Pirate DJs

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The Boat that Rocked, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Rhys Ifans, is a fictional account of the pirate radio phenomenon that delivered pop music to Britain at a time when the BBC had a monopoly over the airwaves. For Cruse and fellow Victorian Steve Young, pirate radio was no fiction: they spun records for Radio Caroline, the original pirate broadcaster and inspiration for the movie.“It was the most amazing year I have ever experienced in my life — just an amazing, amazing year,” Cruse, now 67, says during an interview in his Gordon Head bungalow. “I can’t believe I was part of it.”

Young, now 65, has a similar take. “Certainly, in my career life, there is no question there is nothing I’ve been able to do since that would equal, I guess, the euphoria we felt at that time,” Young says. “Who could not enjoy doing a job where you got to play lots of music, where you didn’t have to report to anybody, knew lots of girls, got good money, where you were famous?”

Cruse, Young, and dozens of other young men owed their experiences on the pirate ships to the BBC and the British government. At a time when the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and The Who were launching their invasions of North America, the youth of Britain rarely heard them on the radio. “It’s like the CBC only straighter,” Cruse recalls. “The guys on the radio, where nobody could see them, wore tuxedos.”

Fed up with the BBC’s unwillingness to give any “needle time” to his top act, an Irish-born talent agent Rohan O’Rahilly decided in 1964 to start his own radio station. It broadcast from a 188-foot freighter anchored in the Thames estuary. Two years later, Cruse and Young found themselves on that ship, which was named after Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the assassinated president. About a month after Cruse arrived, he transferred with the original Caroline to the Irish Sea, where it was renamed Radio Caroline North. Young stayed at the Thames and worked aboard a 150-foot vessel called Radio Caroline South.

By that time, about a dozen pirate stations were in operation. These included a station established in the North Sea off Kent. As former pirate DJ Tom Edwards recounted in a Daily Mail article in March 2009, a dispute over financing of that venture represented a low point in the pirate radio scene when Oliver Smedley, a director of Radio Caroline, shot dead a business rival.

Young and Cruse encountered no such violence, although Young recalls once being grabbed by four policemen and thrown in a cab to escape a throng of admirers. That was on land. At sea, strict rules prohibited groupies from boarding the ship. About the most risqué occurrence was when one of the producers smuggled his wife aboard. That’s a far cry from the scene in the movie where Nighy’s character, obviously based on O’Rahilly, enters the ship’s hold to find it crammed with scantily clad young women.

On the other hand, when Seymour Hoffman’s character declares, “These are the best days of our lives,” it’s no exaggeration. That was certainly the case for Cruse and Young. Not only did they hang out with rock stars — Young had coffee at 4 a.m. in a London Hotel with Rolling Stone Brian Jones a week before he died — the DJs received star treatment.

“We wined and dined and went to the front of the line almost everywhere. We just played it up. We thought we’d never get the chance to do it again. We spent our money like water. I never had any savings when I was there. I had barely enough to get back to Canada,” Young says.

In 1967, the British government made it illegal to advertise on the ships or even supply them. That effectively ended the pirate radio era. Meanwhile, both Cruse and Young ended up in Victoria. Cruse worked at CFAX radio for six years before embarking on a 26-year career in youth corrections. Young came to Victoria in 1974, was at CHEK TV for two years, later formed his own production company, and now operates a vacation rental business.

“I didn’t know Steve lived in this area for 20 years,” Cruse says. “And I drove by his house every day.”