by Steven Van Zandt
This is an adventure story, so let’s get that straight right up front. Ronan O’Rahilly and his gang of rogues, renegades and roustabouts had little intention of making history and every intention of making trouble. Of course, what they pulled off ended up doing both. And along the way incurring the class-conscious, self righteous and occasionally dangerously irrational wrath of Her Majesty’s Government, which considered everything from illegally sinking the ship (it actually had a plan), to assassination (which, incredibly, it almost did). And for what high crimes against the Empire was all this wrath in defense of, you ask?
Spreading the Plague perhaps?
No, sorry. On Radio Caroline, they performed the singularly treasonous act of playing rock and roll records to an audience that couldn’t hear them anywhere else. So in other words, the British government’s response was only a bit more extreme than most of our parents!
We were lucky in America. We had great radio from the mid-fifties on. Our horrified, unsuspecting, long-suffering hard-working mothers and fathers witnessed the birth of a new species—the Teenager— who came in such numbers that they couldn’t be exterminated and quickly took over. And they brought their own soundtrack with them.
By the way, destiny would play a role in the flourishing of that soundtrack in two big ways.
When William Paley and CBS introduced the 33 1/3 rpm 12 inch Long Player (LP) in 1948, whose more durable Vinylite plastic would ultimately replace the 78-rpm’s very breakable shellac, his chief rival General David Sarnoff at RCA had to invent something to compete. It would be the 45rpm 7 inch single (6 7/8 actually) introduced in 1949.
This would coincide with a musician’s strike (they assumed records would put them out of business!) which forced record companies to produce more children’s records and—here’s the thing—tiny portable phonograph machines to go with them. Thusly enabling kids, soon to be teenagers, the ability to play the records they wanted, when they wanted, in the privacy of their own rooms, as opposed to the colossal console in the middle of the living room which was closely policed by one’s parents. This teenage technology came along just in time because their sound track turned out to be an unholy combination of Hillbilly trash, Blues shouters, and Gospel fugitives that some lunatic DJ named Alan Freed was calling Rock and Roll (“wasn’t that what black people called sex?!”). Surely this would never have survived (or even seen the light of day) in adultsville.
And then, as if by Satanic wizardry—and maybe the reference to the Plague was accurate after all—it hit the Mother Country like a wayward tsunami. And boy were they ready for it.
It was a country bursting at the seams with frustrated teenagers waiting for a post-World War, black and white life to explode into wide-screen Technicolor. Loudly.
And just in case you think frustrated is too strong a word, keep in mind it was those conservative, well-behaved English teenagers that, upon witnessing Bill Haley and the Comets “Rock Around The Clock” as it opened the classic film Blackboard Jungle, literally ripped the seats out of the theater. They did so for one simple reason. No one had ever heard rock and roll at the proper volume before—you know—loud. And out of those gigantic speakers spilled liberation. Freedom baby!
That’s what this music was all about. And the explosion of liberation came from the unlikely barrels of the cannons aboard Radio Caroline’s Danish passenger ferry, the MV Fredericia, anchored three and a half miles out to sea in International waters. It broadcast the British Invasion back to Britain and gave it the strength it would need to cross the ocean.
And without them...well, unless “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” turns you on, you don’t even want to think about it. So settle back me hearties and let old Tom Lodge spin you a tale about a band of pirates that never made it to the Caribbean, but against all odds made it to New Jersey.
And accidentally saved my life.