Tom Russell: 30 Years On Air
Legendary Scottish rock DJ Tom Russell celebrates his 30th anniversary as a radio presenter this year. Famous in Scotland for his celebrated Friday Night Rock Show, which ran for over 20 years on Radio Clyde, he is now best-known for fronting the weekday afternoon show on Rock Radio.
Today – Friday, April 8 – Rock Radio are paying an on air tribute to the man. So, it seems appropriate that Classic Rock should follow suit.
Interview: Mick Wall
Thomas Highet Russell was born in Lennoxtown, near Kirkintilloch, on September 16, 1950. “It was an old mental asylum,” he chuckles, “One of these Victorian buildings where a lot of people in the Glasgow area were born because it also had a maternity ward. It was knocked down about 10 years ago and is now the training pitch for Celtic Football Club!”
You grew up an only child…
“Mum and dad weren’t particularly musical. But my dad came home one night with two tickets for some group that were playing the Glasgow Odeon and asked if I wanted to go. We went, but we never heard a bloody note with all the screaming going on. It was the Beatles, and my abiding memory was of all these women taking their knickers off and throwing them at the stage. That was my introduction to rock ’n’ roll. I thought, ‘Hey, this is for me!’.”
Your first job was as a 15-year-old metallurgist at the Kirkintilloch iron foundry. What is metallurgy?
“It’s basically the study of different types of metal.”
There’s a joke there somewhere…
“A guy there – I think he was gay and taken a wee fancy to me – gave me a loan of some blues LPs – which I’ve loved ever since. And of course there’s a connection between Scottish and Irish folk music of the 17th century, where immigrants went to America and mixed their songs with the music of black slaves – which gave us the blues. This in turn gave birth to rock.”
At 18, you took a degree in mechanical engineering at Durham College, under the aegis of the Ministry Of Defence. You then returned to Glasgow and… opened a record shop?!
“I ended up with five record shops! Things changed in the 90s, when supermarkets started selling records – everything went to hell.”
Your life changed in 1981 when the controller of Radio Clyde – Richard Park, later famous for his talent show appearances on the BBC – invited you in for ‘a chat’.
“It was the era when record companies had parties every week and record shop owners would get invited, along with journalists and DJs. I would get pissed as a fart and bend Richard’s ear about why Radio Clyde didn’t play rock. I kept telling him how much of it we sold in the shops and eventually he took notice.”
The result was your Friday Night Rock show.
“Tommy Vance was on Radio 1 from 10pm to midnight; I was on Clyde from midnight till 2am. I was given a six-week contract at tuppence a week. At the end of the six weeks I wondered what to do. I said nothing and the weeks turned into months – and then years!”
Did you find yourself affecting a deep ‘rock DJ’ voice?
“The first time I spoke I was like, ‘Hi there!’. Richard stopped me and said, ‘You’re trying to sound like a DJ’. He said he wanted me to get angry at the microphone and I went [growls], ‘I’M TOM RUSSELL!’. That’s when I found my voice.”
It was a very influential show.
“There was no internet, or music channels on TV in those days. The only place you’d hear Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC back then was either in a record shop, or once a week on the radio with Tommy Vance or me.”
The show ran for over 20 years – before a new programme controller forced you to water it down.
“Aye. Dire Straits were OK, Iron Maiden were not. I was terribly depressed but, hey, I still had a mortgage to pay so I would just go, do my best and pick up the cheque.”
You were saved by the launching of Rock Radio in 2008.
“A radio station that broadcasts 24-hour rock – that had been my dream for years. To see it finally happen was amazing.”
What’s been the highest point of your 30 years on air?
“I’ve been so lucky. Flown around the world to interview people whose records I love. It’s really been a charmed life. It will catch up with me one day.”
What’s the best feeling in the world?
“I get people in Scotland shaking my hand, telling me how I introduced them to rock. It’s the feeling that what you do might be worthwhile.”
Do you believe in God?
“Yes. I sometime have my doubts – when you see something like the earthquake in New Zealand, you wonder how could there be a God? But then I think, ‘No, there must be something to believe in’.”
What for you is the meaning of life?
“To leave the world a better place than it was when you were born.”
The final show is over – would you like to be buried or cremated?
“Buried standing up. With a pair of headphones on, and a guitar round my neck – and a bottle of single malt.”
Congratulations from all of us at Classic Rock to Tom – and here’s to the next 30 years!
Find out more at www.rockradio.co.uk
FOOTNOTE: You might have seen this article briefly last week. That’s when Rock Radio’s tribute was originally planned. At the last minute, it was pushed back. So, we took this down.