On My Radio: The Pirates That Would Change Dance Culture Forever

Nov 12, 2021

9 min read

In the 80s on tower tops across London, pirate radio stations broadcasted with a discreet and clever attitude learned by the first stations of the 60s. Pirate radio in the 80s was less about retaliation and more about exposing underground music with representation. KISS FM led the pack, a subcultural influence on the mainstream that challenged how radio would live mix. They introduced hip-hop, soul music, and acid house, music that would take over and evolve the U.K. club scene

U.K. Pirate radio was a loophole and lightbulb moment towards the BBC, two miles outside of the U.K. radius on ships and old war towers. It encapsulated both discreteness and a primary influence on millions finding consensus in a guitar riff that dare not echo on commercial radio at that time.

While BBC radio had three primary radio stations, by 1967 ten pirate radio stations existed, reaching 15 million listeners. Radio Caroline was the first to introduce music emerging from the soon-to-be British Invasion.

Radio Caroline's offshore broadcasting homeRadio Caroline's offshore broadcasting home

Stacks of 45s rocked back and forth, as the needle and groove barreled into “Not Fade Away” by The Rolling Stones, the first song U.K pirate show Radio Caroline broadcasted on Easter of 1964. The Stones’ pummeling cover of Buddy Holly was the band’s first single, released just a month before the bank holiday broadcast that would change it all.

This was the dawn of an age of musical discovery and experimentation that changed the lives of listeners, and a game of cat and mouse between the government and DJs.

Within their first few months on-air, Radio Caroline had an audience of seven million and eventually reached an estimated 15 million. But in 1967, the Marine Offenses Act was put into effect and made all off-shore broadcasts illegal if coordinated by a U.K. citizen. Caroline ended until it won the licensing lottery, continuing as a commercial station.

BBC1 Radio was created in September of 1967 as a solution after the Marine Offenses Act which made pirate radio stations illegal. It failed to live up to expectations. The listener demographic was still just as conservative as their efforts to remove pirate radio, broadcasting mainly sunshine pop, classical music, and easy listening. It lacked heavier rock music or any soul music by black artists.

Stations ignored the soul and Motown of the United States while a reign of racial discrimination and hate crimes from far-right groups such as the National Front gripped the nation. The tide turned for commercial radio when Former Caroline broadcaster Tony Blackburn joined BBC1 becoming a champion for black music on commercial radio. It seemed that pirate radio was now obsolete.

Fueled by counterculture and socio-political events, amidst the Civil Rights Movement, and Martin Luther King Jr's assassination, America was lush with the polyrhythms of the heavy and soulful music of black artists reflecting the times.

James Brown belted his Black Power anthem against a signature funk groove, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!”

In 1968. San Francisco’s Sly and the Family Stone released “Everyday People.'' And in the same year Curtis Mayfield released his debut record, Curtis. in 1970, while disco was emerging rapidly and Motown was releasing hit after hit. Soul music bergeoned in the US. Every rock n’ roll hipster and Northern Soul scenester tried to emulate it, but no commercial radio in the UK was broadcasting it.

Tony Johns in the studioTony Johns in the studio

Pirate station Radio Invicta changed that—calling themselves “Europe’s First Soul Station” with their phrase “Soul Over London.” Invicta broadcasted started from DJ Tony Johns’ bedroom featuring Peter St Crispian, and Roger Tate, who built a radio transmitter that allowed higher, more powerful frequencies. They eventually became the first station to broadcast on a tower block that reached a 40-mile radius.

The government caught on to these stations and there were frequent raids, but stations used the method of hiding transmitters in biscuit boxes. The legal loophole allowed broadcasters to keep their frequencies.

Pirate radio was flowing. Invicta had competition including JFM and Dread Broadcasting Corporation, London’s first black-owned pirate station playing reggae, rock, African music, soul, and funk. In addition to exposing new sounds, DBC broke barriers in terms of black representation and had a listenership of 60,000.

Miss P at Dread Broadcasting Corporation's studioMiss P at Dread Broadcasting Corporation's studio

Those stations lasted till 1984 when the Telecommunications Act went into effect. The act allowed authorities to raid pirate stations and confiscate equipment without a court order if suspected of illegal radio broadcasting and it was $1300 fine if a station was caught and many of them shut down thereafter. New stations such as Solar Radio established themselves as Soul Pirate Radio until the government made a false promise to offer community radio licensing applications if stations went off the air. Other stations like JFM radio ended in 1985 due to court orders after a final studio raid.

Gordon McNamee—known as Gordon Mac—was a former pirate who entered the club scene as resident DJ for Kisses Nightclub in south London. McNamee played soul, hip-hop, and disco much like the early turntablists in New York, incorporating scratching and beat juggling. McNamee recruited Greek Radio founder George Power, Tosca Jackson (a DJ at Camden’s Electric Ballroom), Jonathan More, Matt Black, Norman Jay, and Jay Strongman, to establish KISS FM.

On October 7th, 1985, KISS broadcasted their first 24-hours of soul music. Three days later they had their first raid by the Department of Trade Industry, but it didn't stop them. They began throwing parties at Kisses to promote both KISS FM and the streaks of time they evaded raids.

Inviting fans of the station to party in-person united radio listeners with the ever-growing London scene. KISS held the first acid house party in the UK at Wag Club’s KISS night.

Wag Club was once the center of club culture. Opened in 1982, Wag Club showcased various genres and had high-profile club-goers from Prince to Bowie, mod nights to jazz nights to new wave shows at the peak of the subculture's London scene. It was simply a place for anyone who wanted a place to dance and be themselves. The first hip-hop show in London happened during their opening year and invited New York DJs such as Grand Wizard Theodore and Fab 5 Freddy to perform. This was a breakthrough moment in both the club and DJ world.

The KISS FM team in 1988The KISS FM team in 1988

Photo Courtesy: amfm.org.uk/

KISS DJ Colin Faver was known for being in the know of the club underground, having worked as a concert promoter in the late 70s and early 80s booking shows for bands including The Birthday Party, Throbbing Gristle, and Bauhaus. Faver was one of the first to discover and DJ acid house. Becoming a DJ on KISS meant broadcasting the genre to thousands. Quickly the sound that made a home in Chicago in the early ‘80s was gaining steam in the UK.

The early rave era in the U.K. was dubbed by the media as the “Second Summer of Love,” coming twenty years after the pirate radio stations exposed the U.K. to black music. Those experiencing the sweat and community in clubs and underground warehouses saw it as more of a lifestyle than a headline. The movement adopted the term “rave,” to describe the parties, a name from the ‘60s used to describe all-night parties.

KISS was the news source for the acid house scene. The station reached up to 500,000 listeners, came second to Capital in the best radio station poll for the London Evening Standard, and picked up a cult following similar to Radio Caroline in its heyday. Their competitors included other 24-hour stations TKO and LWR. But unlike other stations, KISS mixed their tracks live, transitioning fluidly between singles.

The station faced considerable odds. Equipment was stolen by rival stations and government raids were still a threat. The DTI was now confiscating vinyl, initially selling it to receive money back from their trips raiding stations but then breaking it after realizing they would likely end up in a DJ’s hands again.

Eventually, they used propaganda as a PR stunt to scare the public away from listening. The claims ranged from a DTI inspector being beaten up by pirate radio members and dying from a heart attack to pirate stations deliberately interfering with emergency broadcasts.

The KISS crew found it tiring to keep up with the DTI. There was finally an opportunity from the International Broadcasting Authority to apply for a legitimate license in 1988. KISS was confident they could win, and on New Year's Eve of 1988 the station voluntarily shut down.

Yet, even with their underground accolades, KISS lost to Jazz FM. The IBA said jazz in higher demand and commercial radio still had a problem with the music popularized by KISS.

DJ Jazzie BDJ Jazzie B

Mike Prior/Redferns/Getty Images

Former KISS FM DJ Jazzie B formed the group Soul II Soul and landed a record deal. Club Classics Vol. 1 came out in 1989 and included the international hit song “Back To Life (However Do You Want Me).” The rest of the crew waited for another licensing opportunity. That eventually came around in December of 1989. With the backing of publishing company EMAP and Virgin Records, the station received its license on December 17th, 1989.

In September of 1990, KISS returned to the air as a commercial station. KISS 100 opened with “Pirates Anthem" by Cocoa Tea and Shabba Ranks, a tongue-in-cheek message aimed directly at the DTI that had endlessly attempted to shut them down.

Pirates, illegal broadcasters. Just because we play what the people want. Them a call us pirates, them a call us illegal broadcasters. DTI try stop us, but they can′t, oh no they can′t.

-From ”Pirates Anthem” by Cocoa Tea and Shabba Ranks

Pirate radio continued to play a role in the emergence of the rave movement. While warehouses continued to be shut down by the task force Pay Party Unit, illegal parties continued thanks to collectives like Spiral Tribe. Pirate radio stations broadcast live from raves like the Castlemorton Common Festival. Pirate radio broke the emerging sounds of the moment giving voice to producers creating breakbeat and drum and bass on stations like Kool FM and Rush. By 1991 even with the raids raging on, there was no denying that the decades-old tradition of pirate radio continued to change the face of modern music consumption.