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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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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