The Washington Post

Taking a spin as DJ at the D.C. Record Fair


The first song was easy enough to choose: “Washingtron” by Tru Fax and the Insaniacs. I’ve always considered it a local anthem of sorts. (“I used to be a waitron in the lounge at the Hiltron. Now I work for my senatron, and I live in Arlingtron.”) After that, it was pretty much going to be a stroll through my record collection as I took a turn deejaying Sunday at the D.C. Record Fair at the Artisphere in Rosslyn.

It wasn’t the material I was worried about, though. It was the execution. As I stood nervously behind a pair of Technics turntables, I was not feeling good about my performance so far.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The DJ before me — a tattooed, long-haired dance club pro named Denman Anderson — had given me a quick tutorial: Put record on platter, set needle on vinyl, manually spin record to beginning of song while listening through headphones, wait for end of previous song, lower volume of left deck, raise volume of right deck, press “start” button on right deck. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Or maybe I was supposed to press “start” before switching the volumes? All I knew was that I wasn’t getting that killer transition where a song ends and then — bam! — the next one begins. My choices seemed to be either a few mood-killing seconds of dead air or a sickening rwooooaar sound as the turntable spooled up and started to spin: the Chipmunks on Valium.

And I was losing precious style points. I didn’t look like Denman the DJ: loose and bopping slightly, with one headphone cup pressed to an ear. I looked like a Sears mannequin.

covers fron left to right: D.Ceats,The Slickee Boys, Johnny Bombay and the Reactions and Tru Fax and the Insaniacs (john kelly private collection)

But it’s not like I had to make people dance. This was music to shop to: Thirty-six dealers were selling vintage vinyl, that venerable format having made a comeback in recent years. I’d decided to be the aural equivalent of my column: playing music by only Washington bands, mostly indie-label stuff produced here in the days of my glorious youth, circa 1978-1982.

After Tru Fax and the Insaniacs, some Insect Surfers, Frontier Theory, Egoslavia and Trouble Funk, before abruptly changing direction into Tex Rubinowitz, Martha Hull, Switchblade, then the Reactions, Billy & the Shakes, Nightman. . . .

I had one pile of LPs and another of 45s. They looked so modest and handmade. Half of the record sleeves, I noticed, were falling apart, the glue coming unstuck 30 years after it was applied on some kitchen table.

Back then, we studied records with the intensity of Talmudic scholars, scouring covers and sleeves for clues. For certain types of music in our area, the same names cropped up again and again: recording engineers and producers such as Skip Groff, Ted Nicely, Don Zientara, Mark Greenhouse, Steve Carr, Howard S.-M. Wuelfing.

Inner Ear Studios. Hit and Run Studios. Track Recorders.

There was Limp Records, Rockville’s flaccid answer to London’s priapic Stiff Records, and Bill Asp, Arlington County’s very own Brian Epstein.

Today I’m Facebook friends with some of these people, which should pretty much tell you how their careers went. I don’t know whether they wanted fame and fortune beyond Saturday nights at the PsycheDelly or hearing Weasel play their records on WHFS. I do know that I’d rather hear “Gotta Tell Me Why” by the Slickee Boys than any Bryan Adams or John Mellencamp song.

A guy came by as I played “Back to Zero Now” by Tommy Keene, Washington’s great pop hope. He said that if I ever wanted to part with my Tommy Keene records, he’d be happy to buy them off me. But surely old records are like old cars and old guitars. If you sell them, you regret it for the rest of your life.

Blue Groove Soundz, an Arlington record store, was set up in front of the DJ booth. Manager David Tyson used to DJ at the old 930 club, as well as at Poseurs and Cagneys.

“Do you want some advice?” David asked after hearing my umpteenth rwooooaar. “After you find the start of the track, spin the record back a quarter to a half a turn.”

Ah, I said. Thanks.

I think I managed my last transition — from the Puppets’ “Dear John Letter” into “Christmas at K-Mart” by Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band — just fine.


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