This new compilation collects audio fragments from London pirate radio history
Death Is Not The End is a record label and regular NTS Radio show.
Launched in 2014 by Luke Owen, the label has gained a reputation for both reliable broadcasts and eye-opening ethnomusicological pursuits. From three volumes of soul-warming Jamaican doo wop to a reissue of Sufi-Flamenco recordings from 1962 by the late Aziz Balouch, the academic approach Owen takes to compilation projects has given the DINTE catalogue a depth and made it a Bandcamp worth checking in on.
For his latest project, Owen has released the first in two volumes of pirate radio adverts and jingles from London between 1984 and 1993. It’s not the label’s first trawl through these frequencies. Bristol Pirates, which dropped in 2019, collected snippets from stations in Luke’s hometown.
We chatted to Luke about the process of uncovering these specks of social history.
Firstly, tell us about Death Is Not The End and how it came to be.
Death Is Not The End has been around since mid 2014 – starting life as a small archival blues/gospel tape label, and growing to encompass a monthly NTS Radio residency about a year later. It was born out of a desire to shine a light on some of the archival blues and gospel field recordings I was finding which had an unembellished emotion about them that I found powerful. It’s grown in scope from there using the latter characteristic as my guide.
In your own words, how would you describe the label’s output?
I would say it’s mostly all focused around what I would broadly call folk music, and my interpretation of that takes in anything with a rawness and often a unique cultural significance. The radio show often tends to be based around the theme of taking ‘deep dives’ into lesser-known musical periods and styles. Educating myself on it through researching recordings and taking the listener along with me.
What are you looking for when sourcing artists, eras or material to develop into label projects?
I’d refer back to the earlier mentioned touchstone of raw recordings with emotional, historical and cultural significance as what seems to guide me a lot of the time. I’m often just hunting for stuff for the radio show and an idea develops from that, regularly it’s a case of one informing the other and vice versa. Joining the musical dots between cultures is also a focus I like to explore.
Has Death Is Not The End always focused on archival recordings, field recordings, reissues and so on, or is this something that’s developed over time?
It’s developed a bit, putting out some contemporary bits here and there, but on the whole this is still the focus. As I say though, my interpretation of field recordings and reissues can take in fairly disparate things – be that an obscure ambient record, improvised finger-picking guitar or clips from radio broadcasts or sound system tapes. I’m sure it’ll broaden further.
Talk us through your history with pirate radio. Is it something you have experience with or had an interest in prior to curating the new release?
I’ve had a love of pirate radio from a young age, growing up in Bristol and tuning into local pirates like Passion and Ragga FM amongst others – something I’ve explored previously on a mixtape I made entitled Bristol Pirates. The fascination pirate radio came, I think, from it being a portal into a counter culture. Not only did the music being played excite me, but the adverts too often had a unique character – a rebelliousness reflected by the music and the chatter, and regularly a good dose of humour too, that on legal stations was as stale as the music being played.
Bristol Pirates was meant to be an ode to my youth, of sorts, and follows a timeline that reflects the years I spent living and growing up in the city. You could say the London Pirate Radio Adverts tape is the inverse of that, in that it follows a timeline that is before my time in a city I had no experience with. But most of the venues and businesses being advertised on the tape happen to be mostly located in areas of London that I would come to know fairly intimately, to the point where I can identify the addresses of pubs and clubs that no longer exist.
What was the curation process like?
Mostly it consisted of going through recordings of DJ sets from pirate radio wherever I could find them, and listening out for the commercial break, if it existed. More often than not, those who recorded it paused their tape when the adverts come on. They were only interested in the music, which is, of course, logical at the time, but it means that it’s less common to come across the adverts and idents that provide that additional interesting historical audio document. I also had some help from the likes of Simon Reynolds, Wayne Anthony and Stephen Hebditch and The Pirate Radio Archive who provided the source for much of the recordings.
Are there any particular finds or discoveries that really stood out?
The amount of ravers dating phone lines I found! There are a couple more that will feature on the second volume too. The idea of early rave culture being so fuelled by ecstasy that people were less interested in hooking up doesn’t seem to wash.
Why did you focus on 1984 to 1993 in particular?
It was informed by the availability of recordings, mostly, but also this was one of the richest periods in pirate radio and especially for the industry surrounding it. You can tell just how much was going on in terms of promoters and different styles of music events. I also don’t think it’s as much of a trip when you get too close to the recent past, and it feels a bit more like needless fetishisation as opposed to a document.
You’ve mentioned getting “too close to the recent past” before. Are there any philosophical or more abstract ideas that have driven this compilation? Were you interested in the relationship between dance music, rave and time?
I guess I see the release as a bit of a historical documentary of sorts, so to my mind that means presenting material from a past that is fairly far out of view from the present day. The venues, businesses, DJs and promoters that are mentioned aren’t around anymore, and the nostalgia surrounding it therefore takes on a social history of sorts.
London Pirate Radio Adverts 1984-1993, Vol. 1 is out now via Death Is Not The End. Images via AMFM