Tony, you are quite simply a music institution. Creating DMC way back in the 80’s, producing remixes and the record label Stress through your producers who included the likes of Sasha, Dave Morales and Full Intention, putting on the biggest DJ competition in the world which has taken places at such luminary venues as The Royal Albert Hall and Wembley Arena plus bringing Mixmag and 7 Magazine to our world via your publishing house. Dance music owes you ten times over. This is all after a 20 year radio career, so how did it all begin?
“When I first heard Rock n’ Roll when Elvis flicked my switch. I used to take a guitar to school it was so much of an influence on me. I decided to leave school at the age of fifteen to become a racehorse jockey sharing a bedroom – would you believe with Derby winner and jockey for the Queen, Willie Carson – but the Yorkshire Moors in winter were not for me. Musically it all started when I met a bunch of guys from my home town at a Butlins holiday camp after I’d sang in talent contest where Ringo Starr also starred playing drums, he actually loaned me a pair of his boots for my show. At the time Gene Vincent had his huge tune ‘Be Bop A Lula’ smashing the charts. I saw one of his appearances live where during the song he kicked his leg over the microphone stand and catch it behind his back. Then he’d sway moodily in rhythm with the music. I’d decided to try it, knowing it would impress the audience but my leg wouldn’t reach high enough and the microphone and stand boomed and clattered to the dancefloor below the stage. At the same time, the boot, four sizes too big for me, flew off, hitting someone on the head. The backing band behind me collapsed on stage unable to play for laughing. From there, the guys I met formed a band called The Jasons doing the circuit around the UK, we were local to Lancashire with the likes of The Beatles, The Hollies and Freddie & The Dreamers.”
So a new film making waves at the moment,’Rock The Boat’ revolving around the good lady Radio Caroline ship that you DJ’d on – the first ever pirate radio station, there were two Caroline boats in Felixstowe and the Isle of Man that you rocked on – did the film portray those crazy days well?
“Well it was two months on the South ship and a year and a half on Caroline North in the Irish Sea. I thought the film tapped into the spirit of the time, bear in mind it’s a comedy with a typical lovey dovey centre spot. The incidents in the film were taken from real events, many of which I was involved in. We had a wedding on board ship, all the celebrity guests got lost in a sea-mist. I threw a guy into the sea, he didn’t tell me he couldn’t swim, myself and a chef had to dive in and save him. It was a mad time but a great time.”
Where did the name ‘Radio Caroline’ originate from? A USA connection I believe…?
“The founder Ronan O’Rahilly was a mad President Kennedy fan. He named his pirate baby boat after JF’s daughter.”
You left The Jasons to start a DJ career, strange how it all started though…
“I was offered a job with a fifteen piece big band at a new venue, I was only 18 but it was such an opportunity so I resigned my job as a toolmaker to become a professional musician. One fateful night, the guy who had been playing records whilst the band had their break, didn’t show. The manager offered me a bit more money if I played them. 47 years later, I’m still standing in for the guy! What a great gig, I was given a weekly budget to buy any records I liked, Tamla Motown was starting to deliver, Stax, Atlantic, all mixed with the UK pop and US Rock N’ Roll. People danced to everything and the DJ had to talk after every record. As well as playing and buying the tunes, the manager asked me to tip him off on groups he should book for the venue. One day I recommended a new band called The Beatles on the strength of their first release ‘Love Me Do”. Their second single “Please, Please Me” sent the audience wild. We booked them for £50, Peter Stringfellow had a club in Sheffield which they worked first, then they came over to our club in Oldham. It was Beatlemania. We had a party in their dressing room before the gig and then I introduced them on stage and then spent the set helping to peel girls who had fainted out of the audience and onto the stage where they sat coming round and fainting again as they realised their close proximity to John, Paul, George and Ringo.”
Tell us about the climbing up the Radio Caroline mast tale which is in the film…
“We’d been off the air for three days on Caroline South, it was high winter and stormy and the engineers who needed to climb to the top of the mast to free a rogue cable couldn’t get out to us. On the third day Tony Blackburn and I did the climb. At the central part of the mast the new extension was welded and the rungs became too big for the safety clasp on our harness. The last 60 feet we were on our own – that’s how much we loved our jobs and wanted to get back on air.”
How do you think the huge public support of Music Reality TV has influenced the music industry?
“I was in La Manga Spain with 11 of the most powerful people in the British music industry and said how much I liked Simon Cowell’s new programme ‘Pop Idol’. They all hated Simon, he was too commercial. They laughed at me. “Watch this spot”, I answered. “This show is the most important thing to happen to the industry since The Beatles”. They laughed even more….”
What were the big Radio Caroline anthems you played back then?
“Look at the charts of 1965/66/67 and they all came out of the pirates. The Beatles were on a high and Motown was getting into it’s stride. In clubs we’d play a real mish mash, Four Tops, Supremes, Troggs ‘Wild Thing’, Beach Boys ‘Good Vibrations. One of my favourites was Devil With A Blue Dress On and Good Golly Miss Molly (Medley), Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels or ‘Cool Jerk’ by The Capitols, “I’m your puppet” by James and Bobby Purify. One of my big thrills recently was a documentary on Bob Dylan who was seen in the back seat of his limo listening to me on Caroline playing one of his tunes. Everyone listened to Caroline.”
Your fellow presenters included the likes of Johnnie Walker, Simon Dee, Dave Lee Travis, Tony Blackburn – who were the funniest Radio Caroline DJs you spent out at sea getting drunk and playing records you just loved..
“Blackburn wasn’t funny off air. Dave Lee Travis outdid everyone telling jokes but my real mucker was Emperor Rosko, his dad Joe Pasternak produced a couple of Elvis films. We shared a room in a hotel in London, he was on the South ship, I on the North and we had the same leave rota. We were caught right in the middle of the sensational 60’s and we just lapped it up.”
Who are your own favourite DMC Turntablist stars over the years?
“For musicianship, Craze, co-ordination C2C, originality and genius Q-Bert, Old Skool Cash Money, Trickologist DJ David, speed and agility Kentaro.”
25 Years of the DMC Mixing Champs swinging around this year and just about to get going heat wise, which has been the best ever Final?
“I think The Royal Albert Hall atmosphere took some beating with James Brown, Public Enemy and Run DMC raising the temperature. But C2C lifted the roof four years in succession and we all felt we were witnessing something very special the fourth year in 2006.”
So, The Albert Hall – an unbelievable event true, how difficult was it getting James Brown to fly over?
“I’d come out of a 20 year radio career to start DMC, I had amazing contacts in the record industry, (I paid Simon Cowell £1000 month to promote my record label). Getting James was a favour, it’s difficult to get anyone to do anything if they’re not promoting their latest release which is the time the label have promotion budgets. I had to pay two first class return air flights and a 5 star hotel for him – worth every penny! I announced “God is here”, he waltzed on stage, took a bow and left, he was crying with emotional pride as he marched by me.”
The World Champion DJ Chad Jackson Albert Hall wire cutting story?
“I supported Chad on an idea to do a trick that would end all tricks. The idea was at the end of his six minutes he would set fire to a record, it would levitate off the SL and fly across the crowd up into a box. I’d paid a magician Simon Drake to set up. Like all tricks, it required complete secrecy and surprise. As Jackson reached the end of his set, the magician ran to me at side of stage and said the trick couldn’t happen…the nylon chord that would take it across the Albert Hall had been sabotaged. Someone had burnt it with a cigarette. I yelled at Chad “You can’t do the trick, it’s fucked”. On the video you can see him glance down at me. Then with seconds to go he changed the ending of his set and threw an American football into the crowd. Brilliant at the time.”
Where does the standing on your head routine in front of 5000 people come from?
“When I used to sing with the rock group I’d sing a chant in the middle of Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I say’ and would continue singing on my head for a couple of versus, the kids loved it. I just carried on doing it throughout my life, it’s my party piece.”
You present the Finals and bring on the winners – what’s it like being in front of of kids, many in their early teens/early twenties – are you ever nervous?
“Never nervous. Just wondering how the heck I am still here? I’ve watched every mix at every final for 25 years.”
How did the big Frinton on Sea Radio Caroline South beach grounding happen?
“In January 1966 the ship started dragging it’s anchor in a storm until it grounded. The DJs and crew were winched ashore by breeches buoy. I wasn’t with them but Blackburn told me it was pretty hairy. This caused Ronan to bring in another ship whilst the original Caroline was repaired. When Caroline was repaired she was sent to the Isle of Man and rechristened Radio Caroline North.”
Dead or alive – six dinner guests…?
“Elvis, Jesus, John Lennon, Winston Churchill, Robin Williams and Henry VIII – can you imagine that lot?”
You have the biggest record collection in the world – what is your most cherished album or single?
“I have the first Beatle record to ever be played on any radio station in the world. The Beatles were listening to Radio Luxembourg the first time they heard ‘Love me do” being played. I inherited it when we cleared out all the doubles in the library in Luxembourg. Later I got Paul McCartney to sign it. I sold it an auction in the 80s but was so saddened that when it came back up on auction I spent a fortune bringing it back home.”
How did the pirate boat scene begin?
“Well Caroline wasn’t an original idea. There’d been ships off Sweden before and even California in the 30’s, the Voice of Peace was pretty busy around Israel etc. Whilst Ronan was building his pirate ship in his father’s shipyard at Greenor in Eire, others were already laying plans for their own pirate ship. Subsequently Caroline launched on March 28th 1964 and Radio London started test transmissions in December of that year.”
What was it like meeting Elvis Presley?
“Imagine your wildest dream. Now multiply it by 1000. That was what it was like.”
In 1980, the then Radio Caroline vessel Mi Amigo foundered in a storm and drifted off and then sank. You had long since moved off to the DMC wonder-ship – did you give a shit or did you think the new regime had ruined it by then and the whole concept of a ‘pirate radio station’ had long since lost it’s shine?
“To me the ships had lost their shine from the day the Marine Offences Bill came in. There was too much new stuff going on. BBC Radio 1 was launched with lots of former pirate DJs and I went to live in Luxembourg to form the first live team on that station with Noel Edmonds, Paul Burnett and Kid Jensen. The pirates continued with non Brits and newcomers who took their chances with the law. As BB King said, “The thrill is gone”. Living in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg I could no longer hear the pirates, my life revolved around 208 instead of 199!!!”
How do you think the art of Turntablism has evolved over the years?
“It proved what I shouted from the mountains for years… that the DJ is a musician not a musical parasite. Vinyl won’t lie down. They’ve tried their best to kill it off but the presses keep on pressing and the DJs keep on scratching. We’re trying to sustain purist turntablism whilst introducing new technology, it’s important the DJ society doesn’t stand still whilst it’s equally important we protect a very fine artistry.”
Best DJ gig you ever did?
“Czechoslovakia, just after the Dubcek uprising. I was the only DJ who ever worked the East in the Iron Curtain days. The kids were just so pleased to see one of the guys playing all that beautiful music every night on Radio Luxembourg. Can you imagine not ever being able to buy the music you heard? There were no clubs as such, I stood on a stage they sat in a theatre and just watched until I made them climb out of their seats and dance. I felt like I was tunneling out with them. Funnily enough I’m invited back for the anniversary of the gig on May 1st, this time it’s the Czech Republic though”.
What has been the best live gig you’ve jumped around to?
“Elvis in Vegas, The Beatles in Oldham, Michael Jackson in Marbella, Pink Floyd and Earth Wind & Fire at Wembley Arena.”
And finally, your life has changed so many times over the years – from rocking on stage with Run DMC, Janet Jackson and Roxante Shane to building the biggest DJ organisation in the world and creating the best ever dance music bible Mixmag Magazine – an inspiration, truly… but you have now taken another career route – Wedding TV on Sky TV, tell us about it…
“My life has been built on ideas. When my daughter Gabrielle got married her wedding film inspired me to start a TV channel for the girls. When I first became a DJ, there weren’t any full time club DJs, when I became a pirate DJ it was because there was no music being played on radio and when I started DMC it was because I’d found an art that excited me so much I knew it could change the DJ industry. The first thing we had to do was pursuade DJs to stop talking after every record!!! Mixmag was a newsletter that became a bible, more than anything it built the DJ’s cred and made audiences nomadic spreading the word on which gigs were worth traveling up the M1 from London to the North. DMC is a smooth oiled machine, it’s entering the digital DJ world and Christine and my family are at the helm caring deeply for the DJ industry. I needed a new challenge and making TV programmes was something I felt I could do. It’s so far removed from clubland and DJs, but I’m in my London office every day planning and making programmes which is very challenging indeed. After one year on the air we won the Broadcast Magazine BEST SPECIALIST DIGITAL CHANNEL award.”
Thanks Dad. x