Sunday, April 10, 2011

Remembering Frantic Fridays

Much of what we endure in the present softens and comes to a mild glow through the wide lens of nostalgia. It's more rare when something vital and urgent in the far past retains its charge in the present. Joyce Carol Oates says that "blood is memory without language." When a recollection stirs us, language vainly tries to translate. So my dilemma: how do I describe the effects on me of Weasel's "Frantic Friday" sets on WHFS in the 1980s, which have retained their charge in my memory.  

Weasel—whose actual name is Jonathan Gilbert—was for many years the afternoon DJ at WHFS, first in its legendary lo-fi incarnation on Cordell Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland at 102.3 FM, then at its 50,000-watt boost in Annapolis at 99.1 FM. At its heyday, 'HFS was a remarkable radio station, and I can only be glad that the stars aligned when they did and that I was alive during the station's glory years. At 'HFS, free-form was philosophy, and philosophy was practice, especially at the 102.3 incarnation which was on the air from 1970 to 1983: no DJs had a required set-list of pre-selected songs; a set could last three songs or six, or seven, lengthened or shortened by the whim (and moods) of the DJ; no genres were off-limits; a quarter of a show might be devoted to yammering with a fellow DJ or with a visiting band or artist, and the yammering could go on as long as anyone was interested; commercials had a funky, local flavor. The overall vibe—originating in the DJ's personalities and attitudes and their love and knowledge of the songs they played and the history those songs scored— was loose, warm, exciting, and vital, a celebration of alternative music long before the term was coined. "Home grown radio," WHFS was organic and unique.  Anyone who grew up in suburban Washington D.C. in the 1970s and 1980s who wanted true progressive radio became enamored, and a passionate fan and advocate. The era is long-gone, memories of which having recently been stoked and debated in blogs, here and here.

Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert
The on-air staff was full of adventuresome spirits, but Weasel was my favorite. His name originated from his high, chirpy voice and rodent-like face (which, in the pre-Google Image era, I rarely saw, maybe once or twice in the City Paper). His legend grew from his remarkably broad knowledge of rock & roll history and his staggeringly large music library. (In what felt like myth, he lived, as did several DJs, in the building in Bethesda where 'HFS occupied two floors, what Weasel would call on-air "the twin towers at radio park," still an evocative expression for me.) What I loved most about Weasel was that this man knew rock & roll. He got it. For all of the station's reputation for playing obscure or deep album tracks rather than singles, Weasel, its mainstay DJ, had a singles mentality, a love for the two and a half-to-three minute pop song that he grew up with in the 1950s and 60s. (He was also very knowledgeable about R&B and Blues, less so, it appeared, about Punk.) His celebration and love of the Pop Hook was born of affection for earlier decades when producers mixed songs imagining how they'd sound coming from a transmitter radio by the public pool.

Weasel offered me a desperately coveted alternate reality of popular music: Marshall Crenshaw rather than Christopher Cross; Hoodoo Gurus rather than Tears For Fears; the Spongetones rather than Mr. Mister. (He was a great and obvious influence on my own concurrent poor-man radio show at the weakly-transmitted WMUC at the University of Maryland. I had a show for more than three years, nabbing a great Friday afternoon slot of my own by the end, proudly and stubbornly playing pop and retro rock & roll while many of my colleagues spun Skinny Puppy and early Sub Pop, much more adventurous and interesting than me; I wore my narrow-minded badge a bit too proudly in retrospect.) Weasel wasn't afraid to play a current hit—say, Doctor And The Medics' version of "Spirit In The Sky," or the Bangles or R.E.M after they hit mainstream success—but the track needed to cram as many hooks into its grooves as possible. I distinctly remember his crush on the L.A. roots band Green On Red; he'd often play, back to back, two tracks from their 1983 debut Gravity Talks, the title track and "Five Easy Pieces." The problem was that the tacks were separated by another song, so Weasel would just lift the needle to go from track one to three—with the subsequent dead air. Sometimes songs would skip, and the transmitter volume would be yanked down to remedy it, or if a song inadvertently bled into another in an inelegant segue. Such was the ramshackle professionalism by which WHFS worked


It's hard to describe the excitement of listening to the evolving Frantic Friday sets, Weasel's last of the week. Friday was here and Weasel provided your soundtrack. Characteristic of 'HFS looseness, the Frantic Friday set wasn't ironclad; Weasel might start it at around 4:45, or earlier, and end it close to 5, or later when the next DJ, the beloved "Bob Here," would begin his shift.  It felt like whatever Weasel was in the mood to play, he played; your Friday afternoon had an unpredictability to it, so get your drink on and decide where you and your friends are gonna hang tonight. Back Alley Cafe? Cagney's? Your car?

I asked Weasel about the history of the Frantic Fridays sets. "There is no real history," he told me. "Like everything else it simply evolved. In the late 70's when I switched from being an overnight jock to afternoons Friday's just seemed right for that type of party music. And 5:00pm on Friday was the mythical liberation from office drudgery and the beginning of the free at last weekend. And of course the music of Joe 'King' Carrasco, Dave Edmunds, the Beastie Boys, NRBQ, and others were coming out at about the same time period. Like most other sets, I did it one Friday on a whim and got great response, did it again the next Friday and then started to vary it a bit." He adds, in understatement: "Then it became a tradition."

There were a few regular songs in the tradition. The classic set went like this:

Wild Weekend (Rockin' Rebels)

Weekend (Eddie Cochran)

Here Comes The Weekend (Dave Edmunds)

Party Weekend (Joe "King" Carrasco)

A song he'd sometimes slot in to this set was "Thank God It's Friday," a locally-pressed single by the D.C.-area band Harbison, Bond, and Goddard (heard/seen here in a video featuring "Bob Here"):

Thank God It's Friday (Harbison, Bond, Goddard)

"Party Weekend," always the set closer, became the song most associated with Frantic Friday and, I'd argue, with Weasel himself. It was actually my least favorite song of the set, because it signalled the end and because it was a bit overrated to my ears, and sounded too much of the processed era for me, production-wise, especially a later re-recorded version. (I do remember Carrasco saying in an interview once that all he aspired to in his career was to write a song as good as "96 Tears." He didn't manage that, but hats off for such a noble goal.) I first heard the evocative drunken fun of "Wild Weekend" via Weasel (he later replaced this with NRBQ's lesser version, complete with lyrics, from 1989). The fact the standard songs in the set were a decades-old by the mid 1980s didn't matter to the program directors at the station. What mattered were the songs themselves, not units moved or place in the Billboard charts.

In my favorite sets, Weasel rocked a little harder. Maybe he was in an amped-up mood, felt the weekend coming in his marrow, whatever. These were the sets I'd mentally will Weasel to play, the ones I'd groove to cruising down Rockville Pike in Maryland or 16th Street in the District, the night's reckless fun ahead of me, the songs that have settled permanently in my DNA:

Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight (The Rezillos)

She Makes Me Rock Too Much (Switchblade)

Rock You Up (The Romantics)

Sometimes after the Switchblade song he'd drop in Skafish's intense "Wild Night Tonight":

Or this great New Wave kinda-hit from the Flirts:

We Just Wanna Dance (The Flirts)

I don't think it's simply time, circumstance, and nostalgia that have woven these songs together so urgently for me; I defy you to play those tunes in any order and not feel stirred. Switchblade was a local rockabilly band, which was cool. Yeah, "Rock You Up" is corny.  But I couldn't (I can't) resist it: the groove, the harmonica, the hooks, the corn, the attitude, the rock & roll of it all. Listening now still gets my heart going. Also indelible are the feelings and memories associated with listening to Skafish's "Wild Night Tonight" on the radio; though the band hailed from Chicago, I will always associate the driving, anthemic song with mid-1980s Washington D.C. culture in all of it cocaine-fueled, Marion Barry-mania, 9:30 Club-rocking, suburb-into-the-city-journeying, 14th Street-hookers hooking, Redskins-winning, "Disco" Dan-graffiti-emblazoned, beer-drenched glory. Raw, exciting, fun times. The Flirts' tune may as well be for me an aural scratch-n-sniff for Reagan-era club decadence. (The good kind of decadence.) Weasel understood the appeal of clubs and bars and also knew that the anticipation of getting there is half the fun. By 1986, Weasel was kicking off many of his Frantic Friday sets with:

Fight For Your Right To Party (Beastie Boys)

And the fun went on. Other songs that he'd drop into the Frantic Friday sets: the Flirts' "Jukebox (Don't Put Another Dime)"; local legends the Slickee Boys' "When I Go To The Beach" and "Life Of The Party"; Dave Edmunds' "Almost Saturday Night"; the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Psycho Therapy"; the Fleshtones' "American Beat '84"; Grand Funk's "We're An American Band." I'm neglecting many songs, some that came before or after my time living in the area, others that memory's wiped for some reason or other.

"Fight For Your Right To Party" represents Late Weasel to me: in 1988 I left suburban D.C., headed to southeast Ohio and what felt, at the time, as a cultural vacuum. I missed Weasel a lot, and would always try to tune in when I was home visiting. By the mid 1990s I was tuning in less and less as 'HFS became more and more adherent to a corporate notions of Alternative Music, at least to my visitor's ears. Weasel finally jumped ship in 2003, and after freelancing and consulting in radio and the Internet, landed a weekly Saturday afternoon gig at WTMD in Towson, Maryland. I'll be tuning in, and won't be surprised if Weasel channels rock & roll and the power and lure of The Weekend as lovingly as he always has, finding the right language for my stirred-up blood.

Photo of Weasel via WTMD Blog For Music People.


planckzoo said...

Nice Post, I listened to the same Friday shows you did. HFS was a fun listen, I was a big fan of Milo's show and Jim Dunbars sets. There was also a great oldies DJ, I think his show aired on Saturday mornings, I recall him playing some killer stuff.

Joe Bonomo said...

Yeah, Milo was one in a million.

Camarillo Brillo said...

Love the post! And like many others, the Party Party Weekend song run down was the best! You nailed it here!
Great memories for sure.
And thanks for the plug...hundreds of hours of classic 'HFS available on my blog for download.
Thanks again!

Naplesgc said...

Love it! Playing now as background in my office. I need to put more up as streaming and not just download. Thanks for stopping my my WHFS site at

We'll be back here soon, no doubt!


jugdish said...

I've got a playlist in iTunes of songs that Weasel turned me on to, and often when I hear them I think about him and the station:

I Knew The Bride - Dave Edmunds
Me And The Boys - NRBQ
When I Write The Book - Rockpile
Crawling From The Wreckage - Dave Edmunds
Wrong Again (Let's Face It) - Rockpile
I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock N Roll) - Nick Lowe
If Sugar Was As Sweet As You (Rockpile) - Dave Edmunds
Local Girls - Graham Parker & The Rumour
Tell That Girl To Shut Up - Holly & The Italians
Here Comes The Weekend - Dave Edmunds
Discovering Japan - Graham Parker & The Rumour
Cruel To Be Kind - Nick Lowe
Crawling From The Wreckage [Live] - Rockpile
They Don't Know - Kirsty MacColl
A New England - Kirsty MacColl
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll - Ian Dury

mama_gretch said...

Whoa, I can't believe you just posted this info just a week ago... I'm desperately trying to find and put together a 1980s playlist that starts out with the Friday Party Weekend kickoff songs, and there they are! WHFS provided the soundtrack to my life when I lived in DC from 1978-1987. I'm going to a reunion of my old gang down at Cape Hatteras over Memorial Day and it will blow them away to hear this set list! Thank you, thank you!!

Joe Bonomo said...

Hey m_g, good to hear! I put this together not only in tribute to Weasel bu also because I wanted the songs all in one place, so I'm glad it's of good use to someone else, too. You'll have the crowd rocking, no doubt.

mister muleboy said...

first in its legendary lo-fi incarnation on Cordell Avenue in Bethesda

Hate to be a priggish-like stickler, but I thought it worth noting that, imho, it was a lo-fi ethos, with relatively hi-fi sound

when I correctly answered "what do the call letters stand for?" at an in-store by Weasel at a Kemp Mill store in Va., Weasel trumpeted (as much as that voice could "trumpet" - " piccoloed" maybe? )
"Washington's High Fidelity Stereo!!"

Weasel has done some Friday nights on 'TMD, or they're doing replays

So a late-life version of Frabtic Fridays remains.

C. Redux !!

Joe Bonomo said...

I'm with ya, muleboy. I hoped to imply by the phrase lo-fi, relative to 99.1, a less powerful signal, not overall sound quality or production values. I wonder if Weasel was being a little tongue-in-cheek!


Let's Find H-Man A Wife said...

I missed HFS so much when I moved to Chicago. I was so angry I called the folks at XRT to complain about their choice of tunes. It wasn't their fault, the music was going down the tubes. Bless Camarillo Brillo for putting those HFS shows online for all to enjoy. Life was never better.

Don said...

Just discovered this post -thanks for the memories. I started listening to HFS in the early 70s, and Weasel was just one of several great DJs - remember Cerphe?

Anyway - around '75 I had an overnight job and listened to Weasel every night. It was unbelievable what he'd play at 2 or 3 in the morning. Country morphing into jazz, some Sinatra into rockabilly, then into Beatles or Stones. Most of the tunes I'd never heard, but kept wondering, "where does he find this great stuff?!!"

Then he'd ask in his weaselly voice, "can anyone guess tonight's theme?" I never could, but someone would call in and know the connection between all the songs.

I've never heard anything like it, before or since.

Joe Bonomo said...

"I've never heard anything like it, before or since."

That nails it, Don.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know the name of Milo's theme music?

Anonymous said...

Milo's theme was "The Boiler" by the Specials.

Man I really miss HFS!

Joe Bonomo said...

That's right, I'd forgotten. Thanks, anon.

Nanu Nanu said...

The Camarillo Brillo shows were posted to megaupload, which was shut down in New Zealand with the complicity of the FBI. Any hopes that the data would be restored were dashed with the news that the servers had been wiped.

Inkwell said...

I'm reading your remembrance of Weasel's sets while listening to 'Weasel's Wild Weekend' on WTMD in Baltimore. Itunes owes him a debt of gratitude for all the music I've bought listening to his Friday-Evening-Repeated-On_saturday-afternoon show. FYI: WTMD streams too, so take a listen Friday 7pm to 10pm or Saturday noon to 3, every week. I found the late WHFS shortly after it came on the air and shortly after I got my first very own stereo, with which I scanned through radio stations continuously when I was 12-13 (to start) trying to find something I liked when I didn't want to listen to jazz or classical. (Pop simply too junky even for my 12 year old ears!). I was so lucky to be within range of such a great station and remain so lucky to be able to listen to Weasel now, 40 years later. YIKES!!! LOL. Hope others can find him now because of this.

Dave C. said...

This is awesome! I've been in retro memory mode thinking about Weasel's "Frantic Friday" set all summer! I'm trying to recall THE ORIGIN OF AND whether it was a song lyric or just an audio sound clip of the phrase, "Favorite Pastime of the American Guy... Drunk Again; DWI!" he used to play for a couple years, but under pressure from MADD, was forced to drop. Can you help me?

This post has got me sitting here smiling as more and more semi-forgotten memories float to the surface. And the set list 'Jugdish' posted has me setting up a playlist of all those old favorites, especially the Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds/Rockpile stuff, (and some Billy Bragg).

You've got a new follower to your blog and I'll be digging into you massive hoard of links to other articles. I enjoy your style and content and I don't know how I've gone this long without ever coming across your writing before.

Take care and thanks again for making me very happy.

Dave Cluster

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Bethesda in the seventies and want to thank the djs of WHFS for introducing me to music and shaping my tastes towards quality and diversity. The people working there in those years should feel proud of having done something really worthwhile with their professional lives. I can remember pulling over to the side of the road (Bradley Blvd. it was) to hear the end of a song and write down the artist. I still have cassettes of shows from 1976 that sustained me after moving to places with inferior radio. So lots of gratitude, lots. It's not just music that I learned from WHFS but the value of striving for quality apart from commercial considerations.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the memories! HFS was my go to station growing up in Potomac. Hated it when it moved away. In addition to Weasel show (the best) there was another guy after him (I think?) that always had a great speech before he started his tunes. What he said was always captivating and entertaining; I always had to listen to the end. Do you know who I am talking about?

Joe Bonomo said...

Bob (Here)?

Joe Bonomo said...

A message from Robbie White: "I am a collector of WHFS 102.3 radio programs. I have hundreds to trade. Please contact me at if you have ANY WHFS tapes. I will convert them to digital files at no cost to you. Thank you."

Camarillo Brillo said...

I'm back to let everyone know, that if they come upon dead links at camarillo brillo, just post a request in the comments section from the original page, and I will get a new link posted.

Unknown said...

I think I started listening in around '72 and yes, it shaped my musical tastes from then till now. I do have to put in a plug for WAYE on the AM dial (if you can remember such a thing) -- I listened to that before HFS; it also introduced me to a lot of non-mainstream stuff (such as Bert Jansch, who became a real fave of mine). I moved away from 1974 to 1983 and was so glad to get back to listening then, and of course crushed when it went away. Can you believe, HFS was the first (probably only) place I heard Enya ("Orinoco Flow")! New Age... But that was the beauty of WHFS; if it was good, they played it.

Joe Bonomo said...

That's exactly right. And there weren't too many places where you were going to hear bluegrass and Syl Johnson's "Ms. Fine Brown Frame" on the same day!

Anonymous said...

Weasel was great, but how about Damien? Anyway, The Feelies had a song oft played on HFS - a great cover of Gloria (but for the life of me can't remember if it was the Van Morrison song or the U2 song...kinda crucial, ain't it?). I can't find it anywhere online. Is anyone familiar with it?

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