Saturday, 13 June 2015

In Praise Of The Boats That Rocked

During my early teenage years, an old bakelite mains valve radio was probably my most treasured possession. Its acquisition was certainly one of the best turns my Dad ever did me. He picked it up second or third hand (at least), probably to stop me constantly borrowing his new portable transistor radio! That old cream Philips set looked so unassuming on my bedroom window-sill, positioned there for optimal reception and on account of the heat it gave out - but it was really a portal into another, more exciting world...

Music poured out of my radio from early evening until late at night and it heralded a more vivid reality than Latin prep or the writing up of chemistry experiments, for this wasn't just music; it wasn't only the lure of sex and drugs with a rock'n'roll soundtrack; it wasn't even illegal (yet) but it felt illicit! 

It's hard to imagine in this deregulated age, but back in 1964/1965 the BBC had a virtual monopoly of our very British airwaves with three (count them) radio channels and a stranglehold, in conjunction with two or three major record labels, on the sort of music that got played - not much of which was the sort of music I wanted to hear. Enter the pirate radio stations. Yes! Anchored outside of British territorial waters (three to five miles offshore), firstly Radio Caroline and then Radio London and Radio North Sea International began beaming non-stop switched-on pop and rock programmes to the UK mainland: the Beatles, the Stones, Kinks, Who, Hendrix, Lovin' Spoonful, Byrds, Moody Blues, Dylan, Doors. The boats were handily registered in Panama or Lichtenstein; the advertising (which funded the ventures) was brokered through foreign agencies. The government was disgruntled. The listeners were ecstatic and unfettered.

For those of you who've seen the movie The Boat That Rocked, Richard Curtiss' affectionate tribute to the golden age of pirate radio, the film, while being a bit of a simplistic caricature, does manage to convey that sense of us against them that the existence of the pirates engendered. Radio Caroline, London and their ilk were truly making waves and not just at 199 or 266 metres on the medium wave band. They were challenging the establishment, providing an alternative and making huge cultural waves - you couldn't have found the likes of Emperor Rosko's show or John Peel's Perfumed Garden anywhere else on the airwaves in the mid-sixties.

Of course, the government eventually devised the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act which did make the pirate stations illegal and closed them down in August 1967 - the summer of love! - but the dam had been breached and it was only a matter of time before British airwaves were opened up to a host of local and commercial radio stations. In the words of Ronan O'Rahilly (the entrepreneur behind Radio Caroline): "It definitely changed the whole radio thing in Britain, and that was a healthy thing. It was all about feelings, about expression, about lots of young people being able to 'kick out the jams' and that turned on all kinds of things. The Sixties were fantastic and they did a lot - not just for Britain, they did a lot for all around the world and a lot of people were involved in that. Everything came together at the right time. It was an extraordinary moment in musical history for Britain. I did it as a way of getting exposure for unknown bands, and that's what it was about."

Years later on, my archaeology friends at university set up Radio Carbon Dating, broadcasting as Kid Bedrock and DJ Half Life, raiding my LP collection to fuel their transmissions to an unreceptive world... but that's another story for a different day.
My ruminations on pirate radio stations will surely result in a poem at some stage, so stay tuned.
Thanks for reading. Have a good week - and don't touch that dial! S ;-)



Steven Bate said...

Because of geography, the Fylde Coast was the best place to listen to Radio Caroline North, so they had massive listening percentage here. I would like a section in the forthcoming Blackpool Museum to be dedicted to radio. All the top BBC radio stars appeared in Blackpool shows from 1935 to 1965 and then the pirate radio story and then Radio One roadshows were very important for Blackpool and then the Radio Two coverage of the loghts switch on events.
Steven Bate

Steve Rowland said...

Agree with you about Radio Caroline North. Actually anchored in Ramsey Bay just off the coast of the Isle of Man, the DJs were always praising the beauty of the island, significantly boosting tourism as a result - to such an extent that Tynwald (the Manx parliament) was quite vociferous in its defence of the pirate radio station when Westminster was moving to outlaw offshore broadcasting in 1967.

Steve said...

Watched the film "The Boat that Rocked" on ITV4 last night. I wonder if the timing of this post has anything to do with that. Anyhow its a bloody good film and worth watching.

Steve Rowland said...

Merely a happy coincidence. I wrote the blog on Saturday and wasn't even aware the film was being (re)shown on TV - but concur that it is very entertaining.