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8 pictures of London’s pirate radio scene in the ’80s

Written by
Tristan Parker

In the mid-1980s, photographer David Corio documented London’s illegal pirate radio scene and the DJs, parties and punters that shaped it. He paints a picture of its heyday.

‘I was shooting for different magazines and papers – including The Face, NME and Black Echoes – and I started photographing influential record shops like Groove Records, Bluebird, Dub Vendor and Daddy Kool. These shops were getting rare imports but would also sell white labels [promotional copies of records] and records that had a limited release. Every DJ would want something that was hard to come by whenever possible.’

Ray's Jazz Shop
David Corio

‘Pirate radio stations were starting up and disappearing almost every week. There wasn’t as much of a pirate radio scene as there was an underground club scene with homegrown club music being played alongside music from the US and Jamaica.’

Gilles Peterson and Chris Bangs
David Corio

‘It was an exciting time. Punk had come and gone, and there were styles like new romantic, new wave and indie around, but pirate radio was picking up on early hip hop, electro, dancehall reggae, lovers rock, house and UK soul. Very little of this was getting airplay on regular radio stations, so pirate stations filled the vacuum.’

Sir Jules' Sound Table
David Corio

‘Many of the DJs were pretty amateurish, so things would go wrong and records would jump, but that was part of the fun. I would listen to stations in my car and the transmitter signals were often weak, so while driving through north London, a station might vanish and be replaced by another one on almost the same frequency.’

Baz Fe Jazz
David Corio

‘For a listener, it could be frustrating, because your favourite station could disappear overnight when it got busted. The names of stations and DJs were forever changing. Most stations had a fluid line-up of DJs and their slots wouldn’t always be punctual, but you’d know that if you tuned into Dread Broadcasting Corporation you’d get to hear great reggae, or Solar for soul and R&B, and Kiss was known mainly for dance and house.’

Daddy Kool Record Shop
David Corio

‘There would always be a lot of shout-outs for parties and where the current DJ would be playing the following week. You have to remember that most of the DJs probably weren’t getting paid, but they could at least promote their upcoming club dates.’

Groove Records
David Corio

‘I did a shoot of Tim Westwood when he was DJing for LWR [pirate station London Weekend Radio] in a tower block with all the curtains closed. He was playing soul and early hip hop breaks back then. I shot other DJs who used to play on pirate stations, like Gilles Peterson, Baz Fe Jazz and Chris Bangs, when they were spinning in the backrooms of pubs and clubs.’

David Corio

‘On the club scene, there were illegal, all-night warehouse parties around London Bridge, King’s Cross, Old Street and Shoreditch, which would get busted halfway through. It was exciting, but annoying if your night ended abruptly. I guess the cops must have wised up and listened to the pirate stations to hear where parties were going to be held, because more and more of them got closed before they could even get going.’

See more of David’s pictures at

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