Remembering The Big-L : Radio London 50 Years On

Earlier this year we celebrated Radio Caroline which first went on the air at Easter 1964. Radio Caroline was Britain’s very first offshore pirate radio station but it was not as popular nor was it as profitable as Radio London which was first heard with test transmissions on 5th December 1964.

Radio London was the most popular and profitable of all the 60’s U.K. offshore radio stations. It gained many millions of listeners and, despite being on the air for only 32 months (closing on 14th August 1967) the Big L, Radio London left behind an enduring legacy as the first station to bring format radio, ID jingles and regular news bulletins to Britain. Radio London also provided the model, and a lot of the DJ talent (e.g. Tony Blackburn, Pete Brady, Dave Cash, Kenny Everett, John Peel, Keith Skues, Ed Stewart, …), for the BBC’s new pop music service, Radio One which started in September 1967.

Philip Birch was Radio London’s Managing Director but in the words of Gordon Sheppard, Big-L’s promotions manager: “Philip Birch WAS Big L … The real financial brain, the controlling wizard that made it all work. … He put together that terrific team: Ben Toney, Alan Keen (Sales & Programme Controller), Eddie Blackwell and Dennis Maitland (Advertising Managers), Mike Stone (Press & Publicity). … In pirate offshore radio (1964-1967), Philip Birch stands taller than most. He put together that amazing team and has to have pride of place.”

In 1980, several years after Radio London had closed, Philip Birch gave an extensive interview recounting Radio London’s history. The recording also includes many original Radio London jingles, its famous Big-L theme tune and the voices of Paul Kaye, Dave Cash, Kenny Everett, Mark Roman, and other Wonderful Radio London voices.

Here are a few more useful Big-L Radio London links:
1. OffshoreRadio.co.uk recently updated its site and mark the Big L’s 50th anniversary with a six-part Radio London Story.

2. If you’re interested in pics, there are plenty to see here from Martin Stevens collection.
And here are more pictures by Gerry Bishop, Hans Knot and John Platt.
Plus more fascinating Big L pics here.

3. On 23rd December 2014 Chris and Mary Payne who jointly run the Radio London website, organised a 50th anniversary celebration on a floating pub on a ship moored on the river Thames in central London. Those attending included Big L DJs Duncan Johnson, Pete Brady, Keith Skues, Ed Stewart, Ian Damon as well as engineer David Hawkins and the m.v. Galaxy’s steward Mitch Philistin, who having crossed the Atlantic ocean with the ship in 1964, worked throughout all of Radio London’s life.

4. Radio London’s first Programme Director, Ben Toney, tells his fascinating story of “The Amazing Radio London Adventure“.

5. And to listen again to the Big-L, Azanorak has one of the biggest online collections of recordings to download for free. From test transmissions in December 1964 to close-down in August 1967, listen once more to Pete Brady, Earl Richmond, Dave Dennis, Paul Kaye, Tony Windsor, Dave Cash, Kenny Everett, Duncan Johnson, Tony Blackburn, Keith Skues, John Peel, Ed Stewart and many more.

6. Listen to DJ Keith Skues’ potted history of Radio London which he presented over the air on Big-L on 23rd July 1967, a couple of weeks before the station closed. This abridged version lasts about 31 minutes and includes jingles, the Big-L “Sonowaltz” theme and other well known Radio London promotions. Note that this recording is in .mp3 format within a password-protected .zip file. After downloading the .zip file to your computer, please contact us to obtain the password which you’ll need in order to unzip the file.

Rare Pirate Radio Anthem Discs Discovered

rni-1
Do you remember a song called: Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Wilson?

How good is your memory?

Well, here’s a hint… we need to go back more than 40 years…

Back in 1970 there was no Internet, no music streaming, no music downloads and if you were living in Britain and wanted music on the radio there was only 1 station: BBC Radio One. And because of union restrictions known as “needle time” even monopoly Radio One didn’t play music all the time. OK, there was also evenings-only 208 Radio Luxembourg if you were happy to put up with music fading in and out.

And millions of British people at the time were very, very hungry for more music as they had already proven after the huge success of the offshore radio stations like 266 Radio London, 259 Radio Caroline, Radio 390 and several others, all of which the then Labour government had decided to outlaw 3 years earlier in 1967.

Mr Harold Wilson’s Labour government was dogmatically opposed to any form of commercial radio but was in for a surprise when a new radio ship called Radio Northsea International (RNI) appeared in international waters off the coast of Clacton, Essex in March 1970.

His government’s reaction was to start jamming RNI’s programmes in April 1970 in an unprecedented attempt to prevent British listeners hearing its output. RNI responded with pro-Conservative political messages for the general election on 18 June 1970.

Some weeks earlier, RNI’s programme director, Larry Tremaine, had had the bright idea of recording an alternative version of the signature tune to the popular BBC-TV comedy series “Dad’s Army” as a sort of campaign song.

The lyrics were changed, the title became: “Who Do You Think You’re Kidding Mr. Wilson?” and the song was recorded at IBC recording studios at Portland Place, London — a lucky coincidence for UK commercial radio because IBC had been the company, owned by the legendary Leonard Plugge, which organised the very popular English language commercial radio programmes from Radio Normandy way back in the 1930’s.

Here is Larry Tremaine explaining to Paul Rowley on the BBC programme “The Radio Election” how “Who Do You Think You’re Kidding Mr Wilson” came to be created:

 
RNI changed its name to “Radio Caroline International” during the week of the June 1970 election and repeatedly played “Who Do You Think You’re Kidding Mr. Wilson?” which was very popular. But it was never actually issued to the public as a vinyl record.

So exactly how many acetates of the recording were made?

RNI’s programme director, Larry Tremaine has said that “major rock stars” were in the studio during the recording and he also says that only three (3) acetate record pressings of the song were made and he has one of them.

The other two copies were sent to the m/v Mebo II for playing over the air during the election campaign and one of those copies was kept by RNI DJ Alan West, who, some months later, offered it for sale.

In about 1971 Alan West attended several CIB committee meetings, at one of which he lent his acetate copy to CIB’s John Ker, who now takes up the story:
“… I met DJ Alan West who would often come to CIB meetings. In about early 1971 he lent me his copy of the acetate which I took to Graham Bunce (BBC engineer) and he transcribed the disc to tape. He took a great deal of care to ensure a really good quality transfer to tape (15 ips. filtered and re-equalized using an “Astronic” graphic equalizer). Having returned the original acetate to Alan West, I took the tape to IBC Studios (in the basement of 35, Portland Place – just opposite Broadcasting House) and had five (5) acetates cut. I was very pleased by the fact that they were recorded onto exactly the same acetate blanks as the original at IBC, i.e. near perfect clones. The only differences were that the group “The Opposition” was typed on these blanks whereas on the original “The Opposition” was hand-written and included mention of “Beacon Records”.”

According to DJ Alan West, Beacon Records was, at the time, R.N.I.’s “secret London address”.

Of those 5 acetate pressings, John Ker says he kept one for himself, he gave one to Graham Bunce and two to CIB’s Fred Bunzl. John Ker cannot now remember who had the fifth pressing!

Fred Bunzl kept his two acetate discs together with his record collection until they were all packed away into cartons when his wife and he emigrated from the UK in 1976. He didn’t give them much thought until recently when he was compiling old CIB documents for publication elsewhere on this web site.

Fred has now scanned and uploaded his two discs. You can also download a direct copy of the recording.

And here is a scan of what may be one of the original acetate pressings.

Asked what he intends doing with these two rare copies of “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Wilson”, Fred said: “I haven’t yet decided. If there’s enough interest I’d like to auction them off and give all the proceeds to charity.”


Download the audio of this rare acetate pressing here.