Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
This was my article from The East Anglian a couple of weeks ago. Great film by the way and sod the critics.
The Boat That Kept on Rocking
There's an old Jewish showbiz saying: “Yesterday, everyone wants to know about.” The huge interest in Richard Curtis's latest film, The Boat That Rocked – the story of a 1960s pirate radio ship – would seem to confirm this. Essex has its fair share of connections with the early days of pirate radio and there's been a corresponding flurry of recent stories about it. A few readers of cherishable age may remember driving out to Frinton on starry summer nights to flash their headlights at the Caroline ship and have their requests played by the young Johnny Walker. After the boat ran aground at Frinton in early 1966, this paper took pictures of a shocked, baby-faced DJ Tony Blackburn, drinking tea after being winched to safety by the coastguard.
For pop radio then, these were bright shiny days with something exciting always just around the corner. But then in August of 1967 , wielding a newly-drafted Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, Harold Wilson's government stopped it The move was redolent of a fusty old council warden closing down a teen dance. At the very peak of the '60s pop explosion, the pirate stations and their magical jangle had been silenced. Millions of disappointed listeners, long-deserted from Auntie Beeb's stodgy old Light Programme were now thrown a sop. It came in the form of BBC Radio 1. The new station though, was never going to be ideal. Because it was the sound of Auntie clucking: “Now look here children, if you're very very good, I'll let you listen to your nasty pop music – but only when I say so.”
At first, “Onederful” Radio 1, which had re-employed so many former pirates, wasn't too bad. Within a few years though, it had become a Smashey&Nicey-land, controlled by patronising gentleman farmers and blathering be-denimed idiots, playing mainstream pop on rotation. During daytime at least, we the listeners were now getting only what the industry wanted us to hear.
Until, that is, the early 1970s, when Radio Caroline re-launched itself from a ship called the Mi Amigo, anchored in the North Sea, 17 miles off Frinton. During the day it was Radio Mi Amigo broadcasting in Dutch and playing rather odd Euro-pop. At night it became Radio Caroline, broadcasting in English and airing many then-unplayed tracks that have since become rock classics. As one of a group of young kitchen porters working in a Colchester Bistro, I used to listen to Mi-Amigo / Caroline often. “Why are you listening to a Dutch station?” a bemused restaurant owner shouted at us over the racket. “Because Radio 1 is **** (please insert password).” we chorused charmingly back.
Elsewhere, at this time, a young fan called Tony Street – now a BBC radio producer living locally – got in contact with Radio Caroline and found himself invited aboard the ship to help collate their record collection. In that long blazing summer of 1976, the wide-eyed 17 year-old, found himself on board the Mi Amigo, sorting records, making tea and helping to maintain the equipment. He also developed a teenage crush on Samantha Dubois, a pretty Dutch DJ, herself then only just promoted from her earlier position as ship's cook. By the time he returned to shore in early autumn of that year, Tony was a veteran of sorts. “I came home with £175 and 15 albums.” he recalls, misty-eyed. The Mi Amigo got its ship's supplies illegally from Holland and its tenuous revenue from advertising. When advertising was in short supply they ran dummy ads.
Radio Caroline also promoted a concept called Loving Awareness. Ronan O'Rahilly, the station's eccentric Irish owner thought that our tumultuous world needed more of it. He even employed a rock band to make an album promoting his “L.A.” ideal. The story gets stranger. O'Rahilly originally wanted to call his band The Beatles but found, predictably, that there were legal hurdles involved. The alternatively-christened Loving Awareness Band and their new album then received constant airplay on Radio Caroline. The band's blend of rock-funk was not even remotely Beatles-like – although it actually wasn't bad.
All through the 1970s, with the other pirates long-closed down, the Mi Amigo boat alone, kept on rocking. And my pop-hungry fellow kitchen porters and I kept on listening – usually singing rudely along in English to the Dutch adverts. Young Tony Street, returned to the Mi Amigo as a radio engineer and crew member. He also eventually travelled to Holland, in company with Samantha Dubois, the object of his earlier infatuation. When it was all over, Tony, joined the BBC, who made an honest producer of him. There's a feeling though, talking to him now, that a part of him never really left the Mi Amigo, which sank in 1980.
Of Tony's fellow pirates, Mike Hagler, Caroline's popular American DJ went on to join the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior. Samantha Dubois, sadly, died in 1992. The mysterious and charismatic Ronan O'Rahilly, Caroline's founder, now almost 70, is still around. Though, he was always hard to get hold of, said Tony: “Towards the end, I'd have to ring a clothes shop somewhere in Chelsea and ask for 'Bobby Kennedy'.” he laughs. And the Loving Awareness Band? In 1977, its members John, Mick, Charlie and Norman hooked up with a little bloke from Essex called Ian Dury and became the nucleus of a band called The Blockheads. They did pretty well, as it happens.
Newell lookalike Bill Nighy (right) And
Rhys Ifans (left)