It's not every day that you hear a former member of The Beatles read the weather forecast.
But on September 28, 1974, John Lennon did just that, during his now-legendary two-hour stint as a DJ on New York City's premiere rock station WNEW-FM.
Of course, Lennon brought his own whimsical take to the weather. “Mostly cloudy with periods,” he 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. Monday’s outlook, fair and cool, man.”
For such a momentous event, it all came together in a very quiet, under-publicised way. WNEW's music director and renowned DJ Dennis Elsas told me in 2014 that he'd first 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?”
“She said, ‘Oh, and John wants to know if it would be okay if he brought some of his records too,'” Elsas said. “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.”
Of the lack of promotion, Elsas confessed, “I don’t think I ever believed he would come. 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. Remember too, in 1974, it’s a different world. There wasn’t a media machine as sophisticated as there is now. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon, and John just showed up.”
He showed up in a fur Russian-style hat with a box of records under his arm. Over the next two hours, he spun some of the A-sides and B-sides that shaped him as a musician, like What'd I Say by Ray Charles and Watch Your Step by Bobby Parker. He also played newer tunes like ELO’s Showdown (in a bit of cosmic foreshadowing, he complimented Jeff Lynne's 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. And of course, he promoted his latest single, Whatever Gets You Through The Night, which featured his new friend Elton John on backing vocals.
Along the way, Lennon did station IDs and some funny commercial spots. Talking of an appearance by the Joffrey Ballet, he said, “My Auntie used to like the ballet, but she'd say, “It's all right except for all those terrible crotches.”
Dennis Elsas met Lennon several times in the following years, and the famous broadcast was rerun, most poignantly after John’s 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. 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 said. “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.”