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Proud pop pirate

Winnipegger was part of legendary offshore radio stations

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In the early 1960s, rock 'n' roll-crazed teens in the United Kingdom had few options to hear their favourite records on British airwaves. State-operated BBC limited the amount of rock played and exercised censorship over which songs received the all-important airplay. Independent Radio Luxembourg, broadcast from the continent, offered some relief, but it was often difficult to tune in to and only broadcast rock music in the late evening.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/10/2015 (2669 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the early 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll-crazed teens in the United Kingdom had few options to hear their favourite records on British airwaves. State-operated BBC limited the amount of rock played and exercised censorship over which songs received the all-important airplay. Independent Radio Luxembourg, broadcast from the continent, offered some relief, but it was often difficult to tune in to and only broadcast rock music in the late evening.

Enterprising Irish entrepreneur Ronan O’Rahilly saw an opportunity to tap into the huge youth market by circumventing the BBC’s exclusive hold on broadcast licensing. In 1964, he launched the first unlicensed pirate radio station, operating just outside British waters from a refitted ship named Mi Amigo.

Radio Caroline, named for U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s daughter, broadcast rock music 18 hours a day (or as long as the signal remained steady from the floating radio station) and offered American-style disc jockey patter, in contrast to BBC’s staid hosts. Two Radio Caroline ships operated simultaneously, one off the south Essex coast in the English Channel and another anchored off the Isle of Man. Advertisers were also keen to get on board the pirate-radio bandwagon, skirting the BBC commercial ban.

Howard Hicks on the deck of the L.V. Comet.

It was a winning formula that quickly spawned several imitators moored in international waters off U.K. coasts, such as Radio London, Radio England and Radio City.

Among Radio Caroline’s colourful crew of DJs, including Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko, Simon Dee, Johnny Walker, Spangles Muldoon and Keith Hampshire (who later found fame in Canada as a singer), was one Mel Howard, a.k.a. Winnipegger Howard Hicks.

 

“My middle name was Melvyn, so I just switched it around to Mel Howard,” says the retired schoolteacher from his riverbank home in North Kildonan.

Born and raised in Fort Rouge, Hicks attended Earl Grey and Kelvin schools. While his former classmates headed off to university, Hicks worked a summer at Rainbow Stage, then boarded a cargo ship in Montreal bound for the U.K.

Arriving at Leith, Scotland in the fall of 1961, he made his way to London, eventually landing a job at EMI Records’ Hayes, Middlesex offices and pressing plant. Among his duties was ensuring pressings were done on time.

He followed that with a stint with Trans-Canada Airlines (Air Canada) before talking his way into a gig as a DJ on the recently inaugurated Radio Caroline’s southern ship, Mi Amigo, in 1965.

“It was a brand-new experience for me,” recalls Hicks. “I remember thinking when I first boarded, ‘What am I gonna do now?’ I thought I was going to throw up. I felt like I was walking a tightrope.”

With no previous broadcasting experience, Hicks nonetheless jumped in headfirst.

“I only knew what I had heard on radio back in Winnipeg, guys like Doc Steen and Bob Washington at CKRC and Deno Corrie at CKY. But I didn’t have a great radio voice. I sounded more like Mickey Mouse. But the ’60s were boundless in opportunities, and I went for it.”

With an audience of some 2.5 million listeners, Radio Caroline was a powerhouse. Advertisers were eager to get their commercials on the air, while record labels fell over themselves to gain airplay, so much so they were willing to pay to get their latest offerings on air.

Randy Bachman recalls how in 1967, the Guess Who’s U.K. record label, King Records, run by Rita King, paid Radio Caroline and another pirate station, Radio London, hundreds of pounds to have His Girl played.

“It was commercial radio,” Bachman explains, “like buying airtime for a commercial; you bought airtime for your record. We were paying the same rates as a commercial for toothpaste or Corn Flakes.”

Radio Caroline DJs would be ferried out in a small boat (known as a tender) from Frinton-on-Sea near Harwich to the Mi Amigo, where then stayed on board for a two-week stint. Accommodations were spartan but decent. Meals were free, as were cigarettes and beer.

‘When I think back on it now, it was pretty exciting to be a part of a handful of us who did something special’

— Howard Hicks

“The Mi Amigo crew were all Dutch,” notes Hicks, “so we drank a lot of Heineken beer.”

When your two weeks were up, you would be transported back to the mainland for a few days off.

“We had to clear customs every time because we were coming in from international waters,” says Hicks.

Hicks kept a flat in Hampstead Heath and would make his way back to what was at the time Swinging London.

“I was paid 30 pounds a week, which was good money then. But there was nothing to spend it on on board, so you went home with it.”

Cheques were issued from a Liechtenstein bank, where the company was officially headquartered. The ship was registered under the Panamanian flag.

Hicks says life on board the Mi Amigo was nothing like the 2009 movie The Boat That Rocked (called Pirate Radio in the U.K.), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nighy.

“Drugs? Maybe Aspirin. And we would never go out in the tender at night, especially not in rough water. Also, there was nothing swinging around, like lights above us. Everything was recessed or otherwise secured.”

The job, however, was far from secure.

“Guys came and went all the time,” says Hicks. “They had a sign in the record library that said, ‘Don’t leave anything behind because you may not be back.’ It was survival camp.”

There was no news department. The newsman would listen to the BBC news, then repeat it all on air.

Nonetheless, there were hazards.

“We were glued to the weather report, because we were a sitting duck out on the English Channel,” recalls Hicks. “Occasionally, the mast light would go out, so no one would see us. This was a busy shipping channel, and we didn’t want to discover a huge cargo ship bearing down on us. The pirate vessels had no engines. The engines were removed and replaced with the transmission electronics. We were absolutely lifeless at sea — rudderless and powerless. Caroline lost its anchor once and drifted to shore and had to be towed back out to sea.”

Hicks at work.

Hicks left Radio Caroline at the end of 1965, landing a gig a few months later with another pirate station, Radio Scotland, whose ship, the L.V. Comet, was moored off the Scottish east coast near Dunbar on the North Sea.

“We broadcast right across the country, to the west coast,” he notes. “Radio Scotland was different than Caroline because Caroline was all rock, whereas Scotland was more eclectic. It was a real mix. Everyone had their own styles and sounds from the records they played. We had traditional Scottish music programs. I would even play some Sinatra in the afternoons.”

During his days on shore, Hicks would travel back to his flat in London. There, he was tasked with visiting all the record labels to pick up the new releases and bring them back to the L.V. Comet on his return.

“It was such a great time in music,” says Hicks, who was given the title of senior DJ. “I loved all the rock that was happening when the whole British Invasion thing was going on.”

He recalls Peter (Herman) Noone visiting the ship for an interview, as well as Peter & Gordon and Reg Presley of the Troggs coming on board to promote their records.

He also remembers the time a Royal Navy submarine surfaced alongside the L.V. Comet.

“I was petrified. I had never seen a submarine, and here was one literally 50 metres away. It was enormous. I thought we were going to be arrested. The captain signalled that he wanted to board us. I shut the radio signal off and we waited as he came over in a skiff. But he wasn’t there to arrest us. So we all had a few drinks, and off he went back to his submarine.”

Not everyone on Radio Scotland was cut out for sea duty. DJ Stuart Henry lasted two weeks on board the ship, suffering constant sea sickness. He would do his shows with a bucket beside him to throw up in while records played. In the end, station owner Tommy Shields allowed Henry to pre-record his shows onshore and send the tapes to the ship.

During Hicks’s 18-month tenure with Radio Scotland, the ship was relocated to the west coast off Troon in an effort to improve their broadcast signal. After a few months, the ship returned to the east coast, towed back by a Clyde tugboat called the Wrestler. During the trip, the L.V. Comet broke its towline and was cast adrift until the tugboat managed to reconnect a line.

“I remember sitting in the captain’s quarters watching the horizon getting further and further way as we floated powerless,” says Hicks.

With a daily listenership of nearly 10 million throughout the entire country and a solid revenue stream from advertisers, pirate radio was perceived as a menace by the BBC. The state-run broadcaster lobbied Parliament to shut down the pirates.

“We weren’t doing anything illegal,” says Hicks. “We were operating in international waters, although that line of demarcation was a bit dodgy. But the pirates were selling commercials and getting almost the entire young listening audience, so the BBC felt threatened.”

A public campaign to save the pirate stations was mounted as the government prepared legislation to shut them down. On Aug. 14, 1967, the Queen signed into law the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, thereby shutting the pirates down. Radio Scotland signed off at midnight with a speech from owner Tommy Shields. Only Radio Caroline resisted and continued to broadcast until the Mi Amigo sank in rough waters. The following month, the BBC introduced Radio 1, a rock station. The first DJ was Radio Caroline veteran Tony Blackburn, who went on to become one of Britain’s top radio hosts.

“Many of the guys who started out on the pirates found work on the BBC,” says Hicks.

Hicks on-board Radio Caroline's Mi Amigo.

“The advent of the offshore, so-called pirate, radio stations in 1964, combined with the rise in beat groups, transformed British society,” respected U.K. music historian and author Spencer Leigh said in an exclusive interview. “They were shut down legally in 1967, mainly on the grounds that they were a hazard to shipping, but they had forced the BBC to make itself more youth-oriented. Popular music has been at the forefront of British culture ever since.”

Out of a job, Hicks returned to London and was rehired by Air Canada, where he worked for another year or so before coming back to Winnipeg. He took a job at the Stag Shoppe menswear store on Portage Avenue before CJOB’s Cliff Gardner hired him for the station.

“I worked my way through just about every job in the station,” Hicks laughs. “I was John Harvard’s board engineer, then I did midnights, then evenings, to weekends, then promotion manager, writer, and finally to doing remotes, all the while earning my degree in education. When I started teaching elementary in Weston, I was 29 or 30. The principal told me that he would give me until Christmas to see if I worked out.”

Hicks stayed on, and later moved to River Elm School in North Kildonan, where he stayed until retiring.

“The whole pirate radio story has taken on a life of its own over the years,” reflects Hicks. “It’s been so mythologized. I look at the books about pirate radio, and there are I am. Is that me? It’s hard to believe sometimes. But it was so much fun. You couldn’t have had more fun if you were in the middle of the funhouse. I loved the music and the people that I met. I made lifelong friends from those days. When I think back on it now, it was pretty exciting to be a part of a handful of us who did something special.”

Hicks has attended several pirate radio reunions in recent years and is currently working on a radio special about Radio Scotland for Scottish radio.

Recently, he discovered an artifact from his pirate days on eBay.

“We used to sit down in the record library on occasion and answer fan mail,” he recalls. “We didn’t think much about it, but years later, there was one of those fan letters I wrote and signed for sale on eBay. It sold for US$20. The fellow had kept it all these years.”

 

With thanks to Ray McClelland. Sign up for John Einarson’s Off the Record music history courses at mcnallyrobinson.com.

John Einarson

John Einarson

Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.

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