The Real Story Behind Britain's Rock 'N' Roll Pirates In the '60s, the British airwaves were largely controlled by the BBC — which had all but barred rock 'n' roll from the radio. Then a small flotilla of ships dropped anchor off the coast of England and began broadcasting the illicit tunes of The Hollies and The Rolling Stones. The film Pirate Radio takes its inspiration from a time when Britannia's rock ruled the waves.

The Real Story Behind Britain's Rock 'N' Roll Pirates

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Filmmaker Richard Curtis has made a career creating quirky, lovable English heroes. He wrote the screenplays for Love Actually and Notting Hill. In his latest film, Pirate Radio, Curtis applies a similar touch to a group of radio DJs. The movie is loosely based on a real period in broadcasting history. In the mid-1960s, unauthorized radio stations began blasting rock and roll across Great Britain, and they did it from ships in the middle of the ocean.

From London, Vicki Barker has their story.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: To Buckingham Palace yesterday afternoon were invited over 1,000 guests...

VICKI BARKER: Even at the dawn of the 1960s, Britain still partied to the rhythms of a vanished age. With the exception of one commercial television network, the airwaves were owned by the BBC, known semi-affectionately as auntie.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: All around the house was a beautiful garden.

BARKER: She favored a bland, if nourishing, diet of news, information, light entertainment and childrens programs. But if you were young, you were almost certainly like filmmaker Richard Curtis. In 1964, he was an eight-year-old confined to a posh boys boarding school.

Mr. RICHARD CURTIS (Filmmaker): And we werent really allowed to listen to the radio during the day. But at night, under my pillow with matron patrolling the corridors, I would listen. And what I heard were these extraordinary pirate radio stations, these fantastic guys pumping rock and roll into my private school all night.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: This is the late, late show from Radio Caroline, 199 on your dial.

(Soundbite of music)

BARKER: They were called pirates because they were broadcasting illicitly from rusty ships anchored in international waters.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man #3: And thats an oldie goldie from Bobby Rydell and thats called Wild One. And we're six minutes away from the Roger Day(ph) show taking you right up until the midnight hour.

BARKER: Their formats were pretty much lifted from American top 40 stations and therein lay a transatlantic paradox.

Mr. DAVE CASH (Former Pirate DJ): At one time in 66, I think the top five in the American charts were all English.

BARKER: Dave Cash was one of the pirate DJs.

Mr. CASH: Beatles, Stones, Walker Brothers, Hermans Hermits. And over here you had six hours of pop music a week. That was it.

BARKER: The now 60-something Cash sits in a 21st century London cafe and shakes his head at the idea that he and his colleagues were heard by as many as 20 million rock-deprived Brits - nearly half the population.

Mr. CASH: It was bizarre because you had no real idea until you came ashore and there'd be 3,000 people waiting for us. We were treated like pop stars, and of course, being young and single, we took advantage of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BARKER: At sea it was another matter. The acoustics on the steel ships werent great. The onboard regimen was monastic - strictly no women allowed - and then there was the weather.

Unidentified Man #4: This is Radio Caroline.

BARKER: Four decades on, DJ Keith Skues recalls the gales.

Mr. KEITH SKUES (Radio Caroline DJ): I think force 9 was probably the worst I had.

BARKER: When the winter storms started, he says, the DJs could be stranded on board for a month or more.

Mr. SKUES: When youre broadcasting, you tend to concentrate on what youre doing. So the fact that you're being kicked out of your chair and thrown across the studio didn't seem to matter as long as if the records didn't jump. And, of course, they did.

BARKER: The Rolling Stones, Hermans Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, some of the biggest British groups of the day got their widest exposure on pirate stations.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. RINGO STARR (Musician): Johnny Walkers got a good show today and guess whos on it? Ringo Starr. Thats me on the Johnny Walker show.

BARKER: The pirates also played commercials, unheard of in the U.K. at the time.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man #5: Fashion-conscious young men of all ages want advice and they get it when they go to a Harry Fenton fashion center.

BARKER: In fact, the prime motivating force behind the pirates was good old-fashioned profit. American and Irish entrepreneurs ran the two biggest stations trying to sidestep Britain's refusal to grant radio licenses to commercial broadcasters. In August 1967, the British government made it a crime to supply music, commentary, fuel, food, water and most significantly, advertising to any unlicensed offshore broadcaster.

Unidentified Man #6: Well, it is my unfortunate duty to tell you and inform you right now that Peace and Love will be closing down on August the 14th.

BARKER: Most of the British pirates fell silent. Perhaps, not coincidentally, one month after the law took effect, the BBC launched its first pop music station.

(Soundbite of Radio One broadcast)

Unidentified Man #7: Radio One, go.

(Soundbite of radio jingle)

Unidentified People: (singing) The voice of Radio One.

BARKER: It would be another six years before Britain allowed commercial radio stations. In the meantime, many of the shipwrecked DJs ended up working for their former nemesis.

Mr. CASH: I remember a dear friend of mine, Mike Pasternak, who went under the name of Emperor Rosko

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. MIKE PASTERNAK (Pirate Radio DJ): Mommy-o and daddy-o, Have you heard about the big sensation?

BARKER: Dave Cash recalls Pasternaks debut on auntie BBC.

Mr. CASH: He ended at 2 oclock by saying, hey baby, its all going on, see you next week, hey, baby. And the announcer left a wonderful two-second gap, and he said, its now 2 oclock and now here is the news in English.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BARKER: Cash is one of several former pirates still with the Beeb.

Mr. CASH: They hated us, but we didn't care - and we still don't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BARKER: He holds up a photo of his pirate ship The Galaxy, now beached and gently rusting in the shallows of the Baltic Sea.

For NPR News, Im Vicki Barker in London.

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