Tony Blackburn has enjoyed something of a revival of fortune recently, becoming "King of the Jungle" in a celebrety TV show, and making guest appearances as a nightclub deejays. Tony's deejay career actually started around 40 years ago. His former colleague Colin Nicol - who was also on Radio Caroline - asked Tony how it all started...

The full version of this interview can be found in OEM 55 and 56 .

COLIN NICOL: Lets start at the beginning, how and when did you first hear of pirate radio?

Tony Blackburn: The first time I heard of Caroline was seeing it on one of the ITV programmes, something like "This week" down in Poole in Dorset. I read an advert in NME wanting DJ's for Caroline. I applied and got a letter back, from Ronan O'Rahilly I think, there were two letters, the first said "We've listened to your tape, we like it please come up and see us and do an audition". The other one read "Sorry but your tape was at the wrong speed, we couldn't hear it", I got a date to go up there and ignored the second letter. I went up to Caroline House and they did an audition with me down in the basement of 6 Chesterfield Gardens and they said "Well fine, I didn't want a tape, it was alright, but do it again" so I did another audition for him the same day. That was on a Monday, they said "Go away and come back this afternoon and we'll let you know". So I went away and walked around Hyde park and then went back, I was asked "Can you start tomorrow", I said "Can I start Wednesday" and so I started two days later.

CN: What were your feelings about living up to this?. Did you feel you were going into something significant in your life or was it a passing fancy?.

TB: Oh no, I'd been trying to get into show-business, into singing for ages, at the same time I got a job with the Johnny Howard Orchestra I was trying to break into the recording bussiness. I was using it to get closer to records really, I actually hadn't heard Radio Caroline but when I was in London I listened to it a little bit and it was always very exciting. You couldn't get into the BBC in those days, or Luxembourg, because it was a closed shop really, they'd say go away and get experience, but there was no way to gain experience.

CN. You were an old man of 21 at that time.

TB: That's right, this must have been about July 1964. I was told to go to Liverpool Street and there I met Chris Moore who came out with me at the time. We came to Harwich and then going on board this littletender and seeing Radio Caroline for the first time. It was a little boat, ridiculously small really, with a massive aerial.

CN: Well Tony, incidents now, the big incident was the grounding, but before we get to that what things do you remember?. What stories come to you about the adventures of getting to the ship?. What was the record company that Allan Crawford ran?.

TB: He ran a record company called Bubble Records, he had his own reggae record company always playing dreadful records. We used to have a thing on the wall, whenever any DJ was fired we used to write the name up, there were something over 80 names on it.
I remember when we were trying to get a better signal into London, they moved us right down into the Thames Estuary, where all the tides come together. I remember we were actually strapped into our bunks, Keith Martin turned green, I've never seen someone turn so green before. The transmitter caught fire when they moved us, as well.

CN: The grounding, when was that?.

TB: Oh, in Summer 1965, none of us knew, we were watching BBC TV at the time and Anglia TV were flashing messages to us. Unfortunately we were watching the other channel and we were drifting, it was quite a high sea. I was in bed and Norman St.John came down and said you'd better get up and get dressed, I said why and he said "We're drifting and we're going into Frinton". I told him to go away, because we were always joking about it, then five minutes later the Captain came in and said "You must get dressed". I got dressed and went up and all the lights of Frinton were all around. We saw about three people walking on the seashore just 100 yards away, the Captain, in despair, shouted to himself "Mayday", he shouted and no one could hear and then there was a crunching noise. We saw the sea just coming in, there was a alight little bump and that was it, it was amazing.
Then this line came over from the lifeguards, I was the first one off and then we went into the Customs. It's amazing , if, we'd been just slightly down to the right, but we'd come between two breakers, for if we'd have been a little bit further we'd have been smashed, I'd doubt if we'd be here now. After that, there was another boat called the "Cheetah" and I went on that, there were about two or three of us. We woke up one morning and the boat was full of water on one side, we were towed back and it started sinking, into Harwich I guess. Tommy Vance was on board, the heating broke down and the transmitter never really got on properly. I remember Tommy and I were the only two left on, they fixed the transmitter the following day and I was on for 8 hours non-stop. I remember the Cheetah quite well, it was very comfortable, much more comfortable than Caroline.

CN: Do you remember any other incidents?.

TB: I remember going up the mast, Ronan 0' Rahilly offered 50 quid to anybody going up there, the Dutch seamen wouldn't go up there because there was a bit of a gale going on. I remember about three quarters of the way up the aerial was really swaying around, I was going with it and I thought I'll never do this again.
I never got the 50 quid from Ronan, he said "Well done" and that was it. But it got us back on the air, I think!.

CN: What else do you remember?.

TB: The "Lady Kent" used to come out with holidaymakers, the Captain on board was nice, he used to throw things over now and then. I remember looking through the binoculars at Frinton and Clacton, the big-wheel at Clacton, the funfair there. Sometimes on Saturday evenings you thought it would be really nice to be on shore, just doing natural things like anybody else, I remember the cars coming on top of Frinton and flashing their lights at us, that was nice.

CN. As far as food goes we were told by the people on shore that best quality food was ordered and paid for, but only the second quality found its way to us.

TB: Radio Caroline was always more of a piratical organisation than say Radio London and I always got the impression that it wasn't tremendously well organised on board. I remember the playlist, we ran this when it came out. Ken Evans was a very nice bloke and he was really into show-music, that was his sort of thing in life, there was a programme came on at 9 o'clock and that played show music as well. I remember when Radio London came along, I thought we'll pack it in, because the music they're playing was all the Top 40, pop music, and I thought that's going to take the audience. I remember doing a big band programme as well, it was between 7 and B I remember people writing in saying how lovely it was to hear a younger person so knowledgeable about bands, of course I was reading off the back of the covers.

CN: That was the foundation of your career?.

TB: That's right, I remember winning the Top DJ award in Holland from "Humo" magazine and going over and collecting it, that was a very exciting time.

CN. Did you feel any stirring of nostalgia for Caroline once you were on London?.

Ken Evans  

TB: Funny enough, no. The Radio London boat was much better, it was beautifully organised and the people on board I liked very much. The boat itself, the cabins and everything about it was better, it was my ambition to work on it and I thought it was nice exciting sounding radio. I had enough of Radio Caroline, but nevertheless I'm grateful to it as it gave me a start, but I think it was a good time to move on.

CN: The closing of Caroline?.

TB: I remember listening to the closing of Radio London and listening to Radio Caroline when it should have gone off the air. It was midnight, it just continued with Johnnie Walker, I thought it was really the closing of an era, because although they struggled on, once he'd said "we'll continue" the sound seemed to change overnight.
Radio Caroline never has been the same since that to me, it lost the spirit and I think it couldn't be as good as it was because the commercials went and the fight really was over. Radio One opened and the whole thing was really finished. They never really captured that sound again and never will. It did loose all the spirit although Johnnie Walker struggled on with it, it wasn't the same, it lost it's format. I think on board it was a family, the strength of Radio Caroline and the pirate ships was the family atmosphere, it was like a continuing story of people on the sea really. In the storms sometimes, particularly Radio Caroline where the studio was above sea-level, it used to really rock, but the records continued playing. I remember sometimes when I was doing my show, I used to get people to come in and make it sound more hectic than it really was, to throw ashtrays around the place, dramatising it, those sort of things.

All Copyrights reserved/OEM/Colin Nicol 1985.