Pirate Radio – Teenage Memories

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (May 2009)

The teenager and I went to see “The Boat That Rocked” over the Easter holiday.

I was disappointed that the film was not quite as good as it should have been on the subject matter, and thus has not been the success it could have been considering the cast. But the soundtrack was excellent.

The film was supposed to be based on the story of the Pirate Radio ship Radio Caroline during the months before and immediately after the passing of the Marine Offences Act in 1967.

Radio Caroline was one of numerous radio stations broadcasting from off the British coast. I listened to what was known then as Radio Caroline South as there was a sister station broadcasting from a boat in the Irish Sea called, guess, Radio Caroline North. Their target audience was the people of Belfast, Liverpool and Manchester. There was also Radio Scotland and Radio City which stated life as Radio Sutch under the supervision of Screaming Lord Sutch who went on to lead the Monster Raving Looney party, the only trustworthy outfit in British Politics in my opinion. NER readers will remember others from their own area and of their own taste.

I was ideally placed to hear all the stations that broadcast from the North Sea or in the Thames Estuary. The three that stick in my mind are Radio Caroline and Radio London on the boats and my father’s preference, Radio 390 which broadcast “mood music” from a fort in the estuary. There were still a lot of these coastal defence structures from the war in good condition in the 60s but only a few are left now.

I couldn’t understand the point of Radio 390 as to my youthful ear it played the same sort of boring grownup stuff that the BBC was full of. Now I can understand that there is no reason why the excitement of rebellion should be confined to youth. It’s wasted on the young. And as the same restriction on recorded music must have been in force the adults got to hear the music of Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole in the original, not the Bertha Plunket Combo doing a cover version. (I’m making Bertha Plunket and her Combo up, by the way)

I began writing this article in my head and making note of the memories the film dredged up. I needed to check some facts and dates in the course of which I found this article in The Times last month which basically does it all for me.

I don’t think anybody under the age of 50 can imagine just how boring the BBC popular music provision was in the early to mid 60s. In hindsight I can sympathise with the fears of the Musician’s Union that playing too much recorded music would put musicians out of work. In fact the explosion of popular musical creativity of the 60s gave them work, lots of it. What has caused the problem facing live music is very recent with more and stricter red tape from our Soviet style local councils closing down music venues and making it harder for a pub to put on any music at all to entertain customers.

Back in 1964 there were only 3 radio stations serving the whole of the British Isles and they were all run by the BBC. The many US Radio Stations with names like W.O.L.D. sounded very glamorous to us. There were only 2 TV stations as well, the BBC (the Channel later known as BBC1 when BBC2 opened in 1970) and ITV the independent commercial station. We still have to buy a licence to watch television which funds the BBC; in those days the licence also applied to the wireless, or radio as it was coming to be known.

The 3 stations were The Light Programme for light entertainment, The Home Service for news, education and serious stuff and the Third Programme which only broadcast in the evening and which I do not recall ever listening to. Broadcasts started shortly after my father got up for work (so 6.30am say) and ended after my bedtime.

It wasn’t all boring, only from the point of view of a pop/rock mad teenager.

I remember “Listen with Mother” and “Junior Choice” fondly, and some interesting school broadcasts. I still enjoy the great comedy programmes like “Round the Horne”, “The Men from the Ministry” (accurate and prophetic) and the “Navy Lark” which have been reissued for home consumption. There were drama and serials.
“The Archers” is still running but “Waggoner’s Walk” was a poor replacement for “Mrs Dale’s Diary”. I’m worried about Jim. But modern recorded music was limited to about 7 hours a week, the longest segment of which was the Sunday evening chart show when the entire top twenty would be played. That ended at 7pm and was followed by “Sing Something Simple” an hour of a close harmony acappella group, the Cliff Adams Singers.

How modern music by groups like the Beatles (but not raucous stuff like the Rolling Stones) featured was during programmes like “Worker’s Playtime”. This had begun during the war. The outside broadcast team would travel to a large factory like Fords of Dagenham and put on a midday show in the works canteen. They took a compere, a comedian and a band. The Bertha Plunket Combo would sing a selection of songs, including She Loves You, Yes, Yes, Yes, (the Beatles) and How Do you do It? (Gerry and the Pacemakers) and so on. The BBC was strict on diction in those days you understand.

I had an old but powerful (once it was warmed up) valve radio (transistors? modern new fangled gismos!) which had a glass screen where the names of the established stations were engraved. These included foreign stations like Radio Hilverstum and the famous Radio Luxemburg. I was always disappointed with Luxemburg because it faded in and out, usually at the guitar solo, although having adverts was a novelty.

My friends and I listened mainly in the early evening while we were doing our homework, or on Sunday afternoons while doing our share of the family chores. The film showed schoolgirls just like us, very accurately. Argument raged over which was the better station. I generally favoured Caroline but many girls at my school preferred London. Johnny Walker, one of my favourite DJs says of Caroline
“We had 85 per cent of night-time listeners, we were crushing [the main rival] Radio London. They were more white and middle-class – Caroline was the Stones and London was the Beatles.”

London also moved its own chart along very quickly – No1 this week would be old news the next. Caroline kept a record in the chart for as long as the listeners were requesting it, or voting for it, or whatever they did. I can’t remember.
“Caroline the sound of the nation, Caroline the sound of the land, Caroline the sound of the nation, CAROLINE!”

Caroline also had a very popular Monkees Club, the US band with their madcap TV show which we all adored. I can remember the excitement when our class was mentioned one night and a song played for us. What I can’t remember is which song – “I Want to be Free” sung by Davy Jones probably.

Some of the things I remember might have been from either Radio Caroline, or Radio London. There was a night the DJ was having a discussion with a courting couple in a car parked on the coast road just outside Frinton. He said something like “You there on the coast road, have you got the car radio tuned into us? Flash the headlights if you can hear me” and lo and behold they did. And there followed a one-sided conversation of the one flash for yes and two for no variety.

There was a period, I think they must have broken too many vinyl singles in a storm, when time was taken up promoting some book from which extracts were read aloud. That was a low point; I found the adventures of Bluey McCaine in the sugarcane fields of Australia almost as boring as Bertha Plunket.

What I can’t remember was the adverts, other than for the perfume Aqua Manda by Christopher Collins.

I do remember the afternoon Radio London closed down hours before the Marine Offences Act took effect. I quickly tuned to Radio Caroline where, for some reason I recall they were playing “Time Seller” by the Spencer Davis Band before they paid tribute to their rivals and the sadness that all stations except them were now closed. I wish I still had the essay I wrote that afternoon on the subject – it would have been useful to recall my thoughts.

Radio Caroline South moved further out to sea away from British terretorial waters and was supplied from Holland. I think Radio Caroline North was supplied from the Isle of Man, a wonderfully independent place where not all UK laws apply even now.

Those DJs who were prepared to co-operate with Auntie got jobs at in the newly opened BBC Radio One, the first legal pop music station. The rest is well known. We now have dozens of commercial stations, BBC Regional stations, DAB digital stations and still some Pirate stations operating on land from a different house every night or a van. I cannot remember the name of the Dagenham heavy metal Pirate Station 20 years ago that used to review my friend’s gigs and play their demo tapes. The fear in 1967 was that the offshore stations would interfere with shipping safety with their broadcasts. Now it is the danger of interference with police and emergency radio.

Radio Caroline wasn’t the same for me after that although I carried on listening for quite a while, disappointed that, other than Johnny Walker, my favourite DJs like Mike Ahearn didn’t get so much airtime as employees at the BBC. Despite the best efforts of John Peel and Kenny Everett Radio 1 was still a bit bland.

Eventually Radio Caroline alternated between English and Dutch language programmes although the music was generally the same. What finished me off was the package they bought in from a US evangelist whose sermons were broadcast for an hour every evening. Twiddling the dial of my trusty valve radio I found Radio Tirana one night, half an hour of invective against those twin Imperialist Running Dogs, the USA and the USSR, then praise of our brother Chairman Mao, concluded “vith an Albanian Popzular Song”, after which the programme repeated in French. It didn’t vary and I soon got bored (I was a normal teenager) and I never stuck with it long enough to discover if they went into German or Italian after the French.

Radio Caroline has gone through several ships, several of which were called the Mi Amigo and is still broadcasting on Sky. However I don’t subscribe to Sky and have no idea what sort of music they play now.

I am too old for the music now played on Radio 1.

I am just the right age for the music of Planet Rock, on line.

Rock on.



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Esmerelda Weatherwax is a regular contributor to the Iconoclast our community blog. To view her entries please click here. 

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