I had forgotten all about the movie Pirate Radio, which is one I had some interest in seeing while it was out in theaters, until I was reminded of it via this post by editor J. Kingston Pierce over at The Rap Sheet blog. As for what the movie is about, allow me to quote Mr. Pierce:
The story, set in 1966, has to do with misfit, rebel disc jockeys, who–much to the disgruntlement of Her Majesty’s government–are broadcasting contemporary pop music from a ship anchored in the North Sea to listeners tired of hearing tamer tunes every time they switch on their radios.
Basically what these guys are doing is playing rock n’ roll during hours of the day and night when the “mainstream” radio stations do not, and they have a huge fan following. This is the early days of rock, back when it was still dangerous and subversive and counterculture. If for nothing else, the soundtrack of the film is worth checking the movie out.
My initial reaction was one of sad nostalgia. I’m not old enough to remember the time period that this movie portrays, but I am old enough to have grown up with similar experiences. The scenes in the movie of young people huddled around their radios listening, or dancing, or alone in a room so in love with what they are hearing that the emotions etching their faces could not be more apparent if they were being shouted from a rooftop. I remember actual DJs who chose their own playlists, something that you don’t hear much anymore unless it is college radio. Today’s “popular” music stations are nothing like that; if there is a DJ at all choosing the tunes to play, those tunes are from a very controlled selection of options. Often as not one is hearing a stream of some kind from some corporate hub somewhere, with real life, interesting and compelling DJs are a thing of the past.
I have various music-related memories from my youth. My older sister would buy 45s of the popular songs on the radio, and when my parents were gone she’d throw a big stack of them on the big cabinet/console stereo thing and blast them in the living room. I’m talking shit like Neil Sedaka, Tony DeFranco and the DeFranco Family, and other acts famous or faded into obscurity. Jim Croce. Blue Swede. The Hollies. Three Dog Night. Grand Funk fucking Railroad. We’d listen to the countdown shows; I remember in 1974 when “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks was dethroned at number one by, I think, Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.” Why do I remember this stuff? Because music was a big deal to me, I guess, even then, and it is a huge part of all the odd little memories I’ve carried forward.
25 or 30 years ago FM radio was still on the fringe. I used to listen to the FM side of one of the local AM stations, and it featured what they referred to as “album rock.” This is where I heard a lot of stuff that never came close to America’s Top 40. Stuff I still enjoy to this day. Early Van Halen. Warren Zevon. Rush. Pink Floyd. Black fucking Sabbath. The list goes on and on. I listened to that station all the time, and had it playing all night so that the music became a soundtrack to my dreams (I have specific recollections of dreams that include “The Stroke” by Billy Squier and “Rock n’ Roll Fantasy” by Bad Company). I remember asking my mom why I only heard KISS at night and she said it was because only night owls listened to KISS. Of course not knowing what a “night owl” even was at the time, I got pissed because I assumed she was taking a swing at my favorite band (I should say, though, that my mom has great taste in music, for the most part anyway). My little cassette recorder was always next to the radio, and when certain songs came on I’d jump up and record them. This was before the days of boom boxes with built in cassette players and radios, or at least before I ever had one. Eventually I got my first stereo — one of those all-in-one units with cassette, tuner and tape deck from Radio Shack — when I was finally old enough to join 4H and sell a hog at the fair. Eventually FM radio changed to what it is today. That’s about the time I stopped listening to the radio as a means to experience new music.
At first, after watching Pirate Radio, I was saddened for the youth of today, that they haven’t had the opportunities I did. I changed my mind, though. Just because their way of finding great songs and experiencing music for the first time is different from mine, doesn’t make it less important of an experience. Just like the unlistenability of their music to my ears doesn’t make it terrible to them. My kid and his friends share music all the time via burned playlists and CDs, which really isn’t any different from the cassettes and records I shared with my friends. It’s just easier and way faster. Sid can browse MySpace and find new bands every night, and his excitement is every bit as great as mine was when I found something new. It has cost rock n’ roll some of its mystique, I think, and I’m not a fan with how what used to be subversive and anti-establishment really has become The Establishment, but that could swing the other way again. Rock n’ roll may be dead, but it’s still more than alive.
What to Do with the Aging Rockers, Then?
My problem is I started playing music as well; my first band cranked up in the summer of 1983 when I was 16 years old. I’ve been doing it pretty much ever since except for a dark stretch in the mid-90s. After I started up again, I played right up until July of last year, when our drummer — the guy I’d been playing with since high school — apparently fell off the wagon and missed the entire planet. We — Jimmy, the guy who has played guitar to my bass since 2001, and I — have not heard from him since dropping him off at his house on July 13th or so of last year. At that point I thought I was finished; I’d had my fill of trying to find gigs, dealing with promotion, all that stuff. I was burned out. Wanted to focus on other things. But there remained a hole in my life that just wasn’t getting filled with other things.
Then one evening Julia and I were at a local event and a band was setting up to play. It really bothered me, because their whole thing was just . . . limp. This being a reasonably popular local band, I decided that I couldn’t live in this town if this band of posers were the so-called representatives of rock in this town. I texted Jimmy at that moment that we needed to find a drummer and keep doing something, and that’s what we did. Maybe no one likes us, or listens to us, but we know that there’s at least one band in town that can lay it down thick and loud. And that’s good enough for me.
A guy I hadn’t heard from in years and years left me a message on Facebook. This was a guy who’d been part of our musical circle back in the late 80s/early 90s in the Seattle area. It was just one sentence: “You’re still playing? Wow.” That was it. “Why shouldn’t I be?” I asked myself, kind of offended that the notion should be a shock to anyone. I get occasional messages or friend requests via Facebook from old classmates, people I really haven’t thought about or heard from since I graduated in 1985. So many of them look old, and square, and have become people I hardly recognize living lives I really can’t imagine. That troubles me, and I do question sometimes the road I’ve chosen, especially when it comes to this thing called music. But I ain’t so far removed from that 8, 13, 18, 30 year-old kid/man who fell in love with, and stayed in love with, the stick-it-to-the-man notion of music in the first place! You don’t see too many guys my age playing the kinds of shows we play, and I have to admit sometimes I do feel my age . . . but never when we are actually playing. Not even a little bit.
Which takes me back to the whole reason for this rambling post — J. Kingston Pierce‘s original blog about Pirate Radio. This scene isn’t even in the movie; it’s in the special features, a scene that was edited out. Why, I can’t imagine. But it’s awesome, and like Pierce I’ve watched it over and over. It really says it all, way better than 1000+ words can. For context, the older guy is a famous DJ who left, then came back. That’s all you really need to know. Watch it, and you’ll either get it or you won’t. If you do, here’s to you.