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The Boats That Rocked

So where does our taste in music come from?  Why is it that different people prefer different time signatures or, probably more significantly, prefer different instrumentation?   Often, the music which dominated during our teenage years will critically influence what we like (there’s got to be a reason people still listen to early 80’s pop music), as the tunes which are bound by our synapses to those early, heightened emotional experiences – first kisses, first time being drunk, first… you get the picture –  are going to pack a lot of impassioned punch when it comes to the strength of the emotional response which music produces within us and which in turn generates the pleasure we derive from it.

My teenage years spanned the late seventies and early eighties, years when disco was briefly overtaken by two-tone, before giving way to synth-driven, electro-pop. And yet, you can riffle through my album collection until The Beatles reform, and you’ll find almost nothing from those genres. Instead, where my contemporary’s old vinyl consists of chart favourites like The Bee Gees, The Jam or Duran Duran, mine consists of groups which rarely, if ever troubled the singles charts.  How come, when we lived in the same era?

Nowadays, the question of how you got to hear certain types of music simply wouldn’t arise as the internet has made almost anything you want to hear available at the click of a mouse button.  Those who struggle to remember a time before the internet cannot hope to understand just how difficult it was to hear anything which wasn’t sanctioned by the middle-aged, middle-browed, middle-of-the-road-loving suits who ran Radio 1 and programmed Top of the Pops. If you need any convincing just take a look at the re-runs of TotP which get regularly regurgitated on the digital channels; plastic music, introduced by plastic people.  Yes, the Beeb did also give us Whistle Test, but 50 minutes of alternative music, on a programme which was constantly moved around in the schedules, usually to a time which was either too late for my teenage self or clashed with something Mum and Dad wanted to watch on the only TV in the house.

The only alternative to the commercial mush which monopolised the airwaves was Peelie, although he only broadcast four nights of the week for a couple of hours each night, and, during the late 70’s, the odd hour on the new commercial radio stations (take a bow Foz). During this period bands such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd sold millions of albums and yet, not only were they never played by the ubiquitous  BBC, they were rarely even mentioned.  If you didn’t have an older sibling who was into non-chart music, the opportunity to hear it was almost non-existent – unless you lived in the East.

Here in East Anglia we were lucky as, floating off of our, coast was an oasis of taste in an aural desert.  Radio Caroline was the last of the radio ships, forced into piracy by H.M. Government’s  1967 Marine Offences Act, but still broadcasting.  The radio ships had made their name playing pop hits during the 1960s but the 1970s version of Caroline was now an album station, its playlists and informal, inclusive style, based upon the American FM stations. Listening to it was a musical education; one which has lasted a lifetime.  Caroline still broadcasts via the internet (I’m listening as I write this) and looks as though it may well soon be available on AM as Ofcom have approved a licence application.

The act which effectively sunk many of the radio ships is fifty years old on the 14th of this month and this anniversary will be celebrated on the 12th at the Felixstowe Spa Pavilion with an event entitled The Boats That Rocked. Presented by DJ Tom Edwards, who was on Radio City in the Thames Estuary in 1966 when the Shivering Sands Fort was ‘invaded’ over a transmitter dispute and when the station head, Reg Calvert, was shot dead in the same dispute.  He later joined Radio Caroline South off the coast of Frinton-on-Sea, where he worked with the likes of Tommy Vance, Tony Blackburn, Robbie Dale and Johnnie Walker.  Following that, like many other pirate DJ’s, he had spells on Radio 1 and 2 as they tried to emulate the excitement and rebellious attitude of the radio ships.  The evening will of course feature music, both live and recorded, from the 1960s and a host of memories from Radio Caroline and Radio London.

The radio ships represent a brief period of broadcasting history, one which, in terms of their number, is unique to our coast. And yet their influence was huge. They poked the slumbering leviathan of the BBC into an acknowledgement that ‘pop’ music existed beyond the definition of The Light Programme and were amongst the pebbles which have led to popular and teenage culture as it is today.  Whatever you listen to today, it’s almost undoubtedly been influenced by the radio ships.

Tickets for this evening of broadcasting nostalgia cost £25 and are available from the Spa Pavilion website at

Steve Hawthorne
Steve previews theatre and comedy on BBC Radio Suffolkat 5.50pm every Wednesday and presents the Wednesday Breakfast Show on ICR 105.7FM. He also crochets coasters for disabled sailors...

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