The Music of Radio Caroline (late 80s)

Chris Kennedy, John Bibby, Steve Conway (holding record), and Mike 'Coconut' Dixon in the Caroline studio on Christmas Day 1987

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?

Steve replies:

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 . . .


2 Comments on “The Music of Radio Caroline (late 80s)”

  1. Darren says:

    For what it’s worth, I thought the “558” format was bloody brilliant.

    1987 was when I started listening to Caroline as a teenager. So many
    people it seems seem only to remember Caroline from the 60’s or 70’s seemingly forgetting that people discovered Caroline in the 1980’s and for them can be just as memorable as was for those who started listening in the 60’s or 70’s. For me, 1980’s music was my era, and was pure magic (the usual caveats accepted), it had a playlist that went way beyond anything you would hear or normal radio and it got better. It introduced me to wonderful music from the 70’s and 60’s: Caroline 819 – The Overnight Alternative, through to the more adventurous programming on “Caroline Night-time” during 1990 – who remembers them playing BJH and Cheap The Bullet, Religion and Dream or Poco and Too Many
    Nights Too Long, Squeeze and Footprints for example? I feel forever indebted to Caroline in educating my music tastes, not to mention a pure magical atmosphere emanating from the radioship we all know and love. Nigel Harris’ and Steve Conway’s book brings it even more to life. Jeez I wish they could (be allowed to) crank that Tx on again with some decent power and give us all something to listen to easily in the car…


  2. Hello , I’m a Offshore Radio Fan or Annorack since the late 1960’s. I did tune in to Radio Veronica in 1969. The end of the Offshore Stations like BIG – L and Caroline ho did go on is some thing I do remember was I was 7 years og age , when my sister did listen to the Final Hour on Radio London. And when the did get off air for good , she did tune to Radio Caroline South on 259. Where Robbie Dale and Johnny Walker did talk about the sad day on the 14 th of agust 1967.

    Since I did start to listen to Radio Veronica 192 I did also hear Robbie Dale in his very funny Dutch with a English accent but that was great (he can still talk in Dutch even in 2005 when i did hear him for the lst time)

    Than in 1971 I did discover the test transmissions of RNI the Dutch Service some in my family did visist me to tell to tune in. Than there was the bumb attack on the Mebo 2 by Radio Veronica. Later that most be some where in 1973 I did hear Radio Caroline for the very first time and the had a Dutch Service on the old 259 (252 mtr – 1.187 khz) and some time later a English Top 40 Service on 389 mtr the signal was weaker but good. The Flamisch – Dutch serice of Radio Atlantis had to start here. That did never happend the story go’s the people from the Mebo 2 did stolen the 772 khz (the old Radio 390 freq by the way)

    So the had to start on the 259 (252 mtr) and cute all the 385 jingels that where aded in the precordings about 14 days before the official start on the 15 th of july 1973. The Belgian and 25 years old businessman did start the station caurse the did not play Flemisch – Dutch music on the state owend radio station BRT (now VRT) and this station was a very large succes about 3 or 5 million did tune each day. But bad luck did strike 3 months later in a very bad october storm force gale 9 the mast did broke off and both station where off air.

    Before Radio Atlantis did came on air from the MV Mi-Amigo. The where some heavy trouble and problems Radio Caroline was nearly died , the was almost no any money and so a new mast cout not build that was arround late 1972 begin 1973. The very first mast from the 60’s already did broke off (that was a wooden mast) and the second mast to light (not strong enough) to but on a schip at Sea good on land.

    On the 2 th of april 1973 The Netherlands had the heaviest storm in history. The where wind gale 12 to 13 thats a hurricane.There was a lot of damage a shore, but also on the Dutch Northsea Coast. The Radio Veronica ship did stranded on the beach , and just missted by a hair the pier of Schevingen but lucky sweped deep on the beach. The ship (ho still exsist in 2013) had not ships engine so the was not able to do some thing. The Mebo 2 of RNI was off air due to water that came to close to the transmitters antennes.

    And the old lady MV Mi-Amigo was still at Sea she did survived this really very heavy storm. But there where still not in air due to heavy financial problems. Radio Veronica did helpd. And Veronica Staff did brought all the necessary material to get the ship readyand ready for transmission. And on the 9 th of april 1973 Radio Veronica was back on air not on 538 mtr (557 khz) but on 259 mtr (252 khz) and thill the 18 th of april when the own ship was able to get back to open Sea.

    on that day there was a big demonstration at theDutch Parliament building to fight for the survival of Radio Veronica but it did’t help the had to go off air on the 31 th of aug 1974. And again Radio Caroline and the Flamisch – Dutch station (came on air the 1 th of jan 1974) Radio Mi Amigo had aslo about 3 to 5 million listers each day , When the came on air Radio Atalantis was also on air before them but on a own schip at the Belgian Coast at Knokke.

    Radio Mi Amigo did stay on air and till 20 october 1978 and at East 1979 Radio Caroline came back on air with Dutch service in the day and English at night. The MV Mi Amigo did sunk on the 20 th of march 1980 in a gale 9 to 10. She was really very old and did stay on Sea for about 8 years with out sealing to a port wich was not possible or the would seized the ship she was not on order

    Radio Caroline seem to be died ? No in the summer of 1983 we had to wait for more than 3 years before Radio Caroline came back on the air with a very strong signal I ever did hear in my life before. I did hear Radio Caroline on a small transsitor radio when I was on a sunny day visist in are Belgian Ardennes but was high above the sea level there and a poewerd fencing wire (where little pony ddid walk in) and I had a little weak signal already , but when I ad the radio above the wire and put it down on top of a wooden pole the sound was loud and clear.

    That was at the time when Radio Caroline did had the Top 500 on air and I rememeber when I did hear ” Men At Work ” even to day when I hear that song (the first hit I think it was) i get chicken skin or my hair on my arms comes up

    ” Radio Caroline keeping the dream alive ”

    Many thanks for all the nice and the great time I did get from 1983 and till 1990 when Radio Caroline was on all day , I even had a radio tuned in 24 h a day 7 days a week to hear if the signal was still there. I still do miss Radio Caroline on the MW Band very hard

    Greehtings from a Offshore Radio Freak or Annorack

    Herman from the city Gent (Ghent in English) Belgie / Belgium

    PS Steve all the best of off luck and thanks

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