originally published March 22, 2012
“My name would then be Handsome Jack
And I’d sell boats of opium
Whiskey that came from Twickenham
Authentic queers and phony virgins.”
These are the lyrics to a minor hit from 1966 by Scott Walker, written by Jacques Brel. They don’t seem like much, but ultimately they played a devilish role in the warped and weird career of British DJ Simon Dee.
Simon was born and schooled in Manchester. He served his term in the Royal Air Force taking aerial photos during the Suez Crisis of 1956. After his tour he tried out a handful of odd jobs: vacuum salesman, leaf-sweeper in Hyde Park, photographic assistant, bouncer, actor, laborer… nothing was a fit for Simon. Until rock ‘n roll.
To escape the tyranny of British broadcasting, an Irish guy named Ronan O’Rahilly set up a transmitter on an old Danish Ferry and launched him and his skeleton crew just beyond British waters outside of Suffolk. He called it Radio Caroline, and it became the legendary pioneer of British Pirate Radio.
On March 28, 1964, Simon Dee’s was the first live voice heard on Radio Caroline. He found his niche as a disc jockey, and rebelliously injected the English masses with high doses of thick, juicy rock ‘n roll without the eyes and ears of the government – well, actually very much with those eyes and ears, but beyond the government’s capacity to do anything about it.
Within months the illicit radio station and each of its on-air personalities (one of whom was Dee) were reaching millions of listeners. Keep in mind, Simon had gotten hitched in 1959 and he had a two-year-old at home. Simon was afloat in international waters, partying, listening to music, and making history. Would karma catch up with him? Oh yes. Yes it would.
In 1965 Simon decided it was time to go legit. He returned to land and scored a job with the BBC, introducing a late-night show on Saturdays. Over the next couple of years, Simon built up a nice little career with the BBC. He snagged a gig with BBC Radio 1 when it launched in 1967 – this was legit media’s answer to the scourge of pirate radio. Landing there was a major shot of credibility. Simon Dee had truly arrived.
He hosted a Carson-style talk show on BBC television. But he ran afoul of his bosses by insisting on playing “Jackie” (the song quoted above) twice on the radio, despite orders not to. The BBC was big on banning music: they’d nixed the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” because of the lyric “I’d love to turn you on.” They’d banned Lennon’s “Imagine” because of the line, “Imagine no religion.” They were concerned about “Jackie” partly because of the ‘queers and virgins’ bit, but also because of a number of drug references. Simon made some enemies with that move.
By 1969, Simon was living an extravagant lifestyle. He was a celebrity – more important, he was a rock celebrity, the only kind that really mattered among the youth of the late 60s. When it came time to renegotiate his contract, Simon stated he wanted £1000 per episode instead of the £250 he was currently getting. His bosses, long-since tired of Simon’s rawk-god antics, announced that, not only would they not meet his demands, but they’d issue him a 20% cut in pay, “to test his loyalty.” The BBC is apparently all about hard-line negotiations.
His loyalty did not pass the test. Simon got a better offer from ITV and off he went. ITV wasn’t a great fit though. David Frost was the star of that network, and his show aired right before Simon’s. They didn’t get along; Frost felt that some of Simon’s segments would make the shows too similar. Simon felt that Frost was trying to sabotage the show.
After a bizarre interview with one-time-Bond George Lazenby, which featured almost no talk about acting and instead focused on Lazenby’s extensive theories over the JFK assassination, ITV cancelled the show. It only lasted a few months.
In June of 1970, Simon returned to his roots, campaigning in favor of pirate radio, which had become a major political issue in the 1970 election. Simon was a great political mouthpiece: he made up a poster of Prime Minister Harold Wilson dressed like Mao Zedong. It was classy.
After that surge of notoriety (which earned him a spot on a watch-list by the British Security Service), Simon’s star plummeted to earth faster than Tim Tebow’s future with the Denver Broncos (hooray for being topical!). Before he knew it, Simon was applying for unemployment benefits.
The press caught wind of that and (probably mostly on the BBC, since they were no longer fans) they made it a story. Eventually Simon got a job as a bus driver, and no one paid him any more mind.
That wouldn’t be such a sad ending right there – a lot of bus drivers like being bus drivers. Except that Simon ended up in prison in 1974 for skipping out on his rent. The other inmates taunted him, announcing him with the same “It’s Siiiiiimon Dee!!!” that used to send him onto the stage for his BBC television show every time he’d leave his cell. It was humiliating.
He swore he’d never end up in jail again. Except that he did. He came across a public toilet seat with singer Petula Clark’s face depicted upon it, and found that to be in very poor taste. He vandalized the seat out of respect to Ms. Clark (no word on whether or not she was flattered by this), and subsequently got arrested.
Simon appeared before a magistrate for the case. The magistrate? Well, it happened to be Bill Cotton, the same man who tried years before to offer Simon a twenty percent pay-cut just because Simon was being a prick. The same guy who Simon taunted by playing that Scott Walker track when he wasn’t supposed to. Yes, that was karma coming full circle so swiftly, its kick in Simon Dee’s ass could be felt by the asses of innocent bystanders in a neighboring county.
Simon’s career on the dark side of the law was over, but so was his career on the talky side of a microphone. He lived out the rest of his days in anonymity and died of bone cancer in 2009. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, a moral, a parable maybe.
Or maybe it’s best we forget about the later years. We’ll let Simon Dee remain as a star of the mid-to-late 1960s, and draw the curtains on the rest of it. It’s not like he hasn’t been immortalized somehow by British fandom – according to Elizabeth Hurley, Simon Dee was the inspiration for the character of Austin Powers.
That is immortality.