Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of The Verve‘s “Bittersweet Symphony” as a single, as our friends at Stereogum point out. We may now remember the song as a tune for the ages, but in 1997, it was just another rock radio hit. (A very good one, of course.) One DJ, however, almost instantly recognized the swirling, string-laden track as the world-beating classic it is: Sean Demery, music director of Atlanta’s 99x, who played it uninterrupted for nearly 30 minutes to an audience of puzzled listeners one day four months after its release.
Some SPIN staffers were talking about the “Bittersweet Symphony” anniversary when an editor who grew up in Atlanta had a hazy remembrance of the radio marathon. “I have no idea if i misremembered this or not,” he wrote in our group chat app. “But I remember as a kid, a DJ for my local alt rock station locking himself in the studio and playing this song over and over again because he’d had some kind of breakdown.”
Intrigued, I searched Google for “Atlanta Bittersweet Symphony” and found a post corroborating my colleague’s story that included Demery’s name, on a Snopes message board devoted to urban legends. “A depressed DJ named Sean Demery was on the air one afternoon and decided to play his new favorite song, the weepy ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ by the Verve. Then he played it again. And again. And again. And again,” the poster wrote. “I was listening at the time and I seem to remember him playing the song at least 6-7 times in a row, but memory does exaggerate, so make of that what you will. Sometimes he would speak in between the replays (urging the listener to listen for specific elements in the song, etc.) and sometimes he didn’t. It was a auditory train wreck listening to my favorite DJ sweetly and gently flip out — but it’s the same old story — I didn’t want to listen, but I couldn’t help myself.”
In a post marking the end of 99x’s broadcasting, a blogger named Chris Blackburn wrote that Demery had said on air that he’d “locked himself in the studio” when he played it. Some listeners believed that Demery was not in fact unwell, but that the marathon “was simply a stunt to get the song and the band some attention,” Blackburn added.
With Demery’s name in tow, I searched the archives of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and found a brief blurb from October ’97, confirming that the Verve ad infinitum session had really happened. There’s no mention of a barricaded studio or serious psychological distress; the AJC’s account chalks it up to “a combination of a good song and not enough Ritalin”:
WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT? 99X music director Sean Demery confused listeners last week when he deviated from regular programming with a fairly strange on-air moment. After playing “Bittersweet Symphony” by the Verve, the afternoon DJ talked about how the video on MTV had moved him deeply. Then he played the song again and again. Total: Six times. “I did it because I love it,” Demery says. “I love that song. If loving that song is wrong, I don’t want to be right. It’s a driving, driving force, like a steel peg shoved in my head, a battle cry against complacency.” Then he adds, with perfect 99X sarcasm: “I guess you could say it was a combination of a good song and not enough Ritalin.”
Hoping to confirm or debunk some of the more colorful details of the myth, I contacted Demery, who now works at a radio station in Portland, to inquire. I’ll update this post if I hear back.