Save and rave! How a compilation of pirate radio adverts captures a lost Britain

Fashion boutiques, shop-fitters and others advertised alongside raves on early 1990s pirate radio. Now, a new compilation is rediscovering a slice of the underground

“Have you got that record that goes ah-woo-ooo-ooh-yeah-yeah?” It’s a scene familiar to anyone who spent time in a hardcore rave record shop in the 1990s – a punter asking for a tune they’ve heard on pirate radio or at a rave but they don’t know the title of, so they mimic the riff or sample hook hoping someone behind the counter recognises it.

A relic of pre-Shazam life, the ritual is preserved in an advert for Music Power Records aired on the pirate station Pulse FM in 1992. Nick Power, owner of the north London shop, recalls that no matter how mangled the customer’s rendition, “nearly always, you’d be able to identify the exact record they were looking for”. In the advert, Power plays the roles of both sales assistant and punter, pinching his nose to alter his voice. Almost 40 years later, the comic skit commercial has been resurrected alongside others on two volumes of London Pirate Radio Adverts 1984-1993, by audio archivist Luke Owen. Power is pleasantly bemused by this turn of events: “I can’t see there’d be a demand for radio ads, but there’s got to be someone out there who’s interested enough to buy it. I don’t see it being a platinum release, though!”

Released via his label Death Is Not the End, Vol 1 is available digitally at a name-your-price rate and for £7.50 as a limited-edition cassette tape – an echo of the format on which pirate listeners captured transmissions of hardcore and jungle. Back then, most fans pressed pause when the ad break started, which means that surviving documents of the form are relatively scarce. But what once seemed ephemeral and irritating has acquired period charm and collectability.

Music Power Records advert, Pulse FM (1992) – video

Owen started Death Is Not the End in 2014 as a label and NTS Radio show that trawled much further back in the 20th century to scoop up early gospel and obscure blues. Early last year, he put out Bristol Pirates, tapping his teenage memories of that city’s 90s radioscape. The adverts loomed in his nostalgic reveries with particular vividness. “They were infectious and endearingly DIY,” he says. “Some of them memorable to the point of fever loops. I remember one or two word for word.” Owen sees pirate radio broadcasts in general as “archival folk music” that fits perfectly logically alongside the field recordings and Jamaican doo-wop he had previously reissued. “They are raw, impromptu and communal musical experiences.”

Pirate MCs and DJs often described an ad break as “a pause for the cause” – an annoying but necessary interruption to fund the station’s operation. But the ads were also useful to listeners, alerting them to raves and club nights, and promoters depended on the pirates as a primary way (along with flyers left in record shops) to reach their market.

The ads are fascinating snapshots of a living culture, at once entertaining, and valuable historical sociocultural data. Most are for raves and clubs, record stores or releases, and some are for businesses unrelated to music: Vol 1 features ads for a Croydon shop-fittings company called Trade Equip, and for Right Fit, a womenswear shop in east London. If the uproarious tones of the commercials for raves convey the hustling energy of rave as a micro-economy, these more mundane non-music ads show how the scene was embedded in the larger economy. The ads capture a slice of urban history, too: from Fidel’s Menswear to the music equipment store Brixton Exchange to Music Power Records itself, these businesses have mostly shuttered or moved premises owing to changing demographics and rising rents.

Sound of the pirates: Daddy Kool record shop on Berwick Street, London, 1990.
Sound of the pirates … Daddy Kool record shop on Berwick Street, London, 1990. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

Author of London’s Pirate Pioneers, Stephen Hebditch says that pirate radio – once a middle-class hobby – had by the late 80s become “urban enterprise for the people most excluded from the legitimate media system. London reggae labels in particular put a lot of money into the pirates. Then when acid house came along promoters were splashing out a fortune on the stations linked to the rave scene”. Some of this revenue covered the costs of replacing radio equipment seized by the authorities. But larger pirate operations could “make back the cost of losing a transmitter in just a few hours of broadcasting”.

Although demonised by the government and news media as gangsters of the airwaves, the pirates were genuine community stations, playing music marginalised by mainstream broadcasters. The pirates represented minority populations – most obviously Black British, but other ethnicities too, such as Greek-Cypriot Londoners. That is Power’s background, so he was tickled to hear a Greek-language ad for a Willesden Green beauty salon on the first volume of London Pirate Radio Adverts. On volume two a similar one for a Harrow Road kebab house sits alongside ads for the Peckham jungle club Innersense at the Lazerdrome and for Chillin’ FM’s dating service for ravers.

Death Is Not the End’s compilations could be seen as a haunted audio cartography of a disappearing London, though that sounds a bit ghostly and elegiac. Most of all, these pirate adverts are joyous mementoes of enterprising fun, young people grabbing good times at the outer edge of the law.


Simon Reynolds

The GuardianTramp

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