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.”>

Music pirates are boring nowadays. The pirates den is a bedroom in moms flat. Or maybe thats a pirate using the free wi-fi at Dunkin Donuts.

That wasnt always the case. Music pirates once had their own ships, just like their skull-and-crossbones predecessors in the Caribbean. The deejays didnt 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 Europes 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Europe, with teens seizing the opportunity to listen to their own music in their own room, freed from the controland out-of-date song preferencesof their parents.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 ORahilly, came from a family of rebelshis 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, ORahilly 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 didnt stop. Back in those days, most radio stations didnt operate after midnight, but Caroline kept going round-the-clock.

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 Citys 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 seamens 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 didnt hurt us or anything like that but they certainly kept us off the air for a few days.

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This incident led to Calvert confronting Smedley in his home a few hours later. Oliver Smedley wasnt 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 leftRadio 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 dont require a pirate ship to do so.

In short, we enjoy our music, and dont 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.

Read more: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/04/18/when-music-pirates-used-pirate-ships.html