From Britain to Canada: How Pirate Radio and Radio Caroline Inspire Music Today

In the early 60′s, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was known as “Auntie” to its target audience of mild-mannered, working class, British households.  Pumping wholesome Jim Reeves standards and jazz renditions through the airwaves, Auntie BBC was seemingly oblivious to the frenetic counter-culture her nieces and nephews of Chelsea and SoHo were stirring up. Inspired by Detroit Motown, the blues, and rock and roll pioneers like Chuck Berry, British musicians saw the wave of subculture building from across the pond and used the momentum of the ‘Swinging 60′s’, to ride it into Britain in a style all their own.  There was a new sound to go along with the new thoughts and tensions of a new generation, but the BBC was a sonic breakwater blocking the growing subculture from “poisoning” their mainstream easy-listening.  A pool of popular music was sitting stagnant, waiting to be tapped and pipped through to an increasingly anxious audience. This cued up pirate radio’s appearance on the horizon; independent radio stations changing the tides of broadcasting from international waters. Various pirate radio stations competed for listenership, but none was more a reflection of the times which spawned it,  than Radio Caroline.  Radio Caroline was everything that the BBC was not: unorganized, chaotic, of-the-times, and buoyant.  Wild and unstructured, Radio Caroline, was made up of broadcast novices.  They were a band of former actors turned DJs,  headed by Ronan O’Rahilly, a musician manager and businessman looking for a way to promote the music he liked without having to cater to major record labels or the censorship of the BBC.    Established in 1964, Radio Caroline had two ships, the North and South, and a stream of DJs, which was all depicted vividly in the popularized movie “The Boat that Rocked”. While many of the DJs were unqualified by BBC standards, they had what DJ and program director, Tom Lodge, was seeking—a passion for music and emerging culture.

Robert Champan speaks of Lodge’s “new set of priorities” focused on spirit and attitude in his article, “The 1960s Pirates: A Comparative Analysis of Radio London and Radio Caroline.”  In a personal interview with Champan, Lodge said of his approach, “The DJs have to be totally involved with this new generation they are playing to.  This meant that you have to be the kind of person who goes to the concerts, who wants to meet the new people who are coming on the scene, and be absorbed in the music in every way.”  Lodge spent three years deejaying on both Radio Caroline North and South, and interviewing the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, until the Marine Broadcasting Offenses Act made pirate radio stations illegal in 1967.  Lodge tried to work at the BBC after Radio Caroline’s shut down, but he soon found it too restrictive and moved back to Canada—a country he had spent some time in in the mid-50s, chronicling his adventures in the book, “Beyond the Great Slave Lake.

Check out this classic clip of The Beatles in their earliest days winning a Radio Caroline Award.

Determined to spread his philosophy of “music without bounds”, Lodge set up the Music Industry Arts program at Fanshawe College in Ontario.  Before he discovered Lodge’s program, young Canadian musician, Greg Clarke, was playing coffee shop gigs in Toronto.  For Clarke, the Music Industry Arts program was more than just the place where he learned the facets of the industry.  It’s also where he met his future bandmate and songwriting partner, Brodie Lodge; Tom’s son.  In listening to songs like “Fly Away,” from their band The Corndog’s, it’s impossible not to hear the inspiration from the music Lodge used to play on Radio Caroline.                                

Even while the band delves into rock with a little more twang like in “Roll It Over,” their sound maintains an unruly edge in it’s irreverence to confine itself to any one particular genre.

Over the next few decades, Clarke went on to tour with many artists, including The Troggs, the Cowboy Junkies, and Johnny Winters.  His current band, Greg Clark and the Madvarks, have been together for nearly a decade, and it can be seen in the way they play together.  Clarke’s sweet-pitched Brian Wilson-esque vocals, paired with a raspy blues guitar and Lorne Gould’s saxophone accompaniment, make even their cover songs feel like an original experience.  

The support seen in their interactions on stage rings of a family dynamic.  When a band has that built-in comfort with each other, there is a safety that allows them to experiment with sounds.  Even with talkative, unreceptive crowds like in this clip,  the band dares to explore a jazzy spin on Charles Bukowski inspired Beat poetry.  

Spanning genres from jazz to blues and rockabilly to punk, Greg Clarke and the Madvarks enjoy playing together, and it’s a joy you can both see and hear when they performed at Hard Rock in Toronto.

The same musical spontaneity and passion that made Tom Lodge and his broadcasts on Radio Caroline revolutionary for their time, is what makes Greg Clarke and the Madvarks a significant band in their time.  Greg Clarke and the Madvarks continue to tour, and were recently featured on the Ruby Slippers show hosted by Carol Barrett on Toronto’s CIUT.

written by @offtherecord edited by @airambrosia

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