What Was Pirate Radio?

‘What I’d really like to do this weekend is go down to Harwich Parkeston Quay and see this pirate radio ship,’ the young man said. Unsure of the girl’s reaction he traced her name in a puddle of beer on the bar top.  

‘What’s one of them then?’ The girl’s eyes sparkled in the low light of the brew-pub on City Road. 

‘The station,  Laser 558, it’s on a ship and the propeller shaft broke. Had to put into port.’

‘Harwich?’ the girl said nodding as though this was a logical thing to do.  Anxious to give this relationship her best shot she smiled up at him. ‘In Essex?’ 

‘I’ve been listening to these ships since I was ten years old. Always wanted to see one.’ She looked puzzled. ‘We could go down there on the train.’ The boy took a deep, fortifying draught of beer. This had to be the most harebrained idea for a date yet.  On her reply hung the future of two very different people.

‘What was pirate radio?’ she said. 

Radio silence 

It’s hard hard to imagine a world without music yet that was what confronted us back in the early sixties. No pop for post-war Britain. Radio silence was strictly maintained.  The BBC broadcast material it thought we ought to hear. By contrast America had radio stations in every town. Disc jockeys, often from one-room studios, blasted out rock and roll day and night. In the UK the BBC Light Programme played just a few hours a week. No rocking around the clock here. 

Pop music was frowned upon by the establishment. It was thought to damage moral fibre and dissipate the young. The only real station was Radio Luxembourg, on the air from 7PM until the small hours. The signal faded in and out, dependent on atmospherics. 

Caroline and the Pirates 

This all changed when Radio Caroline took to the air Easter 1964. Caroline based its system on two Scandinavian stations – Radio Mercur and Radio Syd. The idea was to put a transmitter on a ship and moor it three miles off shore in international waters. Nothing new about this – the US government had a ship, the USCGC Courier, which it anchored in the Mediterranean. With its massive transmitter it relayed programmes from Voice of America over Russian-occupied Europe. Rather more modestly Irish pop impresario Ronan O’Rahilly set up Caroline to break the monopoly of the record companies. The big labels had a stranglehold on the pop music industry. Even Ronan’s  friends were sceptical about his plan. They needn’t have been. 

The establishment completely failed to gauge the enormous appetite of  farm labourers, factory workers, shop girls and students for pop music. Within months Caroline was joined by Radio Atlanta (the two later merged)  Radio London, Radio City, Swinging Radio England and Radio 390. Later Radio Scotland and Radio 270 spread the movement to the north. Stations were funded by advertising. Rocking and raving with their songs and commercials three miles out the pirates claimed to break no British law. Broadcasting from leaky ships and old wartime gun emplacements, often in danger and terrible weather, the pirates completely captured the wild, urgent, freedom of the sixties. 

Free Speech 

Young people had had enough of being told what to do, what to wear and what to think. Harold Wilson’s Labour government banned free radio in 1967. A whole generation was heartbroken. Overnight my attitude to authority – never very circumspect – changed completely. Freedom of expression for me became the absolute bedrock right. 

The oft overlooked lesson of the Second World War is the right to Free Speech. Keep that principle way out in front. People have to be free to criticise, to disagree, to go against current convention and good taste. Being free to ridicule fascism and communism might have made the world a much better place. The growing realisation in the 1960s was that authority, however defined, does not necessarily have the right answers. Satire, new comedy and above all free radio helped sweep aside the lingering darkness of unaccountable authority. It’s a struggle and it still goes on. 

High Seas and High Drama 

Caroline continued and was joined by Radio Northsea International a few years later. Radio Veronica, a long term Dutch pirate, also soldiered on. Caroline sank in March 1979. Force Nine gales did for her what no government could. The life boat evacuated four crew members on board – including disc jockey Tom Edward and the ship’s canary – Wilson. 

‘We’re hoping that the pumps can take it,’ Tom said in those final minutes. ‘If they can we’ll be back. If not..…’  In fact Caroline did return and now broadcasts from the ship, Ross Revenge and is a land based station in Kent – over the internet.

Aerials collapsed, gale force winds blew the ships adrift, tugs failed to appear and djs were hassled going through customs on the mainland but give up, admit defeat? No, never. For the truth is pirate radio never gave up.  Laser 558 was one of its last marine manifestations.  The mv Communicator hosted the station.

All YouNeed Is Love

One last point: Were all those songs played part of a rebel rousing call to change the world? No, not really, most were love songs. Love wins in the end, foils the camp guards and mad barons. The first record Caroline played after midnight on 15 August 1967 summed it up. As the ship, Mi Amigo, sailed into illegality that night Radio Caroline played the Beatles, ‘All YouNeed Is Love.’ 

In the short story  ‘Caroline’s Sure Shot’ an ageing disc jockey returns to Scarborough one last time. A young boatman, Jack McNeil, runs him out on his fishing cruiser for a last visit to the old anchorage of Radio A-Go-Go. The trip might make all the difference to Jack and the new girl at the Dolphin Bar. It’s a story of  love and loss as old as the seas upon which we sail. A Caroline Sure Shot was a new record the djs on board agreed was destined to be a great hit. 

Love stories should have a happy ending. That Saturday morning the pirate fan and the pretty girl set off to visit Laser 558. With a growing sense of drama the pair  went out on a tug and met the captain and one of the crew members. It was  a wonderful day and all these years later the pair are still together, a Caroline sure shot indeed.