Pirate Radio Ads

We travel back to the good old days of pirate radio and meet Luke Owen, the man behind a new collection of quirky between-song adverts that used to fill our illegal airwaves

More likely than not, the words “field recording” summon up an image of the music producer at play in nature, microphone in hand as they attempt to capture the sonic essence of babbling brooks or far-off thunder, ready to  give their latest ambient extravaganza a bit of originality. But there is a more anthropological, human side to the art which is just as long-standing. From the 1930s, Alan Lomax famously helped to preserve the folk and blues traditions of the US for future generations, creating a unique, instant window on the times in which they were created.

Which is very much the purpose of a series of releases emerging this year on London label Death Is Not The End. ‘London Pirate Radio Adverts 1984-1993 Vol 1’ is a fascinating collage of dozens of different advertisements specifically culled from pirate radio in the era prior to the massive boom in illegal stations that came with jungle, drum ’n’ bass and then grime.

Many older readers will remember adverts for underground events that you’d never hear of anywhere else, which seemed not only to flourish, but pack out massive venues way off the beaten track. The album’s opening ad, ‘Do You Remember?’, recalls the legendary Genesis raves and their various venues, which mythologised otherwise drab and glamour-free locations like Slough and Blackstock Road in north London, and encouraged ravers to ring a special phone line to record their memories of this alternative music history. Equally interesting are those more idiosyncratic parties – the Leyton-held ‘School Reunion’, which names the extensive list of schools and colleges invited, or the Bow event with DJ Hype, locatable through the admirably functional identifier ‘Next To Tescos’.

“There are a lot of events,” says Luke Owen, proprietor of Death Is Not The End. “Audio flyers for raves and rare groove parties and reggae nights – that’s a large part of it. But some of my favourites are menswear shops, video rental shops… and the thing that I was most amused by were dateline services, for people looking for a female raver to go on a date with.

“There are a few of those on the album, and it appears that the stations were running their own. It’s funny because as someone who only knows early rave culture through the internet and books, you get the impression that everyone was too pilled-up to go out shagging, but actually it seems as if they were well up for dating.”

The fact that small, mainstream businesses were advertising their services on these niche stations was testament both to their popularity and the lack of other alternatives.

“As a media style it’s pretty much dead now,” says Owen. “There are still a few adverts on big pirate stations, but if you’re a small independent retailer then you’re going to go on Instagram or somewhere similar to get your business known.”

With the rave connection, we’d assumed that Death Is Not The End is named after the seminal early rave album of the same name by Shut Up And Dance. Not at all.

“Nor is it a reference to the Bob Dylan song,” laughs Owen, whose day job is with leading underground music distributors Kudos. “It comes from an old gospel tune.”

His label’s Bandcamp page reveals an extensive catalogue of found sound and field recordings, blues, gospel, folk, some pre-1950s stuff and even the tape-based experiments of one Tiger Lily Hutchence Geldof.

Owen’s interest in pirate stations came from his upbringing close to the St Paul’s area of Bristol, the traditional home to the city’s ethnic minorities and its pirate stations.

“I’m 35, so that would have been the late 1990s and early 2000s,” he recalls. “So it was Full Cycle, Roni Size’s label, the full jump-up jungle era and the beginnings of grime. You used to pick up all the local pirate stations – there were lots of reggae pirates, you’d get three or four that were on regularly.”

He initially immortalised those days just over a year ago, with a tape compilation of Bristol stations of the 1980s through to the early 2000s.

“The idea was a slightly hyperbolised timeline of the time I spent living in Bristol, with snippets of music, DJs and tunes, but also chatter and ads. It was me just taking extracts of broadcasts and cutting between them as if you were turning the dial. Put a little bit of static in there and switch it up. It was rather slapdash, but it worked.”

It proved popular and was followed by a request from a mix blog called Blowing Up The Workshop. 

“That’s when I started diving into pirate radio archives online, on YouTube and Mixcloud, all the sorts of places where people were uploading mainly for the DJ sets, obviously. People recorded pirate radio for the DJ sets, not for the ads. Most of the time with those mixes, it’s just straight music. The ads have either been edited out or cut somehow. But I was more interested in what goes in between the music, the chat and the adverts, and I wanted to document them.”

Research into the roots of pirate stations threw up some interesting facts, like the concept of “needle time” where legal stations back in the 60s were forced by labels to only play part of a record. Pirate stations played them in full, and eventually legal stations followed suit. Owen also sought help from various authorities on the subject – Wayne Anthony (promoter of the Genesis raves and author of the acid tales bible ‘Class Of 88’) provided some recordings, as did writer Simon Reynolds.

So while it might seem like rather an odd jump for a field recording archivist, the parallels are clear in Owen’s mind.

“I quite liked the idea of nostalgia through sound and there’s a definite link between crackly 78s and the static on the radio. I guess the common factor running through Death Is Not The End is a) field recordings and b) low resolution recordings!”

‘London Pirate Radio Adverts 1984-1993 Vol 1’ is out on Death Is Not The End

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