photo by xtinalamb
I developed an unhealthy obsession with the Maunsell Forts when I started researching the book. Built as gun towers in WW2 (by the guy who would go on to design first the oil rig), the forts were later taken over by the first generation of radio pirates in the 1960s. I never thought Iâ€™d get the chance to climb around on them (they are now completely off limits to the public), but today, as Ice Cube once noted, was a good day.
Iâ€™m back in the UK for the weekend with VICE, hosting a show on the history of pirate radio for VBS.TV. Early Saturday morning we drove down to the east coast to explore Red Sands, probably the worldâ€™s most impressive sea fort thatâ€™s still standing.
We spent the day with Tony and Robin, two first generation pirate DJs who used to broadcast from the forts in 1960s. Back then Red Sands was considered to be in international waters, being more than three miles off the coast, so pirates could play music from there without having to worry about things like getting caught. There were other risks, like falling in the sea and dying, but as Tony explained to me, he â€˜never really thought about it.â€™
It was a weird feeling climbing aboard Red Sands. There’s rusting pieces of history everywhere you look, both from the fortsâ€™ original use as artillery platforms and from their re-purposing as pirate radio stations. They are much roomier inside than youâ€™d think – sort of like the Tardis (Dr Who even paid a visit to Red Sands back in the day). Theyâ€™re bleak, dark, industrial and dank, but something about them is hypnotizing.
I knew I was going to bug out when I got on board, being a huge fort nerd and all, but the rest of the crew were just as stoked as I was. The whole experience is like nothing else. The way the forts come at you through the fog on the approach like the AT-AT walkers in Empire Strikes Back, the sounds of creaking metal and sea gulls and chiming buoys, the second set of forts at Shivering Sands sitting like dots on the horizon five miles away (which I visited a few years back, but didnâ€™t get to climb on). All the other stuff out there; shipwrecks, wind turbines, ruined piers, container ships zipping by in the background – nothing about Red Sands or the surrounding waters seems real.
Inside there were twelve rooms in all; bathrooms, bedrooms, a kitchen, all battered by the elements, but still in good enough condition that Tony, who lived out here for four years in his twenties (and is now 62) still comes and sleeps on the fort sometimes. It was cool talking to first generation British pirate DJs, swapping anecdotes standing on the roof of the fort, although Tony and Robin made all my pirate stories from the garage/grime scenes look super lame. The conversation went something like:
Me: â€œOnce at Ice FM there was some beef and a guy pulled a knife!â€
Them: â€œOh. Once seventeen thugs invaded the fort and we chased them away with grenades and flame throwers.â€
Me: “Umâ€¦ At Ice FM, we used to get tons of girls texting the studio and sometimes weâ€™d go meet some up at McDonalds after the show!â€
Them: â€œAwesome. We had boatloads of nubile female fans coming to the forts to sleep with us. Literally. Boats. Full of women. All the time.â€
Me: â€œUmmmâ€¦ We had a 30 foot antenna and sometimes weâ€™d get our signal out as far as Essex! Plus I used to get like 100 texts per show!â€
Them: â€œWe put a 200 foot antenna up with a crane and had eight million listeners, junior.â€
Everything about the way the first generation of pirates operated makes the rest of us who followed look a little weak. But Robin and Tony were really cool and very aware of the legacy they left and the culture they help create. Talking to them I realized the thing all pirate DJs seem to have in common is the sense of contributing something positive. The pull of pirate radio isnâ€™t the buzz of not getting caught – itâ€™s the buzz you get from doing community service. To play some records which are being ignored. To support a scene, help it grow and live in the world. Iâ€™ve never met a pirate DJ that considered themselves criminal and wasnâ€™t proud of what they did.
Tony and Robin are still out on the forts today, as part of Project Redsand, a non-profit trying to restore the forts to their former glory. Theyâ€™re doing what theyâ€™ve always done: a community service. Same thing they did more than forty years ago when they risked life and limb to bring rock and roll to the UK.
The show will be up on VBS sometime in March.