Pirate Radio

Throughout my childhood, BBC had a total monopoly on radio in Britain with just three stations only. These were the Home Service (news, discussions, spoken), The Light Programme (music, comedy, Women’s Hour) and the Third Programme (classical, for those who wanted Mahler with their marmalade).

Within that tightly restricted framework, the Light Programme, the one our radio at home was fixed on, had a “needle time” agreement with the Musicians Union restricting how many records they could play severely, so they had live bands in the studios doing cover versions of hits to compensate.

Pirate radio used international law to set up radio stations on boats and sea forts just outside the British territorial limit, thus at a stroke breaking the BBC’s long-enshrined monopoly of broadcasting, and also dealing a blow to commercial stations from Europe which British listeners could pick up. That was 99% Radio Luxembourg, but those with better equipment in the right locations could get AFN (American Forces Network) from Germany. If the weather was alright.

Radio Caroline Annual 1965
An eBay source describes this as ‘rare and valuable.’ It’s neither.

Radio Caroline, starting in March 1964 was the first although not in the end the best.

Radio Caroline has always been regarded as one of the foundation stones of the Swinging 60s and rightly so. It pioneered independent, commercial radio and changed the face of British broadcasting in the process. It shoved two fingers up to authority. Above all, it had everything central to the dynamics of the era in abundance: youth, music and rebellion.
Tony Blackburn, Poptastic, 2007

All (pirate radio) benefitted from new multi-track tape technology that made it possible to combine hit singles, commercials, station jingles and the disc jockey’s patter in a seamless stream of sound, while the disc jockeys themselves cultivated a youthful, cheeky, classless style that was only occasionally interrupted by bouts of seasickness.
Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat Britain 1964 – 1970, 2006

The motive of these operations is profit, cloaked with the assertion that such vessels provide a service which the public wants. There is not a shred of evidence for this.
The Times, 1964 quoted in 60’s Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot, 2008

As DeGroot points out, the evidence was the seven million listeners Radio Caroline soon acquired.

Pirate Radio had a massive and positive effect on British rock. The monopoly of the four major labels was broken. New labels like Track Record, Reaction, Planet, Immediate all flourished because they could access air time. (The links above take you to the pages on this site for the labels).

Tony Blackburn, who should know, listed records which were hits because of the pirates. He starts with Rag Doll by the Four Seasons, the first disc he played, and adds Terry by Twinkle, Have I The Right? by The Honeycombs and It’s Not Unusual by Tom Jones.

By 1967, when Harold Wilson’s government banned pirate radio, twenty-one different stations had tried their luck, and the 1967 audience was estimated at ten to fifteen million. Radio Caroline continued on and off for some time, but the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967 basically finished them on 14th August 1967, and the cleverest part was starting BBC Radio One to replace it immediately, staffed by the most popular ex-pirate DJs like Tony Blackburn, Simon Dee, Emperor Rosko, Dave Lee Travis and Johnnie Walker.

Caroline was started by Ronan O’Rahilly, who was then Georgie Fame’s manager, when he found it impossible to break the Big Four’s stranglehold on access to BBC radio. He bought the Mi Amigo, a 160 ton ex-passenger ship, stuck a 130 foot radio mast on top, and parked it just outside British territorial limits.

Radio Atlanta started a month later, but they pooled their resources (i.e. two ships) and Radio Caroline’s vessel sailed off to the Irish Sea to become Radio Caroline North, while Atlanta’s ship became Radio Caroline South.

Johnnie Walker describes the Caroline format:
The daytime music format was dead simple: we just alternated between ‘one in, one out.’ The ‘in’ record was from the Caroline Top 40 Countdown and the ‘out’ was anything the DJ chose: a hit from the Billboard Top 100, or one of the album hits, or an oldie picked from the record library downstairs. At night-time it was even more relaxed and free form. 

From “Pop Weekly” 1964

Walker adds in Johnnie Walker The Autobiography:
The singles were the latest hits, or about-to-be hits, that made up the Caroline Countdown. This was the station’s own chart, which was always a couple of weeks ahead of the national Top 40, which was based on sales.

Radio London (The Big L, Wonderful Radio London) went on air in December 1964, with DJs including Dave Cash, Ed Stewart and Kenny Everett. Radio London did not attempt to argue the toss and shut itself down a few hours before the Marine Broadcasting Act came in. 

Tony Blackburn had moved from Caroline to London and explained the format in his autobiography Poptastic:
Two things marked out Radio London from its competitors and helped define the golden age of pop radio. What was known as the Fab 40 format provided the blueprint for pop broadcasting as we know it … Essentially, the American style formula went like this. Seven records would be played every half hour – two from an A list selected from the Top 10, two from  a B-list consisting of records from number 11 to 40, plus a climber, an American hit and an oldie, what we called a Revive 45. Each disc would be plucked from its box, spun, then placed in the back of the box so it didn’t come around again for three hours. Rotating that simple formula lent a remarkable consistency to the station.

This seems to be a promotional sleeve from Radio London, and i’ve seen a few with Rhet Stoller’s Ricochet from March 1964 in it. This was on the Windsor label, so said to be a jokey reference to Radio London DJ, Tony Windsor.

Radio London also employed John Peel, in early 1967 for the late night show which Peel named The Perfumed Garden after the erotic classic, and which allowed a freewheeling choice of LP tracks.

The DJs adopted a more relaxed American model, and new material had much more chance of reaching a market, and yes, money changed hands (See The Charts for more).

The music press were arm’s length with the pirates, and a trawl through a couple of dozen NME’s from 1964 to 1967 brought up no ads, and precious few references. 

When you go on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at a Disney theme park, I can’t help thinking that pirates are fun, unless you’re the one who is strapped across a barrel waiting to be raped. (Disney have recently toned that down). Pirate stations did not pay royalties; but the labels also refused to accept them when offered. Conversely, the labels paid the radio station.

Phil Solomon, the Irish manager, bought into Radio Caroline in 1966 taking over from the founder, Ronan O’Rahilly. Solomon had been involved with Caroline in some role from at least 1964, though it was  ‘under the counter.’ The station heavily promoted his acts The Bachelors, Them and Twinkle (all Decca artistes) and Twinkle’s death-disc Terry was one of those records declined for airplay by the BBC which sold heavily in spite of that.

Solomon had Radio Caroline North in the Irish Sea broadcasting across Ireland. He centralized the playlists, removing the DJ’s choices (also halving their salaries), and charged £100 a week to have records added to the playlist. The deal was that you paid until they charted, then airplay was free.

At the same time he started the Major Minor label, which Radio Caroline shamelessly promoted with heavy airplay until they went off air in March 1968 … they survived a few months after August 14th by supplying the ship from Holland. The enforced heavy rotation of comedian Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies’ record Sentimental Songs caused a near mutiny from the DJs at sea. Phil Solomon’s brother’s Emerald (linked) label also featured heavily, which was hardly pirate radio fare. Both ships were eventually towed to Holland for non-payment of debts for fuel and food. 

Goodbye Caroline: The One Shots / Radio Caroline jungles on the B-side, Jumbo Records 45, 1974

The boats weren’t equipped to ride out a full North Sea gale. The Goodbye Caroline record carries the famous “abandon ship” broadcast from Radio Caroline:

Steve: Well we’re sorry to tell you that due to severe weather conditions and also the fact that we’re shipping a lot of water, we are closing down and at this stage the crew are leaving the ship. Obviously we hope to be back with you as soon as possible and we would like to assure all of you on land that there’s nothing to worry about. We’re all quite safe. Just for the moment we’d like to say goodbye … Tom …
Tom: Yeah, it’s not a very good occasion really. I’ll have to hurry because the lifeboat is standing by.

Religious broadcasting was a major reason for the pirates downfall. Radio London broadcast The World Tomorrow for which the Worldwide Church of God of Pasadena paid £300 per show. Kenny Everett said he was fired from Radio London for criticising The World Tomorrow. So they sold air time to fundamentalist Christian groups, notably Garner Ted Armstrong, proving the government’s point that these ships were unlicensed and could be used for propaganda by any group with enough cash to pay.

A couple of incidents contributed.

Radio 270 coverage map

First there was Radio 270. Radio 270 was the major one for the north-east, broadcasting from Oceaan 7, a Dutch fishing trawler off Scarborough from 1966 to 1967. The 270 consortium was headed by an ex-Conservative MP named Will Proudfoot (not I think, a hobbit). There was a famous November 1966 broadcast in a storm which resulted in a DJ throwing up all over the turntable. I was living in East Yorkshire, and the local MP, Patrick Wall was involved in the station, which started interspersing programmes with Conservative party broadcasts, directed at the local elections in Yorkshire.

The Labour minister Edward Short said: 
It is the first time in peacetime that this country has been subjected to a stream of misleading propaganda from outside our territorial waters and I do not think this is a matter for joking.

Also, as Radio Caroline South had run aground in 1966, it brought into question the safety of unlicensed ships and their supply chains. That went back to 1964. 

There were several abandoned World War II sea forts off the east coast, and the pirate station Radio Invicta broadcast from the Red Sands fort, just over five miles offshore. It was close to rival Radio Sutch, and both opened in May 1964. Invicta had a slightly stronger transmitter, but both were aimed at Kent, Essex and South and East London. Invicta veered to the light end of pop and easy listening more than other pirates. Pop Weekly published their programming. Pop Weekly was the only ‘pirate friendly’ pop paper.T he Invicta list was a paid advert, I suspect.

Pop Weekly, 23 January 1965

Invicta’s adverts were mainly from local businesses.

Radio Invicta had to call lifeboats out more than the other stations combined. In December 1964, a tender returning from Red Sands with supplies started to take on water. The station owner, Tom Pepper, and two more people disappeared, and Pepper’s body was washed ashore. Foul play was suspected as he had been involved in arguments over control of the station. His widow took over the station.

Then there was the Radio City affair. Radio City broadcast from an abandoned sea fort, called Shivering Sands.

Radio City had been started by Screamin’ Lord Sutch as Radio Sutch with a World War II aircraft radio transmitter. He sold the station to Reg Calvert, who was the manager of Lord Sutch, Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours and The Fortunes, for £50,000. The station had a hallmark … whenever it ran short of supplies, it broadcast The Fortunes’ hit You’ve Got Your Troubles.

The Fortunes also recorded Caroline as the Radio Caroline station’s main radio theme (Decca 1964). Funny, that very popular song never made the BBC chart.

Caroline: The Fortunes Decca 45, 1964

A violent battle for the Radio City fort broke out after a struggle for control between Calvert and a Major Smedley, a director of Radio Caroline, in June 1966. Smedley had supplied a new transmitter, which failed to work properly, so Calvert declined to pay for it. Smedley sent a group of men to take over the station by force of arms. Calvert visited Smedley to remonstrate, and in a scuffle was shot dead by Smedley, who pleaded self-defence. The boarding incident was dramatized in the film Slade In Flame (1975), and was filmed at Shivering Sands. 

It was not only Radio City. Radio Caroline DJ Steve Young described events of January 1967:

Ronan O’Rahilly had put two men on the Rough Towers fort in order to establish occupancy rights. Meanwhile an individual by the name of Roy Bates the 45-year-old owner of Radio Essex which, like Radio Caroline, broadcast from a vessel carrying the Dutch flag, had his sights set on the same piece of property. Bates sent four men out to “get rid” of the other two, triggering a war, which we were to become caught in the middle of. One morning I awoke to the sound of a vessel circling the Mi Amigo. I watched as it sailed around and around us, maintaining a distance of several hundred feet. Aboard the boat was a small group of men who were shouting threats at us. They were also carrying firearms which they aimed at us, although no shots were fired, and eventually the boat sped away. Later that day another vessel drew alongside and a number of “heavies” clambered aboard the Mi Amigo. They were on “our side” and were stopping by to lick their wounds after having been firebombed during an unsuccessful raid on the Rough Towers fort by the opposing forces. Luckily nobody was seriously hurt and, after receiving medical attention they were soon on their way. 

The Wilson government could point to maritime danger, religious bias, political propaganda and criminal involvement. Radio City was shut down first, in February 1967, six months before the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act when it was ruled that the sea fort did lay in British territorial waters.

Car sticker. It cost 1d.

Radio 270 stayed a short while after the closedown. I remember them advertising in Hull for groups to send them tapes to play on air. I have uncomfortable memories of assisting with a recording of Down The Road Apiece.

Caroline did not give up, and in 1970 launched Radio North Sea International, broadcasting in favour of the Conservative party. The Labour government jammed them, and the winning Conservatives continued to jam them. Mavericks outside control were not acceptable to any political party.

Was it like The Boat That Rocked? The film started out showing pirate radio, then lost the plot and dissolved into messy chaos, so in a way it was.

There are compilation CDs which namecheck pirate radio. Realistically they’re just compilations of singles from 1964 to 1967 in multiple CD sets. Rockin’ With The Pirates has the rarer tracks.

SEE ALSO: Radio Luxembourg 208