Keith Skues and Gordon Mac: A Conversation
When Keith Skues attempted to break into broadcasting back in 1958, he “wasn't posh enough” according to the station that auditioned him. More than a half-century later, he stands as the only British broadcaster to have been heard on forces, pirate, national, local and independent commercial radio stations over the course of his career. Gordon Mac, meanwhile, changed the sound of London’s airwaves. As the founder and manger of Kiss FM it was his ambition and business sense that transformed the station from a part-time pirate to a hugely successful and culturally important business. Neither had heard of the other prior to their July 2013 meeting, but by conversation’s end they found their paths in radio were more similar than they could have imagined.
What was the music like in your house growing up, Keith?
My parents were very Victorian in their approach. They liked religious hymns and things. When I was a teenager I used to buy one record a week. I did a paper route to get some money and that would allow me to buy one gramophone record made of shellac. Old songs by Bill Haley and people like that.
I used to have a job in a toy shop and I would do exactly the same. Take my money and buy one record per week. It was 7-inches at that point.
My parents hated rock'n'roll. I got banished to the bottom of the garden. There was a garden shed down there, so I set up "Skues Tower Record Shed" when I was 12 or 13 years old.
What was the first record you actually bought, Keith?
The first record I ever bought was a 78. Someone at school told me about a record by the Everly Brothers called "Wake Up Little Skuesy". So I went and spent my money on this first record and found out it was "Wake Up Little Susie"! But I've enjoyed them ever since. I met them and interviewed them. I was thrown out of a hotel with them in London, too.
Gordon, what was the musical climate like in your family?
My grandfather was probably my biggest influence. My family's very close – we come from South London. My grandfather loved soulful things. Dionne Warwick and a lot of '60s soul. My cousin was a big influence on me too. She started going out with a skinhead, so I got bombarded with reggae. I've still got her old 7-inches. I used to nick all of her records. By the time I was 12, I was DJing. Music was my life really.
What unites you you is the phenomenon of pirate radio. You're both legal now. The rebels have conformed. People often think pirate radio started in the ships in the 60's, but two particular outlets - Radio Normandie and Radio Luxembourg - sought to challenge the BBC's monopoly in the 1930s. Did you hear either of those stations growing up, Keith?
I was too young to listen to Radio Normandie, but I would listen to Radio Luxembourg under the sheets because my parents didn’t like “hooligan music.” I built my own crystal set: no loudspeakers, just a pair of headphones and a long piece of wire which went into an iron bedstead and another bit of wire that went out of the house to receive the transmission. You didn’t need batteries or anything. The BBC would put out about two hours of popular music a week, so it needed challenging. Radio Luxembourg succeeded in that. It was very popular, but they only broadcast at night – not during the daytime. And then in 1964 somebody came up with the idea of setting up ships to broadcast to England. 1964 was the turning point.
[In the early ’60s] the BBC would put out about two hours of popular music a week, so it needed challenging.
When did you first get involved with radio professionally, Keith?
Well, I was called up for national service and I heard through the grapevine about the British Forces Network in Germany, which was a popular station broadcast to the troops. There were a lot of famous names like David Jacobs and Pete Murray that all started with the BFN.
The BFN was strictly controlled a la the BBC. You had a script and stuck to it. It wasn’t easy, like when the pirates came years later. They didn’t like you pushing your personality. When I was broadcasting a housewives program later on, I used to say, “Monday morning not Tuesday morning please don’t snooze. Hearty greetings from me, Keith Skues,” and I was told to stop it. They don’t want your name coming over the air. I remember being in the control room when the top brass came around, and they could hear what I was saying. I had already started the Monday morning line and I went into panic mode. So I said, “Monday morning please don’t snooze. It’s hearty greetings from me” pause “cardboard shoes.” It was just a stupid expression, but to this day I still get more letters addressed to “cardboard shoes” at the BBC than my own name.
So, Keith, you ended up working on Radio Caroline?
Yes. BFN to Radio Caroline, Radio Luxembourg, Radio London, BBC. That’s the order it went.
Did you meet Rohan O'Rahilly, where you recruited by him?
I didn’t meet him initially. I met a chap named Allan Crawford. He set up an independent, offshore radio station called Radio Atlanta. They broadcast off the Essex coast. I’d just come home from Forces radio, and I really wanted to get on to the BBC. That was my ambition. Pirate radio meant nothing to me at all, because I’d been hundreds of miles away. I was in the pub and went up to the bar to order some pints. I was with a colleague I hadn’t seen for ages, and there was a gentleman sitting in the corner who said [in an Australian accent] “Aye, g’day. Ya gotta great voice. Have you ever thought of going in for radio?” And I thought my colleague had set me up with this guy, but it turned out he was the managing director of Radio Atlanta.
A couple weeks later Radio Atlanta merged with Radio Caroline. This is where the two of them came together to form Radio Caroline South. So Alan said to me: "Come and join us when we become Radio Caroline South." That was July 1964. At that time we were allowed to choose our own music. I had a three hour program every day of the week. You worked on the ship for 14 days and 14 nights with no time off. Conditions were basic, I’d say. But the fun of it, as Gordon has said, is the music and the rapport you had among your colleagues. We were all pals, all friends. It was a wonderful era.
And then came the marine broadcasting offences act.
Yes, that was the end of pirate radio as we knew it. After August 14, 1967 anybody who was British was not allowed to serve on the ships. Otherwise we could have ended up in prison for three months and fined a thousand pounds. So I decided not to go down that path.
So then we get to what Gordon starts doing. Because certainly for those who came of age in the late '70s and '80s, pirate radio was land-based, via high-rise buildings.
Yes, somewhere between the sea pirates and the late ’70s and early ’80s, FM was discovered. The pirates on sea were all AM. All medium wave, which meant having these huge great masts because your transmission is based on how long the piece of wire is. With FM, on the other hand, all you need is a small tin, biscuit box with a whole load of transistors and resistors. With FM it’s all about getting to the highest point, because the highest point can transmit the furthest, whereas with AM it was about having to put up those huge aerials. A land-based AM pirate would have been hard, because they’d have found you! Land-based pirates were all about technology. Which is why technology is such an important part of my life.
The way you broadcasted as a pirate was very clever. You stopped broadcasting so much to stop getting raided, and made sure you soundtracked the weekend.
Yes, we started near the end of 1985. There were stations around at the time, Invictor, LWR, Solar, JFM. None of them had really done a station as I’d thought it should be. I’d been on some of them. I’d been on JFM as a drive time jock. I was told by the guy who used to run JFM, “We’re trying to go off air to get a [legal] licence and, if we do, we probably won’t have you as an employee because of the way you pronounce your ‘r’’s.”
London was the perfect pirate ground. On a 200 watt transmitter we could do the whole of London.
They went off air in early 1985 due to a big bust from the Department of Trade and Industry, and all the other stations had gone off air to chase this community radio station licence which never happened. It just was something the radio authority put out there, so a lot of people turned off their radio transmitters to go for it. So we thought the best time to go on was when everybody else had gone off air. London was the perfect pirate ground. London’s a valley, with the Thames running through and massive great hills on each side. On a 200 watt transmitter we could do the whole of London. Capital FM, for instance, was doing that on a 5,000 watt transmitter.
How did the busts work? The DTI would send employees, but did they ram down the doors? Were there raids on Caroline as well?
We had an amazing engineer who set up a microwave link, so we could have our studio wherever. The microwave link would shoot at a tower block somewhere around London, and because microwave links bounce everywhere it’s hard to trace them. So up that tower block would be a receiver and a transmitter, and we’d then transmit to another block to where we had the main transmitter. So Kiss FM never lost a studio. But we lost hundreds and hundreds of transmitters. We always had a few studios on the go. There are lots of stories to tell. DJs were told to never actually walk in the studio with a record bag or anything like that. The studio was next to a bookie on Woolworth Road, so sometimes Tim Westwood would go to open the door, and he’d hear someone shout “Yo Tim!” so he’d have to keep walking. We looked over our shoulders all the time because you could get busted, all your records taken. It was cat and mouse.
The shadow of America loomed quite large. You took the name from an American station.
That’s right. We pirated it 100%. We went and nicked their name, their logo, even some of their shows. That all came about when we looked for a name. When I discovered Kiss FM in New York with Tony Humphries and Shep Pettibone doing these mixes, non-stop long mixes of all these tracks, remixing them on air, I was like, “Oh my God, that’s what I want.” Just as a separate point here: The reason England was so far behind more of the world was because America had commercial radio before commercial TV. We had commercial television first, and then we had commercial radio, which was always the poor man’s sister. Once you got TV and adverts… to go to radio was a step back as people saw it. I didn’t agree, but in advertising terms it was. England was so far behind because of the War. The DTI had these antiquated laws that said nobody could have any transmitters or transmissions in the country, because we could be spies, transmitting over to the mainland. So they put this big blanket on, but they never took it off. It was only when deregulation came in the ’90s that it actually started. Capital Radio and LBC had a 21-year monopoly! In a city of ten million people, that’s crazy. In New York, at the time, there were about 150 commercial stations! And we were so far behind it all. It was … it drove me mad.
When you look back now at the risks you took, Keith, do you think pirate radio – offshore or on land – was a young man’s game?
I’d say yes. I tend to agree. I wouldn’t want to become a pirate DJ on a ship now at my age. If there’d been no commercial radio and pirate radio was starting today, then I probably wouldn’t do it. As a youngster you’re a rebel, you want to make a name for yourself and fight against the establishment. You can do that with youth on your side. I wouldn’t do it today.
There were female voices on pirate doing links, contributing to jingles: the fabric of sound. but you didn’t hear many of them on air.
I think the only woman who broadcast on the pirates when I was there was named Candy Calvert. She was the Reg Calvert, who ran a fort station. I think she was maybe the only girl DJ around at that particular time.
Reg was shot. I think it was his death that pushed the government to enact the Marine act.
It was sped up very quickly after that, yes. Pirates killing each other. It was unfortunate. And within a year we’d gone.
Do you remember that?
Very much. I’d met Reg. I don’t know the details of the disagreement so much. But after some sort of raid on Radio City, Reg went to house of Radio Caroline’s Oliver Smedley. Reg threatened Smedley, and Smedley shot him. The government then brought the Act through after that, so it was the end of the road.
1967 was an incredible year for music. Hendrix, The Beatles, The Stones. It was a tumultuous time. So to have broadcasters of youth music silenced that summer...
But then along came the government saying, “Oh, you know we can have a new popular music station. We’ll call it Radio 247, because it was broadcast on 247 medium wave, and we’ll get all the listeners from pirate radio.” How will you get the listeners? “We’ll employ some of these... What do they call them, jocks! We’ll audition them and see how to do it.” I don’t know how many they did audition, maybe 150 or more. I was one of the shortlisted DJs, and eventually came onto Radio 1. As much as we wanted to do what we were doing on pirate radio, there was no chance. You had a producer and there was a team of people behind you. You had to submit a carefully rehearsed and well-written script and you went for rehearsals. Tony Blackburn was the first DJ on Radio 1.
What number did you go on?
Number 2. The program was for two hours, and I was expected to get in there three hours early for a rehearsal. Excuse me? A rehearsal? I had freedom with BFN to a certain extent, complete freedom on the pirates and now I had to turn up, properly dressed. I don’t think BBC bosses wanted a Radio 1 to be honest. They copied the Radio London station in a lot of ways. They took the jingles. The first time we ever heard jingles as we know them, was in 1964 with Radio London. They had fantastic jingles produced by PAMS in Dallas, Texas. Fantastic stuff. Radio 1 went to PAMS in Texas and ordered a similar set of jingles and put the DJs names over them and called it Radio 1.
That takes us, interestingly, to the fortunes of Gordon because the BBC took a lot of DJs from Kiss FM over the years.
90% of my DJs turned up on Radio 1 after the first seven years. Nah, it wasn’t 90%, but they took Trevor Nelson, Dave Pearce, Judge Jules, Danny Rampling, Norman Jay, Jazzie B, David Rodigan obviously. Tim Westwood went to Capital and then Radio 1. One day they’ll have some originality.
Was there a disquiet among the pirates in the ’60s of going to the BBC, Keith, even though there was no alternative outlet for you?
I had always wanted to be on the BBC since I was 11 years old playing with a crystal set. And I still hadn’t achieved that ambition by the end of the pirates. I got a lot of criticism for doing that, yes. “Why didn’t you stay on Caroline? Johnnie Walker did.” They were moored off the coast of Holland, though, and I didn’t fancy doing that. I’d been offered a BBC job so it was proper money for a change! I’ve been quite happy with them, and I’m still there to this day.
Gordon, I’d imagine the feeling would be completely different for you. There was a sense that, not only were these DJs a part of Kiss, but they were shareholders as well. Who were the first to be poached, and how was it?
I have to be honest, it wasn’t a feeling of upset. Trevor is still a very good friend of mine. He came to me and he said he was scared to tell me, because he thought I’d go mental. It hurt because I was losing another one of my DJs. I always saw Kiss as a ground through which people would pass through. We would find talent and we’d put it on, forever looking for new talent because that’s the way it is. You need to keep on reinventing yourself. So when they did go to Radio 1, in a way, it was like, “Oh, we’ve done something.” Lorna Clarke, who is at Radio 2 now, used to be my head of programming. Willber Willberforce is at 1xtra. It was good for us. It showed that we got to a level where the establishment wanted our DJs. It meant I didn’t have to sack them, so I could get good new ones. [laughs] Phewwww. It’s always difficult when people become friends and they’re hanging on there. It was good for turnover.
I always saw Kiss as a ground through which people would pass through.
You mentioned Lorna. When you came on Thatcher had just arrived, and the gender landscape was changing. Certainly compared to Keith’s times. You had a lot of female DJs…
We had some. June Sarpong, Lisa I'Anson, Sonia Fraser. The specialist music scene was dominated by male DJs. And male club DJs became male radio presenters. They were still just club DJs, but they now had a radio show. Right now I’m recruiting and I’m still seeing a real lack of female presenters around compared to the amount of male presenters. Even now, even today. I don’t know why it is. It’s a male-focused industry.
From your personal experiences, whatever outlet you were broadcasting on, what would you consider the most important record you ever played?
For me, it goes back to the pirate radio days, 1965. I was saying you had complete freedom, no payola. I knew a chap who was a press officer for The Beatles. He was in America, and was invited to a recording session of a group of musicians who sang as well. They were brand new. Nobody had heard of them, and they’d recorded a Bob Dylan song. So he sent me a reel-to-reel tape of it. We had the machines on Radio Caroline, I listened to it and thought it was really good, very commercial. I played it maybe five or six times over the two weeks I was on board.
When I got back to land, I learned they’d been inundated in the London office as to this tune I’d played. Nobody could go out and buy it because it hadn’t been released in Britain. It hadn’t even been pressed by this stage. It was eventually released in America, and Britain picked up on it fairly quickly and it was released on CBS. The record, thanks to me, he said modestly, got to number #1 in the charts in June 1965. It was a group called The Byrds, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” And that is the power of pirate radio, if you like.
What about you, Gordon?
There’s been many. But I think the most important record I ever played was the first record I played when I did the first show on Kiss FM after it had been legalized. Everybody thought we’d be grown up, so I went on and played “Pirates' Anthem” by Cocoa Tea, a heavy reggae track. The first lyrics were “Dem a call us pirates, Dem a call us illegal broadcasters.” It was just so great that the record had been released around that time. Also, it powered through the idea that we might be legal, but we’re still pirates at heart. It was a statement song. Pirate at heart!