Pirate radio is a major part of British dance culture. From the sixties onwards, the AM/FM dial has been a packed, anarchic ocean of sound. One of the joys of driving into London is the moment official licensed stations are unceremoniously booted out by crackling shards from rogue frequencies sprawling all over the bandwidth, pirate stations gleefully communicating illicit messages from the musical resistance.
So it’s a strange thing to wonder; why has there not been more pirate TV? It’s easy enough to explain now – Youtube and the various other streaming websites have negated any need to broadcast visuals in a manner that risks a run in with the law. But what about beforehand? What about in the pirates heyday, in the 80s and 90s when Kiss FM opened its account with David Rodigan playing a song explicitly, proudly dedicated to illegal broadcasters ? Where were the villains willing to clutter up the TV frequencies, especially in a world where, for the longest time there were only three, then four channels.
As it turns out, there was one bunch of people willing to give it a go. Bizarrely for such a compelling bunch, they’ve been virtually forgotten, but for a brief stint in the 80s a group of artists and pranksters ran a regular pirate TV station called Network 21 that was the talk of the capital.
Network 21 broadcast across London on midnight, Friday night. Taking over a frequency just beneath ITV on the dial (and this was back when the majority of TVs had to be physically tuned in), as 12am hit, they would broadcast a single half hour program that covered music, fashion, ideas, and everyday life. These magazine shows were almost completely free of advertising, and gloriously, wilfully elitist in there underground tastes. Whilst Network 21’s still mysterious creators have since claimed that they “did not aim to compete or take issue with the powers that be,” they were defiantly offering a highbrow alternative to mid-80s broadcasting, which was by and large a grim shitshow ruled by the likes of Jimmy Saville (a NecroNonce), Noel Edmonds (a headcase) and Mike Read (a lowkey racist). The establishment acted with amused interest – here’s a brief clip of the station being mentioned on the BBC, in what must have surely been a massive ratings boost.
The Network 21 shows gave voice to the exploding London club scene, playing everything from jazz to synth pop to goth – they would intersperse there home recorded footage with clips of anyone from Miles Davis playing to some ultra obscurity made by London club kids, that in retrospect seems to only exist on the channel . To give you a taste of what they were about, here’s a blast of the opening moments Network21 broadcast, delivered by Regine Chanteuse from militant synth act Hard Corps – it kinda goes against the Network’s insistence that they didn’t take issue with the powers that be…
There were regulars on the station – the Punk Body Map Rock section showcased clothes by couture label Body Map, intercut with overly dramatic visuals (models as angels, scenesters wearing ridiculously excessive Leigh Bowery-esque make up) whilst incredible slices of disco played – it was camp, sensationalist and glamorous, and seems shockingly over the top even to this day. If anyone has any idea of the name of the first song featured in this clip, I would be truly grateful…
Psychic TV frontman Genesis P.Orridge was also a regular – here he is extolling the virtues of Brion Gysin's dream machine, a creation he claims is being banned because it can produce effects similar to mescaline. It’s a lo-fi, splendidly paranoid clip that has the vibe of a 5am conversation in the kitchen of a squat party, which it quite probably is.
This chaotic mix of interviews, fashion and music prefigured a lot of youth TV, and the homemade style of the videos has more in common with Youtube’s shaky aesthetic than any of the more professionally recreated chaos that followed in iconic shows such as Dance Energy or The Word. Bear in mind that Network 21 existed not just long before Youtube, but at a time when video players were still only creeping into people’s homes. This was a point where TV was still barely delivering anything other than mass entertainment, meanwhile here came a pirate channel providing rare shots of culture that was proudly niche in appeal. Much of the programming stands up incredibly well today. Watch this footage of Hugh Maskela the station broadcast and try and imagine how thrilling it would have been to tune the dial down and hit on this sudden blast of raw Afro Jazz – like a magic mirror granting visions of another world
The station kept this up from April ’86 through til September (and slightly beyond, depending on who you ask). They filmed their content on 8mm camcorders and broadcast from a VHS video player hooked up to a UHF transmitter. This gave them a range of round 8-10 miles. According to an Evening Standard report at the time, this put them in touch with up to 100,000 viewers – not bad going for a tiny team with a video player and a couple of cameras. For a while they had a pirate radio station running concurrently, also supporting the finest in London’s underground scenes. It all came to a head when the station had a party for their first birthday. The old bill caught wind of the bash and raided the station – according to the Evening Standard of the time, they confiscated a tape player and transmitter worth £750 but “Surprisingly...left an aerial and bottles of champagne on hand for the birthday celebrations.” The party was over, but at least the station could drown their sorrows.
Thanks to the endless joys of the internet, Network 21 videos have now made it online, with their complete collection gathered together on a single website over here. With a typically individual; approach, they’ve kept the full episodes off Youtube and have instead hosted them all on their own site – you can sift through the archives over HERE - I can promise you this will be better than any amount of time spent clicking through cat videos on Facebook…