Friday, 26 February 2016

Scalded by coffee, mashed fingers and a mystery virus

OFFSHORE life with the pop pirates 50 years ago could be a dangerous business. The month of February 1966 presented all sorts of hazards for brave DJs and engineers stuck out at sea.  

With the Radio Caroline South ship ‘Mi Amigo’ having recently drifted onto an Essex beach with near-catastrophic consequences, a new temporary home had been arranged thanks to the loan of Swedish Radio Sud vessel ‘Cheetah II’.

The sister ship housing Caroline North, meanwhile, continued to broadcast despite  atrocious weather off England’s NW coastline. During one particularly nasty storm, a gigantic wave smashed the ship so hard that Dutch crewman J.Burgering threw coffee over himself, badly scalding his neck. He was taken off the ship for treatment at Ramsey Cottage Hospital on the Isle of Man.

In a separate incident, Caroline North had to make use of a lifeboat for the first time since broadcasting had begun at sea nearly two years earlier. The victim was Austrian-born chief engineer Manfred Sommer, an extrovert character who would occasionally give visitors tours of the ship while in a state of recent refreshment. 

* Engineer Manfred Sommer, damaged fingers  and all, compiled
 a scrapbook of his time on Caroline (pic:
One version of the story tells how Manfred took a young touring party to the engine room and announced “This is the cooling fan” before sticking his hand through the grill. He then quickly withdrew it to reveal a bloodied, tangled mess in the finger area. Onlookers nearly fainted with shock, but Manfred, perhaps anaesthetised by alcohol, was initially undaunted and when the ship’s captain was summoned, he promptly repeated his actions to demonstrate what had happened.

Before he could do any more damage, a tourniquet was applied to stem the flow of blood. Manfred had clearly gone a bit too far this time and his recovery was severely hampered by the shocking weather which meant a lifeboat didn’t arrive for him for another 48 hours. As the effects of the alcohol wore off and delayed shock set in, ashen-faced Manfred’s condition slowly worsened and his weight decreased alarmingly. The lifeboat whisked him to terra firma and he subsequently spent nine months recovering before declaring himself fit for action again.
Manfred wasn’t the only eccentric associated with pirate radio news this month. In deepest Cambridgeshire, 53-year-old Leonard Warren announced that he had become Overlord of the Ancient Kingdom of Reach, village of 270 people on the edge of the Fens, and publicly invited Caroline boss Ronan O’Rahilly to set up a radio transmitter within the ‘safe’ borders of his kingdom. Warren explained that Reach qualified as an independent state because in 1201 King John had granted it a Rogation Day Charter which “secured its boundaries for eternity.” He said he was in possession of authentic documents which backed this up. O’Rahilly was said to be interested in the idea, although admitted he felt a little sceptical about Mr Warren’s claims about the village’s status!

Meanwhile, broadcasting got underway in February 1966 - albeit with interruptions - from the ‘Cheetah II’, thus keeping the many thousands of Caroline South fans happy. But on the same day the station returned to the airwaves on reduced power, an emergency call had to be put in to North Foreland radio, when Aussie disc jockey Graham Webb was found in a state of near collapse. He was taken off the ship to Myland Hospital in Colchester, suffering from what was described as a mystery virus. 

Further north the Dunbar lifeboat was called out to rescue Radio Scotland’s Dick Harvey, reportedly in agony with stomach pains.

There was no let-up in the action around this time, with news emerging that former Dutch fishing vessel ‘Ocean VII’ had arrived in Scarborough to be fitted out as a home for Radio 270. The authorities were struggling to keep pace with the monitoring all of this activity, and when asked what they were going to do about Radio City and Radio 390 – occupying abandoned war-time forts in the Thames estuary - the MoD could only meekly admit that turfing them off was “Not a viable project at the moment.”

* The weather outside's appalling, but the show goes on
thanks to DJ 'Daffy' Don Allen on Caroline North.
Episodes like the above in early 1966 made good copy for the newspapers, as did the announcement that showbiz entrepreneur Philip Solomon had joined the board and purchased a 20% stake in Planet Productions, which now controlled the two Caroline stations. Solomon, a 41-year-old from Belfast, had already steered major acts like The Bachelors and Ruby Murray to stardom and when he stuck his finger in the Caroline pie it was seen as a significant day for pirate radio.

Friday, 22 January 2016

50 years ago: The miracle of Frinton-on-Sea beach

IT HAPPENED 50 years ago this week on a snow and wind-lashed Frinton beach – a near-disaster of epic proportions!
Amid the horrendous weather on the night of Wednesday 19th January 1966, the young team on board pop pirate ship Radio Caroline were relaxing a few miles off the Essex coast, blissfully unaware they were in extreme peril.
Unbeknown to them, their 470-ton ship, the Mi Amigo, was dragging its anchor and drifting out of control towards land. The vessel inched nearer and nearer to a Frinton and Walton coastline lined with concrete and wooden breakwaters and groynes. It would need a miracle to avoid smashing into them, with potentially fatal consequences.
By some bizarre coincidence, that week’s Top 20 pop chart on Caroline had included songs whose titles seemed to foretell the drama:
* My Ship Is Coming In – Walker Brothers (Philips)
* The Water is Over My Head – Rockin’ Berries (Piccadilly)
* Let’s Hang On – Four Seasons (Philips)
* A Hard Day’s Night – Peter Sellers (Parlophone)
Spot the omens there?  It seems somebody been trying to tell them trouble was ahead!
* Frinton beach on the morning after
The drama started after nightfall when a swivel rope controlling the three anchors holding the vessel in international waters suddenly broke in the Force 8 gale. In mountainous waves the ship began to drift and was tossed around dangerously.
Coastguards soon spotted what was happening, but the crew and DJs sleeping or watching TV inside the ship were used to choppy seas and noticed nothing unusual. The crew member on ‘anchor watch’ was hampered by blinding snow and hadn’t a clue they’d broken loose.
The coastguards phoned Caroline’s agent Percy Scadden in Harwich, who raced to Frinton seafront and began flashing his car headlights at the distant ship in a futile attempt to alert them to the danger. In desperation he then phoned Anglia TV who broadcast a message of warning. Of the thousands who heard it, none were on board Radio Caroline.
Meanwhile fierce easterly winds took the ship relentlessly coastwards and it looked like the game was up when the 133-foot vessel headed straight for a concrete groyne; “That’s it – they’ve had it now,” was the reported comment of Coastguard station officer Edward Shreeve at this point. But somehow the vessel skimmed over the hazard, barely touching it.
At around 11pm most on board were watching the wrestling on TV when a crewman rushed in with the news they were hopelessly adrift. Once up on deck all could see they were dangerously close to the bright lights of Essex, and getting closer.  Attempts to start the engines came far too late to help; the ship was clearly going to be hurled on to land, the only question was exactly where and how bad the wreck would be.
* "The gods parked the ship up very nicely!"
Suddenly came a crunching sound as the huge propellor churned up shingle and the vessel came to a shuddering halt 50 yards from Frinton beach. Parachute flares and a line rocket lit up the area as a rescue squad went into action on the beach, working several hours to rig up a breeches buoy lifeline. Equipment was ferried over a treacherous 15-foot snow-covered sea-wall, while Walton lifeboat and other vessels stood by in deeper water.  
Twenty-foot waves raged, the snow continued and it was a hairy operation. Taken off in various states of shock were nine DJs and crew, including the soon-to-be-famous Tony Blackburn and Dave Lee Travis. Blackburn admitted he’d gone first to make sure the press got his photo, and later had to refute allegations he’d set the whole drama up to get himself publicity!   
At 3a.m. the ship – captain and crew still aboard - was declared high and dry. She had somehow avoided serious shipwreck by not only floating over one concrete breakwater, but had come ashore right between two wooden breakwaters, within a gap where one breakwater had been removed years before. It was the only large gap in over five miles of coastline. Any other stopping point and the Mi Amigo and those on board might have perished.
Caroline founder Ronan O’Rahilly, in a state of high emotion on the beach, said the gods had been on their side and had parked his boat up nicely. The precise location was given as Cheveux de Fries Point, Great Holland, close to Frinton Golf Club.
Walton coastguards and an 11-strong Life-Saving Corps rescued nine men in all with the breeches buoy. These were taken to nearby Portobello Hotel for dry clothes, bed and breakfast and later taxis to Harwich.
* Tony Blackburn
The DJs inevitably got the lion’s share of attention in the next day’s media, but the real heroes of the hour were rescuers Shreeve, Curtis, Ward, Hartley, Street, Sayers, Speight and Hipkin.
The beached ship became a real tourist attraction (my own family was among the visiting hordes!), and hundreds watched a ‘kedging’ operation get the vessel off the beach on high tide two days later.
She was towed to the Netherlands for a refit, gaining a generator, more powerful transmitters and an antenna mast extension.  Tony Blackburn and others were meanwhile holed up in the Gables Hotel in Dovercourt waiting for instructions, having heard Caroline’s boss insist this was all just a temporary problem: “The show must go on!”

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Hit on the head by Van Morrison's maracas!

FIFTY years ago Radio Caroline was a bouncing baby, just a few months old and in fine health. The station by now had ships broadcasting from either end of this sceptred isle, and its popularity was continuing to grow in phenomenal fashion. Caroline’s excited bosses spent the summer of 1964 racing around like lunatics, overflowing with new ideas and projects for their new station. World domination beckoned!

Nix Nomads - R'n'B Ipswich-style!
Caroline was undoubtedly ruling the (air)waves, but it wanted to gain a firm footing on dry land too. A series of Caroline ‘Disc Nights’ were launched at ballrooms and clubs across the nation to promote a major search for new, undiscovered songwriting talent.

Every day during the station’s ‘Caroline Club’ show, announcements were made asking songwriters to submit original unpublished work on demo discs. The best of these would be played at the composer’s nearest ‘Disc Night’ event. Those that proved most popular with the punters would then be offered to record companies and artists via Caroline’s own publishing subsidiary, Roar Music.

There was great excitement up and down the country, especially in Eastern England where Suffolk and Essex folk already had special affection for Caroline since her ships dropped anchor off Felixstowe and Walton-on-the-Naze earlier that year. A Disc Night took place exactly 50 years ago at the Savoy Ballroom in St Nicholas Street, Ipswich (previously the Hippodrome, later a bingo hall and demolished in 1985), another was held at the Royal Hotel in Lowestoft, and there was one at The Trend Club, just off Colchester High Street (now a snooker club).

The first disc jockeys to come ashore to compere these events were Simon Dee and Chris Sandford. Dee was already well on his way to becoming a household name, while Sandford was dabbling in a number of areas of showbiz, having already launched careers as a singer and actor. He appeared as Walter Potts in Coronation Street and in 1963 had a Top 20 hit with the song ‘Not Too Little Not Too Late’. He was the son of well-known TV comedian Sandy Sandford, who was playing the 1964 summer season at Great Yarmouth, so nipped down to Ipswich to watch his lad in action behind the turntables. Chris would later quit the pop industry to find success as a voice-over artist, and as a presenter and writer on angling.
The management of the Savoy Ballroom had to do a nifty bit of footwork when Radio Caroline came to town. They had a clash of bookings because popular local rhythm’n’blues outfit Nix Nomads were scheduled to appear on the same night. Fortunately an amicable solution was found and the two events merged and appeared on the same stage together.

Nix Nomads, earlier known as Nick and the Nomads, had recently turned pro and had a devoted mod following. They released one single, ‘You're Nobody (Till Somebody Loves You)’ which is nowadays highly sought-after by R&B collectors. Their line-up included Nick Wymer, Ben Foster, Ron West, Dave Cutting and Roy Clover. When they played the Caroline show they’d only just returned from a stint in Hamburg and had just landed a residency at The Top 20 Club at Felixstowe’s Forum.

Shortly after this, a wealthy American apparently offered them a five-year sponsorship deal. The future looked bright but they subsequently split after Nick answered an SOS from well-known Colchester band The Fairies, whose own lead singer had been sent to prison. Nick is still going strong nowadays and has a fine voice that bears comparison with the likes of Joe Cocker, Roger Chapman and Steve Marriott.

Back in 1964 most of the Caroline Disc Night audience acclaim was reserved for Simon Dee, who had become so popular by now he needed a fan-club secretary. He’d given this job to Mrs Olive Burgess of Second Avenue, Chelmsford. Olive had volunteered her services after meeting Simon when he turned out to crown the Basildon Carnival Queen. Olive, a mother of five teenagers, had listened to Caroline at home and been hugely impressed by the heart-throb DJ.

Colchester's Trend club in 2014: now a snooker hall.
Shortly after the Ipswich date, Disc Night came to The Trend Club at the top of George Street in Colchester. This week I mentioned this on social media and opened up a floodgate of memories! Janet Malseed remembers hitchhiking out of London that day with a friend - and the car that stopped and gave them a lift all the way to The Trend Club was none other than Simon Dee himself!  Janet also recalls other great gigs there, including appearances by Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton and Sonny Boy Williamson.

Other Colcestrians recall the Moody Blues, John Mayall, Georgie Fame, Hawkwind and Wishbone Ash all playing there. Heather Rankin recalled one night at the club when Van Morrison hit her on the head with his maracas! She didn’t mention whether this was accidental or not, but no doubt had a rather more enjoyable night on the occasion Keith Relf of the Yardbirds bought her a Coke!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

'Flash those car headlights when you hear the music!'

Gerry Duncan opens the Caroline Coffee Bar in Felixstowe.

WINSTON Churchill retired from the House of Commons at the age of 89, builders finished work on the new Post Office Tower in London, and the Beatles' first film A Hard Day’s Night hit the nation’s cinema screens.

The soundtrack to all this, and more, was being provided by Radio Caroline, by now so successful it had split into two: Caroline North, broadcasting from the MV Fredericia anchored off the Isle of Man and Caroline South, on board the MV Mi Amigo off Frinton-on-Sea.
In early July 1964 the Fredericia left its previous resting place off Felixstowe, bound for its new home and broadcasting the current chart hits as it went. As it passed the Cornish coast one of the DJs mentioned on air they’d been out of touch with news from the mainland for several days now, and bemoaned the absence of newspapers on board. Padstow pleasure boat proprietor John England heard this, collected a dozen Sunday papers from his local shop and set off in his speedboat Sea Fury. He met the ship about five miles offshore and threw the papers to the grateful crew. The station immediately played Petula Clark’s song ‘Thank You’ in return for the kind deed.

The ship, with Captain Hangerfelt at the helm, played requests for locals as it passed the Irish and Welsh coasts and as it approached the Isle of Man one of the DJs appealed for islanders to flash their car headlights out to sea that evening if they could hear the signal. The ship dropped anchor on Bahama Bank, a few miles off Ramsey, and the flickering lights in the distance gave them the news they wanted - they could be heard loud and clear!
So loud, in fact, there were soon complaints from the 100 per cent legal Manx Radio, who reckoned their audience and revenue was being stolen. Manx said if the Government wouldn’t curtail Caroline, they could at least allocate Manx a comparable wavelength of similar power so that competition would be fair.  One man who could vouch for the sheer power of the Caroline North signal was the Dutch crew member who walked too close to the ship’s huge antenna. He received a nasty 10,000 volts charge that not only badly shocked him, but gave him a radical haircut involving a three-inch bald strip from forehead to the back of his neck!

Back down south, despite the disappearance of their ‘local’ ship, the good folk of Felixstowe turned out in big numbers to witness the opening of the Caroline Coffee Bar, a trendy dive at 35 Beach Station Road on the corner of Langer Road. It was the former home of the Felix Restaurant, and not far from Jaysmith’s chip shop and the Dolphin Hotel.
Dressed in a smart suit and posing for cameramen with a bottle of Coke, Caroline’s Gerry Duncan signed autographs and declared the coffee bar open. There was some disappointment in the air as heart-throb DJ Simon Dee had originally been scheduled to appear, and his replacement Duncan was more of a producer than a glamorous DJ. But Duncan was nevertheless a talented fellow, having been responsible for Caroline's famous Sound of the Nation jingles package and who had previously worked behind the scenes on major feature films Light Up The Sky and Sink The Bismark.

Mr Howe of Shotley could listen
to Radio Caroline on his phone!
Caroline’s popularity was burgeoning and the launch of ‘Caroline Club’ was a huge success. The mail it generated, including record requests, would peak at around 20,000 items per week. A club broadcast was made on USA radio station CKLW and generated a rush of membership applications from across the Atlantic. It cost five shillings to join, and you received a smart membership card, big brochure about the station plus news updates and adverts for merchandise. Problems at the Royal Mail in mid-July hit many British businesses and caused one Caroline Club programme to be cancelled because all the raw material for the show was sitting among the piles of mail backed up in sorting offices.
This was no problem for Braintree schoolboy Martin Finning and his pal Ken Cook of Dovercourt. The two teenagers reckoned writing and posting a record request to Caroline was a ‘square’ thing to do, so decided instead to paddle out to the ship and hand it over in person. They set off in a two-seat kayak and located the South ship about three miles off Frinton, but the strong current meant they had to paddle the equivalent of five miles to reach it. Told they could not come aboard because of rules and regulations, they shouted their record requests to DJ Simon Dee up on the deck, and within minutes he’d played On The Beach by Cliff Richard for them. They listened on their little transistor radio, and with mission accomplished turned tail and paddled back to shore. The whole thing took nearly four hours but they were delighted.

Not quite so happy with the station was Mr.R.Howe of Shotley, who told the local papers in July 1964 that whenever he picked up his phone to make a call he could heard Caroline in the background. Post Office engineers were mystified and promised an investigation.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A celebrity is born on Parkeston Quay

Simon Dee publicity picture from 1964

FIFTY years ago this week, weary Radio Caroline DJ Simon Dee came ashore for the first time since the pirate station’s launch at Easter 1964. If he’d hoped for some rest and relaxation he was to be sorely disappointed.

Fellow DJs aboard the Fredericia mischievously announced on-air that Dee was heading for the port of Harwich – and hundreds of fans quickly gathered at the quayside to give him a hysterical ‘Beatle-mania’ reception.

Dee, real name Cyril Henty-Dodd, a 28-year-old former public schoolboy and RAF man, was astonished by the crowds that greeted him. He knew his stint on the pioneering pirate ship had elevated him to some sort of celebrity status, but screaming girls on this scale was a real shock. He spent at least an hour signing autographs before being whisked away.

The Caroline organisation was keen to exploit the situation and booked Dee for a number of public appearances while he was on the mainland. One of his first engagements on shore was to judge the Felixstowe Carnival Queen competition. Carnival organisers had earlier expressed concern that if their guest came directly from the ship and slipped into Felixstowe Ferry, he could be arrested on the beach, while on the other hand a legitimate landing might see him encounter problems with customs officers.

They needn’t have worried, for Dee’s minders got him back into the country without incident and he turned up at the carnival all smiles, accompanied by fellow celebrity judge Rolf Van Brandtzaeg, a senior executive at Caroline’s London office. After they ‘inspected’ the contestants for carnival queen, they awarded the crown to 18-year-old Felixstowe shop assistant Andrea Cooper.  A day or two later Dee made a surprise visit backstage at the Felixstowe Spa Pavilion to meet the cast and dancing girls from the summer show Starlight Rendezvous.
Dee also rolled up at a record shop in Ipswich's Buttermarket, and again a huge number of fans turned out to get close up and personal with the new pirate hero. The shop was reported by at least one source as being called 'Record Maintenance'. That name sounded unlikely to me, so I am grateful to Ipswich photographer Dave Kindred for pointing out it was actually called Murdoch's - and he should know because he was there to witness Simon Dee's visit!
Adam Faith performed on board Caroline in June 1964

Radio Caroline’s popularity was clear to see from such scenes, and such was the station’s pulling power that pop celebrities were willing to go out into the North Sea to visit the ship in return for having their latest records played and publicised by the station. Teen idol Adam Faith was one such visitor, performing and publicising his new single ‘I Love Being in Love With You’ which he hoped would gain him the rare accolade of 20 consecutive singles reaching the charts (or ‘hit parade’ as then known). Dressed in jeans and black sweater, he was taken to the ship on the tug Agana and returned to Parkeston Quay in the late afternoon, to be met by a crowd described as “girl office workers” clutching autograph books.

Around this time Parkeston Quay also welcomed back two Dovercourt carpenters – Ron Mitchell and Colin Sturch - who had been out to work on the ship, but had become marooned there by bad weather. They’d been hired to make alterations to cabins, but rough weather saw them stranded for days. DJs broadcast messages between records to their wives to assure them all was well and their spouses would be back soon! At one point listeners heard an appeal for a tug to be sent out immediately the weather improved, and when this was done the pair got home after at least four days on board. At the quayside they told reporters it had been very rough out there, but they’d enjoyed themselves.

Also sailing into Harwich looking a bit green around the gills were the crew of the yacht Carmen, teenage electrical engineering students from Leeds, who had been foiled in a bid to anchor in international waters near Caroline. They wanted to set up a temporary pirate station to publicise their university rag week, but instead suffered a night being seasick and scared witless as they were tossed around in Force 5 gales, the choppy sea crashing over the deck and forcing them back to land.

On the morning of June 12, thousands of Caroline listeners began to fret when they found the station had gone off the air. Calls flooded into the offices of Planet Productions in London, where a spokesman attempted to reassure everyone it was a mere temporary blip, but as there was no direct contact with the ship they couldn’t be sure what was going on. It was likely to be maintenance work on transmitters, they said. Suddenly, at around noon, the airwaves burst into life and all was well again.

Meanwhile talks continued about a merger of the two stations out in the North Sea – Caroline and Atlanta – with the idea that one of them would become ‘Radio Caroline North’ and broadcast from the Irish Sea remaining a strong possibility.

The authorities were still in a tizzy about it all. Barrister Jeremy Thorpe, Liberal MP for North Devon, introduced a Parliamentary Bill to force radio stations using advertising to formally register with the Government. He said without this the ships could be vulnerable to any warship in the world that might want to hijack airwaves for propaganda purposes. He said Caroline “currently sings like an offshore siren” but if taken over could quite easily start broadcasting inflammatory, seditious, obscene or undesirable material to an unprotected British public . . . .    

Twitter: @RobHadgraft

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Eccentrics jump on the pirate bandwagon!

Screaming Lord Sutch launched his pirate  radio
 station on a fishing boat 50 years ago this week.
IMITATION is the sincerest form of flattery they say, and 50 years ago this week all manner of weird and wonderful ‘Heath Robinson’ radio stations were attempting to emulate the astonishing success of the new Radio Caroline.

Perhaps the noisiest and most surreal of all of them was Radio Sutch, brainchild of Screaming Lord Sutch, a 23-year-old rock’n’roller and part-time politician. Sutch didn’t have the backing or the resources of Caroline and his early efforts involved using rather crude equipment plonked on board a smelly fishing boat off Southend. Things improved greatly for Sutch’s little team when they happened upon the unoccupied Shivering Sands army defence fort, built on stilts nine miles out in the Thames Estuary, and decided to use that instead!
Caroline had by now attracted 6.8 million listeners in less than 10 weeks on the air. The continuous pop music, something not provided by the BBC at the time, was proving very popular and businesses were said to be queuing up to buy advertising slots. Caroline’s publicity manager announced that £60,000 worth of advertising had been booked by the end of May and another half-a-million’s worth was in negotiation. These were, of course, huge sums in 1964 terms.

With figures like this being bandied about it was no wonder other chancers wanted a slice of the action. Radio Atlanta had joined Caroline in the North Sea off the coast of NE Essex and began broadcasting in mid-May. There were strong rumours Atlanta might agree to a merger with Caroline and then head off to the Irish Sea to begin broadcasting as ‘Caroline North’. In early June there was still no sign of this happening, however, which prompted a member of the House of Keys on the Isle of Man to announce that if Caroline North didn’t launch soon, he would do the job himself and call his station Radio Vannin.

The next pop pirate project to pop up was called Radio Invicta, which set up home on the Red Sands defence fort off the Kent coast, under the leadership of fisherman Tom Pepper (real name Harry Featherbee), publican Charlie Evans and journalist John Thompson. Test transmissions were made in the first week of June as the station finalised plans to broadcast pop music to the people of the London area. (NOTE: Six months later tragedy would strike Invicta, Pepper and two others drowning after leaving Red Sands in misty conditions on a boat with engine trouble).

Shivering Sands war-time fort, home of Radio Sutch
(Pic: Hywel Williams)
The pirate stations, even those positioned in international waters, had become a real headache for the British government in June 1964, and one MP, Sir Ian Orr-Ewing, said there was one obvious way to sort out the situation and break the BBC monopoly in one fell swoop - create a proper local radio network for the UK, with small regional transmitters and small teams of local people, all funded by the private sector. It worked for local newspapers, why not radio?
Meanwhile, Screaming Lord Sutch was having a whale of a time on Shivering Sands, his playlist inevitably heavily featuring his own wacky records, released with limited success over the past three years. Late at night he broadcast ‘Saucy Bedtime Tales’ and horror stories, featuring excerpts from novels like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill. According to his biographer Graham Sharpe (Aurum Books, 2005), Sutch reckoned Shivering Sands was like a hotel or a holiday camp in the middle of the sea, complete with proper toilets and bathrooms, and a big step up from the station’s earlier home, a 60-foot trawler called Cornucopia anchored off Shoeburyness. The boat had been  uncomfortable and smelt strongly of fish because they rented it out in the afternoons after the fishermen had finished with it for the day. Broadcasting times continued to vary on Radio Sutch, DJs often oversleeping and equipment breaking down. Bizarrely, their expenses were covered mostly by American evangelist groups who brought air-time to broadcast bible classes during the early hours.

Dressed in his trademark leopard-skin gear, Sutch liked to wave a Jolly Roger flag from the catwalk of the 70 feet towers to welcome any visiting boats of reporters or supporters. Having claimed squatters’ rights to the fort, they no longer suffered seasickness like many of those aboard Caroline and Atlanta, but did encounter some health problems - on one occasion DJ Colin Dale was airlifted to Margate hospital suffering badly with food poisoning. There were other hairy incidents, including a fire, DJ Brian Paull almost drowning while swimming in the sea, and various members finding themselves falling or hanging from broken ladders and walkways which were in a poor state of repair.
To begin with, it appeared the authorities would leave Sutch and his merry men alone. A war department land agent accompanied by a Gravesend police officer arrived by boat at the fort, apparently intent on serving notice on Radio Sutch they were trespassing on government property. But on arrival, having seen there was no damage to the lighting and other external aspects of the fort, they decided a formal notice was pointless and retreated.

A patrol boat from Sheerness made repeated appearances near the fort, but Sutch claimed he simply told them they were not welcome, and they too retreated. He said: “I told them the Army had left the forts and did not want them, so I had offered to buy them. No one comes aboard here unless I say so! We close all the hatches and lock all the doors if anyone we don’t like comes near us.”

Aficianados of pirate radio soon learned that Radio Sutch was little more than a publicity stunt, whereas the Caroline organisation was clearly in it for the long haul.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Cool jazz direct from the chilly North Sea!

Supplies arrive for the Mi Amigo (Pic: Ken Adams) 
FIFTY years ago the choppy grey waters of the North Sea could be a surreal and cool place to be. For example, sea-farers passing a certain spot just off the Essex coast on one particular day would have heard the jazzy Hammond organ sounds of American star Jimmy Smith, who was playing live from the poop deck of the motor vessel Mi Amigo!

Smith was in Britain to record music for the forthcoming MGM film Where the Spies Are, starring David Niven. He’d met Radio Caroline chief Ronan O’Rahilly at the 21 Club in London and agreed to come out to the Caroline ship and give the first-ever live performance on the new radio station.

He was duly ferried out, along with his hefty Hammond organ, drums and guitar, plus cohorts Tony Crombie and Tony Thorpe. When they found the organ wouldn’t fit inside the ship’s tiny studio they set up on the poop deck instead. Despite the noise of the wind and shrieking gulls, the sound was deemed perfect! Smith played a special composition called Hip Ship Blues, plus his hits Moonlight in Vermont and Satin Doll. Caroline's millions of listeners loved it, while those on board witnessing the cool jazz at close quarters broke into rapturous applause when the mini-show ended.
Exactly 50 years ago this week, Caroline was broadcasting from the MV Fredericia, a mile or two off the coast from Felixstowe, and had been recently joined by the Radio Atlanta team, aboard the MV Mi Amigo, which anchored a short distance away, just off Frinton-on-Sea. Both were positioned in international waters, but close enough for smaller boats containing fans, journalists and rag week students to set out to visit them from time to time. It was pretty hectic and the Customs and Coastguard people were having their work cut out to keep pace with it all.

Atlanta, set up by Australian entrepreneur Allan Crawford, began test broadcasts before their first proper programming commenced with a show by DJ Colin Nicol. Audience figures for Caroline were by now huge, and the debate over the two stations’ legality (or otherwise) continued to drag on, with strong rumours emanating from Westminster that because they were fulfilling a clear need, legislation to force them off the air might not be introduced after all. The ships were deliberately positioned just outside GB territorial waters so controlling them was no easy task.
It was widely tipped that Caroline and Atlanta would soon merge, their respective bosses claiming they were no longer deadly rivals fighting for the same audience, as was initially the case. They were also both well aware of the huge profit-making potential of broadcasting adverts between the pop records. ITV even devoted an episode of its prime-time weekly show World in Action to the story.

The very first advert heard over the Caroline airwaves was on behalf of Woburn Abbey, the country seat of the Duke of Bedford. It was so successful that the following day Woburn welcomed 4,500 visitors despite bad weather, a big increase on normal figures. This satisfied customer would be quickly followed by ads from Peter Evans Restaurants, the News of the World and Phoenix Rubber, as well as smaller businesses from Suffolk and Essex on the nearby coast.
Songwriters and music publishers’ were not quite so happy with the pirates, however, and talks were held to thrash out a formal agreement  for the stations to start paying the Performing Rights Society for the music it was broadcasting 12 hours each day. This showed the pirates were willing to go ‘legit’ in order to keep the authorities happy. Not only this, they were even willing to sponsor projects on the British mainland, Caroline helping fund a Formula 3 Brabham racing car. It did well under its new colours, featuring in the prize money on six occasions over the spring and summer of 1964.
Having been delayed and closely questioned by Customs officials at the port of Brightlingsea, a group of journalists headed out one morning to the ships looking for stories about the new pop pirate phenomenon. They were delighted to find that on board the Mi Amigo, skipper Gerard Meyer was accompanied by his wife Irene. The pair had married ten months earlier, and revealed that this stint on the North Sea was the first time they'd been able to live together!
The ships welcomed the attention of the journos, but were not quite so relaxed when their supply vessel was reportedly ‘taken over’ by eight students who were apparently attempting to out-pirate the pirates! The students arrived on board Caroline (after a delay due to engine trouble) but met with little resistance from the crew and DJs after explaining they were from SE Essex College of Technology in Dagenham and only wanted to publicise a rag week appeal in aid of starving third world children. The teenagers were allowed to broadcast their message and were named as Lorraine Maughan, Janice Sibthorpe, Dee Hunter-Williams, Lesley Sinclair, Chris Williams, Graham Dove, Tony Cole and Ron Newbury. I wonder what became of them? 
This rag week idea caught on, and before long students from Leeds University came down to Essex with a yacht, complete with radio transmitter, to join the fun in the North Sea. Their plans went awry however, when a group of colleagues arrived to relieve the team already on board, but made the mistake of driving their Land Rover into shallow waters on the foreshore at Harwich. It quickly began to sink and suffered considerable damage before it could be towed out hours later. The students' plan to become radio pirates suddenly lost its appeal and they decided to leave it to the experts on Caroline and Atlanta.
Meanwhile, three miles out in the North Sea, the music played on . . . 
* FOOTNOTE: The live performance on board Caroline by Jimmy Smith and his band has been the subject of conjecture among pirate radio enthusiasts over the years. Some sources say it happened in May 1964, others say it was a year later in 1965. Jon Myer who compiled the Pirate Radio Hall of Fame and knows a thing or two about this subject, tells me it was almost certainly May 1965, and, what is more, this has been confirmed by Jimmy’s guitarist that day, Tony Thorpe. Tony, incidentally, went on to achieve success in the pop charts with The Rubettes and The Firm. Those of you old enough to remember the No.1 hit Sugar Baby Love on Top of the The Pops, might remember the band member with the huge glasses . . .  that’s him! 

* Tony Thorpe . . . from the
North Sea to Top of the Pops!