Ronan O’Rahilly: pirate radio’s godfather made a sea change in British pop
By championing bands ignored by the establishment, the founder of Radio Caroline paved the way for the pirate DJs of soul, acid house and grime
Ronan O’Rahilly was nothing if not a man with a lot of ideas. The problem was that a lot of them were the kind of ideas that might lead you to think the person behind them was completely nuts.
In 1970, he announced a plan to start a pirate TV station: he claimed to have spent a million pounds on the idea, which involved broadcasting from two cargo planes equipped as studios, constantly circling the British Isles. Around the same time, he convinced the actor George Lazenby to abandon the role of James Bond after one film, telling him that the Bond franchise would collapse in the 1970s, and that he would be better served appearing alongside Germaine Greer in a mostly improvised film O’Rahilly was producing called Universal Soldier. By 1978, a year after The Spy Who Loved Me grossed £148m at the global box office, Lazenby was reduced to pleading for acting jobs in the pages of Variety and offering to work for free.
In the mid-70s, O’Rahilly became obsessed with the spiritual teacher Ram Dass and his philosophy of Loving Awareness, assembling a rock band of the same name to spread the message: O’Rahilly’s big idea was to promote them as the new Beatles, which in critical terms was a little like drawing a vast target on their foreheads and inviting people to take aim. That said, the band’s members might have felt they got off lightly, given that O’Rahilly’s original plan was to literally call them the Beatles.
But then, you could forgive O’Rahilly his more whimsical and hubristic flights of fancy. After all, he’d had one idea that changed the face of pop music in the UK. Radio Caroline wasn’t the first pirate radio station – Denmark’s Radio Mercur had begun transmitting from a ship moored in international waters back in 1958 – but it was by far the most important and influential. O’Rahilly had become fixated on the idea while managing Soho nightclub The Scene and working as a manager for Georgie Fame. The Scene was very successful: it catered to mods, playing soul, blues and R&B, music for which there was no outlet on British radio. The BBC’s Light Programme restricted pop music to two shows a week, Saturday Club and Easy Beat, and the chart rundown Pick of the Pops. It wasn’t interested in playing the Georgie Fame single that O’Rahilly had pressed up, so O’Rahilly announced he would start his own radio station to play Fame’s music, using the Radio Mercur model.
Launched in March 1964, apparently named after John F Kennedy’s daughter and staffed by DJs recruited from dancehalls and bars – among them Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker and Tony Prince – Radio Caroline, “your all-day music station”, was an instant sensation, not least because its only competition came from Radio Luxembourg, always marred by poor reception in the UK, and a plethora of imitators: Radio Atlanta, Radio London, Radio City, Swinging Radio England. It displayed a willingness to promote artists too wild or innovative for the BBC to touch – riot-provoking R&B iconoclasts the Pretty Things were Caroline regulars; in early 1965, the station alighted on the chiming guitars and harmonies of the Byrds’s Mr Tambourine Man.
It developed an ability to turn singles into hits and artists into stars: the Honeycombs’s Have I the Right? and Tom Jones’s It’s Not Unusual, both No 1 singles, were initially broken by Radio Caroline; Pete Townshend was always quick to credit Caroline’s importance in the Who’s rise to success. In addition, there developed a kind of underclass of singles that never actually became hits, but entered the national consciousness as a result of Caroline playing them to death: Marc Almond recalled hearing David McWilliams’s psychedelic oddity The Days of Pearly Spencer over and over again as a child (Caroline’s attachment to the song was linked to the fact it was released on a label owned by one of its directors); in 1992, his cover of the song finally turned it into a Top 5 smash.
It even affected the English language: the term “anorak”, meaning nerdy obsessive, was apparently first coined by Caroline DJ Andy Archer to describe the station’s die-hard fans, who would sail out to the ship on which it was situated in order to meet the DJs.
Eventually, the success of the pirate stations provoked both the government and the BBC into action. In August 1967, the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act was introduced; the following month, most of Caroline’s big stars abandoned the station for the newly launched Radio One, a legal station created in its image. The pirate era’s eulogy was provided by the Who: their December 1967 album Sell Out was modelled as a fake broadcast by the now-defunct pirate Radio London.
O’Rahilly and Caroline doggedly carried on – Johnnie Walker stuck with them for a little while longer – but became increasingly obscure: Radio Caroline tended only to impinge on the national consciousness when its ship sank, necessitating rescue by lifeboats. If O’Rahilly’s subsequent schemes tended to the hare-brained, they occasionally contained the germ of an idea. Pirate TV eventually came to pass, without the aid of aircraft; the members of the unfortunate Loving Awareness formed the core of Ian Dury’s Blockheads.
In a sense, it didn’t matter. An entirely new breed of pirate station emerged, with more or less the same USP as Caroline had once had: playing music that the BBC tended to ignore and helping to change pop in the process. Launched in 1970, Radio Invicta was “Europe’s first and only all-soul station”, and eventually launched the careers of Pete Tong and Gilles Peterson; Kiss FM, which appeared after Invicta went off air, featured Tim Westwood, Trevor Nelson, Coldcut and Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B among its alumni. The Dread Broadcasting Corporation was Britain’s first black-owned station; largely remembered as an outlet for reggae, it featured a hip-hop show presented by Neneh Cherry. A bigger explosion in pirate radio came with the rise of acid house and its myriad subgenres: Kool FM was instrumental in the development of drum’n’bass; Rinse, Deja Vu and Delight did the same for grime.
It was all a long way from Tony Blackburn on board the Mi Amigo, but whether they knew or cared, all these stations effectively owed Ronan O’Rahilly some kind of debt. “Who knows what would have happened had Ronan not got hold of my brain?” pondered George Lazenby, a little dolefully, in a posthumous tribute. British pop music could ask itself the same question.
• This article was amended on 21 April 2020 to correctly reflect the range of BBC radio shows playing pop music in the mid-1960s.