A tweet from Death Is Not The End saying that the cassette version of London Pirate Radio Adverts 1984-1993 Vol. 2 is shipping out tomorrow reminded me I said I'd run the full chat with audio archivist Luke Owen here. So here it is:
How did you get interested in pirate radio in general and in pirate radio adverts in particular?
I began tuning in to pirate radio from my early teens in Bristol in the late 90s - there was a lot of action on the dial back then and I was sucked in. It was a portal into the drum and bass/Full Cycle stuff happening in the city when I was too young for the clubs, and it also nurtured my love of reggae, dub and Bollywood soundtracks at a relatively young age. The ads were often infectious and endearingly DIY, and some were memorable to the point of fever loops, I can still remember one or two word for word.
I came upon the Pirate Radio Archive website a couple of years back, and there I found a trove of recordings from across the 80s and 90s through which I could transport myself back in time to some of those broadcasts I had been brought up on. I had been running Death Is Not The End since 2014 as a record label and NTS radio show focused mostly on "deep digs" into early gospel/blues/folk, field recordings and various archival finds. Coming across these recordings I was immediately stuck by the desire to do something with them, and put together a mixtape for the Blowing Up The Workshop mixblog and subsequently released it on DINTE as a cassette. It was a bit of a left-turn for the label perhaps, but being both archival and field recordings I thought it fit. I'm interested in "folk music" having a broader contemporary remit, and what it can mean in context. To me, recordings like these pirate radio broadcasts can represent archival folk music of sorts - they are raw, impromptu and communal musical experiences.
For me, the appeal of them is multi-leveled – there’s nostalgia, there’s period charm, there’s the amateur nature of them, some of the comedy ones are genuinely funny… But I also think they provide a valuable and historically important archive of subculture and British ‘lifeworlds’, especially minority populations (e.g. you have the Greek salon ad on Vol 1 ).
Yes, a lot are hilarious and some to the point of being genuinely a bit unhinged in places... A big part of the uniqueness of pirate radio is in the ads I think - it reflects the alternative culture through the lens of local business and events in a way that often contrasts with the staleness of "commercial" radio as much as the music itself. The whole thing often just seems to thrive on amping up the madness a bit, because they can. The London Pirate Radio Adverts collection was also intriguing from a local history perspective. I've always been interested in the changing landscape of areas, the previous lives of buildings, music venues, long gone record shops etc. By chance a lot of the adverts I collected for this happen to be for clubs and bars in places in South East London and East London that I've come to know quite well since moving here in the mid-noughties so that's another facet of it for me. Also, Immigrant communities making use of pirate radio as a means to supply an essential community service is an inherent element to pirate radio as a whole I think.
I like also the range. You have the slick-aspiring ads (with a tiny bit of Smashy + Nicey about the patter, quite common with pirate deejays before ’92 when it got a lot more ruffneck and hooligan in vibe - or they’ll hire that voiceover guy that also appeared in cinema adverts, the one with the incredibly deep voice, he pops up a few times on your tapes). And then the much more amateurish efforts.
Redd Pepper? I'm never quite sure whether it's him or an imitator... He sure must have gotten a lot of work around this time regardless. There's another guy who seems to have been the voiceover guy for a large portion of reggae & dancehall/soundclash events in the past couple decades (this is him @ 5.40 on Side A) and is still going strong. I'm going to do my best to track him down, I think I might have a friend of a friend who hired him for an ad once.
I think there's sometimes a conscious effort to get someone with a posh accent (or affecting one) for some of the dances that are billing themselves as classy & exclusive affairs. Then you've got some hilariously oddball voices, and a really bad Scouse impression that I have no idea what it's trying to achieve! I think pirate radio in general is prone to jokes and reference points that only the small group of listeners (or more likely mates of the station and the DJs) are "in" on, and this can bleed through to the ads as much as the chatter.
They often seem to like putting FX on the voice.
Yes, the use of delay on pirate radio station voiceover and adverts seems to be a point of reference that's bled in from sound system culture. I think it also helps the adverts "pop" and the feedback has the handy effect of papering over cracks where they may often sound too muddy and amateurish otherwise. I've also added tape delay here and there to aid with the transitions from one track to the next - the idea was initially for this to have the flow of a mixtape as much as possible.
Most of the ads on pirates were for raves, clubs, records shops, occasionally a compilation or a 12 inch release … But it’s interesting that quite a few of them are for non-music-related businesses - there’s one I came across for a bakers, you’ll get ones for hairdressers or a restaurant. Or on Vol. 1 the shop fittings ad for Trade Equip and the one for Fidel’s Menswear.
In a way I find the non-music related ads as some of the most intriguing and charming. It shows that the stations were often genuinely part of a thriving localised economy, and not just for soundheads. It seems a bit mad to think of a small high-street business advertising on the radio these days, and I suppose with the advent of social media marketing we're probably seeing the last of small businesses in print advertising to a large degree - it's just not attractive as you don't get to monitor the traffic it's generating and target your audience down to the minutiae, but it leaves a document of that business that can be preserved from a local history perspective (whereas when a business folds their online presence will likely disappear with it).
Even on the music history level alone, though, they are valuable – there’s a sort of established history of rave where certain legendary clubs get mentioned over and over (Rage, Labrynth, Innersense) and the same applies to the raves, labels, record shops. But these ads capture just how many clubs, raves etc there were, in all different parts of London or UK… many that have been forgotten or only ran for a short while. And there are addresses, times, prices mentioned.
Yes, the provision of full addresses, and often bus routes and the general specifics for the clubs and venues always gives me a pang of nerdy excitement. The addition of local landmarks, "under this flyover", "next to Tescos" etc. gives me extra info with which I can go sleuthing on Streetview and look at the ghost of the club mentioned in the advert (and for extra nerdery I can swipe backward in time on street view to see it's former guises too).
The raver’s dateline courtesy Chillin FM advert is very interesting and surprising!
Yes I was surprised to come across so many ravers datelines! I wonder if this is something you had come across before? Hooking up and meeting potential partners never struck me as a priority to pilled-up ravers but I must be mistaken... It was relatively before my time, and I suppose it's easy to be swayed by the dominant narrative of early rave being a drug-fuelled oasis away from meat-market bars & clubs, but there was clearly a market for it! I can't help being reminded of Father Ted's priest chatback line whenever I hear it, also.
I think you mentioned in that Crack interview how most people paused the tape when the ads came on… so there’s a limited number of ad breaks that have survived intact.
Yeah I guess it makes sense that the music is what the majority of the listeners are there for, and the ads can do one - or indeed be edited out later. The sources I had were pretty much all online, so I suppose you could say that a portion of those who have ripped/digitized their tapes didn't stop their recordings when the ads came on, and rather they have cropped them out in the process. But in general it's the same principle as to when you would record a TV show on VHS - a waste of valuable magnetic tape space.
What number did you accumulate before you started winnowing them down?
Maybe 100 total? It's been a bit of a blur to be honest. At some point I think I was losing it a bit.
It’s good that you have ads that aren’t just rave / hardcore / jungle, but others kind of music that were big then – like mellow house and progressive house etc.
It's easy to imagine pirate radio as exclusively a place for jungle, hardcore, reggae and dancehall etc. but yes it's refreshing. I particularly am interested in the popularity of rare groove and how that fits into the mix. The Under 18s Disco advert strikes me for it's mix up of styles - 'ragga, house, rap & swing'.
What is your favorite ad out of all the ones on the two cassettes? Or top 2 or 3.
I think probably the Videobox rental shop is up there, it's the faux dialogue that just makes me smile. The Rolls Royce & A Big House in 89 is just fantastic for the list of celebrities who have "been invited", and that you simply need to go into your local hairdresser for £1 tickets.