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The Day John Lennon Became a Disc Jockey

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When John Lennon visited WNEW’s Dennis Elsas in 1974, he brought along some of his favorite records to play.

© Dennis Elsas/denniselsas.com

The afternoon of September 28, 1974, was a rainy one in New York City. And if you were tuned in to WNEW-FM, you would’ve heard a whimsical take on the weather forecast, read by a familiar voice with a Liverpool accent.

“Mostly cloudy with periods,” John Lennon began, pausing a beat. “Of rain this afternoon, tonight and tomorrow. High times . . . oh no, wish it was. High this afternoon and tomorrow in the 70s, low tonight in the mid-60s. Watch out for it - that’s about my period. Monday’s outlook, fair and cool, man.”

For two hours, a relaxed and good-humored Lennon engaged in what he called his “second favorite occupation,” manning the mic and turntable along with the station’s music director, renowned DJ Dennis Elsas. For fans of Lennon and The Beatles, it was a rare treat that’s still talked about nearly forty years later.

“I knew, as a Beatle fan, that it was extraordinary,” Elsas recalls. “There was stuff there that had never happened before on the radio.”

Elsas had met Lennon at a recording session the month before, and through John’s then-girlfriend May Pang, extended an invitation to drop by the station to talk about his new album. But he was caught off guard when Pang called soon after to say, “John wants to come up. When would you like him?”

Elsas says, “She said, ‘Oh, and John wants to know if it would be okay if he brought some of his records too.’ She didn’t just mean his latest album, Walls and Bridges. He had some old 45s he wanted to play. He was coming up to be a disc jockey.”

"John just shows up."

Lennon’s visit was scheduled for a few days after the phone call. Amazingly, there was no promotion at WNEW. “First, I don’t think I ever believed he would come,” Elsas says with a chuckle. “And also, we were FM. We were much cooler, and didn’t promote things quite the way they did on AM. I imagine if I had a guarantee that John Lennon would be joining me, I would’ve promoted it.

“Also, in 1974, it’s a different world. Things aren’t quite as set up. There weren’t all these rules and regulations. There wasn’t a media machine as sophisticated as it is now. It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, and John just shows up.”

Over an entertaining two hours, Lennon spun obscure rock ‘n’ roll records like “Watch Your Step” by Bobby Parker along with newer tunes like ELO’s “Showdown” (he endorsed the band by saying, “I call them Son of Beatles”). He talked about everything from hanging out with the Rolling Stones in the ‘60s and the infamous Beatles “Butcher sleeve” to his love of Burger King Whoppers and his ongoing immigration troubles (“I think there’s certainly room for an odd Lennon or two here”). Along the way, he did station IDs and some funny commercial spots.

Getting the band back together?

And of course, there was the inevitable question about a Beatles reunion.

“I always remind people of this because they can’t comprehend what it was like,” Elsas says. “Beatle fans from 1970-1980, respected, liked, appreciated all the solo stuff. But deep down, they had one burning question: ‘When are they getting back together?’ That’s what it was all about.”

Lennon’s reply left things open. “There’s always a chance we’ll work together, because when we see each other, we tend to fall into that kind of mood. But I can’t see us touring - that touring bit, I don’t quite fancy that myself.”

Elsas met Lennon several times in the following years, and the famous broadcast was rerun, most poignantly after Lennon’s tragic death in 1980.

WNEW, a station that defined rock radio in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, struggled in the ‘90s, and in 1999 switched to an all-talk format. That was abandoned a few years later, when the station moved to "Blink FM: Music Women Love." Elsas can currently be heard on WFUV in New York and Sirius XM Satellite Radio’s Classic Vinyl station.

In his storied four-decade career in radio, that rainy September afternoon remains a highlight. “I’m so happy that it literally has stood the test of time,” Elsas says. “It was totally unscripted and off the cuff. John was just a musician up to chat about his new album, very happy, and talking to a fan who just happened to be a disc jockey with a radio show. It captured a moment in time. I’m still so pleased that I got to do it.”

You can hear highlights of the broadcast at Dennis Elsas’s website.

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Art
6 Great (and Not-So-Great) Works of Art Made by Robots
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Cold, calculating, unfeeling—none of the stereotypes associated with robots seem to describe makers of great art. But that hasn’t stopped roboticists from trying to engineer the next Picasso in a lab. Some machines and algorithms are capable of crafting works impressive enough to fool even the toughest critics. As for the rest of the robot artists and writers out there, let’s just say they won’t have creative types fearing for their jobs anytime soon. 

1. A BEATLES-ESQUE POP SONG

If you heard the song above at a party or in a crowded store, you might assume it’s just a generic pop tune. But if you listened closer, you’d hear the dissonant vocals and nonsense lyrics that place this number in the sonic equivalent of the uncanny valley. “Daddy’s Car” was composed by an artificial intelligence system from the Sony CSL Research Laboratory. After analyzing sheet music from a variety of artists and genres, the AI generated the words, harmony, and melody for the song. A human composer chose the style (1960s Beatles-style pop) and did the producing and mixing, but other than that the music is all machine. It may not have topped the pop charts, but the song did give us the genius lyric: “Down on the ground, the rainbow led me to the sun.”

2. A NOVEL THAT MADE IT PAST THE FIRST ROUND OF A FICTION CONTEST

Will the next War and Peace be written by a complex computer algorithm? Probably not, but that isn’t to say that AI can’t compose some serviceable fiction with help from human minds. In 2016, a team of Japanese researchers invented a program and fed it the plot, characters, and general structure of an original story. They also wrote sentences for the system to choose from, so the content of the novel relied heavily on humans. But the final product and the work required to string the components together was made possible by AI. The researchers submitted the story to Japan's Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Contest where it made it past the first round of judging. Though one notable Japanese author praised the novel for its structure, he also said there were some character description issues holding it back.

3. A 'NEW' REMBRANDT PAINTING

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In 2016, a 3D printer did something extraordinary: It produced a brand new painting in the spirit of a long-dead artist. The piece, titled “The Next Rembrandt,” would fit right in at an exhibition of art from the 17th-century Dutch painter. But this work is entirely modern. Bas Korsten, creative director at the Amsterdam-based advertising firm J. Walter Thompson, had a computer program analyze 346 Rembrandt paintings over 18 months. Every element of the final image, from the age of the subject and the color of his clothes to the physical brushstrokes, is reminiscent of the artist’s distinct style. But while it’s good enough to fool the amateur art fan, it failed to hold up under scruntiny from Rembrandt experts.

4. DREARY LOVE POETRY

What do you get when you dump thousands of unpublished romance novels into an AI system? Some incredibly bleak poetry, as Google discovered in 2016. The purpose of the neural network was to connect two separate sentences from a book into one whole thought. The result gave us such existential gems as this excerpt:

"there is no one else in the world.
there is no one else in sight.
they were the only ones who mattered.
they were the only ones left.
he had to be with me.
she had to be with him.
i had to do this.
i wanted to kill him.
i started to cry."

To be fair, the algorithm was designed to construct natural-sounding sentences rather than write great verse. But that doesn’t stop the passages from sounding oddly poetic.

5. A CREEPY CHRISTMAS SONG

Christmas songs rely heavily on formulas and cliches, aka ideal neural network fodder. So you’d think that an AI program would be capable of whipping up a fairly decent holiday tune, but a project from the University of Toronto proved this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Their algorithm was prompted to compose the song above based on a digital image of a Christmas tree. From there it somehow came up with trippy lyrics like, “I’ve always been there for the rest of our lives.”

6. A CROWDSOURCED ABSTRACT PAINTING

Art made by a robot.
Instapainter

The image above was painted by the mechanical arm of a robot, but naming the true artist of the piece gets complicated. That’s because the robotic painter was controlled by multiple users on the internet. In 2015, the commissioned art service Instapainting invited the online community at Twitch to crowdsource a painting. The robot, following script commands over a 36-hour period, produced what looks like graffiti-inspired abstract art. More impressive than the painting itself was the fact that the machine was able to paint it at all. Instapainting founder Chris Chen told artnet, “It was a $250 machine slapped together with quickly written software, so running it for that long was an endurance test.”

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11 Surprising Facts About Kidz Bop
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If you have kids, they've likely forced Kidz Bop upon you. And if you don’t have kids, you’ve almost certainly seen the commercials and wondered who in their right minds would willingly listen to children singing sanitized, high-pitched versions of pop songs ranging from "Uptown Funk" to "Bad Blood." But there's more to Kidz Bop than meets the ear—here's what you don't know.

1. THE COMPANY STARTED BY SELLING OLDIES COMPILATION ALBUMS.

Cliff Chenfeld and Craig Balsam, the men who launched Kidz Bop, started their first music company out of Chenfeld’s apartment in 1990. Their big idea? Compilation albums. They started with "Those Fabulous ‘70s," a record of hits from the likes of the Partridge Family, the Bay City Rollers, and Starlight Vocal Band. (You may remember seeing the kitschy infomercial above.) "Monster Ballads" was another big hit for Chenfeld and Balsam, with more than 3 million copies sold.

2. THE IDEA FOR KIDZ BOP CAME A DECADE LATER.

Nearly 10 years later, both founders had families, and they noticed a void in the music offerings available for children too old for Barney but too young for Britney Spears. So they hired some kids to sing 20 songs, cut a record, then marketed the crap out of it. Investing in TV commercials paid off: The first Kidz Bop album sold 800,000 units—and it wasn't even available in stores.

3. THE KIDZ BOP KIDS HAVE HAD MORE TOP 10 HITS THAN MADONNA.

The 22 albums that have hit the Billboard Top 10 make the Kidz Bop Kids more successful than Madonna and Bob Dylan (who have had 21 albums each) and Elton John and Bruce Springsteen (who have 18 albums each).

4. “THE KIDZ BOP KIDS” HAVE EVOLVED.

The “Kidz Bop Kids” were originally just a variety of anonymous singers, likely low-cost talent as the company was finding its footing. These days, several talented tweens are chosen to be the Kidz Bop Kids every few years (Jezebel refers to it as the "Menudo Model"); they’re marketed as full-blown personalities, even being likened to this generation’s Mouseketeers.

5. ZENDAYA IS AN ALUMNA.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The singer-actress-model-designer was a member in 2009, along with fellow future Disney Channel star and boy band member Ross Lynch. Other Kidz Bop successes include singer-actress Becky G and actress Spencer Locke.

6. THERE HAVE BEEN CONTROVERSIAL LYRIC CHANGES.

Even though the whole point of Kidz Bop is to be inoffensive, sometimes the fact that certain lyrics are deemed “offensive” is offensive in and of itself. For example, when Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was rewritten to exclude words like “gay,” “lesbian,” “transgendered,” and “bi,” people took note.

7. LAST-MINUTE ADDITIONS TO THE ALBUM AREN'T UNCOMMON.

To take advantage of the most current chart-toppers, Kidz Bop albums currently come out at the rate of four per year, up from the previous schedule of two per year. The quick turn means it's not unheard of for albums to be nearly complete when a song unexpectedly takes off, causing producers to scramble to get it included. That was the case with "The Fox" by Ylvis, which was rushed onto the Kidz Bop 25 album just days before it was manufactured.

8. THEY DRAW THE LINE AT CERTAIN SONGS.

Though the company is able to change most suggestive lyrics into words that are more kid-friendly—sometimes to hilarious effect—there are some songs that just won’t work. One of them: "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke. “There’s no way we can do a song like ‘Blurred Lines’—it’s just too suggestive,” COO Victor Zaraya said.

9. THE MAJORITY OF THEIR SALES ARE PHYSICAL CDS, WHICH IS UNUSUAL.

In an industry where sales are increasingly moving to the digital realm—CD sales have hit a record low, in fact—the majority of Kidz Bop sales are still physical copies. Zaraya says that's due to the extras they offer with each purchase—like stickers and magnets. "There's a tangibility," he says. "Parents want to be able to put something in their kid's hands."

10. THERE’S A LOGICAL EXPLANATION BEHIND THE “Z” IN “KIDZ BOP.”

The “z” in Kidz Bop isn’t there just to be edgy—it’s there because the alternate spelling made it easier to trademark.

11. THEY'RE NOW IN THE ORIGINAL SONGS BUSINESS.

The gang did their first-ever original song on Kidz Bop 30 in 2015, a spunky little ditty called "Make Some Noise." They even shot a video for it:

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