Pirate Radio Days

My stormy life aboard the boat that rocked Britain

First written 2009 for the Daily Mirror

COPY PICTURE BY DALE CHERRY 26/02/2009 collect picture shows Tom Edwards (right) on Radio caroline 'The Mi Amigo' with Tommy Vance (second left) and the crew
Tom Edwards (right) onboard Radio Caroline with Tommy Vance (second left) and some of the crew from 'The Mi Amigo'

In June 1966 my life was in ruins. My boss, Reg Calvert, had been shot dead by a business rival. Radio City, the pirate radio station based on a Second World War sea fort that he owned and I worked for, was silent, occupied by more than a dozen heavies armed with guns and knives. And I was being summoned by the police.

How could this have happened to me, a naive, slightly prudish 21-year-old DJ? I had always wanted to be on pirate radio but I hadn't expected to encounter real pirates.

Reg's death was the low point in an otherwise exhilarating, often crazy career as a renegade offshore DJ all those years ago.

Uncharted waters: The Radio Caroline pirate radio ship broadcast music that could not be heard on landlocked stations
UNCHARTERED WATERS: The Radio Caroline pirate radio ship broadcast music that could not be heard on landlocked stations

So it was with a nostalgic twinge that I read that Four Weddings And A Funeral film-maker Richard Curtis will next month release his own comic take on the pirate stations. If The Boat That Rocked, which stars Rhys Ifans, Bill Nighy and Gemma Arterton, is anything like as exciting as my own story, it will be a treat.

Few of Curtis's audience, though, will understand just how grey Britain was in the early Sixties.

Pop music wasn't played regularly on the BBC and there were no commercial radio stations. The Light Programme, now Radio 2, preferred the likes of Acker Bilk and Vera Lynn, allowing pop to take over its gentlemanly ambience only once or twice a week with shows such as Pick Of The Pops.

If teenagers like me wanted to hear The Beatles or the Rolling Stones we had to listen to radio stations outside Britain.

At first that meant hiding under the bedclothes late at night with a transistor radio trying to tune in to a feeble, crackly signal from Radio Luxembourg.

And then came Radio Caroline, which started transmitting from a ship outside British waters in 1964. Immediately it began attracting audiences of up to 25 million and inspired copycat stations.

The pirate stations were closer than Luxembourg but their transmissions remained erratic. The thrill of breaking the law, albeit in a harmless way, and the difficulty of tuning in all added to the excitement.

Then there were the DJs. These upstarts were quite unlike anything heard on the BBC, whose well-spoken presenters still sounded as if they put on an evening suit before going on air.

Pirate DJs were casual, relaxed and said whatever came into their head as a record began. That's where the phrase 'disc jockey' comes from: some one who rides the record.

Pop and all its uncouth, subversive ways were an affront to Britain's rulers, too.

The then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, failed to disguise his hatred of pirate radio despite being hailed as the epitome of a modern politician. He and the Postmaster General, one Anthony Wedgwood Benn, were intent on outlawing offshore stations.

But closing down the pirates was tricky. While it was illegal to broadcast without a licence within British waters, nothing could stop a station transmitting beyond Mr Wilson's jurisdiction, even if it was run by British businessmen and DJs.

Such thorny legal matters were far from my mind, however, as I began my career. Originally from Norwich, I had worked as a Bluecoat at a Pontin's holiday camp, spinning records and making announcements over the Tannoy about lost children.

By 1964, aged 19, I was desperate to join a pirate station. I sent a tape to Reg Calvert, a Tin Pan Alley hustler who managed Screaming Lord Sutch and a pop group called The Fortunes. Reg also owned a pirate radio station.

Next move: Tom Edwards in the Radio 1 studio in 1968
Next move: Tom Edwards in the Radio 1 studio in 1968

His reaction was brief. 'I like what I hear,' he barked down the phone. 'I wanna see you on the next boat out.'

Later that week, as our fishing vessel left the calm of Whitstable harbour in Kent, the sea began to swell. Reg lit a cigar and I threw up over the deck. He laughed.

After a few hours, six enormous, mournful concrete towers built on steel stilts appeared out of the mist.

The Shivering Sands towers were 90ft high. Built during the Second World War as anti-aircraft towers, they were more than three miles from shore and thus outside British territorial waters as they were then defined.

We pulled alongside and a cheese crate contraption was lowered to lift Reg and me on to Radio City. It was a particularly nerve-racking experience because when I took the job I failed to mention I lacked one important qualification: the ability to swim.

Living conditions on Radio City were sparse - no running water and no proper lavatories. Reg was equally sparing with his instructions. He took me into the makeshift studio and said: 'It's all yours, Tom.'

The buzz of the music certainly made up for the cold and damp. We were given free rein, playing the records that defined the times but were rarely heard on the BBC - Small Faces, The Kinks, The Who, Reg's group The Fortunes and Motown stars such as The Supremes and Martha Reeves.

The station had no phones and communication to shore was difficult. If we had problems, we were instructed to play The Fortunes' You've Got Your Troubles to signal to Reg that we were in distress.

Nevertheless, life at the radio frequency '299 metres on the medium wave' was good. I was paid £20 for two weeks' work followed by a week's rest back on land. Not bad compared with the £7 a week I got at Pontin's.

Radio City sold little or no advertising time, but made money from American evangelical groups, who paid us to broadcast their messages in the night, usually lengthy preachy talks recorded on temperamental reel-to-reel tape machines.

One night I went for a coffee while one was playing, only to be summoned urgently. The tape had snapped and nothing had gone out on air for five minutes.

The towers had housed 400 soldiers during the war. Now there were two or three DJs at any one time and a few support staff.

A shaky rope bridge connected the studio tower with our sleeping quarters. It proved a challenge for me to cross, all the more so at night when the technicians would creep out and rock it to and fro as I walked along it.

While on Radio City our only contact with the shore was via an illegal ship-to-shore walkie-talkie. Unfortunately, the GPO, the Government body responsible for policing broadcasting, was soon on to us.

LOVE BOAT: Amorous fans often visited the pirate DJs - as relived in a scene from The Boat That Rocked
LOVE BOAT: Amorous fans often visited the pirate DJs - as relived in a scene from The Boat That Rocked

One night, I was standing on the cliffs at Herne Bay with the walkie-talkie in my hand as I took down the lists of food my colleagues wanted me to bring out to the towers. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by policemen, one of whom uttered the corny line: 'Mr Edwards. At long last, you are well and truly nicked.'

I ended up in the cells. After being released without charge the next day, the desk sergeant looked at me plaintively. 'Excuse me, Tom, but when you're back at the towers, would it be possible for you to play a record for my girlfriend?'

'Sure, what does she want?' 'How about You're No Good by the Swinging Blue Jeans?'

Reg Calvert took the news of my arrest well, though he often displayed a furious temper. He once fired everyone in sight after some members of staff tried to form a separate company.

I didn't go along with them, so Reg made me programme controller, saying: 'Get on with it, Tom.' I did. No one ever refused an offer from Reg.

In the summer of 1966, he got involved in another deal, one that cost him his life. Reg accepted an offer to turn Radio City into a new station called United Kingdom Good Music.

But some of his previous backers wanted the money they had loaned him for a transmitter returned. They said they would settle for the transmitter if he did not have the money.

Reg, implacable as ever, was having none of it. 'I've battened down the hatches on those towers so no one can get it back,' he warned them. It was asking for trouble.

Major Oliver Smedley, one of the investors, hired 15 riggers from Gravesend and put them on a tugboat. On June 20, they threw up grappling hooks, took over Radio City and removed a crucial part of the equipment, closing down the station.

Screaming for revenge and threatening the boarding party with nerve gas, Reg went after Smedley at his home in Essex. After Reg barged in, a fight broke out.

When Reg threatened to hit Smedley's assistant, Pamela Thorburn, with a statue, Smedley picked up a 12-bore shotgun and shot him dead.

It was a huge shock. The night before I had been with Reg, his wife Dorothy and their two daughters at their apartment in London.

Back in Norwich, my mother was horrified that her son was involved in a murder case. I had won fame at last, but not the sort I was after.

The incident also strengthened the hand of our enemies. Harold Wilson now had the impetus he needed to banish the pirates from the airwaves.

The next day, accompanied by police and the Press, I went back on to Radio City, where I met the raiders' leader, Big Alf Bullen. I shook his hand and he said: 'Tom, we didn't want anyone to get killed, you know.'


POP SAR: Tom Edwards signing autographs
POP SAR: Tom Edwards signing autographs

Some nights later, the raiders left silently in the tugboat on which they had arrived. We found the missing transmitter component they had hidden and within minutes we had Radio City back on air, playing Frank Sinatra's Strangers In The Night.

When the Smedley case came to court, he was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.

After Reg's death Radio City never really recovered. His widow Dorothy promised it would continue, but months after taking over she was fined £100 for illegal broadcasting. The court ruled that the towers fell within British jurisdiction.

It was a fatal blow. On February 8, 1967, Dorothy sent me a written message by boat: 'The station has to close down today.'

I put out a news bulletin telling our audience what was happening. I played the last record - Shirley Bassey singing The Party's Over - followed by the National Anthem. We might have been rebels, but we were still respectful to the Royal Family.

I went outside and cried my eyes out. I had lost my boss and I had lost the little radio station that had become my pride and joy. I felt my life as a DJ was over.

It turned out that it was just beginning. Dorothy kindly recommended me to an Irish businessman called Ronan O'Rahilly, who managed singer Georgie Fame. Frustrated that the BBC would not play his protegé's records, O'Rahilly had started Radio Caroline.

A few weeks later, I was leaving Felixstowe for the ship Mi Amigo, Radio Caroline's home anchored three-and-a-half miles from Frinton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex.

It was luxurious compared with Radio City - my own cabin, free beer and cigarettes, chefs and a proper kitchen.

Better still, all my broadcasting heroes worked on Caroline, men such as Johnnie Walker, Tommy Vance and Dave Lee Travis.

Tommy was a real favourite of mine. When I first arrived, I said to him: 'Excuse me, Mr Vance, would it be possible to sit in and watch you work?' He agreed and we became great friends.

Tommy always wore a roll-neck sweater and jeans, and a Cuban cigar rarely left his lips, which may have contributed to his gravelly voice.

Quite how he managed to get hold of all these cigars out in the middle of the ocean was a mystery to me, but he probably mentioned how much he liked them during a show.

Listeners would send us anything we wanted. If we said we were missing cupcakes, young housewives would post packets to us.

In the summer, I would sunbathe near the transmitter mast despite warnings from the captain and crew that it could make me bald and sterile. Neither has happened to date.

There was one ship's regulation: no women on board. We were warned that this was a men-only enterprise and the only girl's name to be heard was Caroline herself.

Of course this rule was broken regularly. Local fishermen, keen to profit from teenage enthusiasm, ran tourist trips to Caroline from the East Coast.

Boats would arrive heaving with giggling, screaming girls. And when overexcited, mini-skirted young women and sex-starved DJs meet, the inevitable happens.

The girls' chat-up technique was usually to the point, lines such as, 'You must get very bored and lonely here. Where do you sleep?'

SHOW TIME: Tom, left, and his hero Tommy Vance, meet some fans at a Radio Caroline gig
SHOW TIME: Tom, left, and his hero Tommy Vance, meet some fans at a Radio Caroline gig

We knew the rules but we were young, devious DJs. After a furtive 15 minutes of lust, the young girls emerged from below decks still giggling as their captain sounded his boat's horn - he had to get back before the tide turned.

As a souvenir of their visit, girls would ask me to write a message on their boobs or bottoms with a felt-tip pen. It made a pleasant change from an autograph book.

However, some sections of the crew were impervious to the girls' advances.

The Dutch men who ran the galley and cooked our food were all gay. More than once I was awoken in my cabin by the groping hands of a huge Dutch seaman. Back then, I wondered if homosexuality would ever be legal.

In the confined quarters of the Mi Amigo, relations between DJs and crew could be fraught.

One DJ, Robbie Dale, was nicknamed The Admiral by Dave Lee Travis because he always liked the boat shipshape. He went so far as to wear an admiral's uniform while broadcasting, a stunt somewhat lost on our listeners.

Robbie wasn't a great fan of the Thai food often cooked by our Dutch chef. After about a week of being served the same dish, Robbie started screaming and threatened to hit the chef, who also had a fiery temperament and happened to be wielding a large knife. Somehow I managed to keep them apart.

Working on Caroline could also be rock and roll in the literal sense. When storms raged, the Mi Amigo would dip on its anchor chain then pull up again with a thundering crash. Such were its gyrations that I often had to be strapped into my bunk to avoid falling out while asleep.

But the show always went on - a sixpence on the stylus would stop a record slipping in a force 11 gale - though seasickness sometimes got the better of me.

Usefully, by this time pop had become more pretentious and overblown. The standard playing time of a single had once been under three minutes - by the late Sixties, a track could drag on for ten minutes.

RADIO CAROLINE: A young Tom Edwards
RADIO CAROLINE: A young Tom Edwards

One evening, feeling particularly bilious, I put on Richard Harris's MacArthur Park, a ponderous, poetic number 11 minutes long. This afforded me enough time to rush out and throw up over the side of the Mi Amigo. Eloise by Paul and Barry Ryan, at about eight minutes, was also helpful.

Communication with our audience was, as ever, a one-way affair without mobiles or radios. I tried to reply to all my fan letters, but there was never enough time.

There had to be a better way to get our listeners involved and Johnnie Walker, always the most inventive among us, had the answer.

Every night he would do a slot on his show called Kiss In The Car. As he played romantic numbers by Otis Redding and Percy Sledge, he would ask dating couples to pull up to the seafront near us and shine their headlamps out to sea.

The code was simple but cumbersome. One flash would mean yes to Johnnie's questions, two would be no. Thus an agonisingly slow conversation would follow about music, love and the weather. The internet it wasn't.

The slickest DJ on Caroline was probably Tony Blackburn. He and I became friends, though I always found him a strange fish. He had a detached air about him, never quite dropping that smooth-talking facade - he was Tony Blackburn, superstar DJ, 24 hours a day.

Tony once said he didn't need friends and, even though I became godfather to his son Simon, I never felt I really knew him. He blew hot and cold with friendships, which I found annoying.

Although there wasn't an isolated incident which led to us falling out, he just distanced himself from me. I saw him recently putting on a show near my home in Heckington, Lincolnshire, but he said he didn't have time to chat.

By 1967, there was something in the air and it wasn't legal. The hippie movement and flower power made it inevitable that certain exotic substances would arrive on board.

I first became aware of it one night in the galley when people started looking at me in a funny way and laughing hysterically. For once, the pungent smell wasn't coming from the chef's stove.

One of the crew offered me the biggest joint I had ever seen, but I felt it dangerous to get stoned on a ship, so I refused.

It might have been the height of the counter-culture but I was still quite prudish. Whereas other DJs raced off to London on their weeks off, I returned to my mother in Norwich.

Inevitably perhaps, the Establishment would eventually catch up with us.

In August 1967, the Marine Offences Bill passed into law. Whereas before it had only been an offence to operate an illegal station in British waters, it was now also an offence to supply equipment, goods and services to one outside British waters or advertise on it.

A fortnight before the Marine Offences Bill became law, the atmosphere on Caroline was tense. I knew I could have my passport confiscated or go to jail for defying the Government.

I finished my stint and was about to board the tender to take me back to Felixstowe for a week's leave. At the same time Johnnie Walker and Robbie Dale were arriving, in high spirits, saying they were ready to fight the law.

'Tom, you are coming back, aren't you?' asked Johnnie.

'Yes, I'll be back,' I replied. But as I looked Johnnie in the eye, I knew I wouldn't be returning.

EARLY DAYS: A very young Tom Edwards
EARLY DAYS: A very young Tom Edwards

The following week I didn't go back to Caroline. Nobody rang to ask why and a few spiteful remarks were made on air. It left a nasty taste, but I was soon forgiven.

At the same time, the BBC cleverly launched Radio 1, its imitation of Caroline. It was even hiring pirate DJs, including Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker and Simon Dee.

The broadcasting establishment suppressed its rebellious rivals but at the same time absorbed them.

Pop fans, struggling to tune into offshore transmitters, suddenly had a crystal-clear signal playing pop music all day. It was the death knell for the pirates.

Radio Caroline struggled on but ran out of money. The ship was eventually hauled back to the Netherlands in 1968, though Caroline appeared again in various guises.

I joined the BBC myself the following year, taking over from Simon Dee, who had moved on to TV.

Working for the Corporation was quite different to life on the ocean. For a start we had producers and were sometimes expected to follow a strange thing called a script - a far cry from the free-flow of the pirates. On occasions, we didn't even cue our own records.

Nevertheless, Radio Caroline and Radio City set the style and the tone for pop broadcasting over the next 40 years. The irreverence, the ad-libbing and the high jinks all became the standard way to present music, as parodied by comedians Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse's Smashie and Nicey.

Times have changed. When I listen to Radio 1 these days, I find it hard to understand. The BBC, once the enemy of everything we pirate DJs stood for, now puts out material that would shock my chums on Caroline.

Rebels we may have been but we knew the limits. Bodily functions, for instance, would not be considered a suitable subject for a radio show but they seem fine for Radio 1.

I was a naive teenager when I first went out in a boat to Radio City. I didn't know I was part of huge revolution that still has cultural and political echoes around the world today. All I wanted to do was have fun and work at something that seemed unimaginably exciting.

Would I do it all again? Yes, of course. Just spare me the seasickness and that dreaded rope bridge.