When Music Pirates Used Pirate Ships
Renegade radio stations in the ’60s challenged government control of the airwaves from international waters and helped launch the rock revolution.
That wasn’t always the case. Music pirates once had their own ships, just like their skull-and-crossbones predecessors in the Caribbean. The deejays didn’t wear eye-patches or talk like Jack Sparrow, but before they were done reinventing radio rules, they helped shape the musical tastes during the rise of rock… and even changed international maritime law.
Long before Napster and torrents, the pirate radio stations of the ’60s found a home on the high seas. These renegade outfits operated from a host of different ships that circumvented government restrictions by broadcasting from international waters. At their peak, these stations attracted millions of listeners, who grooved to rock ‘n’ roll tunes ignored by the state-controlled radio outlets.
On Aug. 2, 1958, Radio Mercur became Europe’s first offshore pirate music station, operating from a converted fishing boat stationed in international waters between Copenhagen and Landskrona. Retailers in consumer electronics backed the venture, with the hope of selling more radios if a wider range of programming were available.
Their bet paid off: The station eventually attracted 5 million listeners, and one advertiser, a German seller of nylons and stockings, boasted that a radio campaign on the station generated increased sales of 3 million units in just two months. Sales of transistor radios skyrocketed across Europe, with teens seizing the opportunity to listen to their own music in their own room, freed from the control—and out-of-date song preferences—of their parents.
The piracy movement quickly spread from country to country. In 1960, Radio Veronica shook up the heavily regulated Dutch broadcasting business when it started operations in a converted German lightship anchored off the coast. The next year Radio Nord, backed by Texas money, took on the Swedish radio establishment from the Bon Jour in the Baltic Sea. In 1962, Radio Antwerpen began transmitting off the Belgian coast.
Britain, then at the forefront of commercial music world, would not long remain immune from the pirates. English rock was shaking up the world, but fans in the United Kingdom only enjoyed a few hours per week of this exciting new music on stuffy BBC radio. Radio Caroline, with its cooler vibe, now changed all that.
In February 1964, at the very moment when the Beatles were setting off the British rock invasion with their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, a different kind of musical assault was underway back in the U.K. The instigator, Irish businessman Ronan O’Rahilly, came from a family of rebels—his grandfather had been a leader in in the 1916 Easter rebellion and died in an attack on British machine gunners. Now at this critical juncture in music history, O’Rahilly acquired a 188-foot ferry ship named the Frederica. This would serve as his pirate ship, and he also had an Easter rebellion in mind.
The Frederica was soon converted into a floating radio station, and renamed the Caroline. It started broadcasting on Easter Sunday, and didn’t stop. Back in those days, most radio stations didn’t operate after midnight, but Caroline kept going round-the-clock.
The Rolling Stones’ “Not Fade Away” was the first song broadcast on Radio Caroline, and set the tone for a station that offered a much hipper variety of music than listeners found on the BBC. The station’s theme song, in its early days, was Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” performed by jazz organist Jimmy McGriff. “Pirate radio, and in particular Radio Caroline, was a really exciting part of all our lives in those days,” Paul McCartney would later recall, “and summed up the spirit of the times culturally and musically.”
In March 1965, the station actually hosted a live jazz event when another jazz organist, Jimmy Smith, was brought out to the ship. Smith’s Hammond organ was too large to fit down the corridor to the station, and so the performance took place on deck with the wind blowing and whistling in the background. Smith announced the first number played as “Hip Ship Blues,” and the title captured the spirit of pirate radio during its glory days.
The success of Caroline led to copy-cat pirates, each trying to carve out its share of the British music market. On May 12, British military hero and failed politician Oliver Smedley launched Radio Atlanta from a ship in the North Sea. Two weeks later, Radio City established operations on an abandoned World War II sea fort in the Thames Estuary. Radio London started broadcasting in December from a converted World War II minesweeper located off the coast of Essex County.
Yet pirates are dangerous characters, even in the music business. In June 1966, Smedley killed fellow pirate Reg Calvert, owner of Radio City, as the result of contentious merger discussions between the two stations.
No one was forced to walk the plank, but an actual pirate raid had taken place two days earlier, when thugs working for Smedley launched a surprise attack on Radio City’s fort. Alan Clark, a disc jockey for Radio City on board at the time, recalled the details of the raid in a 1997 interview: “There was a dispute between Reg Calvert and Oliver Smedley and this dispute took place at the time of a seamen’s strike… It climaxed in Major Smedley recruiting some striking seamen to sail out to the fort in a tug and take the place over.
“I was there at the time, along with a number of other people, and we were quite surprised to peer out of a porthole to see this tug nearby and lots of men rowing towards us in their boat. Then of course they came on board, took over the place, ripped the studio apart, placed it out of bounds. There was no violence. They didn’t hurt us or anything like that but they certainly kept us off the air for a few days.”
This incident led to Calvert confronting Smedley in his home a few hours later. Oliver Smedley wasn’t the man to take threats lightly. He had been a paratrooper in World War II, and earned a Military Cross during the battle of Normandy. As soon as Calvert arrived, Smedley retreated to his bedroom and loaded his shotgun. Without giving his adversary pirate any warning, Smedley shot Calvert. At the subsequent trial, Smedley convinced a jury that he acted “instinctively” and in self-defense, and was acquitted.
For a brief spell, it looked as if pirate radio would enter the mainstream of the music business. Radio 390, launched in 1965, was the most ambitious pirate operation of them all, with a strong signal and a full range of programs, including music, dramas, weather, and news. Like Radio City, this station operated from abandoned military towers. But a court eventually ruled that its facility, located on a sandbar off the north coast of Kent, was located in British territorial waters and the station disappeared from the airwaves in 1967.
But by then, the British government had grown tired of pirates. The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, enacted on Aug. 14, 1967, made it illegal for anyone in the U.K. to advertise on the pirate stations or supply their ships.
Radio Caroline survived this change by supplying its operation from the Netherlands, but it would continue to face legal and nautical challenges in subsequent years. Meanwhile, most of its pirate competitors shut down. For better or worse, the golden age of pirate radio was coming to an end.
Other countries enacted their own regulations, and one by one these alternative sources of music gradually disappeared from the airwaves. At the height of activity during the mid-’60s, more than a dozen stations were broadcasting from the North Sea, but by 1970 only two were left—Radio Veronica and Radio North Sea International.
Even so, the age of piracy had a lasting impact on British music. Six weeks after the passage of the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, the BBC launched an expanded pop-rock format, modeled on Radio London, and even hired a number of former pirate disc jockeys.
Yet the music pirates of the ’60s anticipated the future in other ways as well. In the digital age, radio broadcasts cross all borders and boundaries via the Web. Except for a few totalitarian regimes, nations no longer expect to control the musical tastes of the citizenry. Songs can reach anyone in any jurisdiction nowadays, and don’t require a pirate ship to do so.
In short, we enjoy our music, and don’t need to worry about government intrusion into our playlists. We choose our tunes freely, and no one censors our music, or shuts it down at midnight. We take all that for granted, but we ought to thank the pirates who took the plunge into those uncharted waters a half-century ago, and proved how beautiful free-flowing music could be.