Steve Walsh (1959 - 1988)

Norman Jaye

Gilles Peterson

Dave Pearce

Emperor Rosko in the 1970s

Tony Blackburn in the 1960s

Roger Scott (1943 - 1989)

Johnny Walker

Dr. Bob Jones

Tony Monson

Al Matthews

Jeff Young

Robbie Vincent

Andy Peebles

Mike Allen (1945 - 2015)

Pirate radio undoubtedly played a major part in the acceptance and proliferation of black music in Britain. From the heady days of the 1960s to the hedonistic times of the 1980s, without it many people may never have heard or become interested in the genre, whether they listened via their transistor radios, radio grams, or high end Hi-Fi systems.

One of the first and most beloved pirates, Radio Caroline, was aboard a ship permanantly situated off shore in order to circumvent the UK’s broadcasting laws. The person responsible for protecting Britain's airwaves was The Postmaster General, who at the time was a young MP named Anthony Wedgwood Benn. Whenever there was a risk of detection by the authorities, the vessel would simply sail further out to sea. It was like a breath of fresh air compared to stuffy BBC radio, and introduced the nation to a new breed of DJs such as and Tony Blackburn and Kenny Everett, who became household names and would later on assuage their listeners via the mainstream stations they had initially competed against. This kind of cross-over into the commercial realm, would soon became a regular occurrence. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) considered pirates like Caroline such a threat, that they created Radio One in order to take away their young audience, and then head-hunted their disc jockeys. Although Caroline usually played the pop music which was being ignored by the BBC who was the biggest radio broadcaster in Britain during the 1960s, it's rhythm & blues shows hosted by Johnny Walker were a revelation at the time. The station set a blueprint that many were to follow in future. Other pirate stations aboard ships like Radio London sprang up later on, which meant that the musical tastes of British youngsters could no longer be ignored. However one day, a sad demise befell Radio Caroline's ship when it sank into the depths of the sea off the coast. Soon afterwards a replacement vessel was found, but the law eventually caught up with the station. And although Radio London flourished and became a legal entity on dry land as part of the BBC, it was replaced by GLR (Greater London Radio) in the early 1990s.

By the end of the 1960s, insatiable music fans could also tune their transistor radios onto legal stations broadcasting from abroad like Radio Luxembourg. These European channels made even more musical genres available to the ears of British youth, and gave them the remarkable and unique talents of DJs like gravelly-voiced expat American Emperor Rosko, who later joined Radio One also. But it wasn’t until the next decade that a proper black music station would emerge on the airwaves. And the new era of pirate stations brought the public's attention to many young DJs who went on to become leading names in the world of radio and nightclubs. This included Steve Jackson, Graham Gold, Les Adams, and Dave Pearce.

Although the first legitimate independent music station Capital Radio came into being in 1973, via a consortium headed by the late Sir Richard Attenborough, it was still primarily of the rock and pop music domain in the beginning. Fortunately this was to change after just a few years on air, thanks to the arrival of one of the first black DJs on UK radio, New Yorker Greg Edwards and his Soul Spectrum shows. He was later succeded by Al Matthews, an actor and former sergeant in the US Army. Two white DJs, Peter Young and Mike Allen, would also keep the soul music faithful happy later on. And in the 1980s, Charlie Gillet’s shows introduced the masses to Latin and African music. Edwards later joined the legal station Jazz FM in the early 1990s.

Radio Invicta started by the late Tony Johns, was probably the first UK based pirate station to seriously cater to the needs of British funk and soul fans. It initially began broadcasting for just a few days in the week, then increased it’s output due to the response of it’s listeners. Steve Walsh, one of Invicta’s most popular DJs, had been with the station for nearly half a dozen years until he departed to rival pirates JFM, and then onto the legalised Radio London. By 1979, most of the legal stations of the era had finally jumped onto the disco bandwagon, and produced their own shows of varying quality to capitalise on it. Radio London had it’s Soul Night Out hosted by Tony Blackburn and Steve Walsh, which along with Robbie Vincent’s programme on Saturday afternoons showcased new and popular singles. And Capital Radio, then situated on the Euston Road in London’s West End, began a five year run of it’s legendary Best Disco In Town shows, presented by the unmistakable Greg Edwards on Friday and Saturday evenings. Both programmes were broadcast live every week, sometimes from The Hammersmith Palais for Radio London, and The Lyceum in the Strand in Capital’s instance. Though incredibly spectacular, these events which featured PAs by singers, freebies for the crowds they attracted, and fundraising for charitable causes, were nothing new to the realm of illegal radio. And this was by no means a phenomena created in London, as all-nighters and all-dayers had been occurring regularly in the north of England since the 1960s.

JFM came along in the early 1980s with an even more dedicated enthusiasm for it’s black music schedule, and their output was surprisingly professional in content for an illegal station. Big names in legal music radio emerged from it’s programming such as Jeff Young, Gilles Peterson ex Invicta DJ Lindsay Wesker, and Norman Jaye, who would later on join Solar Radio’s roster of DJs such as Dave Brown, Mike Gee and Tony Monson. The ladies played their part too, as Lynn Parsons took her turn on JFM's record decks, and The Rankin Miss P spun reggae tunes on her show with DBC (Dread Broadcasting Corporation). But many of the pirate stations of the late 1970s and early 1980s suffered badly from raids by the officers of the police and the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) who vigorously upheld Parliament's Broadcasting Acts, and confiscated records and equipment along with making arrests of anyone concerned. This happened so regularly, that the adversaries often spoke to each other on first name terms. Attacks from rival stations did not help matters either, and the pirates attempted to circumvent this disruption by constructing elaborate electronic devices which would act as decoys to any further raids or thefts. The loss of this equipment could still prove expensive, but reduced the risk of arrest, the loss of valuable record collections, and the station's time off air. The authorities insisted that the pirate broadcasts not only infringed upon the law, but more seriously caused interference with the radios of emergency services, which could and did result in unnecessary deaths. Although this may or may not have been true in the past with the use of analogue equipment, the modern digital radios used by the Police and Ambulance services would render this impossible today. Ironically Invicta, like a handful of it’s predecessors became a legitimate channel a few years hence, but a raid upon JFM put an end to it’s broadcasts. However this was not the last time black music would be heard in Britain illegally. LWR (London Weekend Radio) came onto the scene, introducing it’s listeners to the new sounds of dance, electro and hip hop thanks to shows by the likes of Tim Westwood and a pioneering funk DJ from the 1970s, Pete Tong. And by then, a now much missed and beloved station was literally on the Horizon.

Horizon Radio broadcast on the 94.5 FM frequency during it’s final year, and was one of the most eponymous stations to emerge from the pirate radio idiom. It had a very popular selection of DJs and programmes, held social and community events, and even managed to stay on air during the week. Horizon also continued the fight began by it’s predecessors, especially the aforementioned DJ Tony Monson, for one of the few legal radio licences which came up for contention. This culminated in the station voluntarily ceasing transmission in 1985, in an unsuccessful attempt to sway the favour of the licensing authority it’s way. One of the station’s most well known jocks, Chris Stewart, was the last voice to be heard on the final Sunday afternoon show. The loss of this highly influential and popular station left a gaping void in the airwaves, especially in the London area where it’s reception was strongest. Fortunately, others came and took up the mantle shortly after it’s demise, and during the next decade. Among the many were Solar Radio, Choice FM, Kiss FM, Laser, WNK, WIBS, Sunrise, City Radio and Station FM. But alas, quite a few of these others have fallen by the wayside also, while Solar Radio, Kiss FM, and Station FM remain on air to this day, with only the latter still operating illegally more than two decades after it began broadcasting.

As a footnote to the paragraph above, towards the end ot the 1990s, a number of the aforementioned stations were aquired by large companies. Their DJs were fired, and then the stations were changed, in essence, into what could only be described as musical supermarkets, which adhered strictly to demographic statistics and rigid playlists. Not even existing commercial entities such as Capital Radio could escape such a take-over. Modern day radio audiences at this point in the 21st century, may well wonder if there is still a choice, and even an alternative.

The record sales charts could be a confusing affair to some. The national chart which was broadcast on the BBC station Radio One, and shown weekly on their television show Top of the Pops, was considered for a time the most accurate reflection of the pop music buying tastes in England. But on Capital Radio, the late Roger Scott would also broadcast their own chart show, which could differ greatly in some instances or almost match the BBC’s rundown. To make matters worse for fans, on Radio One DJs such as Jeff Young, The Rankin' Miss P, Sonia Frazier, Andy Peebles, and Robbie Vincent would play a selection of the latest and most popular jazz-funk, soul, reggae and disco records, whilst Greg Edwards did similar on his shows for Capital. Also the black music press, some of which had been in existence a good decade or so by then, would publish soul music charts which were usually compiled by club DJs or record stores. All would be well, if someone were to take note of one of these charts in isolation, but observing them as a whole could be quite daunting if you were really concerned about a record's sales and popularity. This is without even mentioning the charts broadcast on pirate stations. It was generally understood though, that the charts published in Blues & Soul and Black Echos magazines were the most definitive and accurate. However the data for these charts was collated, they were all important indicators of sales especially when it is considered that in order to just enter the National Top 40 as it was once known, a group would have to sell in excess of 25,000 copies of their record, and many times that amount to reach The Top 10. The way the National Charts are compiled has since been changed, and some would say this has made it far too easy for certain artists to have massive hits.

*Updated 13/9/17


The Postmaster General Tony Benn for short

The station at sea...

...and on dry land

The station and it's original frequency

The Lyceum today

The Hammersmith Palais closed during 2007

Rest in Peace

Tim Westwood

Trevor Nelson

The legendary Greg Edwards

The legendary Mix Doctor Les Adams

Graham Gold

Simon Harris

Lindsay Wesker

Pete Tong

Tony Johns