I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll

Consider the wedding-reception DJ. He’s hired help, but next to the clergyman who performs the ceremony, he’s in the most public role of all the hired help. It’s on a fine line: He’s an entertainer, but he’s not supposed to make himself the center of attention, either. He will preside over certain events that the bride and groom will remember forever (like their first dance) but he may never officially meet them. Most of the guests probably won’t notice him at all, unless he does something one of them doesn’t like, and in any room of 250 people, that’s almost inevitable.

We attended a wedding this past weekend where I didn’t know anybody, so I had plenty of time to consider the wedding reception DJ. For a couple of years in the early 90s, The Mrs. and I did weddings for a radio guy who also ran a couple of DJ rigs, and who liked to hire other radio people. He usually did the equipment setups and takedowns, so most of the time, all we had to do was walk in and get the party started.

The bride and groom are the clients, of course, but the reception guests are the audience, and the DJ owes them the best show he can put on. Some couples take great pains to come up with a list of songs they want at the reception. But here’s a little secret that some of my brethren in the wedding-DJ biz must surely share: I will ignore many of your suggestions. You simply don’t want me playing seven-minute album cuts by REM at a party attended by 400 people, including both your six-year-old niece and your 89-year-old grandmother, even if REM is the groom’s favorite band. I’d be falling down on the job if I didn’t give you the benefit of the party-making expertise I possess—although I did give in to the couple who wanted me to play “She’s a Lady” by Tom Jones, staggeringly inappropriate though it was.

A few songs are standards that you’ll hear at every wedding you attend: the Chicken Dance, the Hokey Pokey, “Twist and Shout,” “Old Time Rock and Roll,” Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance.” I actually took things a step further—I had a standard program I would follow at almost every wedding. I often played the same songs in the same order, and if not in the same order, I would pair the same records together, “I Knew the Bride” followed by “Mony Mony,” that sort of thing. (That’s the Tommy James “Mony Mony,” by the way, which kicks Billy Idol’s ass anyhow, and does not inspire that obscene chant. You know the one I mean.) One night I played, at the bride’s request, “YMCA,” which I always followed with KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way I Like It.” I made the segue and absolutely nobody left the packed dance floor—except the bride, who came blazing over to angrily tell me that I was ruining her party by playing disco. Which, to her, apparently, “YMCA” was not.

In my experience, brides are usually far more stressed out at the reception than grooms are. One night a bride came up to the DJ stand half-angry, half-weepy because the dance floor had cleared, which is completely normal and happens several times at every reception I’ve ever DJed or been to. “Nobody’s having any fun! You’ve got to do something!” (She and the groom had apparently gotten drunk in the limo on the way to the reception, because neither one had seemed fully functional all night. The groom looked like he was ready to pass out from the moment he arrived.) The Mrs. ended up taking her aside to calm her down, and to explain that her family and friends probably wanted to spend some time visiting. “That’s what happened at our wedding,” The Mrs. told her. Well, when the bride found out that her DJs were married, she thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world. She kept telling us we should go out and dance. And if I’m recalling correctly, they ended up paying us the best compliment we could receive—buying an extra hour.

Just as they are in radio, requests at a wedding are a necessary evil, although their face-to-face nature makes them harder than to ignore than radio requests. The guest who won’t take no for an answer is somebody every wedding DJ has met. Sometimes there’s a guy (and it’s inevitably a guy) who wants to hear his favorite song—Black Oak Arkansas’ “Lord Have Mercy on My Soul,” to pick an example from real life—and never mind that no one can dance to it. Likewise, there’s always one guy who can’t think of a request on his own and says, “Can I look at your CDs?” But as a rule, I didn’t let people come up onto the DJ stand for any reason. Most people respected that, but not all. I recall one guy informing us that since the bride and groom were paying us, we should let their guests do whatever they wanted. Like the thoroughly loaded guest who wanted to use our PA system to give a toast to the bride and groom. Given his demeanor and his level of intoxication, this struck me as a very bad idea, and so I told him I wouldn’t let him. He retreated to a table with several equally liquored-up friends, and when it came time for us to tear down the equipment at the end of the night, I was half-sure we weren’t going to get out of the door.

But it’s human nature to remember the bad experiences. There were lots of good ones, too. A few times during the party, when the dance floor was full and you’d segue to a new record, you’d hear and feel a rush of delight as people realized, hey, this is great, let’s stay out here. The look in the eyes of elderly guests when you’d play a couple of big-band tunes could make an otherwise-dull night memorable. Getting handed a wad of cash to do an extra hour was always a very fine thing. And even when we didn’t get asked to stay, it was gratifying when the party got over with lots of people still on the dance floor—they might have stayed for any number of reasons, but I always liked to think it was because the tunes were good.

“I Knew the Bride”/Dave Edmunds (buy it here)

(The Edmunds recording, from 1977, is the original, and it’s the mp3 I have, although Nick Lowe’s 1985 version is much better.)

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9 responses

  1. This song is perfect. I don’t think there is anything that can be done to ruin it. It is one of the 10 greatest rock and roll songs of all time. Thanks for giving it some love.
    I have a version by The Knack that was included on the reissue of get the knack. It’s good.

  2. Wow, if I ever get married can I hire you?????

    Do you travel? the wedding may be in California, USA…or Melbourne AU, depends on who I choose to marry :)

  3. I DJ at quite a few weddings these days & one of my rules is I will not ever play a line dance or any of that typically annoying wedding stuff so when people ask for “The Electric Slide” or “Love Shack” I like to say things like “I’ve never played that at a wedding & I’m not starting tonight!” in the nicest way possible. Generally, they’re sort of embarrassed that they ever asked for it in the first place, so they end up going “Ooh I’m sorry! I’ll bet that’s why they hired you” type of thing. I’ve never had someone get angry… well excpet for the lady that couldn’t believe I didn’t play Donna Summer “Last Dance” for the last song. Shed just kept repeating that over & over. She was HAMMERED.

    I also NEVER let them look through my CDs. That is the most annoying thing ever!!

    Colleen

  4. I never let people look thru my CDs, either. The story I give is, “it’s not that I don’t trust you, but one night I let someone look thru my CDs and that person grabbed at least 5 CDs and ran out of the place and no one could ever catch him so I got ripped off.” They always back off when I tell them that one.

  5. I’ve never played a wedding, but these rules are eminently sensible. The problem is when the the party-owner start making requests. “Oooh, all the girls will go kerazy when you play this, it’s our party song,” she’ll say. And, because these people are her friends, you trust her, despite your misgivings. And you play Kid fucking Creole and the bloody Coconuts. And all that’s dancing is tumbleweed. Party Queen will then speak in an animated with whoever is standing closest to her. And you, the DJ, are looking stupid for playing a song nobody likes.

  6. dj colleen: I’ve got no objection to the Electric Slide or “Love Shack” or any of the other wedding standards. In fact, I think you’re wrong to say you won’t play them, precisely because they’re the kind of thing people expect to hear, and most people would know and enjoy them. My line was drawn at playing stuff nobody at the party would be likely to know beyond the person who asked for it, even if it was the bride or groom that was asking.

    Layla: You pay my expenses, I’ll go anywhere ;-)>

    Dude: I’ve done that–played something that the bride insisted everyone would love and then watched it die. This sort of thing happened one night at a big Greek wedding I did. The first time I played the traditional Greek music, everybody loved it. The second time, an hour or so later, not everybody loved it. The third time I did it (when it was not so much requested of me as ordered by the father of the bride, so what could I do?), a significant number of guests took it as an excuse to start leaving.

  7. One of the benefits of giving up the CDs in favor of a computer and good software was that people stopped asking if they could look through my CDs.

    Fortunately, I only carry the hits. I can accommodate a request for REM, but you won’t hear me play an album cut.

  8. [...] under: Uncategorized — jb @ 10:17 pm Tags: Today’s music ain’t got the same soul My post on wedding reception DJs last week inspired a few comments from current wedding reception DJs, along with URLs for their [...]

  9. This is a great article, I read it all and really enjoyed it. Although I would disagree with some fo it (Just a little part) I think it was well written. I did like one idea that I had never tried, to not let the guests onto the DJ area. It’s dangerous for the kids and it’s very distracting for the DJ. At one point, I had a lady nagging that she wanted to hear a certain song for a long time that I let the song that was playing end and just look at her as she continued to argue her case. I think about 20 seconds into her conversation she realized that there was no music playing and that everyone was looking at us wondering what was going on.

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