The Sixties and Pirate Radio

John Musgrave’s first novel, RADIO A-GO-GO, is out now.…What inspired it?

Hard to remember the sixties – even if you were there… 

If pop music had been the purview of dance bands and crooners, by 1960 it was a rebel rousing call to arms, a guitar riff for a forgotten generation. Trouble was we weren’t able to hear it on the radio here in Britain. No WABC or KHJ for us….Just an hour or so a week of popular hits on the BBC. All we had was the wonderful exception of Radio Luxembourg broadcasting at night from an old castle far away in a fabled city. The signal rose and fell like the sea and some nights was impossible to pick up. How we clung to those wisps of transmission as we listened to transistor radios under our bed covers. 

This all changed in 1964 with the arrival of the pirate radio. On ships and forts outside the three mile limit, Caroline, London, Radio City and Essex claimed they were breaking no British law. The signals grew weaker the further away from the Thames Estuary you were.  Then Radio Caroline positioned a second ship off the Isle of Man. Radio Scotland followed. Later came, for my money the pick of the bunch, Radio 270.  Bravely broadcasting from perhaps the worst anchorage of them all, Radio 270 – three miles out in the North Sea – had no real shelter and was tossed by storm and gale alike. Casual listeners rarely appreciated this, for the cheerful banter of the dee-jays  continued undaunted.

The novel, ‘Radio A-Go-Go’, takes this as its starting point. For many teenagers, listening to rock and roll on a pirate radio station was an act of defiance. Everyone from parents, teachers, coast guards and the government disapproved of free radio. Pop music was regarded as subversive, dangerous. Those cheerful disc jockeys were like a personal friend in the room. They laughed at the bad weather, read out requests and payed endless rock and roll. The effect was liberating beyond belief. After another difficult day in drear post-war Britain here were these guys telling you not to take it all too seriously. 

The establishment threw everything at the new stations yet the pirates sailed on blasting out rock and roll in cheerful defiance for three glorious years. Drawing on those days of listening to the raucous flotilla of free radio ships ‘Radio A-Go-Go’ is the imagined story of one of them. It may be fiction but the legend of the pirates lives on….



From Somewhere in the Mediterranean…

One evening, coiling up irrigation hose, we paused as Stevie Wonder came on the tractor radio. The Israeli farmer, Zeddy, spoke no English. 

‘This song,’ he told me. ’It was playing the night before I left to do my army service.’ I nodded, impatient to get the remaining water line tied down on the trailer. The IDF had warned us of a cross-border flare up. No one was sure where but we knew it was coming. 25 miles north of Jericho we farmed right up to the border fence. It was dangerous to stay out after sunset.  

‘Everyone came round for a big barbecue.’ Zeddy stared out over the last few metres of his farm into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The sun hung low over the Moab mountains. If anyone was lurking in those dark valleys then we hadn’t seen them. Only the week before I’d been halted at a road block outside Jericho on my way up from Eilat. Me and another farmer, Woody,  had been down to Eilat for a tractor part. Three intruders, the soldier by the barrier told us, had slipped over. We waited over an hour. Then a burst of gunfire and a helicopter scudding out from behind the clouds told us it was over. You’re free to go the soldier had said after taking a radio call.  

In Israel almost all men and women do national service – a full three years. Israelis take this very seriously and usually join up aged 18.

‘I like this song very much, I want you to know this, George.’

‘Stevie Wonder, good man,’ I said. Both of us were oiled with sweat. Never mind terrorists,  my thoughts were focused on an American girl and an ice cold beer back at the Dove Bar on the Moshav plaza. In the evenings many of us congregated there to buy food for the evening meal and a cold beer. This was the last night the girl I’d met was spending on the Moshav. In the morning she’d be leaving on a jet plane flying back to Atlanta and college. Although all we had managed was a protracted snog after Woody’s birthday party, I had high hopes of this her last evening in the Promised Land.

Most people had left the desert floor long since, the long furrows empty of tractors and volunteers. The IDF did not like us being out there at night. Looking back there was an innocence there, a garden beauty about the place. Barefoot in shorts and t-shirts we harvested  aubergines and sweet corn. The earth was dry and crumbly and it was easier to work bare foot. 

Still Zeddy listened. ‘Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday’ was playing on the Voice of Peace, a pirate radio station anchored off Tel Aviv. Sections of irrigation pipe stuck together and needed to be hand screwed apart. The water lines snaked down the aubergine avenues and we lifted them before harvesting the fruit they had nurtured. 

‘Almost there,’ I said. Odd that we were listening to Voice of Peace, down here on the bottom of the world. The moshav was well below sea level and the ship’s signal normally didn’t  reach so low. 

The moshav manager had put me to work with Zeddy on the basis that I’d been in Israel for six months or so and knew how to farm and speak Hebrew. Hang on a minute. I panicked and told him I barely had enough Hebrew to order beer. In fact this was the beginning of a good friendship with Zeddy and his wife, Bel. Zeddy’s parents had immigrated from Yemen and spoke only Arabic. Bel spoke English and taught me a rake of Hebrew so I was able to string sentences together. Much of what I’d been hearing and the phrases I picked up fell into place in her kitchen.  

I still thought my Hebrew was woeful. I speak some building site German, French and a few words of ancestral Gaelic. We Brits, I confessed to Bel, we’re hopeless at learning languages. 

The Voice of Peace, a pirate station anchored off Tel Aviv, started broadcasts in May 1973 from the mv Cito, renamed the Peace Ship. Inspired by the British pirate radio scene, Abi Nathan bought the ship and fitted it out in New York. Young people throughout the Middle East thrilled to pop music. It’s not generally acknowledged but the west’s movies and music scene is of immense attraction to those labouring under yokes more oppressive than our own. Instead of one side or the other singing of death and destruction here was John Lennon and Yoko Ono saying Give Peace a Chance. Most broadcasts were in English with announcers drawn from the British-American back-packer circuit. The ship, moored outside Israeli territorial waters, was quietly tolerated by the authorities. A silent IDF destroyer was always on duty shadowing the pirate station, protecting the Voice of Peace from the more lunatic elements of the neighbouring regimes. Yet by criticising Israel’s warlike preparedness Nathan was able to gain a certain acceptance among Arabs. From Amman to Cairo, kids listened to the station. The programmes were in English and that helped. 

Abi Nathan wanted to foster peace among nations. To start with he enjoyed little success. Four months  after the ship dropped anchor off the Plain of Sharon, Israel was invaded on two fronts by Egypt and Syria. What became known as the Yom Kippur War caught Israel unprepared.  

As Zeddy told me Israel had beaten off invasion several times. We can win many times, he said but we need only lose once and that’s it, it’s all over. However the Camp David Peace Accords five years later may in a small way be attributed to the little ship. There is no doubt young people across the Arab nations listened to Voice of Peace. Rock and roll was always the language of youth, John and Yoko’s slow hand clapping spread out across the sea. Why not indeed? 

In the early 1980s I worked my way down through Israel enchanted by its five millennia history. The Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Haifa, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Jericho seemed familiar to a child raised in a Christian household.  The people I met were like nothing else, brave, mad, enthusiastic. I worked with jewellers, pizza-makers and prospectors who had become farmers. I made friends with Bedouin herders on the Red Sea and Palestinians in Jericho. The riotous colour, spices and smoke of the Old City in Jerusalem was in marked contrast to the white concrete world I’d been living in down near Stuttgart. 

This journey was a pilgrimage from the death camps of Germany to the fish lakes of the Yizreel. Did you find any answers there a friend once asked? Not really, but I wasn’t looking for any, not then. But it taught me to ask questions. Curiosity of the mind is the progenitor of progress. I had never visited a place like Israel. The innate cheerfulness of the Israelis was hard to reconcile with the sheer scale of their tragedy.

The sun slid out of the sky altogether darkening the fields. Zeddy lingered listening to Stevie Wonder. With a grunt I heaved the last of the coils onto the trailer, noticing bright lights to the south over Jericho. Still he waited listening to Voice of Peace. The station provided the sound track to my year in the Holy Land. Never did I understand the sacred cause for peace better than I did in Israel. Only after weeks of talking and arguing and wandering through the deserts of Judea and the alleys of old Jerusalem did I come to appreciate the divine yearning of the Jew for the homeland. It is part of the religion, an older brother to my Catholicism. The idea of Aliyah, of going home, the return of the exile, is common to folklore everywhere. For the Jew it has a poignancy others can only ever glimpse. I took the high road and still pray, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ 

As new peace treaties are concluded I remember again the message of Abi and his sailors  and disc jockeys: All We Are Saying Is Give Peace a chance. Perhaps all these years later the men and women who heard the songs as children are putting them into practice. Whimsical maybe but this is the Middle East. 

‘What do the words mean? Can you tell me?’ 

‘Oh I’d have to hear it again.’

En byot.’ No problem. The whole show was on a tape. The lights were brighter now and Zeddy frowned up at them, then looked round to where his rifle was slung up by the tractor  dashboard. Zeddy rewound the tape. I looked round.

‘You drive,’ Zeddy said, looking back again at the lights over Jericho. Whilst he pulled back the gun I started the engine. He stood beside me on the armour plate slung underneath tractors.

In my inexorable Hebrew I started a hesitant translation as we chugged home. 

‘Yesterday. Etmol, etmol, atta mavin? 

Beseder,’ he agreed.

Etmol, Etmol ani, etmol, atta…’ The lights were buoyed up by a helicopter clattering up the Jordan Valley. I took it a phrase at a time. It is a song about nostalgia and about growing up, I explained. Then I looked up. 

‘That’s always what I thought it meant,’ Zeddy said. By this time we’d hit the main Jericho highway. Nothing moved on the black top this night. Thrilled, I opened up the hand throttle and off we roared. The turning to the moshav was one kilometre away. A police car and army jeep powered by. The cop car swerved and doubled back to us. I bit my lip. The drivers license I used – I mean it’s valid but was not mine – I bought it off a bloke in a pub on Kilburn High Road. Praying the cop was eschewing  such formalities I clicked off the cassette and pulled over. The cop wound his window down. In quick-fire Hebrew he said. ‘Get out of here.  Incursion, seven hostiles. Understand? Where are you going?’

‘Back to the moshav.’ 

‘Well get back there. Cut your headlights. Move it.’ I understood that and switched them off. Then he was gone and we heard gunfire as helicopters banked and wheeled over whatever had slipped through the folds of Moab that evening. More aircraft were flying low streaming down the Jordan Valley. Zeddy switched the tape back on and nodded at me to continue. 

‘When I  remember what we once had,’ I said ducking as a helicopter zipped by just a few metres above us. Zeddy never flinched. Pausing I opened up the throttle. Zeddy leaned over my shoulder grasping the M-19.  

‘A horrible foolish dream,’ I continued translating. Zeddy checked the magazine and slammed it in. 

‘Now it is as if those yesterday dreams they were,’ I had to raise my voice at the whistle of  sidewinder powering over our aubergine fields. A detonation lit up the sky a kilometre away. 

‘Must have come over about 100 metres from where we were. Don’t tell Bel.’


‘Go on.’

‘Yesterday you, yesterday and he’s saying: sing along with I.’

Despite the gun fire and our lack of headlights I drove fast, the old John Deere bowling up to the little square at the centre of the Moshav. Should be in time for a beer.  Might have guessed the place was empty. No sign of the girl. Worse still Woody and another guy were locking up the store. No cold beer. 

‘Been enjoying the fire works?’ Woody said.  

‘Ring side seat.’ 

‘Damn I wanted to get a beer.’ Maybe Woody might open the store again. The other guy had gone off with the till though.

‘I have beer,’ Zeddy said. ‘Come back to my place and we’ll sink a couple.’  

‘You sure?’

‘One hundred per cent.’ 

‘Thing is there was a girl…’ I had not told anyone about Miss Atlanta, still less shared the news of my good fortune behind the bar two nights ago. 

‘Ah yes the American girl?’ Woody sad. I looked at him and knew he knew. 

‘That’s her.’

‘She’s gone. One of the boys said he was driving up to Jerusalem and offered to give her  a lift. ‘ 

‘She’s not here then?’

‘No, she’ll have gone off with him…’ Zeddy seemed to know al about it as well. 

‘I think I saw them,’ Woody added. Crestfallen I looked at them, feeling hollowed out, let down. She’d been so sweet and her accent was like something out of Gone With The Wind and now she had.

‘Come round and have a beer.’ Zeddy clapped an arm round my shoulders. Trust a Stevie Wonder fan to understand this. We climbed back on the tractor. Zeddy drove this time. As we motored off he flicked the radio player on again.  

A cool beer in Bel’s kitchen was a consolation of a sort but a good one. She’d speak English and there’d be food, I knew she’d offer me food. I decided to think no more of the Atlanta girl.   

‘What they are playing now?’ Zeddy said.

‘This is the new single from Madness.’

‘What is it called?’

‘The Return of the Los Palmas 7,’ I said, thanking God it was an instrumental.


A Date With Laser 558

‘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.