The Legend of Captain Starlite

He is — by some margin— the greatest DJ in New Zealand history. Thousands of nervous first kisses have taken place under his watch. Now, in the twilight of his career, Captain Starlite shares the secrets which recently saw him named Beatsmaster General Emeritus.


He’s flouting all the rules — you should never play ‘Billie Jean’ before 8.00pm — but Captain Starlite’s been in this game long enough to know rules are made to be broken. “It’s early for it,” the legendary DJ admits. “But look at them. They’re in the mood. They want to dance. I mean… check out the cat with the tennis racquet!”

A skinny fellow in a yellow singlet, cycle helmet, stack hat, shorts and shin pads wields an old wooden-framed Donnay as an air guitar though, as the night wears on, he’ll use it to whack the bums of passing girls. Two of his victims — pretty young things wearing outrageous wigs and great dollops of blue eye-shadow — look like Agnetha and Frida from ABBA. They’re surrounded by a dozen magnificent afros, a couple of Marlon Brandos (jeans, white Beefy-Ts with sleeves rolled up) and at least one Village Person.

More than a hundred punters from as far afield as Hamilton and Whangarei have made it along to the Coatesville Hall, just north of Auckland for a retro party hosted by Katrina Penny. A tall, slender 22-year-old marketing exec, she tells me she’s “passionate” about her music. She likes R&B and old-time rock ’n’ roll. Loves Buddy Holly and Frank. Frank? “Sinatra, of course.”

Katrina was very particular about her music,” Captain Starlite shouts over the Bee Gees. “She came round on Wednesday night — I give them a free consultation if they want it — and we went through 16 mini-discs. Three hundred songs in an hour. She’s a retro fanatic!”

The Captain puts on his reading glasses and scans a crumpled piece of A4. “This morning I went through her list,” he says “and circled what I call ‘listening music’. I’m getting rid of those ones early.”

The Captain knows he can count on the Nolans to get the punters up.

T
he wisdom of experience you could say. Since his debut in 1978 — “an R&R dance set at a wedding that just blew their socks off” — Captain Starlite has played more than 3000 gigs. You’d think he’d be getting sick of it all now, but the whippet-thin 60-year-old vegan with the grey mullet looks like he’s having the time of his life.

He makes it look easy, effortless but that’s not the whole story. “I find it very hard to relax on the day I’ve got a show,” he says. “I need to peak at a show. The whole day will be the lead up to this event. I pace myself accordingly.”

He grabs me by the arm. “I’ve got four songs locked, loaded, ready to go,” he grins. “First is ‘You’re the One that I Want’ [Olivia Newton John and John Travolta]. Then I’ve got the Pointer Sister’s ‘Jump’, then ‘I’m So Excited’. I’ll play them together — Katrina asked for that. Then I’ll play ‘Bad’ [Michael Jackson].” He considers this for a moment. “No! I’ll play the Nolans’I’m in the Mood for Dancing’.”

A four-song set will last a quarter of an hour, which gives the Captain enough time to get some dancing in. If necessary he’ll join the hoi polloi on the floor: Captains, he says, should lead from the front.

“I find it very hard to relax on the day I’ve got a show,” Captain Starlite says. “I need to peak at a show. The whole day will be the lead up to this event. I pace myself accordingly.”

But there’s no need just now for heroics from his quarter — the Coatesville Hall’s on fire. Still, the very success of tonight’s set concerns the Captain. It’s not even 9.00 o’clock. How can he sustain this momentum? Experienced DJs will tell you that you take people up, hold them for a while, before you up the ante. You don’t want to take people up too high, too quickly, or they’ll have nowhere to go.

The Captain scoffs at this theory. “The days when you saved the best song ’til last are long gone,” he says. “I rage from the start — no holds barred!”

He’s more worried, he says, that he can’t get out of this groove. “If I started playing rock ’n’ roll, everyone would sit down. But Katrina wants the older stuff.”

He considers playing ‘Blame it on the Boogie’ and then it comes to him. “‘Grease Lightning!’” he exclaims. “That’ll get me back to rock ’n’ roll.”

The Captain’s setlist is epic. Gloriously overwrought. Timeless.

1982. My first “rage”. I’m in the middle of the Glen Eden Intermediate School hall thinking about asking a Sonia Westman to dance. I’ve been thinking about this moment for most of the year. Making a plan. But there are a couple of complications: I’ve never spoken to the radiant Ms Westman before, she’s at least six inches taller than me and I have no idea how to dance.

But then Captain Starlite, resplendent in his florescent tracksuit, busts out my my favourite song, ‘Freakazoid’, which I take to be a propitious sign. I walk past Ms Westman, once, twice, three times, then join a group of boys, all two-step shufflers like me, about 10 metres away where we wait vainly for her to notice us.

For almost half his life Captain Starlite aka Colin Sky has been the school disco king; if you’re under 40, there’s a fair chance you’ve encountered him.

Born just outside London during the Second World War, Sky moved to New Zealand in 1965 aged 21. He was one of the first hippies here. “I remember John Lennon,saying how he saw God [when he was] on LSD,” he says. “Well I didn’t see God, but I did see that all energy came from the stars. So Starlite began to power me.” He made Starlite jewellery and clothes that he sold down at Cook Street Markets. He has personalised pens and Starlite fridge magnets that read: “Live in Harmony, Laugh and Dance.”

Captain Starlite: “The days when you saved the best song ’til last are long gone. I rage from the start — no holds barred!”

But it was as Captain Starlite that he’d make his name. At his peak he had 20 DJs working for him, including a youthful Russell Crowe, who was dispatched to the Albion. He had an illicit club out the back of the Coffee Time Café on Victoria St in the 1970s where he hung his turntables from the rafters to get them off the pounding floor. In the early 1980s he had another club, the Underground, on Wairau Road. “We had a bar,” he says. “We were full. We rocked. It was in the days of drunkenness. I don’t know how we survived.”

He reminisces about the Shocking Society gigs (“a gas”), the Piha Surf Club’s Vice-Versa nights (“awesome”) and the Pakiri Beach sessions (“legendary”). It is, he says, an endless list. But perhaps the gig that meant most to him was a wedding. “It was for a guy called Rob who had only a short time to live,” he says. “I managed to make it very special for them.”

It’s impossible to miss with MJ. The Captain will unleash ‘Bad’, Black or White’, ‘Scream’, ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’, even ‘Will You Be There’ if the mood demands. Then there’s Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.’

Grease Lightning’ was the perfect switchover track. “Look, I didn’t lose anyone,” the Captain beams. That’s something of an understatement: I can count at least a dozen Travolta impressarios, left hand on hip, the other pointing at the Captain, slowly wiggling from right to left. Grease lightning! Goooo Grease Lightning!

“Now I’ve got to go roaring into the fifties,” he says. “That’ll be the test.”

He starts promisingly with ‘Rock Around the Clock’ but after a couple of songs the numbers on the floor have halved. By the time he plays Bobbi Darin’s ‘Splish Splash’ there’s just eight people dancing. These are desperate times — the Captain resorts to flicking the switch of his helicopter light on and off, like a mischievous child. “See. You can rock them with lighting,” he tells me. It doesn’t work. “Right!” he says abruptly. “This should stop the rot.”

‘La Bamba’ is an inspired choice. The entire party, save for an earnest young man inexpertly chatting up a cheerleader, re-enters the fray. “I’ll play ‘Jailhouse Rock’ next,” he tells me. The King will get them up.

“What about ‘Suspicious Minds’?” I proffer. The Captain looks crestfallen. “Oh God!” he exclaims. “I haven’t got it with me.”

He’s still self-remonstrating when the ABBA girls come up to see him. “Can you, like, play some newer music?” Frida asks. He’d like to, he says, but he has his instructions. Strictly retro.

So he decides he’ll play a Beach Boys track next. ‘Good Vibrations!’ I shout. He ruminates for a moment: “No I think I’ll go with ‘Surfin’ USA’.”

He can’t find it at first. This used to happen all the time, he says. “It was one of the reasons I had to give up drinking. It was a nightmare, man. You’d just have a heap of records — You’d look at them and think ‘What do they mean?’”

‘Escapade’s’ a delightful ‘closer’ when you’re winding things down. Equally it can be deployed early, when peeps are milling around the edges, waiting for someone to start dancing. ‘When I Think of You’ — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaleKN9GQ54 — serves a similar purpose.

Time now for the big guns. The Captain punches the air with the opening refrain of ‘Oh, What a Night!’ which is followed by what’s known in the trade as the Holy Trinity — ‘Stayin’ Alive’, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, and then ‘YMCA’. Now a circle, 80-strong, forms around the construction worker who pulls a hammer from his tool-belt and starts lassooing it above his head. Another guy in an indecently-tight tracksuit starts breakdancing.

“Look at them sweating!” the Captain chortles, gulping water out of an empty olive jar. “Look at this dude,” he says, pointing at a sweathog whose wig’s sliding off to one side. “He’s absolutely drowning!”

“Hmmm. Not much alcohol either,” the Captain muses. It’s certainly true: Katrina Penny and her friends are committed Christians and so no one here’s drunk. And I see no evidence of chemical enhancement — you won’t find these people on the Es or sniffing the Brown Bottle in the loos. Instead they’re blessed with impressive natural stamina, not to mention enviable rhythm.

The requests are flying in now. Paris Hilton hands the Captain an old shopping receipt. “Back in the day they’d be giving me their phone numbers,” the Captain sighs. Now the message simply reads: ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go?’

“Have you got Leo Sayer’s ‘I Feel Like Dancing’? asks a Brando. “No I don’t,” the Captain says. “I did have, but I gave all my vinyl away.”

“Mind you,” he says, “that Leo Sayer track didn’t go, even back in the 1970s.”

Back in the 80s, he had another club, the Underground, on Wairau Rd. “We had a bar. We were full. We rocked. It was the days of drunkenness. I don’t know how we survived.”

“But you watch them go to this one!” he says, teeing up Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’. Sure enough a rash of crotch-grabbing and moonwalking ensues.

Nearly midnight. The late Barry White’s ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love’ is greeted rapturously, then the Captain tries to calm them down with some smooth r’n’b grooves.

“Get it pumpin!” the sweathog hollers.

“They’ll go all night, the buggers,” the Captain groans. “I’m trying to wind them down. I want them to go home.” Instead he bows to the mob and gives them an hour of Kiwi anthems — the Exponents, the Mockers, Dragon and Dave Dobbyn — gratis.

He finishes just before one. “Thanks dude,” says an afro. “That was awesome.” Katrina gives him a hug: “Thanks for a great night,” she says.

The Captain packs his gear into his jet-black ’91 Mitsubishi van with the “electric spatial volts careening its dimensions”, cranks the stereo up and heads for home. There he’ll stay up for an hour, track down that Leo Sayer song and remedy the absence of ‘Suspicious Minds’.

The King, after all, always gets them up.

First published in Metro magazine, 2007.