HMV & Blockbuster, The Melting Glaciers Of My Past

How one branch of HMV kept Radio Caroline afloat in the 80s, and Blockbuster rescued my life

Blockbuster

The new that both Blockbuster and HMV in the UK have gone into administration this week would have been a huge blow to my much younger self, for whom those stores were an essential component of living.

I remember the first time I saw a Blockbuster Video – it was such a revelation compared to the tiny stores that were all we knew in the mid 80s, and where any enquiry for a popular video would be met with the new that their only copy was out on loan.

The arrival of Blockbuster in Ashford, Kent in 1989 was quite the most exciting thing to happen to the town since . . well, since my arrival earlier in the year.

Ashford in modern times has grown to a massive extent and now has a huge international station, but when I went to live there in 1989 it had little in the way of excitement, and the only cinema was soon to be demolished. Apart from the lure of the nearby countryside, the only thing that possibly kept me there was the girlfriend who had lured me to Kent in the first place.

Blockbuster was great, there was dozens of copies of each video, and many more titles than you could get elsewhere. I was a firm customer in those days.

I can’t remember when I last rented a video or DVD, it would have been sometime in the late 90s, but by 2000 it was more economic to buy rather than rent, especially as I can be something of a collector.

So I guess I’m as responsible as anyone for the demise of the store.

HMV-OxfordSt

HMV is a different story. This is a store I still use to this very day, for although I no longer buy music from them (preferring to purchase online) I still regularly impulse buy DVDs from their store in Dublin. In fact you could say that they were the beneficiary of my lost Blockbuster custom.

One store will always have a special place in my heart though – HMV in Oxford Street, London.

Here it was during my period as Programme Controller of Radio Caroline in the late 80s that I would come to buy music in bulk, to bring out to the North Sea with me. Usually hotfooting it over from Chelsea, following a meeting with Ronan O’Rahilly, I would have a bundle of money provided for music purchases, and I would spend this carefully, buying as many new albums as possible, rather than singles, so that we would have fresh music for the weeks and months ahead.

I remember one day spending £400 in the store in a single visit – which, in todays money amounts to £884 (or over a thousand euro).  My arms were aching by the time I had dragged my two heavy rucksacks of music from oxford Street, all the way to Victoria Station, down to Dover on the train, across to Calais, and on to Dunkirk from when our supply ship departed.

The Oxford Street store also had another connection to Caroline – it had an in-house radio station where many DJs worked while on leave from the ship – I remember Simon West being the mainstay there, but there were others too. Simon always made sure that advance or promo copies of new tracks given to the station were left in a package for me to collect and bring out to the ship also, so it was a “safe” way for record companies and promoters to get their product out to the ship.

In later years, that same store was where I bought my first console games – Super Mario 2 and 3, and Zelda for the Nintendo.

Hopefully the stores can survive, though these are indeed changed time, and I fear they will not.

Another iceberg from my past melted to nothing.

Steve


Surbiton, pre Caroline (mid 80s)

Myself (left) and Charlie Wolf with the A.P. Systems van, the picture that sparked the discussion on memories of Surbiton below.

My posting of an old picture on Facebook of myself in pre-Caroline days sparked a discussion below which has revived my memories of those great years in Surbiton in the mid-80s and prompted me to search for other pictures.

First, the facebook discussion:

Mike Kerslake reminded me recently of the white van I used to drive in the years just before I went out to sea. (The van, and the company A.P. Systems are mentioned in the early pages of Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline). Here it is with myself and Charlie Wolf sometime in 1986. The occasion was the court case of a well-known landbased pirate, the owner of South East Sound, Ray Adams. John Burch had organised a lot of us to come along to provide moral (or immoral?) support.

Friday · ·

    • Mike KerslakeThat’s the van! 🙂

      Friday at 06:42 ·
    • Steve ConwayI don’t think I’ve ever looked that smart again in the 35 years since!

      Friday at 06:45 · · 1 person
    • Mike KerslakeSame here, only weddings ad funerals see me scrub up!

      Friday at 06:46 ·
    • John Burchand when it turned up at a TX site loaded with car batteries, tape machines, a TX and other equipment it looked most incongruous amongst the trees and bushes!!

      Friday at 09:30 ·
    • Mike Kerslake‎:-)

      Friday at 09:39 ·
    • Christopher EnglandLooking at the side of the van, whatever happened to ‘Apricot’ computers, eh?

      Friday at 11:22 ·
    • Warren StevensonAPS Systems: Were they at the bottom of Brghton Road Steve, close to the petrol station – before you got to the traffic lights at the Portsmouth Road ?

      Friday at 16:20 ·
    • Warren StevensonClose to the tyre repair centre I recall.

      Friday at 16:25 ·
    • Steve ConwayCorrect – I was their tech support guru for 3 years till Caroline snatched me away!

      Friday at 22:40 · · 2 people
    • Mike TerryBeing a regular Tuesday night 60s and 70s fan I’m looking forward to your show Steve. Hope you have loads of requests.

      23 hours ago ·
    • Warren StevensonIts a coincidence also Steve that the petrol garage in Brighton Road used to sell Epson computers in the late Eighties !

      21 hours ago ·
    • Steve ConwayThey were the same place. The petrol station was A.P. Garage and an office on the forecourt was given over to A.P. Systems Ltd.

      16 hours ago · · 1 person
    • Warren StevensonOur paths may well have crossed Steve before I headed for a pint in the Black Lion for a pint or two of Youngs Special 🙂

      14 hours ago ·
    • Warren StevensonI also recall in the late Eighties that in a road just off the Brighton Road in Surbiton (The Mall), there was always a black Mini parked which was adorned with Radio Nova car stickers. There was also a Triumph Dolomite that could be seen also regulalry in the town with a Caroline 319 sunstrip . OT: There was an excellent fish and chip shop just down the road, next to The Lamb pub !.

      13 hours ago · 

So, the above has prompted me to search my hard drive for a photo I know I had of A.P. Systems itself, which was based in a tiny office on the forecourt of what is now the Total Service Station on Brighton Road in Surbiton:

A.P. Systems, Brighton Road, Surbiton, in 1985

Click any picture for bigger version

A. P. Systems was a wonderful little company, it was run by a great guy called Tony Williams whose father owned the petrol filling station (A.P Garage) which sold Total fuel (and was in later years taken over fully by Total).

As well as being a kind employer, Tony was quite a genius with computers, and had written software for the early Epson portable systems, which eventually led to his running a full dealership, at first for Epson, and then expanding to sell other brands such as the Victor 9000 and ACT Sirius system, Apricot, IBM and others. Tony was a very good salesman, and despite our small size, he managed to make sales into companies all over London and much of southern England. This was before the days of Windows (though it launced while I was there) and all programmes were Dos based – MS-DOS version 1.12 when I started (and the Epson PCs used the less friendly CP/M system).

Wordstar was the main game in town for word processing, with Supercalc or Lotus-123 for spreadsheets. But we also provided custom systems written by Tony himself.

I came to work for him in 1984 as the tech support guru for the firm (I had been trained up by the Irish sole distributor for Sirius/Apricot, so my knowledge was good). In those days desktop computers were in their infancy, and in almost every case the company we would sell to would be buying their first computer, and it would be my responsibility to deliver and install the systems, and train the staff in how to use them, as well as being on call for tech support for ever afterwards.

The general public’s knowledge of computers was limited, and employees would be very wary of these new systems I was installing in their firms, a lot of my time would be spent soothing people rather than fixing computers. I well remember one customer who had bought an Epson potrable computer asking, in all seriousness, how much heavier it would be once the data was loaded onto it!

In the three years before I left to work for Radio Caroline, I travelled to every part of London in that little van, as well as most parts of the home counties and beyond.  As well as hundreds of small businesses getting their first computers, I also got to deliver and install systems in the GLC (in its dying days), Shepperton Film Studios, Gatwick Airport, and a law firm called Penningtons with offices in the City of London and in Godalming, where I encountered that most rare of beasts, the Apple Lisa – the almost unknown predecessor to the Macintosh.

I also have memories of making several trips down to the heart of Wiltshire, to install computers at a dogfood factory in Tisbury, whose owner was very forward-looking, and incredibly nice to me, putting me up overnight in his country lodge and serving me breakfast in the morning (no – not dogfood!) I think they were called Dinnodog or Dinnadog, but I can find no trace of them on the net these days.

AP Systems was a small operation, most of the time there was just myself as tech geek, Tony running the company and doing the selling, and young women called Kathy who acted as receptionist but did a lot more besides. There was also a guy called Nigel who came to us from South Africa and moved on to Australia, a bit of a programming wizard, and a wonderfully good-natured salesman called Brian Street who joined not long before I left, and I’m sad to have lost touch with these people over the years.

As well as us computer people, there were a steady stream of people working in the garage including a great woman called Ruth who I lodged with for many years, and a new recruit called Gail, who I remember as a part-time a couple of nights a week, but who turned into a mainstay of the site, so much so that now, almost 30 years later, she is still there, as manager for Total.

A 65 bus in Surbiton, summer 1984

Another photo I have dug up shows the 65 bus, which in those days was the main route through Surbiton, taken in May 1984, just days after I arrived. This route normally went along Victoria Road, but was diverted due to roadworks when I took this picture. The 65 was two-person operated with Routemasters up until February 1986, but these days does not even reach Surbiton (except night services).

Notice the wonderfully high-tech (!) top-loading video recorder being advertised on the side of the bus  – I think 1984 was an Olympic year, hence this being used to push video sales.

There were many nice places in Surbiton, it was quite self-contained, with a good variety of shops and eating places, and remains so today. It was a wonderful place to live a work, and I have many happy memories of the people and places of those three years before I headed off to sea to work for Radio Caroline.  (see: Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline).

Steve


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 . . .

Steve


Who’s That Girl?

When writing Shiprocked, the tale of my days with Radio Caroline, it was never my intention to “kiss and tell” about various relations and private goings on aboard the Ross Revenge. There were enough funny, scary, and sometimes downright weird things that happened to us as a bunch without having to expose people’s private lives.

There were a couple of incidents however, which were too funny to leave out, and for which the identity of the people involved was not pivotal to the narrative. So these made it in to the book, with the identity of any parties (other than myself that is) suitably obscured.

One of them is the tale of “Lucy“, and of Carry-On style chain of events that unfolded when I went to wake her for her show one morning.

This story shows my shy, catholic-school bumbling persona to great effect, and my confusion and the effect on my morning news shift is the main focus of the anecdote. However, for the sake of the poor lady involved, who did nothing wrong other than imbibe too freely the night before and become “confused and semi-comatose” I have heavily disguised her identity in the book, with a time-shifting of her period on board, and some blurring of her physical description and origins.

I’m asked from time to time to confirm the identity of the lady in question, which of course I won’t, other than to say that her timescale of involvement with Caroline was brief (so not one of the big names then!).

All the events described in the anecdote happened as portrayed, indeed it is a morning that is vividly imprinted on my mind, even all these years later. But it’s not important to the overall tale of the last years at sea to know exactly when, and whom.

It’s the sort of thing that happened from time to time on radioships.

But not on Radio 4 of course  !!

Steve


Radio Jackie Museum

Here are some pictures that I meant to put online back in April, but with all the stuff going on with the book launches etc, it just slipped my mind.

I’ve posted before about Radio Jackie, and how its modern-day operation still keeps that local flavour and feeling that it had in the pirate days back in the 1980s. Indeed, many of the same people still work for it, including one of my longest-standing friends in the world of broadcasting, Geoff Rogers, who after the closure of Jackie in February 1985 moved to South East Sound, where he helped me prepare and record my first ever programmes.

When I was over in London in early April for the launch of Shiprocked, I made sure to call out to the Jackie studios in Tolworth, where Geoff made me really welcome. And I was amazed to see that even though it has been legal for a number of years now, and is a really successful and thriving commercial business, that they haven’t forgotten where they came from. When you enter Jackie’s studio complex on Tolworth Broadway, the first thing you see is the “Jackie Museum” a little display of press cuttings, photos, and original equipment from the pirate era.  It’s a nice touch, harking back to their roots in the community, and great for the anorak in me too.

Press cuttings from the 1980s

Press cuttings from the 1980s

Old equipment from the days of transmitting from the fields

Old equipment from the days of transmitting from the fields

Jackie broadcast from the late 1960s to the mid 80s as a pirate

Jackie broadcast from the late 1960s to the mid 80s as a pirate

Modern day offices in Tolworth

Modern day offices in Tolworth

Geoff Rogers in the Jackie studio, April 2009

Geoff Rogers in the Jackie studio, April 2009

I came to know a number of the Jackie people over the years after it closed, working with some of them on South East Sound (Geoff) or Radio Caroline (Richard Jackson, Peter Philips) but my only involvement with Jackie was as a listener. When I arrived in South West London as an Irish emigrant in 1984, I quickly found Caroline for music (joined shortly by Laser) and within a week or two had come across Radio Jackie, which told me everything I needed to know about the area I was now living in, and entertained me too.

I did actually have one, tiny and insignificant part, in the Jackie pirate era. Six months or so after the final closure in Feb 85, a group of us from South East Sound came to a house on a suburban road in Cheam one Saturday afternoon, to assist in the lowering and dismantling of Jackie’s mediumwave aerial array, a sad and symbolic task.

I didn’t think Jackie would ever be back after that, but time proved me wrong.

It’s great to see the station remembering its past with the display at the Tolworth studios, though the great and truly local content they are broadcasting is a better monunment still.

Steve


Visit to Pirate BBC Essex

The BBC are celebrating the 45th anniversary of Radio Caroline‘s launch in 1964 by running a special “pirate” station from a former lightship at Harwich Pier all over the Easter weekend – see details and listen here.

Pirate BBC Essex from the LV18, seen on Good Friday

Pirate BBC Essex from the LV18, seen on Good Friday

It’s great fun to listen to, they have got a lot of the original 60s presenters from the various offshore stations, and are drawing huge crowds down to the pier, and lots of listeners around the UK and further afield.

As part of my UK visit to promote the book I called in to the Radio Caroline sales stand that is nearby to deliver and sign more books, and was delighted to be invited on board the ship to be interviewed on Pirate BBC Essex about the publication.

I also caught up with many old friends from the Caroline days, including Roger Day,  Albert & Georgina Hood who used to run tenders, and now run the sales stand, ex Caroline and Laser engineer Mike Barrington, Paul Grahame and the Balls brothers.

Myself with Roger Day and his Ronan O'Rahilly T-shirt!

Myself with Roger Day and his Ronan O'Rahilly T-shirt!

Signing copies of Shiprocked at the Radio Caroline sales stand. In the background is Mike Barrington, former engineer for both Caroline and Laser

Signing copies of Shiprocked at the Radio Caroline sales stand. In the background is Mike Barrington, former engineer for both Caroline and Laser

Don’t forget that Radio Caroline themselves have special broadcasts over the Easter weekend, live from the Ross Revenge, though sadly the ship i not accessible for visitors.


Book Title Confirmed: Shiprocked!

srt

Progress continues towards publication of the book telling the story of my years at sea with Radio Caroline.

My original title “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” was a bit long, and after a few different iterations the title for publication has now been agreed – Shiprocked!

The above is not the actual cover art – this is still in design – but I expect to be able to bring the cover and an exact publication date here within a few weeks.

The final edit is in, the photographs have been chosen, and it’s all becoming very real.

Steve