When Pirates Ruled The Waves

A misty November morning in 1964. Radio Caroline’s 21-year-old breakfast DJ Tony Blackburn awoke early in his cabin and wandered up on deck. The sight that greeted him was like a scene from Powell & Pressburger’s The Battle Of The River Plate. The thick sea mist slowly cleared, revealing a huge ship – twice the size of Caroline’s – anchored a fair distance away. Three-and-a-half miles off the coast of Essex, Caroline suddenly had company.


The new arrival was the MV Galaxy, a 780-ton former WWII minesweeper. Now it was to be the home of Radio London (‘Big L’), an American-financed station that would give Caroline – the original UK pirate, launched seven months before – a serious run for its money. Radio London would play an all-day diet of the best ’60s pop (Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks) as well as helping to ‘break’ many important bands of that decade, notably The Byrds, The Animals, The Small Faces, The Move and Cream. The Perfumed Garden, a show hosted by John Peel from March to August 1967, would earn a dedicated late-night listenership for its unique mix of psychedelia, folk, West Coast rock, blues and poetry. Wherever you looked on the Galaxy, the future was happening.


“The ship that transformed everything was Big L,” agrees Tony Blackburn, who joined it in 1966. “Everybody remembers Caroline as the famous one, but Big L was modern radio as we know it.”

As it began broadcasting for the first time (December, 23 1964), Radio London had two advantages over its rival Caroline. Firstly, it boasted the slickest American-made jingles that UK audiences had ever heard; and secondly, it had Kenny Everett, a 20-year-old newcomer who would become a pirate radio sensation. Everett’s daily double-header with Dave Cash (the surreal, knees-obsessed Kenny & Cash Show) began in April 1965, soon topping the ratings. Other Big L jocks included Ed “Stewpot” Stewart, Tommy Vance and Keith Skues.

“It was a very professional station, very much based on American Top 40 radio,” recalls Skues, nowadays a veteran of BBC regional broadcasting. “The boat was much larger than Caroline, so you could go out and sunbathe on deck, which we did, until someone told us we were going to die of radiation from the aerial. We were also warned we’d lose our hair by the age of 26.”


The ’60s pirate radio phenomenon was founded on a simple loophole and a cunning understanding of maritime law. If a ship was moored three or more miles off the British coastline, it was technically sailing in international waters. A commercial radio station broadcasting from that ship – without a licence, on a stolen (‘pirated’) frequency, and with no intention of paying taxes on its profits – was legally untouchable. The Government, police, Navy, Customs & Excise and Coastguard had no jurisdiction.

“We had left the British Isles,” points out Blackburn. “Officially we were on the way to Holland. We just never got there.”

One can almost hear Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” as we visualise the scene. A flamboyantly-garbed DJ bobs up and down on the ocean wave, braving a force nine gale, fighting off an attack of seasickness and defying Harold Wilson’s Government all in the same moment. At the height of Big L’s popularity, that DJ broadcasted to around 12 million listeners a week, who showed their appreciation by sending fanmail by the sack. The pirates – heroes, outlaws, celebrities, pariahs – were an habitual topic du jour in Parliament, not to mention a source of immense discomfort to the BBC. But what would it take to stop them?

In the end, it would be a shotgun.

Mid-1965. In less than a year, Caroline and Radio London have revolutionised British radio. By giving airplay to new groups – Big L even puts them in its Fab 40 – the pirates have curbed the dominance of major labels EMI and Decca, and made the BBC (which rations its pop output to a few hours a week) look like a dinosaur. Keith Skues: “Pirates started appearing all over the place. They changed the whole face of ’60s music.”

“Suddenly the cartel was broken,” remarks ex-pirate Johnnie Walker, who began on Swinging Radio England in 1966, “and a lot of music – like Motown – was played for the first time.” The BBC may have denounced the more excitable pirate DJs as “bingo callers”, but the BBC, as Gary Leeds of The Walker Brothers explains, was the main reason why the pirates had to exist. “There was a Catch-22 situation,” he says. “The BBC had to play your record to get you in the charts. But if you weren’t in the charts, the BBC wouldn’t play your record.”

As a pirate, Tony Blackburn had enjoyed adventures that no land-based BBC presenter like Alan Freeman could match. One day Blackburn shinned to the top of the mast of Caroline’s vessel Mi Amigo, after a severe gale entangled the wires on the aerial. On another occasion he was hauled to safety when the Mi Amigo ran aground on the Essex coast. Pirates frequently had to broadcast in atrocious weather while the shipped rolled giddily. “In the summer, it was much nicer,” notes Keith Skues. “Little pleasure-boats used to come out from Frinton and people would throw presents to us.”

Radio London’s DJs shared the Galaxy with a crew of Dutch seamen, including a captain. The captain’s rules – no drunkenness, no girls, no insubordination – were not negotiable. Each DJ was permitted two bottles of beer a day, no more. Food and cigarettes were provided free.

They settled into a three-week cycle. Two weeks at sea; a week of shore leave. To return to the boat, they caught trains from London to Harwich, showed their passport at Customs and took the two-hour journey out to the Galaxy in a tender boat. The tender also ferried provisions (milk, water), occasional pop stars such as Marianne Faithfull, and the all-important new record releases.

The Walker Brothers were particularly grateful to Radio London for its support, even recording special jingles for Kenny Everett and Dave Cash. “Can you imagine?” Cash laughs. “‘Kenny and Cash on Lon-do-n…’ With Scott Walker’s amazing voice, and that echo.” Gary Leeds: “We know the image that Scott projects now, right? But it was totally different back then. We were young and foolish. Sometimes we’d have our picture taken up at Marble Arch, and Dave and Kenny would be around the back making rude noises.”

Kenny Everett, a timid Liverpudlian who became electrifying behind the microphone, was envied for his genius as a tape editor, and for his assortment of Goon Show-inspired voices and characters. Everett also proved vital in establishing Big L’s friendly relationship with The Beatles, travelling with them on their 1966 US tour – he later recalled fainting with excitement when he heard that he’d been invited – and remaining on good terms socially. This culminated in Radio London’s greatest coup of 1967: a world exclusive pre-release of Sgt. Pepper, which they played in its entirety again and again.

For the most part, the Big L Top 40 format was strictly adhered to. The DJ would play a song from the Top 10, then one from numbers 10 to 40, followed by a ‘climber’, then another Top 10, then another 10-to-40, then an oldie. The sequence would be repeated. But some areas of Big L’s schedule proved more difficult – if not impossible – to control, and the anarchic Everett became the first Radio London DJ to be sacked in disgrace.

Skues: “We had a religious programme called The World Tomorrow. None of us liked it, but the company that produced it paid Radio London a huge amount of money. We were constantly told, ‘This is where the income comes from, so don’t knock it.’”

Hosted by an American evangelist, Garner Ted Armstrong, The World Tomorrow was pre-recorded and sent out to the ship on tape. Everett, sick of having his daily show interrupted by Jesus Christ, decided to edit one of the tapes. Dave Cash: “We cut it apart, so that instead of saying ‘Garner Ted Armstrong loves you all’, it said ‘Garner Ted Armstrong loves vice, sex and corruption.’ Oh dear. And he happened to be in the country at the time.”

Even at their most innocent, however, the pirates were a scourge to Tony Benn, the Government’s Postmaster General (in charge of telecommunications and broadcasting), who promised legislation to ban them. He called the pirates a hazard to shipping (which they denied) and condemned them for stealing their frequencies (which they accepted, while adding that there were plenty to go round). In 40 years, Benn has never wavered from his position. He says today: “It had nothing to do with the music they were playing. That was never the issue. In fact, I bullied the BBC into starting Radio 1 to cater for the pop music audience – which they didn’t want to do. They said it would be like keeping the pubs open all day.”

In June 1966, with the pirates’ audiences still rising, and no sign of an end to the media coverage (both pro- and anti-), a pop group manager named Reg Calvert, who owned a pirate station called Radio City, paid a visit to the Saffron Walden home of a Radio Caroline director, Major Oliver Smedley. The two men had planned a joint venture, but had abandoned the idea after an argument. Later that day, it was reported that Smedley had shot Calvert dead.

From that day forward, the pirate ships knew they were on borrowed time. “Without a shadow of a doubt, the Radio City incident stirred the Government to try and speed up legislation,” Keith Skues writes in his authoritative history of offshore radio, Pop Went The Pirates. In the extraordinary series of events that followed Calvert’s death, his widow was given police protection, Major Smedley was acquitted at his trial on grounds of self-defence (and awarded 250 guineas costs), and the Marine Broadcasting Offences Bill was introduced to Parliament in July 1966.

Johnnie Walker is not the only ex-pirate to feel uncomfortable. “It was very suspicious, that whole thing,” he says. “The Bill was announced almost immediately. I think there can be question marks over that episode.” Dave Cash: “There was a hell of a lot of political manoeuvring.” One source suggests that Smedley, who died in 1989, may have had influential political friends.

The Marine Broadcasting Offences Bill passed through the House Of Lords in June 1967, receiving Royal Assent on July 14. Under the new Act, it would become illegal at midnight on August 14 for a British subject to operate, assist or publicise a pirate radio station. Most of the stations prepared to close. Radio London considered – then decided against – forging ahead with a new team of non-British DJs. It broadcast for the last time on August 14, shutting down at 3pm. Keith Skues, on shore leave at the time, met the Big L presenters off the train at Liverpool Street. He couldn’t believe his eyes. “Thousands of people had turned up. It was like a stampede. I got knocked over and dragged down, and ended up in the ladies’ loo. They weren’t attacking us, they were there to greet the DJs off the ships. No DJ who was on that train will ever forget it.”

One pirate station defiantly carried on: the station that had started it all. As the clock ticked towards midnight, Johnnie Walker on Radio Caroline cued up The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and told his listeners: “We belong to you, and we love you. Caroline continues.” Walker knew it was a huge moment. In a year when two of The Rolling Stones had been sent to jail, it seemed realistic to imagine Caroline being surrounded by police launches within hours of defying the midnight deadline. Walker and his fellow Caroline DJs, facing instant arrest if they set foot in Britain, now based themselves in Holland. But the station’s advertisers had pulled out, and the tender boat stopped its daily deliveries, and the fanmail no longer arrived. Radio Caroline, as it had been in 1964, was out there on its own.

Of the pirate DJs who returned to dry land, many accepted jobs at the BBC’s new pop station, Radio 1. After three years of being the enemy, the Corporation was now the employer. Tony Blackburn opened up Radio 1 on September 30, 1967, Keith Skues following him on to the air. Dave Cash, Kenny Everett and Ed Stewart decamped to Broadcasting House too, as did Radio London’s late-night DJ John Peel, who’d joined the station in its final months. After some initial doubts (Skues: “I thought, ‘What a weird bloke’”), the other presenters had warmed to Peel’s intelligence and gentle personality. “He was good for the station,” Dave Cash admits. “He attracted a whole different set of advertisers, and he had music integrity all round.” Peel would go on to become Radio 1’s longest-serving presenter (1967–2004).

Johnnie Walker’s stint on Radio Caroline ended in March 1968. Having flouted the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act for seven months, he found doors slamming in his face when he returned to London to seek work. One memo from BBC bosses to Radio 1 producers read: “On no account employ Johnnie Walker for at least a year, to let the taint of criminality subside.” Walker went on to become one of Radio 1’s star presenters of the 1970s. He now broadcasts on Radio 2, and in February 2009 began a new Saturday night programme. With wonderful irony, it celebrates the golden days of ’60s pirate radio stations, among them Radio Caroline.