Of all the anniversaries set to be celebrated this year, good and bad, no doubt the fiftieth anniversary of the death of British pirate radio will be among the most loudly discussed… and so it should be.
After three years of ruling the waves (and waiving the rules), the pirates fall silent on the night of August 14, victims of the newly-instituted Maritime Offences Act of 1967. Never again would the rebellious spirit of pop so brazenly fly across the UK scene.
The arguments against the pirates, and the reasoning behind the new law, were manifold; legitimate broadcasters complained that they were stealing listeners, emergency services complained they were stealing airspace and the music industry complained (and complained and complained and complained) that they were stealing money, in the form of the copyright fees that legal enterprises were duty-bound to cough up, but which many of the pirates tended to ignore.
Which, when you think about the sheer affection with which the pirates are remembered today (compared to the unadulterated loathing with which certain modern Internet media are regarded), is somewhat ironic. Such a shame this is not the place to discuss that.
So yes, the pirates fell silent. The war was over. Or did they? And was it?
Actually, no. While the vast majority of illegal broadcasters did indeed shut down their transmitters, one – Radio Caroline, the outfit that started the whole thing in the first place… the First Lady of broadcasting legend… simply shrugged and kept on going.
There would be interruptions. The station was forcibly closed in March 1968; but it briefly bounced back in 1970 for a spot of political campaigning; and returned again in 1972, and this time it was for keeps. Well,more or less.
Which brings us to the point of this posting. Not to celebrate Caroline per se, but to remember one of her later life’s most listenable DJs, on what would have been her sixty-second birthday, January 15, 2017, – Samantha Dubois. The First Lady’s First Lady.
The first thing you noticed about Samantha (she generally broadcasted under that name alone) was her accent. Born in the Netherlands, the erstwhile Ellen Kraal grew up in New Zealand, and her accent reflected both nations. She was dating Peter Chicago, Caroline’s transmitter engineer (and sometimes broadcaster) at the time, and first came aboard the Mi Amigo as one of the ship’s cooks… another of Caroline’s DJs, Debbie England, wife of DJ Steve England, also started in the kitchens.
Female DJs were not especially prevalent at the time, either offshore or on land. Back in 1964, Radio City owner Reg Calvert occasionally permitted both his daughter, Candy, and his niece, Tamara Harrison, to broadcast from the old wartime fort at Shivering Sands that was his station’s home base, but they were not permanent residents of the station. Others would follow, but again they were sporadic.
Caroline, however, was determined to change that scenario. On January 31, 1973, Debbie England became the station’s first female DJ (albeit for just three shows), and a month later, on March 3, “Ellen the Cook” made her ninety-minute debut. (Caroline was very adept at press-ganging her kitchen staff into the studio when circumstances demanded; a couple of weeks later, a third cook, Alan Wheeler, made his broadcast debut; the following year, both the new cook, Mickey Mercer and his wife, Sue, were asked to sit in for shows.)
Ellen’s first broadcast was a one-off; she returned to land shortly after, but the following year she was back aboard Mi Amigo, introducing her new alias with the overnight (2-5am show) on March 6, 1974. By the time the station set out celebrate the tenth anniversary of its launch on April 14, she was already well entrenched.
Interviews with crew and DJs filled the day, but Samantha spoke for most when she declared, ”It’s such a lovely atmosphere on board, so beautiful. I’ve been on the ship around about two months altogether; about a year ago as cook. I’d been cooking for thirteen men three times a day with another young lady called Debbie England, and for three weeks now I’ve been on the air, trying to bring some happiness to people that are lonely, trying to bring some peace and love.”
It’s astonishing, if you delve deep enough into the world of internet radio enthusiasts, how much of Caroline’s output has survived, taped off air by listeners and fans, and since distributed via a string of specialist websites and blogs. From the opening broadcast in 1964, through to the end of the Mi Amigo in 1980 (she ran aground during a storm; the station continued broadcasting until the very last minute); and then on through both the eighties revival and subsequent lifetimes since then, the story of Caroline unfolds across hours and hours of mp3s.
The anniversary show is the earliest of Samantha’s broadcasts that can still be heard (at least that we know of), with her own hour-long segment of the show… the last, before the 4am closedown (‘for technical maintenance”)… kicking off with Van Morrison’s “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” which she dedicated to all the men on all the ships at sea… for their wives.
She dedicated the BeeGees’ “Words” to one fan who had written to her, and Focus’s “Focus 2” to another. She aired the Doors’ “Unknown Soldier” and the Rolling Stones’s “Angie”; Melanie and Janis Joplin; Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge; Bob Dylan and Python Lee Jackson; and interviewed one of Caroline’s crew, Peter van Dyken.
Samantha: “How long have you been with Radio Caroline?”
PvD: “It’s now for one and a half years”
S: ”What sort of work do you do here?”
PvD: “As a sailor.”
S: “But you know about generators and all that as well, don’t you
PvD: “I do painting and things, on deck, working”
S: ”Are you on Radio Caroline for the same reason as I am?”
PvD: ”It’s a nice life on the sea, music and everything”
S: ”And Love and Peace?”
And there’s an odd sort of silence there, but Samantha is unflustered. Or is she? “Onto the next record, and… oh dear, I don’t even know what it is. Ah yes, it’s by David Bowie and it’s called ‘Sorrow’.”
Another interview, with fellow DJ Bob Ross.
S: “How long have you been on the ship now?”
BR: “Five foot nine.”
You can hear her choke back the laughter.
Samantha left Caroline again on May 10, 1975 – conditions aboard the ship were, as a matter of course, more or less appalling, and few DJs remained on board for long; the longest continuous stint enjoyed by any single DJ was thirteen weeks, six days, set by DJs Roger Matthews and Stewart Russell during 1977-1978. Most others fled for shore every few weeks. Some would never return.
True, there were breaks in the monotony of life aboard the (generally) stationery vessel – fishing was a popular diversion, of course, and when tidal conditions were right, there was the chance for a quick game of soccer, or some sunbathing, on a nearby sandbank. Movies were shown and, of course, practical jokes were a perpetual hazard, particularly when a new face showed up – one DJ, John Mair, recalled having shampoo poured into his shoes, eggs crushed over his head, and buckets of water thrown over him, all during his first week on air. And yes, he was usually on air at the time.
Sightseers setting out by boat from the Essex town of Brightlingsea were a regular occurrence, too; and so (during one of her later tours of duty) was the sight of Samantha taking what she referred to as “exercise” – running up and down the deck with the ship’s dog.
But still DJ Kenny Everett, recalling his time aboard the pirates in the 1960s, described their ships as looking like they were transporting dust; while Peter Muir, today the head of Market Square Records, remembers visiting Caroline during the 1980s, out in “international Waters with no land in sight. Looked like everyone had scurvy. Ship in poor state not having been in any port for three years.” Even worse, “we then experienced some minor unpleasantness being interviewed by the police and Customs and Excise on our return (seven hours) to land.”
The Mi Amigo was scarcely seaworthy, and her 1980s successor, the Ross Revenge was not much better. Shipboard accidents were common, technical difficulties and breakdowns regular. Storms were an occupational hazard, and the ship’s transmitter aerial frequently fell victim to them. Sea-sickness could affect the most experienced crew member, and a cold could spread through the ship like a plague. But once Caroline got into your heart, she would never leave.
Samantha had that same effect, and not only upon her listeners. Her sense of humor was legendary on board, but never so pronounced as the day the Mi Amigo was visited by an official delegation from Britain’s Home Office, hiring a tug boat and then sailing around the pirate, taking measurements of her transmission strengths and position.
Most of the crew and DJs donned disguises for the occasion, fearful of being recognized or identified by the officious visitors. Samantha not only eschewed a mask, she also flashed her breasts to the government men.
Samantha began another of her Caroline stints on December 12, 1975, filling the midnight to two shift. “I’m very pleased to be back again and hope I will bring you a very pleasurable two hours”… and she did, although she would later apologize “if my voice sounds a bit hoarse tonight, but I have to get used to doing radio broadcasting, because I’ve been away for about one and a half years.”
Her taste in music had not suffered, though… Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Loggins & Messina… Caroline prided itself now as Europe’s first all-albums station, and Samantha, whose personal taste seemed almost as vast as the ship’s on-board record library, was in her element.
Her December 1975 sojourn was another flying visit, but Samantha remained a constant, if irregular presence on Caroline over the next three years, returning to the ship for a lengthy stint in 1976 (during which she was on air for around 547 hours), shorter runs in early 1977 and late 1978, and then surprising every listener when she returned with just twenty-four hours notice in 1984.
She also “starred” in one of the regular legal dramas that characterized Caroline’s seaboard life. In 1974, the Netherlands introduced its own anti-pirate radio law and, shortly after returning to shore in late 1976, Samantha was charged with broadcasting illegally from the pirate vessel. Somewhat foolishly, but very typically, she had taken to giving out her Dutch home address on the air, after discovering that her mail (like all the other DJs’) was simply piling up at Caroline’s Spanish address, and not reaching its intended recipients for months.
Her first court date was January 12, 1977, and Samantha was forced to represent herself – she could not afford a lawyer. Against her, the prosecution had arrayed three of her old colleagues; a shipboard cook, a former generator engineer and Jan, a sailor.
“[They] sign[ed] a statement under oath that they were with me on the ship and saw me broadcasting in English,” she said at the time. And the odds were always against her. “The Dutch Court is really Mickey Mouse. I am very ashamed of being of Dutch Nationality. Why do I say that? Well, firstly there wasn’t a jury. I pleaded not guilty. So the court called one of the witnesses, in that case it was Jan the sailor. The court asked him if he recognised me as being Samantha, alias Ellen Kraal, broadcasting illegally on board the ship called the MV Mi Amigo.
“Well, much to my surprise, Jan denied everything. He said that he never knew me. If that had happened in a British court, the second witness would be called up. But the Dutch wankers just warned Jan that he was committing perjury and he could get up to six months imprisonment for going back on his word.”
Jan’s testimony did not help. Samantha was found guilty regardless, and received a two hundred pound fine, and a three week jail sentence, suspended for two years. Meaning, she explained, “if I get caught [broadcasting illegally] within two years, I go to jail for three weeks. I haven’t paid the fine, and I’m not planning to either, which means forty days imprisonment.” (In fact, and completely unbeknownst to Samantha, her grandmother paid it for her. She was apparently furious when she discovered this.)
As for her future plans – “Actually I’m going back to the ship.”
And so she did, returning to the airwaves just a month later and prompting Buster Pearson, founder of the British free radio chronicle Monitor magazine, to remark, “perhaps if there was more of her buccaneering spirit around, the outlook for offshore radio would be a brighter one.”
Although Radio Caroline would shift her around the schedule during her various stints, Samantha was best-suited to the night-time hours, when her soft voice and dry wit established her as the closest thing to compulsive listening on British radio. This was particularly true during that period when her show was exquisitely (if not deliberately) scheduled to follow Radio One’s nightly John Peel show, and effortlessly maintained the same blend of relaxed enthusiasm, excellent taste and yes, dash of self-deprecating humor that rendered Peel so popular with his audience.
“I must admit I sound very, very untogether tonight… I don’t know why, I just do,” she complained one night. “But don’t worry, people, I’ll soon loosen up. I’ve got a bottle of Johnny Walker beside me, and I’m going to drink it straight.”
Like Peel, she would stumble, then apologize, over song introductions… she once referred to Steely Dan as Steeleye; and mispronounced Ohio (as in the Players) as Ohi-eee. On another occasion, Heart’s debut album was retitled Dreamboat Andy. She played a Police album track at 45, and it sounded even more ridiculous than it normally did.
Like Peel, she would enthuse about her personal favorites (“How Long” hitmakers Ace were one such; Bachman Turner Overdrive another; and she presented a terrific half-hour Zappa tribute at 3am one morning); like Peel, she enjoyed playing great blocks of songs from a single LP, and talking about her plans, as well… such as “spending tomorrow in the sun because I’m determined to get off this ship very, very very brown, and make everybody jealous on land,” or heading to Spain for a vacation with her shipmate Bridget, where she intended hunting down “a young, rich lover.”
Her absences from the airwaves seemed endless; her returns felt as though royalty was in town… even the night in March, 1976, when she received a most unconventional welcome back to the Mi Amigo from the DJ who preceded her, the very short-lived (nine days) American import Doctor Boogie. He dedicated the final record of his show to Samantha, and then played Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back.”
She gave as good as she got, though; when the station welcomed a new DJ, Stuart Russell, to its crew, it was Samantha who rechristened him Russell Sprout.
Her 1984 broadcasts marked the end of Samantha’s time with Caroline. She had been living in New Zealand since her last visit, and she would return there soon after. It was there that she was diagnosed with liver cancer, the disease that would end her life on October 1, 1992, little more than a year after the birth of her son Luke. She was just thirty-seven.
Memories of Samantha continue to pile in. The night in late October 1984 when the sound of one of her colleagues practicing his saxophone in an adjoining studio reduced her to such fits of laughter that she could barely put another record on, let alone introduce it.
Another, in September 1978, when one of her colleagues warned us that she was “suffering from the effects of a bottle of Geneva, or parts thereof” – to which Samantha responded with a distinctly slurred “not true, not true.” And then proceeded to demonstrate that it probably was.
That was also the night when fellow DJs Stuart Russell (aka Nigel Harris), Roger Matthews and Marc Jacobs, all of whom were in a similar state, joined her in the studio with an apparently copious quantity of alcohol still to hand. According to Harris’s excellent Ships in Troubled Waters memoir, “the show was fun and we laughed and continued to drink as the music blasted from the speakers. As the laughter continued between the songs, Marc had grabbed Samantha’s breasts while the microphone was open and she commented, almost matter-of-factly, ‘stop touching my tits!”
On shore, however many thousands of listeners stopped whatever they were doing, and stared at their radios in astonishment.
But most of all, there was the night when she dedicated a song to all the lonely people out there and reminded them, “you’re not alone. You’ve got me.”
And, thanks to the tireless devotion of all those long ago tapers, and that of the webmasters who have archived their recordings, we still do.
Happy birthday, Sam. You’re still the greatest.