they were the same people. Through 1976, even as disco rose up and took over, that state of affairs remained mostly unchanged — except for the one-week blip where a bunch of fake teenagers from Scotland swooped in and scored their sole #1 hit.
The Bay City Rollers were not from Bay City, Michigan. They’d settled on the name when they decided that something American-sounding would be cool. Drummer Derek Longmuir had thrown a dart at a map of the US, and it had landed near Bay City. The people in the band thought that sounded good enough, and that became the band’s name. The story behind the band’s name — charming and random halfassery that somehow worked — is a nice little microcosm of the whole Bay City Rollers experience. This band should not have become an international sensation. But at least for a couple of years, that’s what they were.
Some version of the Bay City Rollers started in Edinburgh as early as 1966. As the Saxons, the band played area clubs and dancehalls and built up a regional following, at least as much for being cute as for being good at playing music. They were a classic local band — big on Motown covers, low on ambition. But then a manager named Tam Paton, a failed musician himself, swooped in and went about manufacturing an image for them. Paton told the Saxons to get a new name. He dressed them up in a uniform — tartan pants, tartan scarves. He hired and fired members of the band whenever the mood struck him. The Rollers became his band.
Paton and the Rollers caught a lucky break when Dick Leahy, an exec in Bell Records’ UK division, caught a Rollers show in Edinburgh after a flight back to London had been cancelled. Leahy, impressed by the local crowd reaction, signed them on the spot. By 1974, they’d become a UK phenomenon, regularly cranking out chintzy, excitable singles — songs with frankly hilarious titles like “Shang-A-Lang” and “Summerlove Sensation” — that became huge hits. In 1975, the Rollers’ cover of the Four Seasons’ “Bye Bye Baby” was the year’s top-selling single in the UK; it had topped the singles charts for six weeks. The Rollers got their own show on ITV. They had hordes of screaming fans, and they had breathless press reports about their hordes of screaming fans. Paton enforced their clean image; all the band members were in their twenties, but Paton had them saying that they preferred drinking milk to alcohol. And Paton also fed them speed so that they’d keep tirelessly playing shows. Naturally, Paton allegedly took all their money, too.
The Bay City Rollers weren’t just a big deal in the UK. They were huge in Australia, New Zealand, Norway. Nick Lowe, in an attempt to get dropped from his United Artists contract, recorded an intentionally terrible ode to the band called “Bay City Rollers We Love You.” But the song, released under the name Tartan Horde, was an accidental 1975 hit in Japan, where the Rollers were also huge. And Clive Davis, who had just turned Bell Records into Arista, decided to make a project out of breaking the Rollers in the US. With “Saturday Night,” he made it happen.
As a single, “Saturday Night” was an odd choice. The song hadn’t even charted in the UK. The Rollers had recorded it back in 1973, and Nobby Clark, the Roller who sang lead on “Saturday Night,” had left the band shortly after recording it. Apparently, none of that mattered. Davis realized that the Rollers’ jangly ballads and basic-ass covers wouldn’t resonate in the US. A big, dumb chant-along was what they needed. “Saturday Night” fit the bill.
“Saturday Night” came from Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, a team of songwriters and producers who’d developed a reputation as UK hitmakers. (They’d also won the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest with Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet On A String.”) “Saturday Night” is an intentional throwback, a song about having fun while dancing with your baby to rock ‘n’ roll. Its lyrics are sloppy and half-written, to the point where they sound like a joke. Clark crows about all the fun he’s about to have “at the good old rock ‘n’ roll folk show,” which only barely even makes sense. (I always heard it as “the good old rock ‘n’ roll boat show,” and I like my version better.)
The best part of “Saturday Night” is, of course, the chant: “S! A! T-U-R! D-A-Y! Night!” It’s the one real memorable part of the song, and it turns what might be a charmingly loopy novelty into a full-on anthem. As the Rollers were recording “Saturday Night,” glam ruled UK airwaves. We mostly think of glam as Bowie and Roxy Music and T. Rex, but a lot of the genre’s big stars were working-class football-hooligan louts like Slade and Gary Glitter. They did a lot of chanting. “Saturday Night” sounds like the giddy, approachable Muppet Babies version of that stuff. Its naive, fired-up simplicity is a beautiful thing.
Clive Davis pushed “Saturday Night” hard, giving the Rollers their Beatles-on-Ed Sullivan moment when he booked the Rollers to perform, live via satellite, on ABC’s short-lived variety show Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell in October of 1975. (The Saturday Night Live that we know and complain about aired its first episode the same night that the Rollers were on Cosell’s show. That SNL starting as NBC’s Saturday Night before changing its name later in the season.) The stunt worked, and, for a week, the Bay City Rollers had the #1 song in America.
But Rollermania never really took hold Stateside. The Rollers made it into the US top 10 twice more. 1976’s “Money Honey” peaked at #9. (It’s a 6). 1977’s disco move “You Made Me Believe In Magic” made it to #10. (It’s another 6.) In the UK and in much of the rest of the world, the Rollers remained massive for a couple of years. But teen sensations tend to snuff themselves out quickly, and the Rollers abruptly stopped selling records toward the end of 1977.
The Rollers fired Tam Paton in 1979. Paton never returned to the music business, and he became a millionaire real estate baron in Edinburgh instead. Like an astonishing number of later boy-band svengalis, Paton faced a number of charges of sex abuse, and he did a year in prison for 1981 charges of “gross indecency” with two teenage boys. Years later, Bay City Rollers bassist Pat McGlynn claimed that Paton had attempted to rape him in 1977. As for the Rollers themselves, they kept playing, hitting the nostalgia circuit almost immediately in various different lineups. That’s what they’re still doing today. They’re also suing Arista for all the royalties that they say they weren’t paid; that legal battle has been raging for years. A 2004 British TV documentary called Who Got The Rollers’ Millions? highlighted that story, and it still doesn’t have an ending.
But “Saturday Night” has endured in some unlikely ways. Tommy Ramone liked the chant on “Saturday Night” so much that he decided to put a chant into a Ramones song. On the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” Tommy added the four syllables that now instantly come into our brains when we think of the band: “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!” “Blitzkrieg Bop” came out five months after “Saturday Night” hit #1, and it kicked into motion a whole chain of events, one that would eventually impact the pop charts in generations-removed ways. (The Ramones themselves never came anywhere near #1 themselves; their highest-charting single, 1977’s “Rockaway Beach,” only made it to #66.) And a little more than a year after “Saturday Night,” another European sensation would land another song about teenagers dancing to rock ‘n’ roll at #1 on the Hot 100.
BONUS BEATS: Endearing UK dance-rock curiosities Ned’s Atomic Dustbin covered “Saturday Night” for the soundtrack of the 1993 movie So I Married An Ax Murderer. Here’s the video for their “Saturday Night” cover: