“We really got seriously stoned,” says Radio 2 DJ Johnnie Walker. “I was trapped in the top bunk, too scared to get out, because it was such a long way down to the floor. Robbie Dale was at the front of the ship, gazing up at the night sky saying, ‘Oh you pretty stars, you’re so beautiful.’ Tommy Vance was throwing up at the other end of the ship.”
Walker, now 72, is remembering his days as a pirate on the high seas, one of the resident DJs on Radio Caroline, the station created in 1964 by Irish music promoter Ronan O’Rahilly. Set up as a way to bypass the stultifying stranglehold of the BBC Light Programme and Radio Luxembourg, Caroline quickly became a phenomenon, millions of listeners tuning into a station that, unlike the middle-of-the-road Light Programme, played nothing but pop at the exact moment pop was entering a period of never-to-be-repeated brilliance.
“The reason the pirates came on the air was the music,” says Walker. “We all wanted to hear the music and the BBC was reluctant to set up a station to do it.”
DJs Johnnie Walker (left) and Robbie Dale, of ship-based pirate radio station Radio Caroline South
Caroline was completely unlicensed but it sidestepped broadcasting regulations by operating from the MV Mi Amigo, a ship moored in international waters three miles off Frinton-on-Sea in Essex, a seaside resort then, as now, much loved by pensioners.
Such a direct challenge to the establishment was always going to be met, and the passing of the Marine Offences Act in 1967 by Harold Wilson’s Labour government would make it illegal for UK citizens to work on the ship only a year after Walker had joined.
Walker had been working as a car salesman until a point came when he had to decide: did he want to be a car salesman or a DJ? He chose the latter and immediately landed a job at pirate station Swinging Radio England, moored only a few hundred yards away from the MV Mi Amigo.
“We had to sleep in the hold, which we later discovered was used to bring back dead GIs from the Korean War,” he says. Walker jumped at the chance to make the move to Caroline, though life on board still carried risks. “There was no health and safety and there were some hairy moments. We had two cooks who used to have horrendous rows, there would be saucepans flying… another guy used to brandish knives at us.”
Day trippers would come out from Essex in boats to look at the exotic DJs. Occasionally fans would get a tour of the ship, but girlfriends would follow a slightly different route to boyfriends. “The contraceptive pill had arrived,” says an unrepentant Walker. “They were very free and easy times.”
In reality, life on board was relatively abstemious apart from occasional trips to the captain’s cabin, where “there was a big bottle”. Drugs were rare, the joints that made Tommy Vance ill had been supplied by a girlfriend in Kilburn called Dee Dee, who agreed to post Walker more when he broadcast a coded message.
“I played the Beach Boys then said, ‘Hi to Dee Dee in London. We’ve run out of tea.’” Within two days an envelope full of spliffs was delivered. “Then sacksful of PG Tips and Typhoo arrived. I’ve never seen so many tea bags in my life.”
Elsewhere, matters were more serious. In the aftermath of the shooting of Reginald Calvert of the pirate station Radio City by Radio Caroline executive Oliver Smedley in 1966, the move towards criminalisation of the pirate stations had been unstoppable and the date was set for 14 August 1967.
On the evening of 13 August 1967, Walker was broadcasting to an estimated 22 million listeners across the UK and Europe. “It was such an emotional time,” Walker says. “I was frightened to death. I was exhilarated, excited. It was just incredible. I knew the moment that the second hand swept past the 12, that if I said a word I’d be a criminal, liable for prosecution for the next two years, living in exile in Holland. It was a huge moment.”
When the fateful hour struck, Walker said, “This is Radio Caroline, it is now 12 midnight.” He then played the protest song We Shall Overcome, followed by a short message to Harold Wilson written by O’Rahilly and then the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love. “After that we opened the champagne.”
Walker stayed with Caroline until 1968, when he flew from Amsterdam back to the UK. Rather than being arrested he was offered a job at the new Radio 1. Perhaps because he is a natural pirate, Walker’s relationship with the BBC has been colourful ever since, leaving in 1976 to travel across the US because “they told me I couldn’t play any more album tracks”. In 1999 he was temporarily suspended from the Radio 2 drivetime slot after the tabloids revealed his cocaine use.
Walker is now the presenter of Sounds of the 70s. “I’ve seen people leave the BBC at the end of their careers unwillingly, like Jimmy Young and Brian Matthew,” he says. “I don’t want to do that. I always say to my wife Tiggy, ‘When I start talking nonsense, you tell me when it’s time to go and I’ll go.’ I want to just catch it before they’re about to get rid of me.”
But there was a time when Walker was such a powerful radio presence the British state reached out to crush him. Fifty years after the event, he recalls hundreds of fans driving to Essex and parking on the shoreline to show their support.
“I wouldn’t describe myself as a megalomaniac,” says Walker. “But right then I was. I stood on the deck with the microphone that night. After I said, ‘Lights on!’ the entire coast, as far as you could see, became a blaze of light. It was phenomenal. I do feel sorry for the folks of Frinton, but there you go.”
By Michael Hodges
Johnnie Walker Meets the Pirates Monday 10.00pm Radio 2