We Want The Airwaves (Pirate Radio)

Image result for radio london 1966I was only 11 years old when radio stations, operating from ships outside of British territorial waters, began broadcasting non-stop Pop. In 1964 I was already a little obsessed by music, more than just a Beatlemaniac, I found the rush of creativity from young British musicians to be the most exciting Art around. My parents had kindly provided a spanking new Dansette record player for the previous Xmas (to be “shared” with my younger sister. Like that was going to happen !) but my stack of 7″ 45s was small & Auntie BBC, neglectful of a new audience, shackled by a meagre ration of “needle time”, really didn’t get what was going on. Pirate Radio (could they have come up with a cooler name ?) were playing all the hits & more to an audience of 15 million but not in our house. “That’s right kids, don’t touch that dial” was was a rule set by the old folks.

 

Image result for transistor radio 1960sI did get my own portable, transistor radio, a hand-me-down from someone in my large extended family. It was more formal Fifties model than Swinging Sixties & boy, I wish I had it now. Everybody thought that I got a lot of homework from school but I was in my bedroom, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, listening, more often than not, to Radio London,  “Big L”.Unfortunately the government were having none of this fun & the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act blew the boats out of the water in August 1967. My best friend & I determined to catch as much as we could in that final month. John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show, the only place to hear the new underground sounds, started at midnight. I listened quietly, the radio under the bed sheets, my younger brother asleep across the room, trying to stay awake for as long as possible. Some nights I managed a whole 15 minutes ! On August 14th, after playing “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles, a track you would never hear on the BBC, Big L stopped broadcasting. The #1 on their final Fab 40 was “Heroes & Villains”. We knew who was what.

 

 

It’s tough to select one tune from that pirate period so I’ve gone for something released at the end of 1967. On “The Who Sell Out” the group wanted to make aural Pop Art, fresh, fast, flashy, & fun. They chose to link the songs with Radio London’s jingles, recorded by the PAMS company in Dallas (I’m not sure if they obtained permission) & their own commercials. The concept worked well, “…Sell Out” is my favourite Who LP & just the best way to remember my station of choice from back then. All together now… “What’s for tea Mum ?”.

 

So it was “wonderful” Radio 1, staffed by many former freebooters, its mid-morning/early afternoon shows shared with the less wonderful Radio 2, which the BBC transmitted to an audience with little other choice. Caroline persevered with less resources & an air of resignation, supplies coming from Holland. Radio Luxembourg, around since the 1930s, music-based from 1960, was hardly hip to the trip & never really had been. It was 1973 before the government allowed a network of independent local commercial stations to challenge the BBC’s monopoly. There were still good shows being aired. John Peel found his corner at the BBC, playing an intoxicating mix of the wild & wonderful for over 35 years. The indies often scheduled an evening of off-playlist music while, in London, Capital’s Roger Scott hosted Cruising, a Friday rush hour of energetic American graffiti. The forced cheeriness of the daytime output, with presenters who you suspected didn’t really like music, grated very quickly. We all knew that “the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anaesthetise the way that you feel”.

 

 

PictureAfter I moved to that London I was sure that I would find something interesting on the outer edges of the dial. Some communities did have their own set ups & the change of scenery was refreshing. In 1981 we found somewhere that seemed like just the place to hang out. Initially Dread Broadcasting Corporation only broadcast for a few hours a week from founder Lepke’s Neasden flat. They played the Roots Reggae you wanted to hear & the sound system operators knew how to present it. By 1983 people knew about it & it was a 12 hours a day, 7 days a week operation. The late, live mixes were essential, there were Funk & Soul, Jazz & Soca shows too. DBC really was an upful, vibrant thing, community radio that should have been encouraged but illegal & hounded off the air by the end of 1984. Their big tent at the Glastonbury Festival was my late night venue of choice in the early 1980s. Dancing until the bag of goodies ran out or I fell over, whichever came first.

 

Image result for dread broadcasting corporationReggae stations did reappear but Lovers Rock was carrying the swing, a little too sweet for my taste. It was the new Soul stations. Kiss & Horizon, which caught our ears in the mid-80s. Hip Hop & Electro were bubbling up & these fresh new sounds were what we listened to & bought back then. We, of course, would tape our favourites & I think the DJ at the club in Deptford we frequented lived next door because he would play all our new hit picks at the weekend ! Both stations were very popular & many smaller stations sprung up. The authorities encouraged them to give it up with the offer of a fair hearing at a licensing committee. Kiss FM returned as a legit operation but maybe the era of the celebrity DJ, branding at the expense of the music, didn’t help. Maybe it was just that being legal was not as much fun. Anyway, we were waiting for a pirate TV station, operating from a car driven around the Crystal Palace transmitter. We heard the rumours but we never found it !

 

 

It was later that we had a pirate station of our own operating from our South London flat. On Friday nights a bunch of young anarchists from Camden would call around, the more intrepid of them would take the transmitter to the roof along with a pre-recorded cassette, 90 minutes of subversion. They had to stay up there to swap the tape around half way through. The others sat quietly in our living room, accepting our hospitality of tea & biscuits all round. They were just kids & the most polite anarchists you could wish to meet.

 

One night we had places to go, people to see & left them to their business of smashing the state. On our return in the early hours the gang were still around. The running-dog lackey of a caretaker had put the police on to the renegades. One of their crew had hidden & was now locked on the roof of the 12 storey tower block. We kicked a door in, that either hadn’t occurred to them or was considered to be too drastic & rescued the frozen fugitive with ice forming in his dreadlocks, taking him back to base for more warming beverages & baked refreshments. That was the end of Radio Free Camden. The guy’s name was Fiddler…”Fiddler on the Roof”, you could not make this stuff up, so I’m not.

 

 

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Out On The Street (Notting Hill Carnival)

The August Bank Holiday means that it’s Carnival time in London. The rest of the world organise their “carne vale” or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) around the religious fast of Lent. The Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest street party, waits until later in the year & gives the unpredictable British weather at least a chance to make a positive contribution to the 2 days of celebration. The first Caribbean carnival cultural cabaret was an indoor event, organized in 1959 as a reaction to race relation problems & riots in West London. In 1966 a children’s street party became a procession when the steel band went walkabout. Such a spontaneous idea was too good a time to remain as a one-off & by 1975 the word was out about the best thing happening in London on a Bank Holiday weekend.

 

 

My first time at Carnival was in 1976. We joined a stream of people walking down the Portobello Rd from Notting Hill Gate to Ladbroke Grove & encountered an exhilarating blur of colourful costumes, steel pan music, dancing & people having a good time. Under the Westway flyover dub rhythms ricocheted off the concrete walls. Every street corner sound system was spinning the reggae hit of the summer, Junior Murvin’s seductive, ominous “Police & Thieves”, an instant classic produced by the master Lee Perry. After a great & different day out, in the fading light, we made our way up Ladbroke Grove. The streets were being left to the (predominantly) black youth & an increased police presence. Back then we were regulars at football matches, we knew when things were about to go off. Sure enough the next day’s banner headlines told of riots & attacks on police. 150,000 people enjoying themselves at a street festival is not news. 66 arrests (with 2 eventual convictions for carnival-related offences), that’s enough to cause a moral panic.

 

My wife shot a bunch of photographs of the day & developed them as colour slides (ask your grandparents). She taught in a Birmingham school with the highest proportion of Anglo-Caribbean pupils in the city & when the kids saw these photos they wanted to know just where they had been taken. After 20 years of residency their own community was still largely invisible in the mainstream media, these young Black Britons were unaccustomed to seeing their own culture celebrated. The racist shibboleth “Send them home !” was meaningless when “home” was a 50p bus ride away. “Inglan is a bitch” wrote Linton Kwesi Johnson, a multicultural one & people had better get used to it. The Notting Hill Carnival was more important than just a good day out.

 

 

In the 1980’s I was living in London & Carnival became a fixture of my (ahem !) social calendar. Attendance numbers continued to rise & every year I went with different people & had a fine time. Like “Police & Thieves” there was always a big tune that the sound boys adopted as the event’s anthem & in 1983 Arrow’s “Hot,Hot,Hot”, an irresistible soca hit, reflected Carnival’s wider Caribbean roots. It was that year we, Jackie, Mitchell & myself, made our way through the packed crowds in All Saints Rd to Meanwhile Gardens over Westbourne Park way to see Aswad play. When we arrived at the small community space there was just enough room left for the 3 of us. We were in the right place.

 

Aswad, Brinsley, Drummie & Gad, were a Notting Hill band. I have seen them play great sets at festivals, a Sunsplash, even the Royal Albert Hall. This was their manor, their crowd & their songs often reflected life in “a concrete situation”. Man, didn’t the hometown boys make good ! Reinforced by a veteran brass section Aswad were confident & assertive & so were the audience. I’ve never known such a connection between performers & their public. Jackie & I danced madly to the fine, fine music  with new friends (Mitchell didn’t…he don’t dance !). We left Meanwhile Gardens on a night lit up by smiling faces. The following year I saw a repeat performance in the same venue but this gig, documented on the “Live & Direct” LP, was just the greatest thing.

 

 

Through the 1990’s things had changed. Notting Hill, more than any other area in London, was super-gentrified. The eponymous movie made the place an unlikely tourist attraction. There are not too many black faces hanging out with Hugh Grant (maybe Divine Brown ?) & Julia Roberts. Carnival organisers & police, having to deal with up to a million visitors over the 2 days & concerned with an enduring reputation for disorder, introduced crowd control barriers, invited sponsorship, even considered a move into Hyde Park. The music was changing too. Under the Westway first Rap then House, Garage & Jungle was replacing the Reggae rhythms but, of course, you could still find the sounds you wanted just around the corner.

 

In 1997 I attended with Sue (we had first shared the experience back in 1984) & the rammed crowds on the parade route seemed more like spectators than “revellers”. We chose to spend the afternoon round & about DJ Norman Jay’s sound system, a fixture at Carnival. Norman (my favourite MBE) had been on the radar since his Shake ‘n’ Fingerpop parties, then a fine show on pirate radio Kiss FM before, in 97, joining Greater London Radio. His sets always included prime grooves, rare or otherwise, spanning all labels & decades of Black dance music. That year’s feelgood hit was the “NuYorican Soul” LP by production team Masters at Work, “Little” Louie Vega & Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez. A mix of revamped classics & new material, “It’s Alright I Feel It” by Jocelyn Brown, a great singer from back in the day, was just one of the stand out tracks. We knew that Norman would play this new anthem & so, it turned out, did half of his crowd. The place was joyous, dancing in the street, waving our hands in the air, waving like we just don’t care. Sue & I had a great day, ate some good food, saw Soul II Soul & had this Carnival moment that we had come for.

 

While writing this memoir I haven’t ignored the incidents of crime & disorder which prove to be so newsworthy. I lived in South London so I guess I was a tourist in Notting Hill too. I was aware of the problems between Black youth & the police, had friends who were victimised because of their colour. Plenty of times I’ve wanted a riot of my own. In 1984 the event passed off peacefully while the police were otherwise engaged with striking miners…just saying. I only bought weed at Carnival once (going unprepared), it was cool & it did the trick. There were times when I or my companions felt that we were probably in the wrong place but these were a few minutes in the many hours we were there. I would rather remember hundreds of thousands of people getting along, organising themselves & enjoying themselves, celebrating the culture of a community that has contributed so much to London’s & Britain’s life. I now live 150 miles from London & my old bones ache if I dance for too long. When August Bank Holiday comes around I wouldn’t mind getting down there & getting down one more time.

 

 

Homegrown Vibrations (British Reggae)

In 1976 we went up to the Notting Hill Carnival, the Bank Holiday celebration of Caribbean culture, for the first time.  West London was rammed, a riot of colour & noise, people dancing in the street to the tune of the Summer, Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves”. There was tension bubbling between the youth & the police as we left & the headlines the next day were of riot & trouble. The Clash left that day wanting a riot of their own. We had a fine day out & knew we would return for more of this good stuff.

At this time my wife was teaching in a Birmingham school in which the pupils were predominantly of Afro-Caribbean origin. She took her photos into school to show the kids. There were two reactions. The girls wanted the phone number of a friend of ours who they thought was cute. They also wanted to know where the photos were taken. They did not make the connection between the sight of so many people who were the same colour as they were and the country in which they lived. These children were the first generation of Black Britons & just down the road, in Handsworth, a young group of musicians were adroitly expressing this experience in their tunes.

Steel Pulse were Birmingham’s boys, formed by friends from the Handsworth Wood school. I worked with their sound guy, Horace, & would see him sleep-walk through the mornings after late-night returns from gigs. He brought me the “Nyah Love” single on Anchor Records & the 1977  “Live at the Hope & Anchor” LP on which the band had a track among the pub-rockers & the punks. A contract with Island Records followed & Horace left our office with a contract in his back pocket…the school band done good. The first LP, “Handsworth Revolution” (1978), was just the ticket. There was anger , conviction & some seriously good tunes. “Tribute To The Martyrs” followed, it was so great that a young British reggae band were this good. Punk & Reggae were a good fit, the band found a wide audience.

Steel Pulse went international, the sound got bigger, the songs, while still roots reggae, a little less specific, more universal. This clip of the first single “Ku Klux Klan”, a warning about the dangers on British streets for young black men, shows that Pulse had got it going on right from the beginning. I always loved to hear them dub it up in concert & they do ir here so smooth & sweet. Last year I bought their  “Reggae Greats” compilation on Island & reminded myself of just how good they were.

Fast forward to Carnival 1983. We are in a packed park, Meanwhile Gardens. An afternoon of people watching, eating  dancing and  osmosing the vibes was geared towards arriving at the park in time to see Aswad. Another group of school friends who played reggae about the British experience. Aswad took a little longer than Pulse to make their mark but Notting Hill was their manor, their crowd. As dusk became night Aswad played to their people. The group had added a horn section (including veteran players Vin Gordon and “Tan Tan Thornton) which reinforced the confidence, the assertiveness of the music. These attributes were shared by the audience. There was delight and celebration that the local boys were this good. Every tune was a winner. Extra percussion arrived onstage for a soca tune, it was received with such abandon that the band played it twice. The Rockers  Medley of hits inna Aswad style added to the feeling that this night was unique. As we danced and cheered together I have never known such a connection, a unity of audience and musicians. When it was over we said our goodbyes to people we had danced with and would never meet again. It was more than smiles that lit the August night it was the glow from a tiny patch of West London.

An LP “Live & Direct” was released of the gig, a fine memento. I have seen Aswad play at festivals, on the night of my 30th birthday, at a Sunsplash & one superb night when the roots rockers went uptown to the Royal Albert Hall. They never disappointed but that August night was unforgettable.

We were spoiled in London in the 1980s. We came away from Aswad shows convinced that we had seen the best of British reggae & then we would see Misty In Roots. Their 1979 “Live at Counter Eurovision” LP had a lot of airplay on John Peel’s radio show & deservedly so. Misty, from North West London were a wonderful live band. This clip is too short but it was pretty much this gentle, uplifting chug all the way. It was truly a spiritual thing, no show just a heartfelt exposition of their truth. Man, you could not get a Rizla paper between them & Aswad when they were at their best. One night I saw Misty steal a big show at the Brixton Academy from Johnny Osbourne with a great set. On a summer Sunday afternoon, after a free concert in a Brixton park, I would have floated all the way home if I could only remember where I lived.

I saw many of the great Jamaican artists, listened to more of them. These homegrown acts all made some equally fine music (a mention here for Dennis Bovell & Matumbi),  we were able to see them more often. Seeing Steel Pulse in Birmingham & Aswad in West London were absolutely exhilarating times as their crowds celebrated the local boys made good.