In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Bay City Rollers- “Saturday Night”
HIT #1: January 3, 1976
STAYED AT #1: 1 week
One of the fascinating aspects of looking at other countries’ charts is how artists are often remembered in different ways. What might be a major hit for an artist in America may not be their best-known song somewhere else. Take the ‘70s Scottish teen sensation the Bay City Rollers. During the mid-’70s, they were consistent hitmakers in their home country including two #1 hits. When they finally broke through in America, they did it with a proudly goofy track with an equally goofy chant that wasn’t one of their UK hits but managed to become their only American #1. As Billboard mentioned recently, in the UK “Saturday Night” is a footnote while in the US “Saturday Night” is their main legacy. As an American, I’m not complaining about that.
The early origins of the Bay City Rollers date back to 1964 when a group of teens from Edinburgh formed the Ambassadors before quickly changing to the Saxons. Early on, they were strictly a local covers band performing gigs around their hometown covering various American hits. After a few years, the Saxons changed their name to the Bay City Rollers which came from a desire to have an American-sounding name with drummer Derek Longmuir throwing a dart on an American map landing around Bay City, Michigan.
With the new name, the Rollers came under the management of Tim Paton who like many other boy band managers strictly controlled the members and their image by assigning them their signature Scottish tartan attire. (And like most of these managers, Paton would later be accused by the members for sexual abuse even doing a year in jail for “gross indecency” between two teenage boys.) A discovery by a label exec led to the Rollers being signed to Bell Records and they hit it almost immediately getting to #9 in the UK with their take on the Gentrys’ “Keep on Dancing.” (The Gentrys’ original “Keep on Dancing” peaked at #4 in 1965. It’s a 5.) Another single, “Remember (Sha-La-La-La),” did better peaking at #6 but not before its lead singer Gordon Clark left the band over its teenybopper direction being replaced by Les McKeown. That along with other replacements helped cement the most recognizable lineup of the Bay City Rollers and set them up for their mid-‘70s imperial phase.
By 1975, the Rollers were a full-fledged phenomenon in their home country landing their two UK #1s that year including the year’s biggest single which was a cover of the Four Seasons’ “Bye Bye Baby.” (The Four Seasons’ original “Bye Bye Baby” peaked at #12 in 1965.) All this Rollers frenzy and teen idol status garnered comparisons to the Beatles from a decade earlier even being dubbed Rollermania, a play on Beatlemania. But for as much noise they made in their homeland, they were virtually unknown in the country that gave them their name. They would soon have their US breakthrough but it wouldn’t be with one of their latest hot songs but instead with a song that had already failed on its first release.
“Saturday Night” was originally recorded and released by the Rollers in 1973 with Nobby Clark singing. The writers and producers, Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, wrote some of the Rollers’ other hits and were a big hit-making team in the UK where among other songs wrote Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet On A String,” the winning song at 1967’s Eurovision contest. The song’s goofy chant and catchy feel fit right in with the bubblegum and glam rock that was dominating the UK charts at the time. But despite that, the song was a dud upon release not even hitting the charts. Listening to the original version, the song’s already there but sung by Clark it has a more rough edge than what it would become. It needed some sweetening for it to meet its full potential.
Across the Atlantic, record exec Clive Davis was looking to break the Rollers into America as head of his newly established Arista Records label which had absorbed Bell Records. Despite having no charting songs in America yet, Davis was adamant about finding a song that would launch the Rollers trying to find a song that American audiences would connect to the most. That came with “Saturday Night,” a non-current song that had failed to chart in their homeland a couple of years prior but had since been re-recorded with McKeown singing. Davis pulled out all the stops for the Rollers getting them to perform “Saturday Night” via satellite on an October 1975 episode of the short-lived ABC late-night variety show Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. (The NBC sketch comedy show of the same name premiered shortly after their performance originally premiering as Saturday Night before the cancellation of Cosell’s show allowed them to adopt the full name.) A few months later, they had the #1 song in America on the first week of the nation’s bicentennial year.
Ultimately, we Americans made the right pick for a #1 Bay City Rollers song. On the surface, “Saturday Night” is nothing but gibberish about meeting a girl and going out with her on a Saturday night to some rock and roll folk show. The instrumentation is pure bubblegum glam kitsch with its cheesed-out organ and guitars and peppy energy but it all works out making for a fun and serviceable three-minute jam. The chanting “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y NIGHT!” when paired with the building drum beat and fuzz guitar immediately gets you sucked into the song and is easily the best part of the song. Every element adds to the song’s catchiness turning what would have been a slight piece of bubblegum into a massive earworm.
What also helps with “Saturday Night” is Les McKeown’s delivery. Listening to Nobby Clark’s rougher singing on the original version, you can hear why it wasn’t a hit initially. That rough edge goes against the kiddy enthusiastic nature of the song with the chanting sounding more like a bar fight. McKeown on “Saturday Night” delivers the song in a teenage-style of exuberance that works for what the song’s going for and helps to make the song stand out along with the chanting transforming into a more approachable pep rally style. It was the right move.
The success of “Saturday Night” led to a couple of years of Rollermania in the US though not as huge as it was in the UK. The Rollers only landed two more Top 10 hits after their #1 with the immediate follow-up, 1976’s harder stomping “Money Honey” and then the next year with 1977’s quasi-disco “You Made Me Believe In Magic.” (“Money Honey” peaked at #9. It’s a 6. “You Made Me Believe In Magic” peaked at #10. It’s another 6.) Like with most bubblegum teen idol acts, the Bay City Rollers quickly fell off the radar with the hits drying up and members once again coming and going. Turmoil and legal issues have dominated since with Paton being fired in 1979 amid the aforementioned abuse allegations and the Rollers suing Arista in 2007 to recoup their lost royalties which lasted until 2016 when an out-of-court settlement was reached which had Arista’s parent company Sony Music pay over $3.5 million to its members.
Despite that turmoil, the Rollers kept going performing on the oldies circuit with members reuniting as recently as 2015 touring right up until the pandemic. All this as members who played on “Saturday Night” have been dying off with bassist Alan Longmuir dying of throat cancer in 2018 at age 62 while McKeown died suddenly this past April at age 65. It’s hard to imagine the Rollers continuing on with their most well-known member gone but we’ll see.
During a time of sleepy and professional-sounding pop music, the Bay City Rollers managed to hit #1 with a catchy glam bubblegum ditty with a fun chant to boot. In the case of America, that’s not a bad legacy to have.
BONUS BEATS: The chants in the Ramones’ 1976 classic “Blitzkrieg Bop” were inspired by the chanting on “Saturday Night.” Here’s “Blitzkrieg Bop:”
(Despite their legacy and influence, the Ramones’ highest-charting single, 1977’s “Rockaway Beach,” only peaked at #66.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Simple Plan straight up lifting “Saturday Night” for their 2015 song “Saturday:”
(Simple Plan’s highest-charting single, 2004’s “Welcome To My Life,” peaked at #40.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Saturday Night” soundtracking an intense shootout on a 2019 episode of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy:
(The Umbrella Academy is based on a comic book written by My Chemical Romance leader Gerard Way. My Chemical Romance’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “Welcome To The Black Parade,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 10.)