The Music of Radio Caroline (late 80s)Posted: January 17, 2010
Comment from “Peter B” about Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline
Loved the movie. Read this book and liked it. What a story. My only complaint was that music played such a small part of the story. If music so important to risk your life, at least give us play list. Songs listed were weak…no Clash, U2, Cure, Pfurs, Who, RStones etc. What gives?
The above comment, which came in to me recently, raises a very valid point, and one that was indeed on my mind when the book came out.
The music played, and various music formats of Caroline have been a subject of huge debate over the years, not least amongst the presenters themselves, so I thought that rather than a quick reply to just Peter, it might be better going into more detail for a wider audience. So this post serves as both a reply to Peter’s question, and an introduction to some more detailed information that I will make available here over a period of time.
During Radio Caroline‘s long life, it went through many different musical phases, so much so that it could almost be regarded as different stations in its different eras (though, through continuity of Ronan O’Rahilly, the ships, and some staff members from era to era it was demonstrably the same operation). I know that in the 60s it was quite pop and chart orientated for a while, whereas during the 70s it was prog rock and album focused, but my own area of speciality would be how it sounded in the late 1980s, which was when I was personally involved.
To answer Peter’s question about music in the book, he is correct to say that as what we were doing was all “for the music” that it features surprisingly little in the text. It was not always thus – my first draft of the book was 220,000 words long, and the more polished version submitted for publication was 176,000 words, a portion of which documented in detail the day to day running of the music rotations under my control in 88/89, the long running disagreements between various factions of staff about what Caroline should be doing musically, and a number of behind the scenes changes I made to the standard 558 clock format in late 88 and early 89 to give the station more musical variety, and defuse some of the criticisms from staff uncomfortable with the tight formatting.
However, when the book was accepted for publication, I came face to face with some of the realities of commercial publishing – for a normal “trade paperback” which is what we eventually got, the ideal length would be 80,000 words, or roughly half of my already pared down first draft. In the end, we bargained it up to 90,000 words, but I still had to make pretty substantial cuts throughout the text of the book, losing many stories, and a great deal of repetitive comings and goings.
For this book, I really needed to keep the main bones of the two narrative stories I was telling intact – my own story of joining and growing as an individual, and the timeline of the series of events, disasters and recoveries that took Caroline from being a fully functioning, well run, high power station when I joined, to a near deserted and silent hulk when we finally went aground on the Goodwin Sands. There was a lot of stuff I couldn’t afford to lose without disrupting the timeline, which made the cuts to the more general background stuff deeper still.
Stripped of a lot of the detail to reduce wordcount, the bits about the music format discussions came across more as a series of petty arguments, and did not really reflect well the more complex situation whereby although almost everyone involved had different opinions, and often argued fiercely, we did so in a mostly supportive way. So in the end I settled for some simple descriptions of how the late 80s Caroline format worked, and a couple of references to the fact that there were mostly good-natured disagreements about it, which is about as much as I could get in a book of that length. If there had been a few less disasters in the 87-89 period, then there would have been more room to write about the music, but then, I suppose, the story might have been very different!
The artists Peter mentions, and many more besides, were indeed all played in the Caroline 558 era, and not just the obvious songs, but a great back catalogue including lesser known singles and album tracks. To take Bob Dylan as an example, you would be as likely to hear “Isis” or “Desolation Row” played on the breakfast show as “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “It Ain’t Me Babe“. The same could be said of artists who were new at the time – just about the only Suzanne Vega track played on mainstream radio was “Luka” but Caroline playlisted “Small Blue Thing” and “Marlene On The Wall” as well as other tracks.
Likewise in the mid 80s, Caroline was playing all of REM‘s stuff, first as current tracks on release, then later as back catalogue, years before they became fashionable on mainstream radio in the UK (which, if I recall correctly, happened with “Losing My Religion” in 1990 – Caroline had REM playlisted at least as early as “Don’t Go Back To Rockville” in 85).
Throughout the 558 era, alongside the 50% of playlist that came from the huge back catologue, and the 30% made up of Top 40 singles, 20% was playing new music on medium and high rotation, and here we really put our heart and soul in giving airplay to releases by new artists who you wouldn’t necessarily hear elsewhere. Some of these went on to be well-known names, others were never really successful, but all were given a chance.
The era of “Caroline 558” is often dismissed as “mindless pop” by people whose tastes did not include the Top 40 stuff, but to do so is to neglect the wide variety of other material also included in the format, and the sheer genius of the system designed by Peter Philips. This format rotated the back catalogue in such a way that once played, an oldie would not be heard again for 6 weeks, and then guarenteed to be in a different timeslot. This was in contrast to the ILR stations on land where the same “oldies” were rotated just days apart, or current day classic stations where you hear the same one or two best known tracks from each artist every single day.
I will, in a follow-up post to this, examine the 558 format in some detail, with details of the catagory breakdowns, the rotation periods, the “new music” from the period, and some sample playlists which I will cull from checking back over off-air recordings of the period. It will take me some time to put this together, so expect it in a few weeks, say the end of February.
To finish with a musical memory, and one of the bands mentioned by Peter, there is a particular Cure track which brings back a very vivid memory of Caroline for me. It’s not one of those dramatic moments, not a time of crisis, just an ordinary everyday moment, and all the more precious for being so. It dates from my early days on Caroline, when I was still new enough not to have any responsibilities other than the news shifts, and weekend overnight programmes. I didn’t have the weight of keeping it all running hanging on my shoulders at that time, and life was pretty sweet.
Sometime in the spring/summer of 1987, the song “Just Like Heaven” was released as a single by The Cure, and we were playing it on out C+ high rotation, new music list. It was the middle of the night, about 2.40am, and I had gone down to the galley to make myself a cup of tea. Everything was played off vinyl in those days, and we had no way of judging the length of a track other than by experience of already having played it (if the time was not marked on the record).
Anyway, somehow, the record was shorter than I imagined, and I was still in the galley when I realised they were in the final chorus. “Just like Heaven” has a great sort of ending which seems to hang in the air for a couple of seconds after it ends, and I can remember legging it along the corridor at great speed, the final notes of the song coming from the speaker in the Galley behind me, and seeming to almost be lasting forever as I hurtled up the stairs in a sort of slow motion, managing to hit the “start” button for the next track barely a second after the sound died away, even though I would swear the song had ended to silence while I was still in the galley.
I can never ever hear that track without being instantly transported back to that night. Whenever I hear it I immediately feel anxious because I know I need to get back to the studio. I can see the corridor, I can smell the mix of diesel and rust as I pass the engineroom, I can feel my finger pressing on that start button, all as I hear the ending of the song.
If they ever invent a time machine, I know where I’ll be going . . .