Sunday, 8 March 2009

Pirates Ahoy!

In an odd moment, I often have cause to wonder, ‘Why me?’ Why did pop music force an entry into my home, take the best chair by the fire and refuse to leave? I’ve often thought about showing it the door and banishing it to the harsh outdoors, but if truth be told, it has been an amusing and life affirming friend for about as long as I can remember so it looks like it’s here for the duration.

I suppose I can point to the usual fact that to my generation, pop music was new and exciting and that it made use of a technological revolution embodied in the long playing record and the transistor radio, which was also new and exciting but there was something else. And I think it was the Pirates. Not Johnny Kidd’s backing band, or those blokes sporting stylish eye-patches and parrots on their shoulders, but the Radio Pirates.

Pirate Radio was crucial to me. Those unlicensed broadcasters, bobbing about in the North Sea trying to keep the needle steady on a brand new single by the Electric Prunes were a fabulous mixture of the forbidden and the fascinating. They provided a constant stream of information about pop culture that was unavailable elsewhere and certainly not available on either the BBC Home Service or even the Light Programme outside of the singles chart. In the UK in the mid-1960s, the main protagonists were Radio Caroline, Radio London and interestingly, the land-based Radio Luxembourg, by virtue of the possibility that receiving ‘foreign’ broadcasts on a UK licensed receiver could be construed as illegal.

Most of the appeal was the fact that being outside of the law they could do what the hell they liked and were not restricted by ‘needle time’ (the amount of music allowed to be broadcast per hour) or advertising breaks or anything else come to that. They played the popular mixed with the obscure and often played whole albums. DJs became household names – Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko, Dave Cash, Johnny Walker, Kenny Everett and of course, John Peel who seemed to manage to maintain a Pirate Radio flavour to his broadcasting right up to his death in 2004 despite being employed by the BBC.

It all came to an inglorious end in 1967 with the Marine Broadcasting (Offences) Act making such broadcasts illegal and one by one the Pirates were shut down whilst the BBC scooped up many of the suddenly-out-of-work DJs to work at their newly launched Radio 1 pop music station complete with choice-limiting playlists, statutorily enforced needle time and chattering celebrity DJs. It was the start of institutionally organised music and the beginning of the end.


Jeff said...

Would the pirates of this musical era be considered the one's uploading their music for everyone to share?

Anyway, it's definitely cool that there was something like that going on to open people up to something completely different. I rarely listen to the radio anymore, and maybe it's because of the conveience of my iPod in the car, or just that I'm never content with listening to one station which leads me catching half of every song I listen to. Radio just doesn't do it for me...But maybe if I were living in an era of non-portable music, things would be much different.

musicobsessive said...

Hi Jeff. Pirate Radio came along at just the right time for me - when I was too young to buy stuff of my own.

Radio today is not about music, it's about DJs, commercials and rubbish audience participation so I'm not surprised you don't listen. Nor do I. And the iPod has just about killed it off as a music provider.