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Johnnie Walker talks about pirate radio

25 July 2017

For a few years in the mid-Sixties, pirate radio stations flew the skull and crossbones for freewheeling broadcasting. Johnnie Walker discusses those heady days with Andrew Collins.

Johnnie Walker photographed by Jude Edginton © BBC
Johnnie Walker photographed by Jude Edginton © BBC

He’s a BBC Radio 2 mainstay these days, but Johnnie Walker was once a DJ at Radio Caroline, the revolutionary pirate station that played the pop songs the BBC wouldn’t touch. Fifty years ago this month, the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act stopped pirate stations operating without a licence from boats off the British coast – and Caroline was doomed. Here, Johnnie, 72, relives his favourite memories of that time.

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Taking to the waves

In the mid-1960s, I used to DJ at a pub near Stratford-upon-Avon and the Locarno ballroom in Birmingham. I also sold cars in Solihull and would turn up to work late, bleary-eyed. In 1966, the manager gave me an ultimatum: be a car salesman or a disc jockey. I chose the latter.

That was the defining moment of my life. I lost my company car, a Mini – my dad went ballistic. But the next day I read about a new offshore pirate station, Radio England. I took a train to London, gave them a demo tape – at Suite 1017 at the Hilton, I’ll always remember – and after five minutes, they said, ‘Welcome to Radio England’.

I packed my bag and literally jumped ship to Radio Caroline.

Jumping ship from Radio England to Radio Caroline

Radio England had a bad signal and was poorly organised, so in October 1966
I packed my bag and literally jumped ship to Radio Caroline, whose ship, the Mi Amigo, was just a few hundred yards away. The broadcasting style at England was high-energy – you had to have a grin on your face. But when I got to Caroline I developed my own relaxed style in a 9pm-midnight slot.

The worst part was the hour-and-a-half trip out to the ship on a supply boat from Harwich. You’d be seriously sick.

The Mi Amigo would move a bit, and it would occasionally be at a crazy angle for one or two days. But some nights the sea was beautifully calm and you could see all the lights twinkling back from nearby Frinton-on-Sea, moonlight reflecting on the water – all very romantic.

What it was really like on board Radio Caroline

The other DJs and I were a gang of young men [Johnnie’s contemporaries included future BBC stars Tony Blackburn, Simon Dee and Tommy Vance] having to conform to strict regulations set by the captain, with half a dozen Dutch crew who didn’t understand radio. No women were allowed on board – in fact, no visitors at all.

No women were allowed on board – in fact, no visitors at all.

Occasionally, couples would come out on yachts and small boats and we’d get the engineer to take the boyfriend off to look at the transmitters, while we showed the girlfriend other, more sociable, areas of the ship. But in [the Richard Curtis film] The Boat That Rocked, they had bars, their own chefs and women there, and it wasn’t generally like that. It was much more frugal and the Dutch food could be pretty greasy.

Frinton Flashing

One night, the studio engineer spotted a car pointing out to sea at Frinton, blinking its headlights. So I said on air, ‘If you’re parked and you’re flashing your headlights, give us three flashes’. And they did. So I started a conversation with the car using one flash for yes, two flashes for no.

Using this simple system, I could find out a couple’s favourite singer, say, by naming artists, or how long they’d been going out. It became a nightly feature known as ‘Frinton Flashing’. We also had ‘Kiss in the Car’, where, if a couple said they’d kissed through a whole record, I’d send them a certificate! We sent out 19,000!

Radio Caroline and Frinton

Poptastic pirates

The BBC had strict limitations on playing recorded music, such was the iron rule of the Musicians’ Union. For the pirates, however, there were no such restrictions.

Remember these from ‘67?

Ha Ha Said the Clown - Manfred Mann

Happy Together - The Turtles

Because I Love You - Georgie Fame

Pictures of Lily - The Who

Bernadette - The Four Tops

It’s All Over - Cliff Richard

The BBC came out to do a documentary so I said to the listeners, ‘Let’s show them how many people love Caroline! Come down in your cars and flash your headlights at the ship on Saturday!’ I went out on deck, said, ‘Lights on!’ and the entire coastline for about 15 miles lit up. The coastguards apparently went ballistic. It was a moment of supreme megalomania.

Frinton was a very quiet place. It had no pub, no chip shop, and they’d get invaded by all these cars, blaring out Radio Caroline. They didn’t really appreciate it.

Spangles Muldoon

I remember one day some girls, who’d sailed out on a pleasure boat from Clacton, shouted out to us, ‘Jump in and swim over!’ We leapt over the side in our trunks and started swimming but the closer we got, the girls’ boat moved further away.

I decided to swim back, but the current had carried us 300 yards from Mi Amigo.

So the captain of the pleasure boat threw us a line and pulled us through the sea, nearly drowning us, and the current ripped [fellow DJ] Spangles Muldoon’s swimming trunks off! He had to climb back onto the ship with his bare bottom for all to see!   

Swapping beers with Radio London

The three pirate stations off Essex – Caroline, England and London – were anchored in a line on a sandbank, where the seas would be less rough. We were very jealous that Radio London had Guinness on board! We would lower the lifeboat, put a few cases of Heineken in there, chug over to their ship and do a trade. 

It wasn’t just for the kids

We’d get lovely old ladies listening to Caroline. They’d adopt the DJs and, at Christmas, knit us socks and sweaters. We had one chap pull up in a dinghy – he was on a fishing holiday in Clacton – and ask if we wanted anything from the shops! It was illegal to supply a pirate ship, but he insisted, and got us a fishing rod, newspapers and some Smarties. What a hero!

The end

14 August 1967 was a big moment. The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act came into effect at midnight, but I carried on broadcasting. That night they estimated that across Europe 22 million had tuned in to see if we really would stay on the air.

I was a criminal [the Mi Amigo was boarded by the authorities and Caroline closed down in March 1968]. I couldn’t come back to England – I had to do a 24-hour trip in terrible storms and rough seas to Holland.

…a memo went round the BBC that said, ‘On no account must any producer hire the services of Johnnie Walker until at least a year has passed…’

I later discovered that a memo went round the BBC that said, ‘On no account must any producer hire the services of Johnnie Walker until at least a year has passed… to let the taint of criminality subside’. It was a difficult time. I joined an agency and did part-time van driving.

Johnnie was eventually forgiven by the BBC and joined Radio 1 in April 1969.

Experience a pirate ship on August 14

BBC Radio Essex and BBC Online are recreating the pirate station on a boat in Harwich Harbour with a special live broadcast on 14 August. BBC Radio 2 will celebrate with Johnnie Walker Meets the Pirates.

Listen to Radio Caroline online

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