By GRANT ROLLINGS
Published: 14 Mar 2009
THINK about pop icons in the 1960s and chances are the ROLLING STONES
and BOB DYLAN spring to mind.
But some of the biggest stars of the swinging decade were a bunch of
hairy DJs broadcasting from ships out in the North Sea.
At their peak, pirate radio stations had 25MILLION listeners, which
was nearly half the British population back then.
Screaming girls would greet the DJs like heroes whenever they stepped ashore.
Many of the renegade broadcasters are still household names today,
including TONY BLACKBURN, DAVE LEE TRAVIS and the late, great JOHN PEEL.
The pirates' exploits are recalled in new comedy film The Boat That
Rocked, with a stellar cast including RHYS IFANS, KENNETH BRANAGH,
BILL NIGHY and CHRIS O'DOWD.
The film, by Love Actually director RICHARD CURTIS, opens on April 1,
just a few days after the 45th anniversary of the first offshore
broadcast from Radio Caroline on March 28.
It is tipped to be THE feelgood movie of 2009.
It all brings back great memories for Tony Blackburn, who told The
Sun last night: "They were the best days of my life. The pirate ship
days were enormous fun.
"It was a revolution. I knew it was going to change everything the
moment I stepped on board. I am very proud of it.
"It brought us Radio 1 on the BBC. Before the pirates there was just
45 minutes of popular music on the Light Programme."
Before Radio Caroline, the Beeb had a monopoly of the airwaves. The
only competition was Radio Luxembourg with its weak night-time signal.
The BBC did not play pop music because the men in charge did not like
it and the Musicians' Union insisted on limited "needle time". The
union wanted live music, not records.
Promoter Ronan O'Rahilly set up Radio Caroline because he could not
get his new act, Georgie Fame, played on the BBC or Radio Luxembourg.
He was unable to launch a commercial station in Britain but got
around the law by broadcasting from international waters.
It was not without its perils.
Tony Blackburn was spinning records when Radio Caroline's ship, the
MV Mi Amigo, ran aground off the Essex coast in 1966.
Tony said: "I was doing the breakfast show when the captain said
everybody had to get up on deck. I thought it was a joke.
"It was in the middle of a force ten gale. Being 21, I didn't realise
how serious it was.
"The boat lurched over when it hit the shore. If we had hit the
breakers a bit further up, it could have disintegrated."
In 1980 the rusting MV Mi Amigo did finally sink, having housed
offshore radio stations for almost 20 years.
Tony, 66, spent two years on Caroline and one on its rival, Radio London.
Life on the waves could be tough and Tony even put his life at risk
to make sure Caroline stayed on the airwaves.
He recalled: "I went up the mast to repair a sparking wire. None of
the seamen wanted to go up because it was rough.
"Ronan O'Rahilly said we needed to get back on air and I was the only
one willing to do it. When I fixed it, Ronan promised me £25 but he
never paid up."
The pirates allowed their DJs to play whatever music they wanted and
lots of new acts got their big breaks.
Tony said: "We made hit records out there, such as Tom Jones' It's
The DJs also found they were a big hit with the ladies.
The Boat That Rocked is a fictional account of pirate radio, with all
the names of the DJs changed.
Rather than being historically accurate, it captures the feeling of
liberation that sums up the Sixties.
Workers dance at their desks, children listen to Hendrix under their
covers and young women spread free love to the DJs.
But Tony insists no girls were ever allowed on board Radio Caroline.
He said: "It wasn't sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. It was just rock 'n roll."
But fellow DJ Emperor Rosko, 66, claims it was possible to get girls
into their cabins.
The US-born Radio Caroline star said: "Dolly birds weren't allowed on
board... but they would sail up sometimes and it didn't mean you
couldn't give them a tour. There were some hi-jinks."
Back on dry land, things were even more wild for the Emperor, real
name Mike Pasternak.
He said: "The week ashore was something I could never remember. We
would party like there was no tomorrow. Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll,
we lived it.
"We earned £75 a week but we were more interested in the girls and partying."
DAVE CASH, 66, who co-presented a legendary show with KENNY EVERETT
on Radio London, also recalls there being plenty of love going around
back on land.
Most DJs would spend two weeks out at sea and one week at home.
He said: "There would be 300 girls waiting for us at Liverpool Street
station. We would do gigs at the Marquee club in London and there
were a lot of young ladies.
"We were young men who had been on ship for two weeks, so we didn't object."
Eventually the Labour Government found new ways to close down the broadcasts.
Under the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967, drawn up by
Postmaster-General Tony Benn, it became an offence to advertise or
supply an offshore radio station from the United Kingdom.
Radio Caroline's cause had not been helped by a scandal in 1966.
Oliver Smedley, head of Project Atlanta which had merged with the
station, shot rival pirate Radio City owner Reginald Calvert dead in
a row over a transmitter.
Smedley was acquitted of murder on grounds of self-defence, but the
case revealed a nasty side of the business.
Files released from BBC archives shows the public broadcaster
launched a dirty tricks campaign against Radio Caroline.
They demanded popular acts such as THE BEATLES and CLIFF RICHARD
should ban their records from being played by the stations.
The BBC blacklisted pirate DJs and banned its presenters from
mentioning Radio Caroline.
They also lobbied both the Labour and Conservative parties to oppose
the offshore stations.
Keith Skues, 70, is a former Radio Caroline DJ who went to Parliament
to follow the debates at the time and later wrote a book called Pop
Went The Pirates.
He said: "I knew the pirates were going to get the chop when I
listened to the MPs.
"The Government was so scared of the pirates that I was warned that I
faced three months in prison if I published my book about my
experiences at that time."
After the introduction of the Act forced Radio Caroline off air, it
returned in other guises and was housed on different vessels.
And having seen off the main threat of the pirates, BBC radio was
The Light Programme became Radio 2 and Radio 1 was launched in September 1967.
Among those given key jobs were Tony Blackburn, John Peel, Kenny
Everett and Dave Cash.
The BBC had no idea how popular radio worked and Tony recalled: "They
said to us, 'Show us how it is done'. "
Tony, the first DJ to broadcast on Radio 1, was reluctant to join the Beeb.
He explained: "I wanted commercial radio to succeed, but after three
years I'd had enough. I'm not a sailor. It was like doing national service."
But it is clear that Tony and the other pirates all did the nation a
great service by bringing rock 'n roll to our radios.