Back in the day – that would be the mid-sixties – when the teenage girl must-haves included a Max Factor “Strawberry Meringue” lipstick, a pair of Marks & Spencer’s “Sweet Pepper” shade of stockings and the latest copy of the Jackie, the absolute top-of-the-list from my point of view was a trannie, aka the portable means by which one could listen to the popular music of the day.
Oh yes, I remember it well.
Prior to the launch of Radio 1 in 1967, the BBC “Light Programme” presented programmes like: Sing Something Simple, Mrs Dale’s Diary and Music While You Work with the absolute highlight of the week being the sound of Alan “Fluff” Freeman’s, “Greetings, pop-pickers…” welcome as he presented his Pick of the Pops show which went out on Sunday afternoons.
So, when the airwaves started to explode to the sounds and the quick-wit patter of the so-called pirate radio stations, Luxembourg 208 and Caroline 199 very quickly kicked everything else into touch as far as I was concerned and honestly, I couldn’t have cared two hoots about whether they were broadcasting legally or not!
In my case, I had to wait for my trannie and therefore had to make do with the ancient wireless that had belonged to my grandpa… this thing was so old it had valves that had to warm up before any kind of reception was possible but, it worked. In a creative-thinking effort to improve the quality of Luxembourg’s somewhat erratic reception, I had heard somewhere that the station’s signal improved “when it was dark”. OK, so I hadn’t got to the level of physics where you learn about night-time conditions altering the molecular structure of the atmospherics but I can categorically say, that sitting on the floor of my wardrobe with the door shut as far it could with only a slight gap open to make room for the electric cable, and balancing the aforementioned wireless on my knees in an attempt to create an even “darker” listening environment, did absolutely nothing for the quality of the reception! Nevertheless, I did hear enough of the Beatles’, All You Need Is Love” to be able to run into the school yard the following morning to see who else had heard the latest No 1.
I think that was around the point when I realised that tuning-in to Radio Caroline was a no brainer. For starters, the actual sound quality of the programmes was far superior and a whole lot more comfortable to listen to – something to do with the transmitters being used by the station at that time. Additionally, the DJs of the day played their part in attracting audiences too so not only did the station satisfy the needs of the listening public, but Radio Caroline also served as a springboard for some of today’s most well-known presenters – names such as, Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis and one of my favourites, Johnnie Walker, all of whom went on to have hugely successful radio careers on BBC Radio 1 – even today, I still connect Johnnie Walker with Duane Eddy’s, “Because We’re Young” every time I hear it.
So how did the whole Radio Caroline scene start?
Well, if you read up on the history of Radio Caroline, you’ll learn that Irishman, Ronan O’Rahilly – who I guess could be described as the station’s Director General – solved a personal issue of not getting airplay for bands he was managing at that time, by creating his own station – allegedly named after the daughter of JFK, the then President of the USA – that’s the in-a-nutshell version of a very long, complicated and at times challenging beyond the imagination journey that through love, peace and understanding not forgetting sheer guts and determination, is still gracing the airwaves today via the internet, smart phone apps and periodic network link-ups with Manx Radio – the video behind the link was shot by Marc Tyley as part of Manx Radio’s 50th Anniversary celebrations in 2014 and is an excellent behind the scenes look at all things technical and much, much more on board the MV Ross Revenge.
With that short intro about my personal memories of growing up with a radio revolution, it won’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that my attention was on full when I heard that it was possible to visit the Radio Caroline ship, currently moored on the River Blackwell in Essex and better still, get on board to have a look round this unique example of our musical heritage for myself.
A call to Albert Hood who coordinates these trips quickly developed into a flurry of booking flights, accommodation and car hire but seemingly the sun does shine on the righteous and a few days later, I was up, up and away to Stansted Airport to collect my Smart For 4 which would have been better for me if it had had a German-style interior layout but hey-ho, I can still drive on “the other side” apparently and before long, I was heading towards West Mersea a small, but nevertheless charming corner of Essex that has become famous for its oyster catches and trade.
My trip was scheduled for Sunday 25th September and walking along the floating jetty to meet the Razorbill 3, it was refreshing to see so many youngsters accompanied by excited not-so-youngsters indulging in the fine art of crabbing… and very successful they were too under the careful watch of Sammy, the local and probably the best fed seal on the Essex coast, whose patrol area took him up close and personal to the bait that was intended to lure the aforementioned crabs.
As the charter boat pulled up at the jetty under the control and expertise of Skipper, Stuart Belbin and I saw the sign saying “Radio Caroline Trips”, I was like… this is really happening!
Accompanying Stuart on the pick-up/drop-off run was Chris Pearson, himself a former Radio Caroline presenter but now part of the BFBS UK Management Team which means that he gets to present his weekly dance/house music show, The Vibe on BFBS as well as a weekly 3-hour show on Radio Caroline from 09:00 – 12:00 on Saturdays (UK time). Chris’ Radio Caroline show is a hugely enjoyable, eclectic mixx of sounds accompanied by interesting snippets of background info about the artist(s) that always seems to feature some of my favourite bands.
With everyone safely on board Razorbill 3, we were soon making headway along the estuary that joins the River Blackwell accompanied, of course, by some evocative and classic 60s rock and pop background music on this short sailing trip. In a very short time, the engine slowed down a little as the outline of the radio ship came into view.
And there it was, looking resplendent in the Radio Caroline corporate colours of red and white, the MV Ross Revenge, as in: Made in Germany, registered in Grimsby, having sailed in Icelandic and British waters during its days as a fishing trawler when it was owned by Ross Foods and now, the third broadcasting base for Radio Caroline.
Only after the safety instructions were presented to us by our Skipper, Stuart were we allowed to climb on board the ship where we were directed to the mess room for a meet and greet with Albert Hood as well as further instructions about the how the tour would be conducted… oh yes, and a nice cup of tea – I’m not sure if a nice cup of tea is standard however I can say that it was very welcome and always tastes better when someone else makes it!
Sitting with my mug of tea on one of the swivel chairs at one of the beautifully made long tables, both original fittings from the trawler days, I could practically feel the history of the ship… it was like there were all these famous broadcasting names from a bygone era flying round the room in a kind of Pokemon Go! sort of way… I really did feel like I had stepped into another world.
Tea finished, we were sorted into two groups and our tour guides for the day were Albert Hood and Stuart Belbin. It has to be said that their respective knowledge of the ship’s history is both staggering and fascinating. We stood on the “pointy-bit” – foredeck – and took in all that lay in front of us… deck fitting remains from the days when the MV Ross Revenge was a trawler, the impressive radio transmitter mast of course and yes, some evidence of the costly upkeep requirements that are so critical in maintaining, if this part of Great Britain’s musical heritage is to survive further tests of time.
We visited the transmitter room and we saw the power generators as well as the heart of the ship and its vast series of pistons and valves and everything else that you would need to actually keep a ship of this magnitude moving through the water.
Then, back inside along the covered walkway, where we saw the massive store areas, again from the days of being a fishing trawler. There was another room, no bigger than a broom cupboard that had been converted to a studio and which still has some of its fabulous original equipment…
… yes, children, that is a typewriter, with keys that had to be physically pressed down: A – S – D – F with your left hand fingers then: ; – L – K – J with your right hand fingers including your pinkies. G and H came next and that was how you learned the middle line of the keyboard as per 10-finger typing according to RSA standards… none of your 2-thumb methodology here… the role of the thumb was only to hit the space bar!
Passing the galley and then the stairs to the sleeping quarters on the way to the bridge with all its fascinating navigation tools and equipment…
… we met DJ, Johnny Lewis who was busy presenting his show live from the ship as part of the visitor weekend programme. Johnny was kind enough to allow us to enter the studio and some of us became part of his show – thank you, Johnny! Johnny even let us try out his “hot seat” between tracks and one can only imagine what a totally thrilling experience it must have been, being a part of this offshore radio broadcasting scene, back in its hey day.
We also saw one of the vintage studios complete with twin-decks and cartridge machines witnessed by a picture of Tony Blackburn that still hangs on the wall.
But I have to say that a personal highlight for me was the record library… just seeing all these rows and rows of LPs and 45s carefully arranged in alphabetical order, each one telling its own story, took me back to a place that existed long before MP3s had ever been invented. At heart, I am still someone who loves to hold the product in my hand, to read the sleeve notes, to see which musicians were part of the recording and, and, and… so yes, this was an extra special part of the tour for me.
Last, but very definitely not least, was a visit to the merchandise shop that is full of wonderful gift ideas, all reasonably priced and bought with the knowledge that your purchase is helping to boost the coffers of the Radio Caroline preservation fund.
It goes without saying that I had an absolutely fabulous time and to anyone who is remotely interested in music history, I would highly recommend that you invest a couple of hours on board the MV Ross Revenge and experience the atmosphere, see the studios, check out the vintage equipment and everything else that makes this trip such a unique and memorable floating museum package… and besides… you just never know who you might meet on board.
Thank you so much Albert Hood, Stuart Belbin, Chris Pearson, Peter Phillips, Graham Cooke, Kevin Turner, Johnny Lewis, Paula Shaw and the entire Radio Caroline community, without their passion for Radio Caroline and everything it has stood for, stands for and hopefully will continue to stand for, none of the above would have been possible.
Radio Caroline – the legend truly lives on.
Info about the Boat Trips
Where to stay: The Victory, West Mersea