Pirate Radio and 60s Neurotic Housewives

Pirate radio

Pirate radio was a big part of youth culture in the UK in the 1960s.


However, as I found out when wandering round a small travelling exhibition about it last year, housewives also formed part of the target audience for pirate radio. That surprised me because I had thought it was all for us rebel kids of the era. People of a certain age in the UK will probably remember the pirate radio ships with great fondness. They were moored out in the North Sea, broadcasting the 'devil's music', otherwise known as pop. Old army forts were also used to broadcast from out in the middle of the rough English seas. It was all very dramatic and anti-establishment. Or so it seemed at the time.

Illegal pirate radio stations had to use offshore ships or sea-forts to get around British broadcasting laws.

Illegal pirate radio stations had to use offshore ships or sea-forts to get around British… Click To Tweet

Unregulated radio transmission for entertainment or political purposes was, and still is, illegal. Somehow, going out to sea got around those laws until they made another law called the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act to sort it out. There is a brilliant film called The Boat That Rocked. The film aimed to sum up the mood of 60s pirate radio - and it is a fabulous film.

However, according to people I have spoken to who were actually on board some of those ships at the time, the film is not an entirely accurate portrayal of how things really were. It's still a brilliantly entertaining and nostalgic film and as Bill Nighy is in it, I don't care if it is accurate or not - he is a genius actor. 

But enough of that - let me introduce you to Ted Allbeury, pirate radio's saviour of 60s housewives. If you haven't already done so, read the press cutting pictured here and then try not to get mad at him. His kind words must have been a great comfort to 60s housewives. Thank goodness he was around to tell them they were 'not necessarily neurotic'. Say what? Seriously?  Brave man. No Ted, they were all sitting at home waiting for Germaine Greer to happen.

I saw the cutting pinned to a board a couple of summers ago when the travelling pirate radio exhibition came to town. Some of the pirate radio ships were moored off the coast of the seaside town where I now live and the exhibition served to remind us all of our misspent youth. 

Listening to pirate radio under the covers at night on transistor radios was a huge thrill because our parents hated the music.

Listening to UK pirate radio under the covers at night on transistor radios was a huge thrill. Click To Tweet

(Younger people may not know what transistors were, let's just say they were the iPods of the day but with someone else choosing the music and deciding when you could hear it.)

When I first saw the cutting and read Mr. Allbeury's patronising words, I assumed he had been another one of the many 'off the wall' DJs who filled the airwaves with their misguided 60s sexism. I took the picture half thinking I would use it in a blog post and then forgot about it. When found it again recently,  I Googled Ted Allbeury to see if he had been very widely known in the 60s. I was shocked at what came up. If what good old Wikipedia says is true, Mr. Allbeury was the furthest thing from your average 'wild and crazy' 60s DJ that you could get.

According to Wiki - his full name was Theodore Edward le Bouthillier Allbeury and he was an author of British espionage fiction. His list of published novels is long. He had also been an intelligence officer for the British Secret Service during the second world war. He had a remarkably exciting life doing macho stuff, like parachuting into Nazi Germany - as you do. During the Cold War he, according to Wiki, was captured while running agents between East and West Germany. He was then tortured for his efforts. This man was no flake.

What I read kind of confirmed what I had suspected for years - that the whole pirate radio thing may have been a massive, elaborate  set-up.

In recent years, I came to suspect that the whole pirate radio thing was an exercise in social engineering using 'pop music' to brainwash the teenage  masses into the kind of thinking the ruling classes wanted them to have at the time. What better way to attract a whole generation towards the sexist message you want to spread than to encourage them to think the pirate radio ships were run by rebels wanting to get one over on the establishment?

The lovely Ted Allbeury, far from being a wild and crazy pirate radio rebel was a former British war-time spy. He was more James Bond than Jimi Hendrix and was extremely 'establishment'. He was also the Managing Director of Radio 390, a pirate radio station based at Red Sands Fort off the coast of Whitstable in Kent. He later moved on to a ship-based pirate station called Radio 355. He was clearly, in my opinion, on another mission. But this one was to help the establishment channel the masses with pop lyrics - pretty much the way they still do today. 

My memories of pirate radio, like many people of my era, evoke thoughts of the innocence and excitement of the time.

It was all about Swinging London, Carnaby Street, Mods and Rockers, mini-skirts, the Beatles and Andy Warhol. But as I began to read further into the history of pirate radio, I realised we'd all been had. They were not run by a bunch of random hipsters who wanted to bring music to the kids in an outrageous way that flouted the law. The masterminds behind it all included big businessmen  in the US who, it appears, were involved in politics. Reading deeply into the background of pirate radio reveals truths I would rather not face.

Reading deeply into the background of UK pirate radio reveals truths I would rather not face. Click To Tweet

Well that's another dream shattered. I always thought the pirate radio stations were run by, well... nice pirates wearing flared jeans, cheesecloth shirts while smoking the odd joint. To me, they were rebels who commandeered old ships and forts to play us the pop music that formed the soundtrack of our young lives. But it so was not like that at all.

Since reading up on Ted Allbeury, I feel a bit like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz when she found the man behind the curtain, controlling the image of the wizard. I wish I hadn't started looking. And all because of that stupid press cutting telling 60s housewives that they were not necessarily neurotic because they were at home all day feeling lonely. I mean seriously, thank God for Germaine.

What are your memories of pirate radio or the pop culture of your day?

8 comments

  1. Hi Gilly! I made it over here and promise to read up this week, because yay–someone who write lots of WORDS! 🙂

    And you’re in the UK, be still my heart. I’m a total medieval English history geek.

    I hear you. I wish all the things that seem like they’re run by cool hipsters really were, but sadly the man behind the curtain often turns out to be an unpleasant surprise.
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    1. Hi Stef – Really pleased to have you here! Can’t believe you are into the medieval period! So am I. Have you read The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett? Fiction but based on how life really was. One is set in the 1100s and the other in the 1300s following the descendants of the characters in the first book. All from the peasant point of view. I am halfway through the second book and already panicking about finishing it because I love being in that world, covered in shit and running away from noblemen trying to oppress me ( bit like real life!!!!!). Thanks so much for reading and commenting and you are right, there is often an unpleasant surprise behind the curtain – best not to look!

      1. Those Kent Follett books… esp. Pillar of the Earth, are two of my favorites. I’d also say, if you love reading about the British (or at least English) Monarchy … try Jean Plaidy. (I guess starting with her book “The Bastard King” about William Duke of Normandy.

        I love British history as well, and I’m so glad to meet you Gilly. 🙂 What part of England are you from? (My mom is from Kirkintilloch, Scotland.)

  2. Great post, Gilly. Of course, I was very young during the Pirate Radio days, but I do remember listening, and you could only get the station at night, under the covers, and I had to twist and turn the transmitter to get that. I remember the Mayday signal one night, I thought it was a joke, but I they did sound a little scared. I knew I was listening to a part of history. The ship was going down. It was in the papers the next day.
    I moved on to Radio Luxembourg , after that. The music was more a mix of American and European cool. They were not aimed at housewives. It was odd to imagine a tiny principality in Europe could be so hip, the music was amazing. It was a real coming of age during those times. Thanks for the memories, Gilly
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    1. Hi Judith, lovely to see you again and really pleased to hear about your radio memories. Wow, you heard the ship going down!!!!! I remember it happening but I didn’t hear it. That was a serious piece of music history. I was pretty young too, around 9 or 10 when I was listening but pop music was absolutely in my blood even from that age. I remember Radio Luxembourg, another name that stirs up fond memories. I loved Radio London and remember making and colouring in a poster saying something like RIP Radio London when it shut down as I was so heartbroken! Thanks for telling me your memories – love it!

  3. Don’t know about the sexist angle, being a bloke, I just loved the music, perhaps nostalgia makes it better than it really was.
    Rock on.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. You may be right about the nostalgia thing. I just loved the whole feel of that time as music became bigger and bigger in our lives. Great times to grow up in.

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