“Why don’t you try Radio? You have the perfect face for it.” (Various Smartarses)
So there I was, driving my truck past Dumbarton Rock on the way to another store delivery and, as I fiddled with the radio trying to find something decent, I came upon 96.3FM, a frequency I’d never tuned in to before. That’s because it was a brand new station and right away I was smiling cos it was playing Classic Rock, something you’d never heard before from a Scottish broadcaster. Then, as the song finished, an unmistakably Scottish voice proceeded to bastardise the English language in every way possible: “Dat’s Queen with Fart Bortum Gulls!” I think he said and, spookily enough, I recognised the bastardiser’s voice. “Hells Bells!” I yelled, looking down at the radio like he was actually in it. “That’s Tom Russell!”
Before owning a couple of record stores in Glasgow then becoming the self-proclaimed Godfather of Rock thanks to his Friday Night Rock Show with Radio Clyde (on which yours truly featured with Nazareth, La Paz and during Growin Up Too Fast’s release) Tom and I had worked together way back in 1976/77 when my band, Phase, often played gigs alongside the Tom Russell Road Show. In the recent past, Tom had been demoted to Clyde 2, the AM frequency underling of the now commercially-driven Radio Clyde FM as Clyde’s bosses had decided there was no place for Rock music on their hi-fidelity flagship. And yet, here he was on 96.3FM or, to give it its full name: 96.3 Rock Radio. Scotland’s first Classic Rock Station. The year was 2007 and I’d settled into a normal existence of solo pub gigs built around full-time trucking, but this was about to change, spookily.
Enter another blast from the past: The host of the STV show on which I’d made my Nazareth debut back in 1980. Then, in 1981, as part of a Radio Forth documentary following Naz on tour in the US, he sold his recording equipment to buy drugs. The ultimate ‘Should’ve Been a Rock Star,’ Jay Crawford. Since leaving Radio Forth, Jay had built himself an impressive career. He was MD with Real Radio Scotland, the recent Big Dog on the block owned by GMG, Guardian Media Group. They also had under their control many other radio and TV stations such as STV, LWT, a new breakfast franchise, GMTV, and even shares in The Walt Disney Company. Add to that, newspapers The Observer and, of course, The Guardian itself made Jay’s position all the more commendable. As part of Real Radio, he also oversaw Smooth Radio but, crucially to this story, had also bought the license for a third, yet to be named 96.3FM. Along with his boss Billy Anderson (who will feature much more, later in my story) Jay had gone for making this small-reaching wavelength a Rock station. Scotland’s first, as we’ve said. Add to this, Jay and I had once written a song together called Hampden Nights about the Scotland football team way back when Scotland actually had a football team worth writing about.
After hearing Tom on this new station, I sent him a congratulations type message saying it was good to hear him back on the airwaves and, to my surprise, he replied:
“Jay wants to speak with you.”
“Hi Jay, it’s been a long time.”
“Since we Rock and Rolled?”
“Oh, good one!”
“Listen. Would you be up for doing a show?”
“What, you mean a radio show?”
“Yeah, maybe like once a week, you play some songs by folk you’ve known or worked with and talk about them. It could be fun and it’s not every day the listener’s get to hear stuff from a real ‘been there, done that, wore the T-shirt then sold it for drugs’ Rock Star.”
“Sounds more like you Jason, but okay, sure. I’m up for that.”
“Great. Come into the studio and we’ll try it out.”
By ‘Try it out’ Jay meant me doing a trial link or two to see how my voice sounded on the radio. This exercise was carried out by chief producer for Real Radio, Ian ‘Fergie’ Ferguson who was also an award-winning ‘Imager’, which means putting together audio clips and sound effects. Yes, that title baffles me too. We sat down together at the studio desk. Fergie showed me how to work the buttons. I strapped on the headphones, pushed up the mic fader and spoke. “Holy Fuck. Ferg! Err, hello. I’m Billy Rankin and you’re listening to 96.3 Rock Radio. That was Dio’s Holy Diver at a quite frankly outrageous volume. Ah nearly burst ma farting string there.” Truth be told, my headphones were set quite high and I did actually get a bit of a fright but, by the time I’d recovered, Fergie was already leaving the studio saying, “Take five mate. I’m just going to see Jay.” Minutes later, Jay listened back as I tried to apologise for the language and stopped the playback:
“Fuck a weekly show Bill. I want you full-time.”
“Huh? What brought that on?”
“Your voice mate,” said Fergie. “It’s perfect for radio.”
“Yes, it is,” Jay agreed. “That timbre, that expression, that confidence, that ‘Don’t give a fuck’ attitude is just what we need.”
And so, after some negotiations, I handed my notice into Asda/Walmart and became a professional radio presenter.
And all because I’d heard Tom Russell talk shite as I drove by Dumbarton Rock.
Nah. We never played The Police on 96.3 Rock Radio.