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Radio Caroline: Teenage music memories


A tenement, a dirty street
Walked and worn by shoeless feet,
Inside it’s long and so complete
Watched by a shivering sun.
Old eyes in a small child’s face,
Watching as the shadows race
Through walls and cracks that leave no trace
And daylight’s brightness shuns

(The Days of Pearly Spencer - David McWilliams)

I was 13 years old when the summer of love unfolded. Everyone it seemed was either a ‘hippy’ or a ‘child of love’, whatever that was. Too young to really be a hippy, I did manage to grow my hair a little bit longer before being promptly sent to the barbers shop, and I loved the orange shirt that I got for my 13th birthday … but I don’t think my dad would have let me become a flower child, even if I’d wanted to.

At 13 I couldn’t attend a ‘love-in’. I don’t think I understood all the implications of such an event at the time even if I had been allowed to go; besides, riding the dodgem cars at the travelling fair that visited each summer was far more fun and of far greater interest to me during that summer.

It was 1967, I was just about to start in the third year at ‘big school’ and, at last, I was a teenager. No longer was I one of the new kids at school; we were getting ‘cooler’ by the day … and, although my school chums and I were starting to take a bit of notice in the opposite sex, it was the music that we really got into.

While the huge hits of the day included Waterloo Sunset, A Whiter Shade of Pale, All You Need is Love, Let’s Go to San Francisco it was a record that failed to make the charts that takes me back to those magical days. The Days of Pearly Spencer by David McWilliams was the landmark record of that era for me.

So, why does this song take me back, more than any other, to those magical days?

The Days of Pearly Spencer by David McWilliams

Well, for thousands of us teenagers at the time, it wasn’t just the music we loved. Important as the songs were, it was the radio stations playing those hits that we got excited about. I suddenly became aware of all the politics surrounding them, not least as the government announced the planned closure of ‘the pirates’.                                                                                                                                     

‘I am absolutely positive that these pirate radio stations have no future whatsoever’, said Post Master General Anthony Wedgewood-Benn at the time.

For more than three years we’d had music ‘on-tap’ just by turning the transistor radio on - and everyone had a transistor. You could choose between a number of ‘offshore’ radio stations, and we loved these so-called ‘pirates’: Caroline, London, City, England, Scotland, 270. At one time there were 10 of them, broadcasting from ships and forts situated around the British coast. Most of them played the hits and new releases non-stop – no interviews, no recipes, no boring talk, just hit after hit after hit … and then, most inconsiderately, slap bang in the middle of that ‘summer of love’, the government said ‘STOP!’.

Friendly rivalry in the classroom between supporters of the two main stations, Caroline and Big L, Radio London, gave way to outrage that ‘our’ radio stations were being taken away and, with their imminent closure, all access to ‘our’ music.

Imagine today’s teenagers being told that their supply of music was to be switched off, outlawed – no downloads, no YouTube, no access of any kind to the constant supply of popular music. This, as far as I was concerned, was the biggest issue that still, all these years later, springs into my mind whenever there is talk about the ‘summer of love’. It was pretty obvious that the government certainly didn’t love me, nor had any concern whatsoever about my needs. Was I resentful? You bet I was – we all were. We wanted to know why the government was meddling with our enjoyment of music; surely there were more important things for it to be doing?

The day we had all been dreading finally came on Monday 14 August. At 3pm Radio London closed down. There were tears and a feeling of great loss. This highly professional radio station had been the favourite of millions, tuning in daily to hear the future hits and golden classics, presented by DJs such as Kenny Everett, Dave Cash, John Peel and Tony Blackburn. The last song played, from the recently released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, A Day in the Life… and then silence.

But Radio Caroline announced that it would defy the law and continue broadcasting. Its claim was that the Marine (Broadcasting) Offences Act went against all the freedoms that were represented by the British way of life. As the law came into force at midnight, DJs Johnnie Walker and Robbie Dale announced that Caroline would continue to broadcast from the two remaining radio ships. Caroline anchored off the Isle of Man and Mi Amigo off Frinton-on-Sea. For the rest of that summer holiday, and until 30 September when the official replacement for the ‘pirates’, BBC Radio 1, came on air, Caroline was the only source of non-stop popular music for the entire nation.

Many of the Caroline DJs had ‘jumped ship’ with the introduction of the law, but there were still a few familiar voices to be heard ‘fighting the might and the power of the British government’ and, even more of a threat, the continuous onslaught of the winds and rough seas. Despite all of this, the music played on, but most of the songs now being played would never be hits, no matter how often we heard them. The reason for their relentless radio rotation was that many were on the playlist in return for much needed finance, essential to keeping the station on air.

As a regular listener you could spot them. Many on the Major-Minor record label and, surprise, surprise, this was the very label owned by the money man who was now backing Radio Caroline. The majority of the songs featured from this record label sounded completely out of place on a pop music station such as Caroline. It seemed very strange that even Johnnie Walker was playing such cheesy songs that even our parents thought out of place.

But of all these ‘potential future hits’ one stood out so much more than the others: it was memorable, catchy, beautifully written and sung, and the production was outstanding. Fifty years on it still sounds superb and is still frequently heard on the radio, but despite being played constantly on the newly outlawed Radio Caroline it was never a hit – it didn’t even enter the Top 50 chart.

The Days of Pearly Spencer by David McWilliams should have been a huge hit – it was just too good not to have been. For me, it was the song of this ‘summer of love’.

Surely the government wasn’t meddling with the pop charts too?

And now, in 2017, the self-same Radio Caroline, which has continued in one form or another, against the odds and fighting countless battles with governments and nature for 50 years, is to be given a licence to broadcast – what was all the fuss about?

By Ray Clark

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