Generation Ecstacy cover

Rave and jungle on UK pirate radio (June 1998)

Simon Reynolds is an internationally known, influential writer whose work has been published in numerous magazines and papers including The Wire (including the sexology of pieces-- i.e. six essays-- re hardcore and jungle), Village Voice, Melody Maker and Spin (where he's the album's reviews editor). His previous books include THE SEX REVOLTS: GENDER, REBELLION & ROCK'N'ROLL, written with Joy Press (Harvard University Press in North America, or Serpent's Tail in the U.K, 1995), and BLISSED OUT: THE RAPTURES OF ROCK (Serpent's Tail, London, 1990).

This is the director's cut, the unabridged version of a chapter of Simon's new book- the UK edition is called ENERGY FLASH: A JOURNEY THROUGH RAVE MUSIC AND DANCE CULTURE, published by Picador in September, 500 pages (in the book, a signficantly shorter version of this chapter appears) The book comes with a free CD of rave classics including tunes by Beltram, Nightmares on Wax, LFO, DJ Hype, 4 Hero and Danny Breaks...

This pirate radio chapter doesn't appear in the U.S. version of the book (although chunks of it are incorporated in the chapter on jungle), so this is something that most North American readers will never see otherwise. The U.S. edition is called GENERATION ECSTASY: INTO THE WORLD OF TECHNO AND RAVE CULTURE, published by Little, Brown in September, with 438 pages (it's about 40 thousand words shorter than the UK version).


"Well out of that now, into this--sounds of the Lucky Spin, believer! Along with the MC OC, along with the full studio crew. Heh heh heh heh, lively business! Echo?! Hah hah! Here we go now, shout going out to Rattle, you know the koo. Cooked food, love it to the bone! To the marrow! Normality, believe! L-I-V-E and direct, to the koo. Are you ready, wind your waist crew? Are you ready, headnodding crew? And those who's driving around Don-land North East South and West, we've got you locked!!! Come again! Sounds of the Lucky Spin, sounds of the Stevie Hill--to all massives, all crew. A shout going out to Jim and Emma... Jim and Emma, get out of John's bed, right here, right now--the sounds of the Don will show you how. C'mon! Do-it-like-this! 10- 57, get on the case, for the hardcore, hardcore bass. For ya face--100 percent bass! Alright, red-eye crew, you know the koo. Going out to you, wind your waist crew.... headnodding crew....and those who's l-l-l-lickin' it in Don-land in their cars, yes, driving about Don-land, the Don-ites and your Don-'eads. Do-it-like-this, jungalist! Believe me, 'ardkore's firing!"
--- MC OC on Don FM, 1993

All through the Nineties, London's 'ardkore rave and jungle pirate stations have disrupted the decorum of the FM airwaves with their vulgar fervour and rude-boy attitude. Pirate DJ's unleash a mad multi-generic mash-up of hip hop breakbeats, dub-reggae bass and Euro-rave synth-bombast. The MC surfs this polyrhythmic pandemonium with a freestyle Dada-doggerel of druggy buzzwords, party-hard exhortations and outlaw war-cries: sublime "nonsense" that is purely invocatory, designed to bind its scattered addressees into a community, mobilise it into an army.

London's jungle pirates come and go, but at any time of year, you can scan the frequency-band at the weekend and find at least a dozen. There are many more illegal stations in the capital, and throughout Britain, representing other dance-genres neglected by mainstream radio: dancehall reggae, soul, house & garage, rap, and so forth. Some regard themselves as a providers of a community service, like North London reggae station Station FM, with its anti-drug messages and funki-dread positivity. And some are so well-organised and well-behaved they're like independent commercial radio stations that just haven't bothered to secure a licence, like Dream FM in Leeds, with its 24/7 transmissions and stringent rules about no swearing on air, no drugs in the studio, no playing of records containing drug references.

My passion, however, is for the pirate stations that seem the most piratical, the stations for whom being on the wrong side of the law is part of the thrill. And that means the jungle pirates. In fact, given that jungle stations like Kool and Face have gotten more "professional" and "mature" since the music went mainstream in 1994, it really means the unruly 'ardkore pirates of 1991-93: Touchdown, Defection, Index, Rush, Format, Pulse, Eruption, Impact, Don, Chillin', Destiny, Function, and many more.

Out of a personal archive of hundreds of hours of taped transmissions, my favourite sequence is from an unusual mid-week broadcast by a station called Lightning, which seems to have been hi-jacked for one night only by a duo called the FMB Crew (it stands for Fucking Mind Bending). After about an hour of rambling, nursery-rhyme banter, ranging from the sinister and scatological to the nonsensical and outright indecipherable, the pair suddenly get possessed by a kind of free-associational delirium. The soundtrack is a particularly febrile mix of DJ Hype's "I Can't Understand It At All" into a wondrously zany X Project track, in which choirboy Aled Jones's innocuous chart smash "Walking In The Air" is warped into an anthem for the no-sleep raver speedfreak: "we're walking in the air/while people down below are sleeping as we fly".

MC# 1: "Biggin' up the Man like Niney Niney, the man who loves banan-ees--he says. Hold it down. Biggin' up the Acton Crew, doing-the-do. Biggin' up the Acting Hard Massive. Stiff as an 'ard on! Comin' on, comin' on, come on come on techno strong. Work it up! Working up the-rush-in-the-place!"
MC#2: "And it's Haitch with a Hot"
MC# 1: "Biggin' up the Hot Man, the Metal Man, hold it down. Cinders. You know the score--
MC#2: "And the Builder. And the Coke Can---"
MC# 1: "Biggin' up the Coke Can, the Builder--"
MC#2: "And the Ice--"
MC# 1: "Not forgetting--".
MC#2: "The Schweppes."
MC# 1: "Cackooo Crew! Big it up big it up, doing-the-do!
MC#2: "Havin' em in the loo, in the loo--"
MC# 1: "Hot hot--"
MC#2: "Doing a lovely poo poo! Ha, ha!
MC# 1: "Buzzin' hard! Having a bubble, in the studio.
MC#2: "Trippin' out! Phone us an ambulance. Phone don't work, give us bell see if it works. 0831 639302, could save a life or two. Or three. Come on, rush with me!
MC# 1: "Biggin' up all the people that live in blocks, 'round London town. Biggin up all the builders. Rush with this, learn to mix!
MC#2: "Comin' on comin' on comin' on strong--"
MC# 1: "Going out to Sammy in Stratford, you know the koo. The didgeridoo, the 'abadabadoo.
MC#2 (starting to sound deranged and a bit demonic): Doing it doing it with the poo. Sounds of the big cack-ooo. Going out to the buzzin' ard crew. You know the koo, koo. Crispy like a crouton! Sounds of the 'Ot with an Haitch. Getting hot in the place. Steamin'. Rollin'. Sounds of the South. [growling and gnashing teeth] Hold it down. You know the koo. Flex tops are doing the do. Respect is due. To you and your crew.
MC# 1: "Sounds of the South, man. Buzzin'."

It loses something in transcription: the intonation, the grain of the voice, the instinctual syncopation, the drugged slurriness. But I'm not taking the piss when I say that I rate this-- and a score more snatches of phonetic poetry plucked live'n'buzzin' from London's pirate airwaves --among my favourite "cultural artefacts" of the Twentieth Century.

(ED NOTE: Hyperreal has the audio version of this broadcast)


"The future does not exist for them"
--- Postmaster General Tony Benn, promising to outlaw Britain's first wave of pirate radio stations, 1965.

Pirate radio get its romantic name not just from its flagrant flouting of government restrictions on the airwaves, but from its early days in the 1960's, when unlicensed stations broadcasted from ships anchored at sea just outside British territorial waters. Although dance bands had transmitted live from West End hotels in the 1930's, the idea of broadcasting from boats was pioneered by the Danes and Swedes in the late '50's. But pirate radio really took off in the seas around the British Isles. By 1965, there was Radio Caroline, Radio London, Radio Invicta, Radio 390, Radio Essex, and Radio Scotland, amongst others. Some stations broadcast from ships, with DJ's confined to quarters for several weeks at a time; others used derelict Army and Navy forts on the Thames Estuary.

For pirate radio stations then and now, the motivation to go outside the law is the desire to supply "the people" with the music that officially-sanctioned radio doesn't play or doesn't play enough of, and to present it in an "authentic" manner. In the mid-60s, British youth craved a non-stop diet of the latest beat music, but the BBC's pop programming was limited, and heavily diluted with MOR in order to placate a broad age spectrum. As for presentation, the pirate jocks' zany, irreverent patter, influenced by American commercial radio's personality DJ's, contrasted with the staid, stiff, un-pop BBC presenters. By 1966, Radio London could claim over 8 million listeners, and Radio Caroline over 6 million; pirate DJ's were cult stars and the stations had their own fan clubs and sometimes associated pop magazines.

This first golden age of pirate radio came to an end when Harold Wilson's Labour government instituted The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967, making it unlawful to found, finance, or aid in any way an unlicensed station. Faced with the prospect of up to two years in jail and/or a hefty fine, many pirates closed down. When the Radio London DJ's arrived at Liverpool Street Station, they were greeted by thousands of unhappy fans, many sporting black arm bands and "Wilson for Ex-Premier" badges. As a sop to public demand, the BBC launched its own national pop station, Radio One, and recruited many of the pirate DJ's, such as Tony Blackburn, John Peel, Johnny Walker and Dave Lee Travis. But some pirates persisted outside the law; in 1972, the Minister for Posts and Telecommunications reported that 116 people had been successfully prosecuted for broadcasting offences in the previous year.

In the early '80's, pirate radio entered its second golden age, with the rise of black music stations like Horizon, JFM, Dread Broadcasting Corporation and LWR, specialising in the soul, reggae and funk that Radio One marginalised. But the nautical connotations of "pirate" had faded; the new pirates broadcast not just from the mainland, but from the heart of the metropolis, using the tower block (high-rise apartment building) method that remains the backbone for today's jungle stations. As the government closed loopholes in the law and increased the penalties, the illegal stations grew ever more cunning in their struggle to outwit the Department of Trade and Industry's anti-pirate agency, the Radio Investigation Service. The invention of the microlink (a method of relaying the station's signal to a distant transmitter) made it harder for the DTI to trace and raid the illegal station's studio. The result was an explosion of piracy; by 1989-90, there were over 600 stations nationwide, and 60 in the London area alone. And in 1989, a new breed of rave pirates, like Sunrise, Dance FM, Fantasy and Centreforce, joined the ranks of established black dance stations like LWR and Kiss.

As in the 1960's, the government responded with the double whammy of suppression and limited permission. In a weird echo of the pardons offered ultra- successful buccaneers and corsairs in the 16th and 17th Centuries, the pirate stations were offered an amnesty if they went off the air, and a chance to apply for one of the bonanza of licenses being made available as part of the Conservative governments commitment to "freeing" the airwaves. LWR and Kiss closed down voluntarily, but only Kiss won a licence. The legitimatisation of Kiss, in combination with a new, toughened Broadcasting Act in January 1990, reduced pirate activity to its lowest since 1967.

But in 1992, the London pirates resurged massively, as a crucial component of hardcore rave's underground infrastructure, alongside home-studio recording, indie labels, white label releases and specialist dance stores. Abandoning the last vestiges of trad pop radio broadcasting protocol, the new 'ardkore pirates sounded like "raves on the air": rowdy, chaotic, with the DJ's voiceover replaced by a raucous rave-style MC (Master of Ceremonies), and with a strong emphasis on audience participation (enabled by the spread of the portable cellular phone, which made the studio location impossible to trace by the DTI). With Kiss FM's playsafe programming unable to satisfy the demand for raw-to-the- core 'ardkore, and the dance culture fragmenting into a myriad post-rave sub-scenes, 1992-93 saw the biggest boom in the history of radio piracy. Despite the government's latest package of draconian penalties (unlimited fines, prison sentences of up to two years, and the confiscation of all studio equipment, including domestic hi-fi equipment and the DJ's precious record collection), despite some 536 raids by the DTI in 1992-93, the renegade stations persisted. In the words of a track by Rum & Black, the pirate attitude remained: "**** the Legal Stations".


Surviving as a pirate station in the 1990's involves a mix of hard graft, practical skill and raw cunning similar to that possessed by their seafaring namesakes of the 16th and 17th Centuries. The main problem with illegal broadcasting is that it's fairly easy for the DTI to track a transmission back to its source, by "triangulating" the signal. Since the early Eighties, most pirate stations have circumvented this problem by using a microwave transmitter to "beam" their programmes from the studio to a remote transmitter, where it is then broadcast to the public. Because these micro-links operate by a line-of-sight, directional beam, the DTI can trace the signal back to the pirate studio only once they've got to the top of the tower block and located the transmitter. The smarter pirate stations will have attached a cut-out switch to the door, which cuts the power supply and breaks the link. This ensures that the DTI can't trace the beam from the top of the tower block back to the studio, and that all the pirate station loses in the raid is a transmitter worth a few hundred pounds. The pirate can then switch its micro-link beam to a back-up transmitter at the top of another building.

"I've known stations with ten or fifteen back-up transmitters," says Marcus, a well-spoken 18 year old who was involved in the legendary South London pirate Don FM. "The range of a microwave is usually about a mile or two. You can extend it with a mid-point, which is effectively a jump-station. You link to the mid-point and it links to another. You can have as many mid-points as you like. It depends on how much money you have at your disposal".

When the DTI comes down hard on a particular pirate station, it can lose a transmitter each weekend, sometimes several. It's an expensive business, and the pirates that endure are those with a sound financial infrastructure. Revenue comes from advertising (mostly for raves and clubs, specialist record shops and compilation albums, but occasionally for non music-related retailers, like customised leather clothing). London pirates charge advertisers around 50 to 75 pounds per weekend, with the ads running every hour. The rest of the money comes from the DJ's, who--in a testament to the idealism and love-not-money amateur ethos behind pirate radio--actually pay for the privilege of playing.

"All DJ's pay to play," says Marcus. "Some stations are funded entirely off the DJ's. At Don FM, DJ's paid ten quid for a one-and-a-half hour slot. It sounds a bit harsh, but y'know, if I've set up a studio with the decks and everything, spent money on a rig, physically risked myself going on the roof of a tower block to set up the transmitter, is it really unreasonable to ask for a tenner from someone so he can have a laugh and big up their mates?". DJ's and MC's do get a payback, in so far as playing on the pirates can lead to paid work at clubs and raves.

Although Marcus insists that "you don't set up a pirate to make a profit or even see your money back... in most cases, that's the last you see of your money," pirate radio has long been tarnished with a money-grubbing, on-the-make, even criminal-minded reputation. In 1989, for instance, several Centerforce DJ's were arrested for Ecstasy dealing; accusations of gangster ties and coded, on-air drug transactions, were often been levelled at the 'ardkore pirates. Like many other jungle stations, Don FM had something of a bad-boy, nefarious aura. The word "Don", with all its Mafia connotations, entered junglist slang via Jamaican dancehall, where it refers to anyone who's supreme in their field, anyone who's "runnin' t'ings". In THE GODFATHER, Don Corleone's dearest wish is for the family to go legitimate. Amazingly, Don FM actually managed to do this, if only briefly. Going off the air voluntarily in 1994, the station applied for and won a Restricted Service Licence. For one month only, Don was allowed to "prove itself" by taking on the challenge of broadcasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a view to going for a bigger licence. After a successful month as a legal station, Don confronted the next, prohibitively expense rung on the ladder to full legitimacy, and decided to revert to outlaw status.

For all their conspiratorial, clandestine aura, most pirates' criminal activities are limited to the struggle to protect the station and stay on their air. One station, Rush FM, turned the upper storeys of an abandoned East London tower block into a fortress so impregnable that the DJ's had to abseil (rappel) up the side of the building in order to reach the studio. The entrance was sealed with concrete, through which they'd put some metal scaffolding. They then pumped the scaffolding's metal tubing full of ammonia gas, and linked the scaffold to the electrical mains. When the local council turned up to break down the barricade, the man operating the pneumatic drill got electrocuted, the spark ignited the gas, and the concrete bulwark exploded, showering the workers with shrapnel.

Most pirates, though, says Marcus, realise that such "militant business" doesn't work with the DTI. "If the DTI manage to get to your transmitter, they will take it. Some people will go to serious extremes to protect the transmitter, but there's no point in trying to piss off the DTI". The cut-off switches and other alarms and booby-traps, he says, are "more to guard against other pirates stealing your transmitters." Reflecting the dog-eat-dog nature of '90s lumpen-prole life, there appears to be scant solidarity between the pirates, little in the way of a fraternal feeling that they're all in the underground together.

"A rig is worth about 300 pounds," says Marcus. "If you see one and take it, it's almost not seen as thieving. You need one as much as the next bloke. It's part of the game. It's also done because a station's seen as competition, if it's in your area. And it's not good to have too many pirates in the same area. If there's a stack of pirates in, say, Battersea, the DTI will hit that area 'cos they know they can take out three or four stations in one hit. It's a fight for survival. So you take the transmitter, either 'cos you need another rig, or because they're endangering your station."

If the pirates are at war with each other, some stations have been known to have an almost genial relationship with their ostensible common foe, the DTI. Could it be that some DTI agents-- like certain police officers obliged to wage an unwinnable war on drugs--are privately bemused as to why they must dedicate so much time and resources to suppressing these ultimately harmless dance pirates? The official line, in the words of one Trade and Technology Minister, is that "these stations not only cause radio and TV interference for the ordinary listener, but can seriously endanger life by disrupting the radio communications of the emergency services and airport control towers." Most pirates use transmitters that are "crystal-locked, so that the whole emergency frequency scare is just a lie," insists Marcus. "The FM frequency band goes up in 0.05 steps, and to be locked means that your signal is precisely on that 0.05, and there's no leakage either side of it."

The question, then, remains: why is the government dedicated to stamping out the pirates? Is it just the innate desire of state power to regulate all aspects of the media? Or is there a fear of militant agit-prop being transmitted through the skies? Strangely, Britain has never seen much in the way of political "free radio", although some striking firemen did use a fire-service transmitter in 1977 to contest what they felt was distorted media reporting of the industrial dispute. But an Italian "free" station, Radio Alice, played a major role in catalysing the anarcho-syndicalist and autonomist riots in Bologna in 1977; a 15,000 strong uprising so politically threatening and culturally offensive to the establishment (left- and right-wing), that the Communist Mayor of Bologna invited the army to use armored cars to suppress the uprising. Alice's perpetrators, described by sympathiser Felix Guattari as an unholy alliance of students, feminists, gays, migrant workers and anarchists, were condemned and jailed. In the United States too, pirate radio is mostly politically-motivated, not music-oriented.

If the concept of "resistance" can be applied to British pirate radio, it's clearly on the level of symbolic warfare, that old cultural studies trope of "resistance through rituals", as opposed to overt protest. If the pirates are subversive, it's because they hijack the mass media, the instrument of consensus, in order to articulate a minority consciousness that's local, tribal, and utterly opaque to the un-initiated. The Deleuze & Guattari concept of "minor languages" (versus "major languages") fits the way the pirates can seem to the outsider like mere sound and fury that signifies nothing, yet means everything to those who belong. It's no coincidence that two of the commonest catchphrases used by pirate MC's in 1992-92 were "ardkore, you know the score" and "you know the key". On Don FM, the latter was often slurred and contorted into the cryptic: "you know the koo". Which bring us to the MC, the figure who marshals and sustains the subculture's sense of itself as massive yet subterranenan, a shared, secret underworld; the MC as master of 'ardkore's occult ceremonies, as encryptor.

See part two of this article

Also see our interview with Simon about post-punk