Monday, 3 February 2014

The Boat that Rocked (4 Stars)

It's 1966. The greatest era for British rock & roll. But BBC radio plays less than 45 minutes of pop music a day.

Fortunately pirate radio stations are anchored in the North Sea. They play rock and pop 24 hours a day. And 25 million people, half the population of Britain, listen to the pirates every single day.

The 1960's were a weird time for music in Great Britain. A new music had emerged, independent of what was happening in the USA. Most notable were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but there were also underground bands playing blues-influenced music such as Cream and the Yardbirds. But if you sat and listened to the radio at the time you wouldn't know that it existed. The BBC, which had a monopoly of legal radio stations in Britain, only played classical music, easy listening or pop music acceptable to grannies (Tom Jones, Lonnie Donigan, Paul Anka).

The first and most famous pirate radio station was Radio Caroline, which began broadcasting in 1964. It broadcast music from a ship which was moored in international waters, so it didn't come under British law. Over the next few years many other ships copied the pattern. This was a great annoyance to the BBC, when they realised that half of the population listened to the pirates. The only way the BBC could survive was by changing to meet the challenge. On September 30th 1967 the BBC started a new radio station,  which they called Radio One, that played pop music 24 hours a day. More than half of the DJs hired for the new station were pirate DJs, lured away from the cold north sea waters by big salaries. The most famous of the ex-pirate DJs now working for the BBC were Tony Blackburn and John Peel.

Radio One was greeted with great optimism, but it didn't mean the death of pirate radio. An official top 40 playlist was imposed for all weekday daytime broadcasts, so during the day only the current hits were played. This secured a large audience, but it wasn't enough to make everyone happy. To make things worse, there were soon holes in the Radio One broadcasts, mainly in the mid afternoon, when there were no Radio One broadcasts, supposedly because there was no interest in pop music at those times. The holes were filled by broadcasts from one of the BBC's other stations, Radio Two, which played easy listening and big band music. At these times the pop fans had to turn their dials back to the pirate stations.

I admit that I watched "The Boat that Rocked" today as a tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died from a drug overdose yesterday. In the film he plays a DJ called The Count, presumably based on Radio Caroline's Emperor Rosko. This is a terrific film with a great cast of actors, but the ones who stand out are Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Ifans. I won't say anything about the film here, except that it takes place in 1966. Watch it! You won't regret it.

P.S. For some reason the film has been renamed "Pirate Radio" in America.

Philp and Rhys, friends forever

Rock and roll will never die!

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