Born in Walthamstow, London E17 in 1952, I went to boarding school
near Sevenoaks, Kent until 1961 and then, moving back to London, I became
a full-time boarder at St Mary's Town and Country School, Hampstead
London NW3. My interest in radio began during my teenage years,
along with a number of school friends when we discovered the proliferation
of Offshore Pirates that anchored around the British Coast from 1964
onwards. Caroline, Radio London, Radio England and Britain Radio, Radio
City Radio 270, Radio Veronica, 390, to name a few
were all easy to receive in Northwest London, and we quickly became
fans of Radio London & Caroline in particular. Frequently, Friday
afternoon games, consisted of sitting on a park bench in a gloriously
summery Hampstead Heath, listening to Radio Caroline. I even recall waking up at 5:30AM in the Boarding house to hear the Big Lil play out in full on Radio London. The school had
an unusually large number of students connected with show business too,
and coupled with a progressive and creative education, my lifelong love
affair with the media, and radio in particular began. The concept of
bobbing about on the North Sea playing illicit music like 20th Century
minstrels* appealed to me. Although Dylan was clearly writing about
other matters, the spirit of the song "Mr Tambourine Man"
inspired me - read his lyrics at the bottom of this page, and I think
you will understand.
Meanwhile, Radio Caroline had ceased broadcasting in 1968 after the supply/tug company Weismuller dramatically seized both ships and towed them back the Holland, in the hope that outstanding debts would be paid. Unfortunately Radio Caroline's money had really run out, and the two ships were abandoned in a back water in Zaandam. Holland was a great place for teenagers wanting adventure, and I had visited it back in 1971 with another school friend John O'Sullivan, needless to say, he was also interested in Pirate Radio. It seemed a good idea to see if we could find the famous Mi Amigo, and after a bit of searching we spotted the famous mast in a grassy banked quayside. People were working onboard, and we were told it was being transformed into a Pirate Radio Museum. We did not get onboard, but I took this photo at the time, and remarked to John, that it would be even better if it could be towed back out to sea, and start broadcasting again!
Back working in London, I naturally continued to keep an eye on any developments with Caroline, and then in 1972 I heard about the intentions to return the Mi Amigo to the North Sea and re-start broadcasting! The Museum story had simply been a very clever cover, to get the ship sea-worthy again. No mean feat since this included pumping out the lower decks which were flooded, drying out the transmitter components which had also been submerged for 3 years, and clearing up the mess left by vandals, who had thrown singles all around the ship, and let off all fire extinguishers etc. Incredibly, late in 1972 Test Broadcasts could be heard in the UK.
It was Christmas 1972 and I had decided it was time for my move. I recorded a demo tape with the help of John Ker, gathered some useful jingle and production masters and headed for Holland fully intending to get a job. John O'Sullivan came with me, once again, we hired a car and we had a short break around our favourite haunts in Amsterdam, then I planned to go to Caroline for the job interview, with John returning to the UK.
I arrived at the Caroline office which was at the time in Zeekant, Scheveningen overlooking the sea, and with the Caroline, Veronica and RNI ships visible on the horizon from the window. On the way upstairs, I passed Graham Gill who was heading down at the time. I recall he turned and gave me a strange yet not unfriendly lingering look, which I later learned was because I was being 'graded'. Graham, it seems, was a connoisseur of boys' bums, and I had just been awarded a Grade 'A'. Fortunately, the three predatory gays around, Graham, Tony & Andy, had a policy of leaving colleagues alone, for the sake of peace on board, but I digress.
The Caroline people were renting the top floor of the Zeekant property as a centre of operations - come office - come sleeping quarters. The Boss was Chris Cary (assisted by his lovely wife Kate), he came across as friendly and a dynamo of energy which he fuelled on a diet of Coke and Mars bars. 'I wanna be a DJ' I said, in true tradition, or words to that effect anyway. I retrieved my audition tape from my holdall, and allowed Chris to see all the Jingle tapes too, which would be very useful onboard, and would come free with me, if hired, as a bonus! OK, he said, but we cannot play your tape since we have no tape machine here. No bother I said, I have a mate in the Hoek van Holland who will lend me one, so I nipped off down to the Hook, with my hired car and the friend Martin Van Dussen kindly lent me his machine.
I returned to the office and played Chris and some others my demo. Amongst my choice of Music on that demo was Bob Dylan, Melanie, Santana, George Harrison and some other cool sounds. Chris said "Hey he sounds like a John Peel, we could use someone like that - You are hired." To celebrate we had a couple of joints, and I knew I had achieved the first stage of my plan. I was on the right wavelength. Actually he told me later, that if someone in a foreign country could, at the drop of a hat, come up with a tape recorder, then they must be a useful person to have around!
Chris contacted the ship by shortwave radio. and advised that a new DJ was coming out, Andy Archer announced my planned arrival on air, saying "Norman Barrington, our newest DJ is coming out this week". It seemed a bit unreal, after all, I had given up a well paid job in the city without any warning, obviously I said nothing at work since it might have not turned out the way I planned, but the fact is, I didn't give myself any warning either, though, some philosopher once said "Nothing has a longer preparation than the impulsive act". Perhaps if I had given the move more conscious thought I would had never done it. From the Bank's point of view, I simply did not turn up the next Monday, and they never saw me again. But for me, events were to become even more unreal.
I stayed for a couple of days at the Zeekant, and soon realised that the Caroline operation was not without it's funny moments. Chris was being continuously hounded by the PTT for illegal use of shortwave radio to the ship. How much simpler things would have been for us had they invented mobile phones by 72! One one occasion Chicago risked life and limb bringing a brand new radio link over only to loose his balance climbing the gangplank onto the tender, and dumping himself and the valuable Radio into the murky green Scheveningen Harbour, in retrospect lucky he wasn't crushed! But The Pleiters, owners of the house at Zeekant were also wanted by the police, when the police swooped the very next day, Mr Pleiter had disappeared (Now that may not seem funny, but when you realise the the Dutch word 'pleiter' actually means dissapear! you can see why we all laughed) and while they were searching the house, we were all keeping low key on the top floor hoping we wouldn't be involved. To my amazement, looking down to the street below, I could see the Pleiters' 14 year-old son running round deflating all the tyres on the police car
It was the last week of December 1972, and just as I was finally due to go out on the tender from Scheveningen, the Mi Amigo was gone!, Literally! Unbelievably the Dutch crew had had the ship towed into the Westhaven in Central Amsterdam. Instead of going down to the tender, we all drove up to Amsterdam, and so it was that my first experiences onboard were like a nightmare, there we were, anchored just at the back of Central Station in Amsterdam! - not at all what I had anticipated. Why were we there? The Dutch crew had been convinced by their lying captain that although they had received no wages of late, the British DJs HAD been paid. This resulted in the very much publicised mutiny resulting if the ship very much inside the six mile limi - Amsterdam! They hoped that this would prompt Ronan O'Rahilly to pay up. Here's a newspaper cutting during the mutiny incident, of the ship in Amsterdam harbour on December 30th 1972, you can see me, Rob Eden, The Late Crispian St John (AKA Howard Rose), Steve England and Peter Chicago (AKA Murtha) just coming out of the door. I think we have a definite air of defiance about us, in this shot?
It was certainly like the history of 1968 repeating itself. However money was short - we hadn't been paid yet either. Thinking of my - now lost - bank job, as I looked out of the porthole, with a clear view of central Amsterdam was not funny. However the Dutch celebrate the New Year big-time and so it was, during these celebrations, that it was decided to sneak back out to sea (the date was now January 1st 1973), slowly along the canal to IJmuiden we progressed, the tension was palpable. Adding to the drama, we were held up there because the port authorities decided that we must weld up some a hole (quite high up aft, but sufficient to be of concern), before they would allow us out to open sea. Unfortuantely at this point, the news of our escape from Amsterdam was broken on the Dutch National radio, and the angry crew heard the news, that we had slipped away, realising we were heading back to sea, it was a race against time, they called their solicitors (remember it was a public holiday) and then tried to head us off at IJmuiden, with a writ to try to stop us! With the welding just finished, and the all-clear from the officials, I remember that we sailed clear of the harbour just as the crew arrived, the tension was unbelievable, with angry sailors running along the harbour wall and out to the very end, fists waving in the air. I remember one lady onboard, Kate Carey, in tears, we were on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Well we made it back, I then started what was to prove an incredible chapter of my life as an offshore DJ. The following years, saw masts collapse, masts rebuilt -all at sea!- Force twelve hurricanes, the start of the short lived Radio Seagull, The start of broadcasting pre-recorded programs of Radio Atlantis, then Radio Mi Amigo on which I also did English programs, plus the remarkable broadcasts from our ship for Radio Veronica while they were beached. This, during an important campaign for legalisation, prior to the Dutch Marine Offences Act coming into force. The book by Bob Noakes, called "The Last of the Pirates" (a copy of which, I was never given!) gives a surprisingly accurate account of life during that period, although, of course, very much from the authors perspective with serious ommisions where he would not appear favourably, and with a few other dodgy twists, but who can blame him for that?
Apart from being able to help with the sound of the station, developing a flair for production, we had many debates about what music Caroline should be playing. Some people, such as Chris Cary and Peter Chicago, the transmitter whiz-kid with much influence, felt we should broadcast the same music as back in 1968 and gradually wean listeners to more contemporary, progressive rock oriented music. Others, including myself, felt we should play the music that we thought Caroline would now be playing if it had never gone off, I wanted us to play music unavailable elsewhere. After all. Caroline had always filled this kind of role, and since we were competing with fast developing commercial radio in the UK, progressive rock seemed the perfect alternative. To see what we were aiming for, on Radio Caroline/Seagull at the time, please read this unedited interview, with me, back in 1973.
A bit of clever engineering by Peter
Chicago, resulted on our best period, during which we were able to satisfy
both camps, broadcasting top 40 music on 389mtrs (Later Dutch language
services) and Progressive Rock on 259mtrs combining both transmissions
in the evenings. I became a bit of a Jekyl & Hyde playing pop daytime
and making jingles and promos, and then progressive music in the evening with a really
laid back feel, enhanced with interesting cigarettes. We always had an ample supply
of exotic substances on board. Indeed should we run short, one of us would play
a dedication for our regular listener Mary Warner, this was the secret code to the
office for more stooffie as the Dutch crew called it. If it's not obvious to you try
saying her name quickly a few times....