#39 – “Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal” (1989)
A.S.: I am eternally jealous.
L.K.: I have no idea why They Might Be Giants thought coming to Cleveland in February was a good idea, but they kicked their 2008 tour off there anyway, and it was amazing. And this was the song they opened with. This is one of those B-sides that’s so good, you wonder why it was a B-side to begin with.
A.S.: This song is just perfect. It’s just an incredible, incredible pop song. And speaking as someone who hosts a college radio show (and I know you can say the same for yourself), it has a particularly special place in my heart, insofar as that it reminds me how glad I am that I’ll never have to deal with payola issues.
L.K.: I love the whole concept of the lyrics in that I can’t really think about any other songs about payola.
A.S.: I mean, there have to be others, I just can’t think of anything right now. There’s that new wave band The Payola$.
L.K.: Oh yeah, it seems like too obvious a concept to have been ignored in popular music ever since the term “payola” itself was coined. There have to be other songs out there somewhere. Did people write songs about Alan Freed?
A.S.: Oh wait, of course, Dead Kennedys allude to it in their legendary track, “Pull My Strings” where for one motif in the song, they parody “My Sharona” as “My Payola”. TANGENT TIME: That song has an incredible story on its own. Basically Jello Biafra wrote it for some regional San Francisco award show that the band was invited to play on; the awards were also televised regionally. The DKs walked on stage with white shirts with giant “S”s on them. They started playing “California Über Alles” (which you might know from John Linnell’s cover of it) and then Biafra interrupts the band. They then flipped over neck ties from around their backs to turn the “S”s into “$”s, and played this song, “Pull My Strings” for the first and last time. It’s a very blunt rant against the commodification of punk into new wave, and it included lines like “Is my cock big enough for you to make me a star.” Needless to say, they were never invited to play an award show again, but it’s a wild moment, and a great song to boot. The recording of the performance later wound up on their compilation Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death and I highly recommend it. I wish I knew how to add footnotes in WordPress.
L.K.: I’m looking around and asking around and I still can’t find any other songs having to do with payola, which is kind of weird. Maybe it’s just because they’re really only one thing you can say about it, and that’s to mock it.
A.S.: Lyrical subjects were generally a lot more limited when payola ruined Alan Freed’s career too.
L.K.: I did find “Payola Blues” but I’ve never heard the song in question. Good ol’ Neil Young.
A.S.: Ah, nor have I. Neil Young has like 50 albums, I guess it’s not on any of the ones I have. So there we go, “Hey Mr. DJ…” is pretty unique after all.
L.K.: There are two Dial-A-Song versions of this song too, and while the second one is basically the same as the finished version, the earlier one is interesting. The lyrical differences are minor, but I really like the differences in the way the chords in the chorus are played.
A.S.: Also, Linnell adds a few nice vocal flourishes that I kind of wish were in the final version, and there’s a lyric change – “Had gone and made the world their oyster.”
L.K.: I love that they decided to go ahead and learn how to play this song two decades after it was written. They went through all that trouble and then basically stopped playing it after that ’08 tour!
A.S.: Which is really odd on both counts. I have no idea why they never played it prior to 2008 and I have no idea why they’d stop playing it, especially since it’s a fan favorite.
L.K.: It’s an unusually long song by TMBG standards too, though a lot of that is the outro.
A.S.: Most of it, really. The second chorus ends at 2:16, so over a third of the song is the outro, which isn’t a bad thing. I mean, great songs can have long outros.
L.K.: It’s just sort of unusual for TMBG though, since they tend to cut any extraneous anything, and that includes overly long intros or outros.
A.S.: True; I love how you can hear the song end after it fades out, too. Going back to the song’s live performance, I’m now wondering what would have happened if the song had been what it was originally intended as – a song called “Sleeping My Way To The Top” where the band would perform it laying on hammocks stretched across the stage. Noting that, it’s really weird then that they didn’t play it until 2008, since it was conceived as a live performance piece.
L.K.: I’m guessing the performing-in-hammocks would’ve been conceived around the same time they were lighting their skin on fire and fencing with loaves of french bread. Gotta compete with those performance artists somehow if you’re not willing to strip naked onstage.
A.S.: Wait, when were they lighting their skin on fire and fencing with loaves of french bread?
L.K.: Check out old interviews with the band, pre-1986. It happened.
A.S.: Oh what the hell, why aren’t they doing that kind of stuff anymore? That’s fantastic.
A.S.: “Bring Me The Head of Kenny Rogers Tour ’87″
L.K.: I miss when their tours had names! Not like I was around to remember them, but still. Wasn’t ’92 the “Don’t Tread On The Cut Up Snake World Tour”? Oh, there’s this interview too: ”The twosome yuk-yuk it up with monster mitts made of papier-mache, fence with loaves of French bread, lead sing-alongs with oversized cue cards, and trade repartee with wisecrackers in the peanut gallery.”
A.S.: I guess I always knew the hammocks wouldn’t be out of place in the band’s old days, but those would seem downright normal compared to setting themselves on fire. That’s some Butthole Surfers-caliber shit.
L.K.: Well, they did have that firebreathing tour manager during “Why Does The Sun Shine”…
A.S.: Hey, you know what part of “Hey Mr. DJ” really gets me?
L.K.: What part?
A.S.: That augmented chord in the pre-chorus on the word “forgiven” – that to me is where the song is elevated from “great” to “perfect.”
L.K.: I didn’t know that was an augmented chord, mostly because I never looked at the chords to this. Ever. I should probably change that about my listening habits since so many stuff is tabbed on the wiki, though I hasten to add it is not necessarily tabbed well or even correctly in some cases.
A.S.: I think augmented chords are pretty distinctive – they’re typically the odder sounding chords that aren’t diminished chords (which of course, sound like pure evil).
L.K.: I seem to remember some bit of stage banter where John Flansburgh had no idea what a diminished chord was. I know what they are in theory, just not by sound… I’m much better at detecting when chord progressions are circles of fifths. That’s my thing. I just know circles of fifths because they sound like “New Orleans” by Hoagy Carmichael. Look at dem 7ths!
A.S.: Oh man, that is a typical circle of fifths thing there. That’s something I should know by ear better. But anyway, that augmented chord in “Hey Mr. DJ” completely makes it for me. Augmented chords are just great in pop songs in general (see also “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love”). Welp, dear reader, we had to interrupt discussion of “Hey Mr. DJ” so I could (coincidentally enough) do my radio show, so it’s a bit disjointed right now, but I think we covered all the bases here?
L.K.: Wait, one last thought.
L.K.: Just that for as many self-referential songs as TMBG has, this is one of the relatively few that references other TMBG songs directly. I find it weird that that seemed to happen more often in their older material, given that they had fewer songs to directly reference back then…
A.S.: True, given the number of songs they have, you’d think they’d return to them a bit more often, a la Frank Zappa’s “Conceptual Continuity” thing, but I guess not. They do reference themselves a lot though, so maybe that’s their own spin on that idea. The self-reference here is neat; I guess people have noted it’s like The Beatles’ “Glass Onion”, especially with the “I told you about…” preface.
L.K.: Yeah, They Might Be Giants sure like to talk about They Might Be Giants. Just not their songs so much.
A.S.: This song… is so good.
L.K.: It is very good, but there’s only so many times we can tell you that.
A.S.: Just go listen to it again. I know I will.