‘Big L’ – and a sad anniversary


This arrived from Graham Laker. I’ve never quite bought into the idea that the Pirate Radio Stations were some great musical ‘revolution’ – it was rather, lots more of the same. This correspondence seems to bear that out, although right at the end JP did run “Perfumed Garden” and then moved over to Radio One.

So, in fond memory of a man who made a difference, the message from Graham (many thanks):

“Today marks the10th anniversary of the sad death of John Peel. I received this letter from him postmarked 8th April 1967 and I always wondered if I may have helped to nudge his career in the right direction.
What happened was I was listening to Mr J P on the ‘Big L’ one night when I heard him saying that he’d had enough of playing all this ‘Fab 40 stuff’ and he then proceeded to play some strange and great tracks by The Misunderstood, Donovan (when he wasn’t too bad) – pretty sure they were the LP tracks, ‘Guenivere’ and ‘Young Girl Blues’ – Love, Grateful Dead , Jefferson Airplane etc etc.
It was all fantastic stuff I’d not heard on the radio before, and all interspersed with stories about working in America and the groups he saw and got to know etc etc. The next night was the same – absolutely fantastic show once again and a real breath of fresh air.
The next night  – zilch! Can’t even remember whether he was on or not. I wrote to him to tell him how knocked out I was by his two shows and this is the letter I received:-
Dear Graham
Thanks for the letter. I’m glad you enjoyed the programmes. I caught hell from the office for the two programmes I did and I was told to stick to the Fab 40. I keep trying to play good stuff though I really appreciated what you said and I shall show your letter to my boss and try and get permission to do such a show on a regular basis.
The opinions I expressed were very decidedly mine. I would never say I liked something I did not like. I don’t really think what I do is the way to become popular anyway. I just want to play as much good music as I can before the Government prevents me from doing it.
Now I’m having to operate from a fairly tight format so I can’t play what I’d like to play.
I’m not Derek Taylor (thank God)
yours gratefully
John Peel
John Peel 001

Author: pompeypop

University lecturer, longtime local musician and recently historian of popular music - especially in and around Portsmouth. My blog is entirely about that topic

17 thoughts on “‘Big L’ – and a sad anniversary

  1. Being a non muso, unless you count playing the triangle at primary school aged 5, I feel I have to defend those of us who spun the vinyl. In a counter argument that “offshore radio” didn’t influence the music scene, would music have evolved if we were still listening to a few hours of the Light Programme & fading in & out Radio Luxembourg? yes London & Swinging Radio England brought us the American style Top 40 radio but other smaller stations like 270 & Britain Radio played other styles. Without the exposure that the stations gave to groups would they have taken off as they did & inspired other groups to form? John Peel having been in the US had access to a wide range of unknown music over there which he tried to introduce over here, in a similar way so did Johnnie Walker with soul & Motown. He too got in trouble with the owners for ditching records overboard & playing what he wanted. After 14/08/67 the government cracked down on advertising so payola crept in with the awful Major Minor label getting records played a lot on Caroline but JW rebelled & went for what he wanted to play, some of his evening shows back then were great if you were a soul & Motown fan. Later on when a new Caroline appeared in the 70s they went to being an album station & not pop albums either.
    For those who enjoyed John Peel have a look here : http://johnpeelarchive.com

  2. Well I didn’t say the Pirates had no influence Albie, just that it wasn’t some “great musical ‘revolution’”. Luxembourg was pretty much only records as well but because of needle-time policies at the BBC there were some very interesting live broadcasts, particularly by the mid-60s R&B/jazz acts including early Stones playing stuff they never released, Graham Bond, Georgie Fame, LJ Baldry/Steam Packet etc. I’m thinking of Saturday Club but even more Saturday evenings with an hour of Jazz Club which was often more R&B Club. Also the Third Programme’s “Jazz Today” which would suddenly slip in a new release by Son House or something on Blue Note. The only Pirate equivalent I recall to any of that (and still only records) was Mike Raven on Radio 390. So I’m not saying the Pirates were rubbish just that they were not a revolution except in the amount of time they were playing Pop tunes

    • Without the Pirates forcing them to change the BBC would’ve stayed the same uptight organisation with old fashioned pre-war Victorian values for a lot longer and we probably wouldn’t now be enjoying some the amazing music documentaries we now see on BBC4!
      Like radio today you had to trawl through the dross to find the odd diamond(and they’d be a matter of opinion)and without the Pirates that wouldn’t have been possible

  3. So the Pirates were a great influence then? When Radio One started it finished every night around 7 but at least we got real gems playing great music through the day: Tony Blackburn followed by Leslie Crowther’s ‘Junior Choice’, ‘Stewpot’, the Hairy Cornflake etc. First playlist included stuff by The Tremeloes, Cliff Richard, Herb Alpert, the Settlers, the Flower Pot Men – and like I said, nothing live, all just records from a Committee approved playlist. Those were the days!

  4. Didn’t mean to start an argument, just saying as Mr G agrees that the offshore stations kicked off a change in broadcasting in Britain. I don’t know how they could’ve had live music playing onboard the ships or forts, the studios were tiny and basic (coins in the decks head to stop it jumping with waves) & no onshore studios like Auntie Beeb to record or have performances in. I never said they changed music just they brought pop music to the masses. Big L had the first play of Sgt Pepper, Kenny Everett I think it was who played it. Yes it was top 40 mainstream pop but what else was there in the singles market? Don’t forget these stations were out to make money to finance their existence, I doubt any ow,ners go rich, so had to play what the public wanted to get the listeners and the more listeners the more advertising revenue you got. Although Caroline was the biggest name Radio London was the popular one because of it’s Fab 40 format & it’s slick American station styling. If you wanted middle of the road then you could tune into Britain Radio, as Dave said Mike Raven cut his teeth on the northern station Radio 270 if you were lucky enough to hear it where he played blues tracks. I have just had a look at a website & in 1964 Radio Atlanta was playing Country & Western & Americana while Sutch were actually playing flip sides of singles,K I N G had jazz, folk, c&w,r&b & tracks by American artists. You could listen to what you liked if you changed your dial especially if you lived near the East coast & again as Mr G says you had to put up with some dross to hear the odd gem.

  5. Nothing wrong with an argument Albie – you ask Mr G. What we’re doing is arguing about facts and opinions – we’re not fighting each other. Anyway, I’m not defending any anti-Pirates position here. As I said at the start and I’ll say again, they were not revolutionary. But they were OK. As for playing “what the public want” it’s an old argument. How did anyone know that the public didn’t want (for example) Bobby Bland’s “Yield Not to Temptation” when almost no one heard it (outside the best clubs)? There are a million examples like that. Same in newspapers, on TV in the cinema, IN POLITICS! etc. Still is. By-and-large the public gets what the people in charge want the public to get

    You ask “what else was there in the singles market?” The answer is absolutely tons of stuff. Personally when the Pirates started, I was buying lots of blues & R&B singles on Chess (Pye) and plenty of the American soul things that Brady was playing at the Birdcage (usually from Weston Harts in Arundel Street but also from London), none of which made the UK charts – for example: BB King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bobby Bland, Darrell Banks, the Impressions, Etta James, the Anglos …. and on and on …

  6. The BBC and the big commercial stations still play dross in the main,but without the Pirates who after all gave the Beeb the great John Peel,some of the great music shows that you do get on radio and TV would’ve taken a longer time to develop as the BBC is still a very conservative traditionalist organisation

  7. I think the main difference between the Pirate stations and the Beeb was that their deejays appeared to actually enjoy the music they played (apart from Peelie!) and made their programmes fun. The BBC Light Programme’s presenters, David Jacobs, Pete Murray and the like (the notable exception being Brian Matthews), always gave the impression that they were playing the latest hits under sufferance and would much rather be playing ‘proper music’ such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett etc.
    I once heard ‘Surfin’ Bird’ by The Trashmen played on Family Favourites, after which there was a stunned silence before the presenter said ‘Well, you get milk from milkmen’.

  8. BBC Radio 2 play a very good cross section of music as opposed to ‘dross’. There are plenty of specialist programmes in the evenings etc.. I would be interested to hear what Mr Greedy would consider to be ‘non-dross’ and whether his choice/taste would satisfy a wider audience.

    • Non dross Oscar could be anything from The Clash to Abba,Jackie Wilson to Chic,Aztec Camera to Rudimental
      All of it is good pop music!
      What I object to is the type of stuff that Simon Cowell has got his grubby hands all over and has been over produced to death with the dreaded auto tune (practically everything on Capital and Radio 1)
      I agree about Radio2 although their
      daytime shows seem to mix old dross and non dross in equal measures as long as they were hits at the time.
      Robert Elms on BBC London plays the type of music that is probably closest to my taste once he forgets about his New Romantic past

  9. It wasn’t Kenny Everett who played the Sgt Pepper exclusive. It was Ed Stewart and John Peel was overcome by the new album and wept!


    Mary Payne, Radio London Webmaster

  10. Anyone claiming the offshore stations of the 1960’s didn’t play album tracks wasn’t listening closely enough. I bought the Stones album Out Of Our Heads on hearing it played on Radio Caroline North. Radio England had Beatles weekends and worked their way through most of Fab Four’s albums released up to then (i.e Sept/Oct 1966. John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show came in very clearly up in Manchester where I lived because whatever was interfering with the signal on 1124kHz went off air just as JP came on. It was required listening. The last Perfumed Garden was a classic.

  11. Radio Veronica (of the Dutch coast) changed its format from “Light Program” to “Pop” within months after Caroline went on air. Even “invented” a “top 40”. The English ships changed Dutch radio at least!

  12. Dave how is it that we’re going back to a post from 6months ago?
    I thought this discussion was done and dusted!

  13. I dunno! Someone discovered it I guess and off we go again. Part of the problem with memories of pirates from ‘up north’ is that their range didn’t reach us in Pompey so we usually heard different ships

    I suspect only people who get notifications will spot that this has resumed.

  14. This is an interesting discussion – especially as I was a Big L listener who started listening to Peel at about the same time as Graham did. I do remember being enthusiastic about the weekend John Peel Shows, from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., where he began to play the stuff which would later feature in the Perfumed Garden. I don’t think he’d ditched all the jingles and ads at that point, but Graham’s letter makes me wonder if Peel’s oft-repeated story of the PG developing because no-one in the Radio London office was listening was a true one. Maybe after “giving him hell” at first, they realised that his programme was attracting lots of mail from listeners and let him get on with it?

    And yes, the pirates did play albums from time to time – I heard “Revolver” played all the way through by Radio Caroline South when it was a new release, and also there was a “live” LP with Geno Washington’s Ram Jam Band on one side and Jimmy James and the Vagabonds on the other, which I heard in full on a late night show, maybe on Big L. I’m sure there were plenty of other examples. But singles were far more important until 1967 – and Peel had lived in hippy California, at the time when FM radio stations which played album tracks or whole albums were just beginning to appear. So he brought that influence back to the UK.

  15. Before the pirates forced the BBC to change their format with the introduction of Radio One (for better or for worse), the pop programmes on the Light Programme were tightly scripted and approval needed before even a live airing. For example all those ‘not arfs’ etc between the records from DJ Alan Freeman on his Pick Of The Pops programme were on a script! Yes Radio Caroline, Radio London etc were definitely the catalyst for today’s rich and diverse radio programmes on the BBC and commercial radio stations.

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