Many young men dream of becoming devil-may-care pirates when they grow up – of a swashbuckling life of adventure and romance, free from the stifling constraints of authority. For Britons Keith Renton and Les Adams, that non-conformist dream came true.
Established in 1984 with a crusading mission to promote soul music on the airwaves of the British capital, in its original incarnation Solar Radio was a “pirate” station that broadcast illegally. Today, Renton is a director, and Adams is a deejay and presenter, at the fully licensed London-based station.
“It was very sexy in those days,” Renton says of the anti-establishment glamour of pirate radio. “It was radical, it was naughty and against the law, but we didn’t do it purely for those reasons. It was fun doing it, but primarily it was all about the music.”
Pirate radio stations first became popular in Europe in the early 1960s. Established by maverick entrepreneurs and defiant music enthusiasts catering to a demand for pop music that was not being met by mainstream media, the likes of Radio Caroline and Radio London broadcast from ships or disused World War II sea forts. Because they were broadcasting from international waters, they were beyond the reach of the law.
“I was a child of the ’50s and ’60s, and I grew up hugely influenced by what I heard on offshore pirate radio,” says Renton. “As a kid I was almost always locked into stations like Radio London.”
The first British pirate station was Radio Caroline, which started broadcasting from a ship off the east coast of England in 1964. By 1967, numerous offshore stations were broadcasting to an estimated daily audience topping 10 million devoted listeners. Adams was another early convert.
“As a child I’d play around with a tape recorder, making pretend radio shows that we’d play back at family get-togethers,” Adams recalls. “I was a huge Beatles fan as a kid. They come along in 1963, so from when I was eight or nine years old I was well into music. Radio Caroline went off the air in ’68. For those few years, the offshore stations had been all I listened to. I loved the pirate stations.”
The pirates had not been adored by everyone, however, and the closure of Radio Caroline and other stations resulted from the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967, which closed the international-waters loophole. Suddenly, the offshore stations were officially outlawed. “I can almost remember the closing sequence of Radio London word for word,” says Adams. “I remember laying on my bunk bed at home balling my eyes out when that station went off the air. For me it was the end of the world.”
Though pirate radio’s heyday was over, unlicensed broadcasters proved difficult to crush in Britain, and the 1970s saw the arrival of illicit, land-based stations like Radio Invicta, mostly in the major cities. “The ’70s was arguably the best decade for soul music, but it still wasn’t being properly catered for on radio,” says Renton. “You had Radio Invicta broadcasting two hours each weekend on its Sound of Midnight Soul, but it was all very underground.”
Things changed in the ’80s with the arrival of new British stations Horizon FM and JFM. “Those guys really kick-started things, and that’s when serious competition started,” says Renton. “Solar was born out of a rebellion at Horizon in 1984, with mostly ex-Horizon deejays. That’s when I got involved.”
Adams, who cut his teeth with London’s Radio Jackie (which “started off transmitting from fields using cassette players with aerials and transmitters strung between the branches of trees”), says he had never been particularly rebellious, and pirate stations were the only option for a young radio enthusiast to break into the industry.
In 1998, Solar was relaunched legally via satellite. Today, the station’s embrace of the Internet means it reaches a global audience, and KEF is sponsor of two of Adams’ shows – The Two Hour Takeover that’s broadcast every Friday evening, and the popular Dancefloor Classics that goes out on Saturday nights. Adams says both are downloaded via the Solar website and iTunes by tens of thousands of listeners every week. They reside in more than 30 countries. “Solar is truly international,” adds Renton.
Renton and Adams agree that it was their passion for music – for soul music especially – that kept the Solar flame alive through some difficult times. “For the definition of soul music, listen to I’ve Been Loving You Too Long by Otis Redding,” says Adams. “It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time. It makes me feel emotional. That, for me, typifies soul music.”
Renton goes further, stressing that a spirit of being true to yourself is central to soul music, and to Solar Radio.
“When I play That’s the Way of the World by Earth, Wind and Fire, it sends a shiver down my spine, even after all these years. Soul is essentially black American music that is all rooted in the blues and gospel, and that’s where rock music came from. When I put on Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, that moves me too. But my first love will always be soul music. The performance, the raw emotion … some of these songs can reduce you to tears.”