My Jukebox

When the iPod in your pocket can accommodate an entire record collection, it might seem perverse to park a machine the size of a Transit cab* in your sitting room just to play a hundred singles, but anyone old enough to remember the 1950s should have a place in their heart, if not their home, for a jukebox. The classic machines – chrome and plastic fantasies, built by Wurlitzer, Seeburg and Rock-Ola, but conspicuously indebted to the drawing boards of Detroit – are core components of rock’n’roll’s iconography.

That keen-eyed chronicler of teen America, Chuck Berry, confirmed as much in ‘School Days’. On the dot of an enviably early three o’clock finish, his students closed their books and hit the local juke joint, where they would ‘drop the coin right into the slot’ to hear ‘something that’s really hot.’ The closest to a juke joint during my school days was a café near the station whose teddy boy clientele rendered it out-of-bounds to grammar boys, so when four o’clock rolled around I headed home to my Dansette, stacked the spindle with singles, lay on the floor with my head by the speaker, and willed my homework to do itself.

Although I had no idea whether a dime was worth five or ten cents, I did know from Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ that as long as you had one, the music would never stop. But the rampant ambitions of post-rock’n’roll recording artists saw the two-and-a-half minute form supplanted by the LP’s half-hour-plus, and by 1968 singles were outsold by albums. The styling of a 1950s jukebox seemed as passé as a razor-finned Cadillac, its clunky mechanism and monaural sound similarly anachronistic, its rack of 45s old hat.

Some time in the early 1970s I picked up a 1957 Seeburg KD200 Select-O-Matic from a café in the Old Kent Road for £100. A used car deaIer might have classified it as a good runner, but the selection mechanism worked, the valve amplifier and big speaker made the singles I still collected sound the way they were meant to, and guarding the speaker grill were those three tall chrome fins, their inset taillights glowing red.

The jukebox in ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ blows a fuse; over the years, mine merely began to show its age. Like a senescent relative, my Seeburg’s once silent functions became both audible and unpredictable. I played it less, and the passing of its 50th birthday without a single celebratory record being selected pricked my guilt. Eventually I googled ‘jukebox’ with the name of the man who had last fixed it twenty-five years before, and found Rob Edwards still in Thornton Heath and still repairing jukeboxes.

While my Seeburg underwent an overhaul that included a complete ‘re-cap’ – worn capacitors, Rob explained, being the primary cause of those intrusive noises – I washed the singles and swapped some with others I hadn’t heard in years. I also downloaded software for printing period labels, which I shuffled and reshuffled into five piles, wondering where else Larry Williams would rub shoulders with J J Cale and Scritti Pollitti, and working myself into feverish excitement at the prospect of hearing the exhilarating opening instrumental bars of the O’Jays’ ‘For The Love Of Money’.

As it was, the first record that came to hand when Rob asked me to check no part had suffered in transit was ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, and what struck me as the stylus wound through the grooves was that Chuck Berry hadn’t being fanciful when he’d described listening to a jukebox as ‘feeling the music from head to toe,’ because its output is a visceral as well as aural experience. A jukebox doesn’t do background music. Not only is conversation killed when it’s cranked up, but the look, lights and moving parts are unavoidably eye-catching. And when did you put on a record and watch everyone in the room get up and dance? When the right 45 is playing on a jukebox, it happens every time.

*This is an illusion. A tape measure showed that it’s not even as tall or wide as a Smart.

(Originally published in November 2008)

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