John Peel Pirate Radio Broadcast from 1967 (MP3)

Richard Curtis’s Pirate Radio opens tonight, and, as I mention in my review, it’s fun and very funny, with a terrific (if anachronistic) soundtrack and an even better cast. But, as movies like this are sometimes wont to do, it sexes up the facts of the phenomenon by a fair bit.

First, despite a the kaleidoscopic palate of Curtis’s film, the boatloads of buxom women, clad in Carnaby Street couture, who board the broadcasting trawler for biweekly conjugal visits, and the booze-fueled high-seas hijinks, the facts of the matter were a bit more mundane. As Dave Lee Travis, a DJ for Radio Caroline — the inspiration for the movie's "Radio Rock" ship — told the Independent this past March, there was no well-stocked bar, and certainly no need (as the movie depicts), for tanning oil or prophylactics. The boat “had a mess hall, with tables bolted to the floor, nothing too fancy, you understand. And you couldn't go sunbathing on the top deck because there wasn't much call for that in the North Sea.... We didn't have women on board, or parties. There'd be five or six DJs, plus the Dutch crew.”

Also, as John Dougan writes in his excellent book from Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, The Who Sell Out — about that band’s classic 1967 album, which itself was conceived to simulate a broadcast, complete with radio promos and fake jingles, of off-shore Radio London — pirate radio broadcasts began, pre-WWII, to serve the listening needs of the UK’s “growing, class variegated community of listeners [who] were increasingly less enamored of the BBC’s programming rigidity [and] condescending tone.”


Yet at first, at least, even though the idea of rebel DJs floating in international waters, beyond the reach of the law, offered the “promise of mutinous freedom, a willful, anti-corporate, outlaw capitalism, wherein the creation of an alternative, bootleg economy attacks and undermines corporate hegemony,” Dougan writes, early broadcasts weren’t quite so heavy on rock and pop like the Turtles and the Yardbirds.

Instead, the exigencies of an advertiser-based model meant that “the reality was that in the early days . . . listeners were as likely to hear the music of Jim Reeves, Ray Conniff, and Andy Williams, as they were anything classified as R&B or rock and roll.”

With the ‘60s in full throttle, however, and Swinging London efflorescent with electric and lysergic energy, the notion of pirate DJs as spinners of the newest and best LPs and 45s — from
the Easybeats’ “Friday on my Mind" and the Troggs’ "With A Girl Like You" (each of which are featured in the film’s great soundtrack) earlier on, to the Doors and Procol Harum a bit later — was solidified.

Dougan’s book, which spends almost as much time delving into the history of the short-lived medium (the ships were shut down in 1967 after passage of the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act) as the Who’s album, limning the background of some of pirate radio’s key players — chief among them like Ronan O’Rahilly, the rakish Irish impresario who founded Radio Caroline (it was named after President Kennedy’s daughter) and DJ John Peel, the title of his Wonderful Radio London show, The Perfumed Garden, “reeking of pot, patchouli, and hippie-era condescension.”

Peel, of course, would go on to become a legendary broadcaster on BBC Radio 1, his dry and droll delivery, infectious passion, probing curiosity, deep knowlege, and hugely catholic tastes made him beloved by millions on either side of the pond — not least for the mammoth series of live-in-studio Peel Sessions, which began in late 1967 and only ended after his untimely death in 2004.

Peel’s DJ career started in early ‘60s — in Texas, ironically. He was living in Dallas for a few years (where he’d met President Kennedy in 1960, and was present for the arraignment of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963), and when Beatlemania broke in 1964, his Liverpool accent made him a popular jockey on KLIF in Dallas and later KOMA in Oklahoma City.

In the States, Peel heard brash, ballsy freewheeling patter of American DJs — a far cry from the stuffy and hidebound tones on the BBC, which took its mandate to “inform, educate, and entertain”
a mite seriously.

So it was a natural that when he returned to the UK, Peel would take to the freedom of the seas, helming the late-night shift on Wonderful Radio London, with “The Perfumed Garden,” transmitting crackly tracks — Pink Floyd, Cream, Love, the Velvets, Sgt. Pepper — to a grateful mainland.

As canonical as many of those songs have become, listening to one of his broadcasts is revelatory
— offering a fascinating time capsule, with the between-song talk, promo ads for Juicy Fruit, and news flashes about the Six-Day War offering an aural glimpse of how the airwaves sounded in England during the height of the ‘60s.

LISTEN: John Peel on “The Perfumed Garden,” July 1, 1967 (MP3)

| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
OTD Categories
VIDEO: Arctic Monkeys at the House of Blues
Rare Frequencies: Trouble and treble
Lady Lee's Lion's Den Playlist
HOMEWORK: Assignment #2: D-Tension
Ticket On-Sale Alert: Muse, Mariah Carey, Black Eyed...
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
Bradley’s Almanac -
Band in Boston -
Wayne & Wax -
Aurgasm -
Anti-Gravity Bunny -
Clicky Clicky -
Soul Clap -
Lemmingtrail -
Jump the Turnstyle -
Loaded Gun -
Vanyaland -
Ryan's Smashing Life -
Boston Band Crush -
Sleepover Shows -
Boston Accents -
Pilgrims of Sound -
Allston Rat City -
Playground Boston -
I Heart Noise -
On The Download Archives