Ronan O’Rahilly was a friend of the family and just sort of around when I was a kid. Although he was part of the new wave on the London scene and an Irish rebel, Ronan was on quite an elevated social strata, certainly above ours. Possibly on a par with Denny Cordell, the music producer and David Putnam. He hung out in Chelsea and would frequent the Casserole, a shi-shi spot on the Kings Road where they had white linen and those Italian bread sticks. He lived in Cadogan Square and managed George Lazenby, the Australian actor who played Bond in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.
When we visited him as kids he put on a movie in his VCR, a novel thing at that point. It was ‘The Woman on a Motorcycle’, the movie he executive produced starring Alain Delon and Marianne Faithfull. There wasn’t a lot of plot and noticing that it may have been too abstract for us he asked my brother and me if we’d like to watch something else. Scanning through the television channels he found ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and we watched that again.
He arrived in England with a bang when, only in his mid-twenties, he opened The Scene Club in Great Windmill Street in London. The Who and The Rolling Stones played there and it had a reputation as a place for the developing Mod scene.
From the club he began managing artists like Alexis Korner and later MC5, in 1972, their final year. Although he didn’t produce the film ‘Gold’ he did manage to get that experimental film featuring MC5 into a general release theatre in Piccadilly Circus. The real key artist he managed was Georgie Fame. After trying, but failing, to get radio play for his protégé’s songs on Radio Luxembourg Ronan began to feel the need to find a way to challenge the staid radio system in the UK which mostly played lighter pop aimed at an older generation.
Around this time Pilkington, the head of a Committee charged with producing a report on the state of British Broadcasting, came to the conclusion that people neither needed nor wanted commercial alternatives to BBC radio.
“The government report was just absolute hogwash. They were 110 percent wrong,” Ronan said.
Having discovered a loophole in the radio licensing laws O’Rahilly bought a 700-ton former Danish passenger ferry named Fredericia and kitted it out as a radio station, to broadcast pop music to the British mainland from outside UK territorial waters.
On more than one occasion Ronan tangled with the Wilson government, putting an appointed minister down with a wry one liner and leaving them standing with egg on their face.
The complacent conclusion of his 1962 report put out by the BBC persuaded O’Rahilly to challenge the BBC’s monopoly of the airwaves and launch Radio Caroline as Britain’s first commercially independent radio station.
“A small survey on the south coast has been carried out and it has been established that if a ship is parked three miles off the coast the whole fucking country will tune in and turn on,” he explained.
When the government tried to jam Caroline’s signal, O’Rahilly visited the Palace of Westminster and accosted the prime minister. “You’re finished, son,” Wilson told O’Rahilly as he prodded him pugnaciously in the chest.
“We’ll see who’s finished,” answered Ronan.
With his characteristicly rebellious nature O’Rahilly continued broadcasting and decided to go head-to-head with the BBC’s new pop station, Radio One.
Ronan came from an Irish family, his father owned the port of Greenore. He was Aodogán O’Rahilly, an engineer and businessman who fought against the provisional government in the 1922-23 Irish Civil War. Ronan’s grandfather, Michael O’Rahilly, known reverentially as “The O’Rahilly”, was a co-founder of the Irish Volunteers and one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. He died after being shot by a British machine gunner during the retreat from the burning General Post Office building. It was a heroic fight and, although shot several times from head to shoulder with the spray of a machine gun, he penned a note to his wife saying he’d love her forever and ‘It was a good fight’.
Needing investment, in 1966 O’Rahilly gave Phil Solomon, a Northern Irish talent manager with acts such as The Bachelors, a 20% stake in the station. They also founded the Major Minor record label together, whose artists such as The Dubliners and the folk singer David McWilliams were steered to success with airplay on the station.
My father, brother and I went to visit Radio Caroline on one occasion. The ship was called Radio Mi Amigo at that time – 1972 – and operating out of Amsterdam. We had to jump several feet to clear the widening gap between the departing shuttle boat taking crew and supplies to the ship. We only just made it.
For all the good feeling the radio station instilled in the hearts and minds of generations of music lovers, going aboard the ship itself was a surprisingly mundane affair, despite what people gleaned from the antics portrayed in the fictional film by Ian Curtis, ‘The Boat That Rocked’ (his second film as a director as well as writer, after ‘Love Actually’). Curtis admits he avoided research to produce his idealised account based on Radio Caroline.
Playing practical jokes on each other, however, was something the DJs seemed to do to relieve the monotony of long stretches aboard. There was an instance where Dave Lee Travis was on his first night aboard when the fire alarm was sounded and he rushed out of his sleeping quarters (there were two shared bunk rooms on the ship) with no time to grab his trousers. He waited in the uppermost deck freezing in his underpants in choppy midnight North Sea weather before deciding he’d rather face the fire and headed below decks, where he learned it was a hoax. Although I did see one DJ smoking a doobie while working a shift playing records, most of the partying was said to take place on shore leave and the only thing unforgivable was missing the ferry shuttle back in the morning after a night on the tiles.
The DJs themselves looked like they’d seen one too many visitor before us. I suppose like at Nellcôte, people arrived looking for Xanadu only to feel a little deflated: where were the drugs, where were the rollercoasters and the foam pool parties?
Apart from The Woman on a Motorcycle, Ronan also made Universal Soldier (1971) with George Lazenby playing a mercenary in Africa. It came two years after Lazenby’s starring role as James Bond in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, which not only flopped but was notable for O’Rahilly having disastrously advised Lazenby, whom he managed, not to sign a seven film deal because he doubted that the 007 craze would last.
On Radio Caroline he spent most of the 70s promoting “loving awareness”, the hippy philosophy of the spiritual teacher Ram Dass (Timothy Leary’s friend). Ronan even formed a band with that name, who in 1976 released an album of the same title, with Beatles-like songs mostly produced by Harrison. The musicians went on to become Ian Dury’s band, The Blockheads.
Evidence of him being a man of certain charm and wit – the likes of which we could certainly use a few more of in the face of the current crop of members of government – came when asked why he was in attendance at the funeral of Chris Carey, a Radio Caroline DJ commonly known as Spangles Muldoon, who had made off with funds belonging to the radio station when he left. Ronan said ‘I’m here to make sure he doesn’t make off with anything else’.
Ronan O’Rahilly. Born on May 21, 1940. He died of vascular dementia on April 20, 2020
He will be sorely missed by friends, family and music lovers everywhere.
Written by Charley Weber – Edited by Petra Schmidt