Who: Moronic Surveyors
What: I Spy for the DTI
Where: Music and Video Exchange, Camden High Street
Cost: One Pound
In these times of the Digital Economy Bill and Internet Radio, the whole concept of an offshore pirate radio station seems somewhat quaint, but it frequently bothers me that the people who ran these ships seldom get credited for the effect they had on British popular culture. During the sixties, BBC programmers actually believed that the public could 'only take so much excitement' and regularly filled their airspace with light, easy music, like some kind of license-fee funded medication time. The Government were unwilling to give radio licenses to competitors, and therefore the inevitable happened - a loophole was found, and people began broadcasting radio from outside British territory. The seas around the UK became festooned with knackered old ships and even disused World War II forts broadcasting energy fuelled soul, mod pop, and psychedelia. I have recordings of many of the shows, and any single one of them would easily give the output even of 6Music a run for its money. But then I would say that. Their playlists were rather "Left and to the Back" friendly.
The loophole was soon closed, and an argument is made by plenty of left-leaning people - Tony Benn MP perhaps most notably - that the pirates were not run with the good of the people in mind, and behind the veneer of the Young, New, and Fresh broadcasters lay some shifty, nasty pieces of work. Record company payola to get certain tracks played by stations was extremely common, and the fact that the Radio London chart seemed to be comprised entirely of whoever the station was trying to curry favour with at any given time was a bit of a giveaway. It's also been pointed out that many of the stations felt that a Conservative government would look at them in a more favourable light, and less than subtle campaigns began to get the public to vote Tory (arguably one of the final nails in the coffin of the sixties pirate broadcasting scene).
We can huff and puff about this all we like, but without pirate radio, John Peel's UK broadcasting career would never have begun, certainly not in the format we all became familiar with. His "Perfumed Garden" show began on the illegal Radio London, and was essentially transported to Radio One when the boat's number was called. It's possible that Radio One would also never have been born, and the Home and Light stations would have continued trickling out the same sanitised eardrops so as not to provoke any unrest amongst the Great British public.
By the eighties, changes in the law had put the frighteners on most of the operators, and there were only two offshore pirates broadcasting to Britain who had any real influence on the music industry here - Radio Caroline, a stalwart from the sixties scene, and young upstart Laser 558 which used American DJs and had a hit radio format (and was actually completely unremarkable, if you want my honest opinion). Whilst Laser 558 was briefly extremely popular, attracting an estimated 4 million British listeners, it appeared to have problems attracting advertising revenue, and was continually having financial issues. If balancing the books were not enough of a challenge, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) sent out its own ship to watch its affairs very closely, collecting data on the station's operations. The two boats were anchored very closely to each other, the Government ship presumably also acting as a permanent reminder to the staff at Laser that theirs was no longer a safe income.
This single was presumably supposed to serve a dual purpose, acting as both a fundraiser for the station and a raised middle finger to the Government. They failed to really attract the cream of the scene, though - one would have hoped for the involvement of Duran Duran or perhaps even Nik Kershaw if all else failed. On the contrary, Laser 558 employed Paul Young. And no, not the relatively famous Paul Young, the slightly world-weary white soul singer with a permanently constipated expression - the other Paul Young, the Chris Morris lookalike lead vocalist of the forgotten Sad Cafe, who at this point hadn't had a hit single in five years. He was dutifully backed by some Laser staffers, and the whole thing was ignored by almost everyone. It can't have escaped the DTI's attention, and the adverts in the music press urging readers to buy the single with the strapline "Don't be a moron!" probably irked a few senior Whitehall figures, but that was the extent of this single's impact.
I'm probably being too critical here, since the end result is actually OK in a competent-cover-version type way - but as a call to arms it lacks any real bite, and fails to sound like a youthful, alternative challenge. That said, it's a better single than Ferry Aid's "Let It Be", if we're sticking to any kind of seafaring controversy fundraising single theme.
After endless financial, weather and DTI related complications, Laser 558 ran out of luck by Spring 1987, when they fell off air never to be heard again. Radio Caroline took over their frequency and carried on regardless, only to be boarded by the Dutch and British authorities in 1989, who apparently violently intimidated staff, then proceeded to smash up the ship's equipment (so much for the Tories having sympathy for the business activities of pirate ships). The very final minutes of the station's life can be heard in this mp3 clip here. That noise and subsequent closedown is probably more emotionally involving than Laser's little single, and gives a much truer picture of the resentment and anger which simmered above the shoreline during those difficult times than a soul cover version by the lead singer of Sad Cafe ever could.
In the meantime, a now-legal version of Radio Caroline is on-air, largely using the Internet to provide its audience base.