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The history of British underground music through cassettes of pirate stations

Pirate radio archivist Michael Finch

While pirate radio has existed in the US since the very invention of the medium, it’s had a far more significant impact in the UK. The movie Pirate Radio dramatized how pirates forged cracks in the dam that the staid BBC built against R&B and rock n’ roll in the 60s. But British pirates retained cultural influence long after the Beeb embraced rock and commercial stations took to the dial.

In particular, pirate radio was the catalyst for British underground electronic dance music and hip-hop. Though less well known in the US, genres such as Jungle, Garage, Grime and drum ‘n’ bass were catalyzed and popularized by pirates, especially in London.

A new documentary by filmmaker Rollo Jackson tells the history of this music through the path of cassette tape recordings of prominent London pirates in his film Tape Crackers. The film just screened at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London.

This is how an article in The Wire magazine describes the film:

A rosy-cheeked man in his early thirties sits in a tastefully appointed room with a beer and a cassette deck playing his homemade collection of pirate radio recordings and reeling out a history of London pirates of the 1990s with pride and nostalgic pleasure….

At its most basic level, Tape Crackers is an oral history of Jungle pirate radio.

As an enthusiast of both radio and analog music technology, reading this article makes me quite excited to see the movie. Cassettes have long been the medium of the air check, often lovingly kept, duplicated and traded with other amateur archivists, attempting to capture and immortalize an otherwise ephemeral experience. If radio is ephemeral, then pirate radio is all the more so, being fundamentally illicit and obscure. And slightly more than a decade from the time covered in this film, cassettes are increasingly seen as a useless, hopelessly obsolete technology.

But there is history in that old oxide.

I hope Tape Crackers makes it across the pond, or at least online.

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4 Responses to The history of British underground music through cassettes of pirate stations

  1. Mary Payne February 4, 2011 at 1:17 am #

    ‘Pirate Radio’ is supposed to be a fictional comedy, set on a fictional ship. However, in basing his plot loosely around the offshore radio story, Curtis has only served to confuse those who are unfamiliar with the facts.

    The film’s theme is ‘rock’ and overcoming the ‘banning of rock music by the BBC and/or government’ – which never happened. What we did not have before the pirates arrived was any 24-hour music stations.

    The problem was that the BBC was the ONLY licensed broadcaster. The new commercial entrepreneurs based their stations on ships and forts outside territorial limits in order to circumvent the licensing legislation. Based in International waters, they could not be regarded as illegal operations.

Sixties Top Forty format offshore stations were all about pop, not rock. The word ‘rock’ tended in those days to refer to rock ‘n’ roll of the Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis era.

    It is not true that the BBC played no pop music, but it was restricted to using mainly live musicians. The Musicians’ Union stipulated the number of hours of recorded music that it permitted to be aired, arguing that the act of spinning records took work from its members. Much of the MU’s allocated BBC ‘needle time’ was devoted to the weekly ‘Pick of the Pops’ chart run-down.

    Those of us who love the offshore stations were very disappointed with ‘Pirate Radio’, as were most of the former DJs, who don’t appreciate being labelled sex-maniac drug-takers! There was plenty of that type of action going on in the trendy clubs when they went ashore and very little happening on the ships, where girls were seldom allowed aboard.

    The pirates didn’t save the world, but they made big changes to the music industry and the world of broadcasting and caused the government to have a major rethink about what the public wanted as entertainment. Listeners were, after all, legally obliged to purchase a radio and TV licence. (They still are. Detector vans are used to identify unlicensed homes and big fines are imposed.)

    The pirates were forced off the air in August 1967. The national pop station Radio 1 opened at the end of September.

    Eleven of the twenty-two Radio One DJs had come ashore from Radio London, aka Big L. Two other former pirates were in the line-up and subsequently were joined by numerous other watery wireless jocks. Few were surprised, however, that it proved impossible to recreate the atmosphere of offshore radio in a BBC studio. Initially, Radio One was obliged to share the airwaves with its MOR cousin Radio Two and its musical output continued to suffer under the MU’s ‘needle time’ regime.

    Commercial radio on land was a long time coming. It eventually arrived here in 1973.

    Mary Payne, Radio London Webmaster

  2. dirt February 4, 2011 at 2:46 am #

    Hurray for Jungle and Drum n’ Bass. I hope the movie makes it over here, too.

  3. Martin Rosen February 6, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    Just to clarify. There is no such thing as a ‘radio license’ any more. Therefore if you do not have a television receiving equipment in your house, you are not required to have a license, and the detector vans can detect as much as they want !!!

  4. Mike Terry February 6, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    The hopes of millions of teenagers in the UK, and much are Western Europe, were dashed when the The Marine, &c., Broadcasting (Offences) Act became law on 14 August 1967. The pirate stations had mostly been run professionally and Radio London was probably the most popular in southern England. It was extremely well run and set so many trends in radio that simply did not exist prior to that in the UK. When it closed down at 3pm on 14 August millions listened, including at the BBC, and many were extrememly upset at the draconian action by the governement.

    Everyone has heard of Radio Caroline and the south and north ships covered the country, and attracted a huge listenership.

    The BBC launched Radio 1 later in ’67, everyone I knew refused to listen to it. Caroline bravely fought on and continued into ’68 before its two ships were towed away. It came back with a new ship eventually and still broadcasts on the internet 24/7, its also campaigning for a medium wave licence and 50 MPs of the UK parliament have so far signed to support the parliamentary motion so its looking good!

    The movie is fun but totally removed from reality. The ships were small and women were rarely allowed on board, visitors during the day were sometimes permitted. There were many rules that had to be obeyed or people were dismissed. I never heard a swear word on the stations.

    Wonderful Radio London on 266 metres was my favourite radio station, and almost 50 years later I know of many who are compiling databases of recordings and still listen to the station as if in a time warp in the mid sixties!! Radio has never been so good since.

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