In the second blog post about my life in radio, I recount how my childhood dream to be a DJ developed. After the closure of all but one of the pirate stations in 1967, opportunities were pretty much non-existent — especially for a gawky kid still at school! Then came a chance meeting with another young radio nut …
After my beloved Radio London closed down in August 1967, it felt like life would never be the same. There had been demonstrations in London’s Trafalgar Square and other locations against the Marine, Etc., Broadcasting Offences act that had outlawed them, but the Labour government, under Prime Minister Harold Wilson, was adamant: there would be no return to the casual copyright-breaking and stealing of radio frequencies in which the pirates indulged.
Left: Harold Wilson courting the youth vote by rubbing shoulders with the Beatles (credit: BBC/PA)
Still, Wilson recognised that the country’s youth was deeply unsettled by having the pirates sunk, so with an eye on the next General Election, due in 1970, and with the forthcoming Representation of the People act of 1969 looming (which gave the vote for the first time to those aged 18, 19 and 20), the government promised a shake-up of the BBC which included a new pop station, “Wonderful” Radio 1, due to open in September ’67 — but the general buzz in the school playground was that it couldn’t possibly be as good as the pirates it sought to replace. The BBC cannily offered jobs to many of the pirate DJs, and so it was that on 30th September 1967, Tony Blackburn opened Radio 1 with his breakfast show.
To us listeners, Radio 1 was a mixed bag: it was good to hear some of our favourite DJs back on the air again, but “needle time” restrictions meant that a percentage of its output couldn’t be the commercial pop records the pirates had played constantly — to keep its members in a job, the Musicians’ Union insisted in its agreement with the BBC that some music, of a more sedate, highly orchestrated kind, had to be specially recorded by the Corporation.
Right: Get various Radio 1 logos as desktop wallpaper! (credit: BBC)
Because of early budgetary limits, Radio 1 also shared some of its on-air time with Radio 2, the station aimed at an older audience and a replacement for the old Light Programme. This didn’t really go down well with the younger audience, but what else was there — apart from the pirate station Radio Caroline, which had defied the MEBO act and stayed on air, and Radio Luxembourg in the evenings?
Life settled down into the new groove. Mum never knew it, but I used to carry my tiny transistor radio to school with me so I could listen to Tony Blackburn’s breakfast show right up to the wrought-iron gates.
Meanwhile, at home, in our first-floor maisonette in Leytonstone, I had fitted the ailing Philips tape-recorder I’d inherited from my late father with a new drive-belt and was honing my embryonic DJ-ing skills up in my bedroom by using the microphone to record a song from the radio, pausing the recording just before the DJ spoke, turning the radio down and saying hastily into the mic: “And that was [insert name of artist and song just recorded] — and heeeere’s the next one!” Then I’d pause the tape again, turn the radio back up, wait for the next song to start and the DJ to finish talking and record the song, then repeat the process. Over and over and over again, until I’d have a tape full of me saying “And that was [insert name of artist and song just recorded] — and heeeeere’s the next one!” in between the records.
It wasn’t exactly compelling listening, but hey — it was a start! And I did this, on and off, for a few years.
I remember doing a similar thing with the Jack Jackson Show. Jack was a brilliant and very popular radio act broadcast on Radios 1 and 2 — he had a home studio at his plush residence in Tenerife where he recorded his shows. He used countless clips from radio and TV comedy shows such as Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe & Son and linked them all together in bizarre, hilarious scenes with his own voice, as though he was interacting with them, and interspersed a selection of music.
Left: Jack Jackson in his home studio (credit: Radio Rewind)
I’d write down all Jack’s links for one of his shows, time his renditions of them, and carefully insert myself into the recording of the show by recording over Jack’s bits, copying his inflections and even his little chuckles. Each ‘show’ took me several days to complete in this way, and the end result was rather choppy, but I was pleased with my efforts.
By 1969 I had left Davies Lane Junior School and, having passed my 11-Plus, was attending Tom Hood Senior High. Tentative discussions had begun, both there and at home, about which career I thought might suit me in later life. When I said “I’m going to be a radio DJ,” the reaction was pretty much the same: “Mmm — but of course that’s not a proper job, is it? Let’s be realistic and think about some careers you might really be able to follow.” As I was also obsessed with the Apollo space missions to the moon at the time, “astronaut” was usually my second choice — but that didn’t go down too well either!
Because of the negative responses regarding my dream, I never played my recorded attempts at DJ-ing to anyone else. It remained my little secret.
We had a family holiday in Combe Martin, north Devon, in July of 1969 — my sister Jean and her husband Jim, their young child Fiona, Mum, my elder brother Ted, and me all crammed into a bed & breakfast near the seafront. We watched Neil Armstrong take man’s first steps on the Moon on the B & B’s tiny TV on 21st July.
A month later, my brother was dead and my world collapsed for the second time in five years.
We’d lost Dad in early 1964, when I was eight years old. His death in hospital was not unexpected because he’d been ill for many years and, being so young, I’d been protected from it to a certain extent. But Ted’s death was sudden and utterly devastating because it occurred overnight, at home — and I was sleeping in the same room.
I knew something was wrong the moment I woke up. Mum had brought in our morning cups of tea, as she always did, and I could hear her trying to awaken Ted, saying his name with increasing urgency. As I surfaced from under the blankets and looked with bleary eyes across the room I could see her bending over him, shaking his shoulder. He wasn’t responding.
Right: my late brother Ted
I sat up just as Mum turned Ted over. He’d been lying face-down on his pillow. Her reaction was one of abject horror, her voice rising in panic and repeating “Oh my God, oh my God, Ted! Ted! OH MY GOD!! TED!!” She backed away, her shaking hands leaping to cover her mouth. I was out of bed in a flash, suddenly wide awake — and feeling like I was entering a living nightmare.
There was a smear of blood on his pillow, somehow all the more horrific because it was so small. He lay on his side, where Mum had rolled him, eyes closed, his nose slightly bloodied. Mum was beside herself with shock, running aimlessly around the bedroom, not knowing what to do. I reached out and put my palm on his cheek. He was very cold. I pulled my hand back as though burned. Slowly, he rolled back onto his stomach like a plank: rigor mortis had set in. He’d been dead for many hours.
Most of the rest of that day — thankfully — is but a blur in my memory. I remember running up the road to the nearest phone box to call Uncle Denny in Walthamstow. He must have rushed over in his car. Somehow, a message got through to Jean and Jim in South Woodford and they arrived some time later. I don’t know who called the doctor, don’t even remember him attending from just around the corner, though he must have done. I remember tears, grief, disbelief, more tears. I remember shaking uncontrollably, not being able to stop crying, constantly seeing in my mind’s eye that terrifyingly small, insignificant, mocking blotch of blood on the pillow and thinking: Why didn’t I hear anything? He must’ve grunted, or made some other noises. I could have saved him. Why, WHY — WHY DIDN’T I WAKE UP?
Ted was nine years older than me. As a youngster, he’d had a terrible road accident when he’d been knocked down by a car which caused a terrible head injury. After many months in hospital, he’d recovered sufficiently to come home, but shortly afterwards had started suffering from epileptic fits. He’d been put on medication which stopped the fits, and shortly before his death the medication had been reduced as he’d been free of epilepsy for a number of years.
Obviously, someone in the medical profession made a fatal miscalculation: he’d fitted during his sleep, rolled over onto his stomach and suffocated on his pillow.
After Dad had died, Ted had taken over as the “man of the house.” Now he had gone too, which left me to assume that role — even if it wasn’t really expected of me, it felt like I ought to be willing to step up to the crease. But I was only 14 and felt dreadfully ill-equipped to take on such a responsibility.
I was inconsolable for months. The teachers at school knew what had happened and made generous allowances for my constantly gloomy moods. Many of the kids gave me a wide berth, not knowing what to say, while others were mercilessly cruel and taunted me when they caught me weeping quietly in a corner of the playground, which I seemed to do during almost every break. I felt so alone, so stupid. And so responsible for my brother’s death. The thought kept haunting me: I could have saved him …
Radio, thank God, saved me.
One bright spring day in 1970 I was walking down one of the streets just around the back of our maisonette block in Leytonstone when I saw a strange sight: a long-haired, unkempt guy I recognised from school was leaning against a telegraph pole, supporting a huge Grundig radio on his shoulder and with his ear crammed up against its loudspeaker. The radio was turned up blisteringly loud, and issuing forth was a cacophonous screeching sound mixed with some music.
Curious, I approached. “What’cha doing, mate?” I shouted over the din. He hefted the radio from his shoulder and turned it down a bit.
“Listenin’ to the radio,” he said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“Well, yeah, I can see that, but — what the hell’s that noise?”
“Radio Northsea,” he said proudly, lighting a cigarette (which I thought was very brave on the street — I’d been smoking for a year by then but did it surreptitiously, usually hiding amongst the knots of trees on nearby Wanstead Flats). “It’s a pirate station.”
Left: MEBO II, home of Radio Northsea International (credit: Wikipedia)
“Oh! Right. And what’s the noise all about?”
“The government’s jammin’ it. But if you stand here –” he indicated the telegraph pole and the conduit containing the cables running up it — “you can use the wires as an aerial boost and get a better signal. Get rid of some of the jammin’.”
“Wow. And it’s called …?”
“Radio Northsea International,” he said. “RNI. It’s on a boat anchored off Clacton. Ain’t you heard of it?”
I hadn’t. I was fascinated. I introduced myself and he told me his name was Bill. He was in the year below me at school. His slightly wild appearance, short stature and puggish face meant he was often the butt of the bullies’ jokes — as was I because of my crying — and this shared affinity, along with the mutual interest in radio, drew me to him.
“I’ve, er, got a studio of me own, actually,” he offered, a little smugly.
“Really? Wow, that sounds good!”
“Yeah. It’s round at me gran’s. In her front room. It’s just up the road. You, er … you wanna see it?”
I did. I did indeed.
To read part 1 of this series, see Radio Daze: Beginnings
To read part 3 of this series, see Radio Daze: Interlude #1 — From This Perspective
To read part 4 of this series, see Radio Daze: Bedroom Broadcasting