The Beatles were busy on December 6, 1966. On this day so many years ago, the band recorded the first song for what would become their legendary psychedelic record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But they were also in the Christmas spirit, apparently.
The Beatles were champions of the pirate radio stations that operated from ships moored along the English coastline. On this day in 1966, they also recorded a Christmas message for the pirate stations Radio London and Radio Caroline. Overall, their recording sessions that day occurred between about 6:45 p.m. and ended in the wee hours of the next morning. They recorded the Christmas messages first before digging into the music.
The previous year in ’65, the Beatles had recorded holiday greetings for pirate stations while on tour. They were done touring on this day in 1966, and they agreed to do another pirate radio recording. The recordings were scripted; some had a fairly simple Mellotron backing.
Four of the messages (one from each band member) were later incorporated into the outtake “Christmastime is Here Again,” which was included on the single “Free as a Bird,” released in 1995.
The Christmas messages were a fun little project, but the primary purpose of the session that day was to record the basic track of Paul McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four,” which, of course, would be on Sgt. Pepper’s. Two takes ended up being recorded with McCartney on bass and Ringo on the drums, and some electric guitar was performed by either Lennon or George Harrison, too.
Pirate radio in the U.K. has been popular since the Sixties despite the expansion of licensed broadcasting, digital and internet radio, and streaming services. Pirate radio peaked in the U.K. throughout the ‘60s and again during the ‘80s and the ‘90s, but it apparently remains popular in many parts of the U.K. today. In 2009, U.K. broadcasting regulator Ofcom said over 150 pirate radio stations were operating in the country.
Pirate radio in the U.K. became widespread in the early Sixties with pop music stations like Radio Caroline and Radio London, which broadcasted on medium waves from offshore ships. The stations weren’t illegal at the time because they were broadcasting from international waters. The stations were usually set up by entrepreneurs and other music junkies to meet the demand for pop and rock music that BBC Radio wasn’t playing at the time.
Radio Caroline was the first pirate radio station in Britain, which began broadcasting from a ship off the coast of Essex. By 1967, 10 pirate radio stations reached an estimated daily audience of up to 15 million, featuring influential DJs like John Peel and Tony Blackburn.
The history of pirate radio in England is fascinating and, to a large degree, helped pave the way for the rock revolution in the country and bands like The Beatles, The Who, and The Rolling Stones. Commercial radio wasn’t an option yet in the ‘60s, and the gatekeepers of the publicly owned BBC looked down on the new rock music as immoral and unfit for broadcast. It wasn’t until 1967 that the BBC created Radio 1, the country’s first dedicated pop music station.
If you’re interested in reading more about the early history of U.K. pirate radio, here are a few interesting stories I used as sources:
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