Richard Curtis on the Music of Pirate Radio

Nick Dawson sits down with Pirate Radio's writer-director to discuss what he describes as his "first love."

Music is the heart and soul of Focus Features’ current release Pirate Radio, the new film from writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually), a comedy about a rebellious group of 60s DJs in the middle of the North Sea broadcasting illegally to the rock ‘n’ roll obsessed youth of Britain. So when Curtis was in New York recently to do press for the movie, FilmInFocus sat down with him to talk about his passion for music – which he describes as his “first love” – from listening to his dad playing The Sound of Music and Mantovani and being mocked by Swedish pop stars as a boy all the way through to writing songs himself and, with Pirate Radio, creating an entire movie around the euphoric pop songs of his childhood.

You grew up in the 60s, so what are your memories of listening to music as a young boy?

My dad had exactly the record collection that I think all the non-American fathers had. He had two copies of The Sound of Music, the stage show and movie, The Unforgettable Nat King Cole (one of those albums where there’s talking in between: “Then in 1952, he met Nelson Riddle…”), Louis Armstrong’s Hello Dolly!, Mantovani’s Songs Hits From Theatreland. We had eight albums. I had older sisters, which was great, and then babysitters started coming in with their little boxes of singles. My parents would go out and they’d take off Frank Sinatra and put on the Honeycombs and the Beatles, and it was just so fantastic. It was wonderful, ecstatic, joyous music, so I really started to love pop music. I was living in Sweden and I couldn’t get enough of it. Excitement was in the air.

And then at eight, I was sent off to boarding school and realized that the only friends I had were the DJs on at 9 o’clock at night, after the lights had been turned off. I had a tiny transistor radio. It was so like a drug then, because now if you hear a song you can satisfy your urge, you can buy it online. But then I was a little boy and I didn’t have any money at school, obviously, so if you heard “Love is All Around” by the Troggs, the only way [to hear it again was on the radio]. The experience was like being a drug addict, because the next day you were hoping that the person would play it again and you would stay awake and awake and awake, hoping to hear that fantastic song again.

I’ve also always been very interested in charts. Chapel was at 6 o’clock and “Fluff” Freeman’s chart show was between 5 and 7, so sometimes I used to hide in the music rehearsal rooms and miss chapel. I remember thinking to myself, “I made the right decision because it turned out God doesn’t exist and the Beatles definitely did!”

I was very obsessed and I’ve never lost interest in it. All the way through my teens I loved Dylan, all the way through my twenties I loved the Waterboys, and now I’m very keen on Bon Iver, Sigur Ros and Elbow and Taylor Swift. It’s almost been my major interest.

Looking at your bio, you spent portions of your childhood in the Philippines and New Zealand as well as Sweden, so did you ever get a taste of those countries’ pop scenes also during the Sixties?

Of the Philippines pop scene? Nothing. I only know “Maligayang Pasko,” the Easter Song. I do remember, strangely, that I have records by the Hootenanny Singers and the Hep Stars. In the Hootenanny Singers there was a guy called Björn and in the Hep Stars there was a guy called Benny, and they both left and formed ABBA. There was a band called Ola and the Janglers, and I remember seeing them on a live TV show called Op Op Oppa. Because my sisters were spending all the family money on fashionable clothes because they were sexy teenagers, I used to wear my school uniform during the school holidays and I remember Ola taking the piss out of me and bringing me up on stage to laugh at me.

And then later on you were a songwriter for the parody band the Hee Bee Gee Bees as well as for the seminal TV comedy show Not the Nine O’Clock News.

Yeah, I used to do most of the lyrics of the songs. And there’s a whole other life where I would have been more involved in pop music, but I think the great thing is that I haven’t been and that I’m just a fan. At one point, because I wrote all those lyrics, a friend of mine asked me to try out writing pop song lyrics and I remember I spent a very weird afternoon with Greg Lake trying to write a song. But that was enough for me, one afternoon. Then I produced all the Comic Relief singles. On the whole, I tend to have chosen those, so that’s quite fun.

Music’s always really been my first love, and writing now is so involved with music because iTunes is on the Macbook. Every day when I get up, I make myself a playlist that suits the kind of thing that I’m trying to write. So on this, I had a lot of playlists of 60s music and when indeed the movie started shooting, we gave all the main players an iPod with eight playlists with 30 songs that each of the DJs would play.

How much of the music you were listening to as you write actually made it into the movie? Or was it more the mood that prevailed?

It’s a mixture sometimes, it’s very weird. Notting Hill was written almost entirely listening to Ron Sexsmith’s first album, and none of that made it in. Songs can sort of represent the mood you want to get without being the songs that you actually put in it. In Love Actually, there’s a song by XTC called “The Loving,” which I would play at the beginning of every single day that I did that, but in this case it was more literal because there was a chance [I‘d be using this music]. I always wanted this to be wall-to-wall music, and about 15 of the songs are in the script. I called the character Elenore so I could play “Elenore” by the Turtles and I called her Marianne so I could do “So Long, Marianne” [by Leonard Cohen]. I knew it would be “Whiter Shade of Pale” when the boat started to go down. And then the other 35 were not randomly picked – because there’s that magic between music and celluloid. Sometimes you think something going to be absolutely the right song, and then you put it on and it doesn’t fit. But there weren’t many compromises for money.

I read that one Doors song that you wanted was going to cost you over a million.

Yeah, that’s right. I think they’re going to use the money to bring Jim Morrison back to life. They’re going to charge so much they’re going to invent reincarnation.

How many heartbreak situations did you have as you put together the soundtrack?

Not many, not many. We were very keen to get “For What It’s Worth”, but I don’t think Buffalo Springfield is giving the rights to that song away at all. So I used “Crimson and Clover” instead, and it wasn’t a very important cue. Some of the heartbreaks were that I couldn’t find a place for songs that I always assumed would make it into the movie. “Waterloo Sunset” is not in the movie – I love that, but when you put it against a film, it’s too plot-ty. You’re distracted by it, it’s too specific. “Out of Time” by Chris Farlowe, the Rolling Stones song, I thought was going to be in there. It starts with a violin thing, but actually when you put it on it sounded classical. So there were more disappointments that way, things that I couldn’t get in, rather than songs that I wanted that we couldn’t get.

In one of the interviews that Bill Nighy gave, he said that the Rolling Stones were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in history, and it seems from the Pirate Radio soundtrack that you would favor them in a Beatles vs. Stones scenario.

I don’t know about that. We did try for one Beatles song, but in the end the place we wanted it is not in the film. No, I actually liked the Stones’ slow stuff – “As Tears Go By” and “You Better Move On” – but I’m very passionate about the Beatles as well.

Looking back over the films you’ve written and, more recently, directed, there’s always one songs that sort of stands out from the soundtrack. In Four Weddings and A Funeral, it was the cover version of “Love is All Around” by Wet Wet Wet, with Notting Hill it was “She” by Elvis Costello…

Actually, “When You Say Nothing At All” was the biggest hit from the movie. I think there are probably too many songs in this movie for one to stand out. I think that is the truth of it. The perfect situation is somebody seeing the movie, buying the record and then seeing the movie again. I kept on saying I wanted the movie to be “ecstatic.” I want it to be excessive in the same way that I wanted Love Actually to have more love stories than it should do, I wanted this to have more songs than it should be so that you’re permanently in a state of elation.

The interesting thing about all these songs is that they’re so familiar that many of them are really invested with emotional memories, meaning that watching the film is a richer experience than it otherwise would be.

That’s interesting. I think that what’s a joy in this film is taking songs that you haven’t heard for a while and realizing how specific their mood is. You can listen to some songs too much and forget what they’re really like, and then if you put them right next to something [you can hear it anew]. Like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which comes on when Rhys Ifans comes into the movie, was an interesting cue because that was always in my mind. Every time I ever reached that bit in the script, I’d play “I’m Going to Make You Love Me” by the Supremes and the Temptations. That was the song. But then when I saw it in the movie as a whole, it needed to change texture and change gear and I suddenly realized how those big Stones guitar songs from 1967 were game changing. And then later on in the movie we use the two cues by the Who, and you realize that was another sort of step up – they’re rougher, they’re tougher, they’re more muscular. So that’s quite fun that you actually find out stuff about the music while you’re making the film.

That Stones song is such a perfect for Rhys Ifans’ personality. Did you have other songs or bands that encapsulated other characters also?

Nearly. We did do the playlists, so Dave, Nick Frost’s character, was definitely the Small Faces, the Spencer Davis Group, the Troggs, the Kinks. The Count was Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, more Blues Brothers type music. Then the Rhys Darby character was everything unpopular – “No Milk Today” by Herman’s Hermits would probably be his favorite song of all time, or “I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am.” But it was interesting how they did blend into each other, how the late night DJ was meant to be playing lots of slightly grim stuff and the record he saves is by the Incredible String Band, but then when we had his most important cue we played the Jimi Hendrix song [“The Wind Cries Mary”]. I was rather pleased by that because on the whole that guy is supposed to play rather ghastly music and that was a good song.

There’s a pivotal scene at the end which uses Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son,” which is…

Out of period. I tried to be accurate, but “Father and Son” [is in there], partly because it fitted perfectly and partly because we didn’t think we’d get it, because Cat Stevens doesn’t release the rights to his songs, particularly if there’s sex or drugs in the movie. But his brother saw it and said, “It’s fine, it means well.” I tried “Man of the World” by Fleetwood Mac and a few other things over that, but I thought because I thought it was definitely not a realistic scene it was OK it coming from a different period. And also you realize that the singer-songwriter thing was the next phase, the James Taylor, Elton John, Cat Stevens thing, and I quite liked that. Again, a bit like the Stones thing, I wanted something that sounded different from everything else in the film, rather than the same.

And as the scene is about the passing of the torch too, in a way, it’s doubly appropriate that you’re looking ahead to the future in that way.

Exactly, it’s sort of about the future.

I think our time’s up, but thanks for talking to me.

Well, doing the music was never anything but a joy, apart from the odd time, as I say, when you think you have the perfect song and just as you get to the bit you like, and the scene’s over! You think, “Well, we have to go for “Yesterday Man” [by Chris Andrews] because that starts ‘I’m her yesterday man,’ and so you only need to use 6 seconds of the cue.” We had one bit that isn’t in the movie anymore where we had a cue that could only last two seconds. We had to find a song that was recognizable in that first beat.

Was that “Fire” by Arthur Brown?

Well, that would have been good, but it was “Brown Eyed Girl” [by Van Morrison]. “Doo doo doo…” and that was it. And we would have had to pay £35,000 for it, but we cut the scene and it didn’t matter.