Modern Pubmanship 6: Jukeboxes

Pint of Stout against black.

This is the sixth in an occasional series of guest posts by etiquette expert R.M. Banks.

Not all public houses are enhanced by the addition of a jukebox. Some do quite well with the gentle avant-garde percussion provided by a burning log or two in the grate; others lack the acoustic qualities so that the addition of recorded music brings to mind someone falling downstairs while carrying a tin bath full of squeaky dog toys.

On the whole, though, I am personally all for them. Oh, yes, you can count me as a fee-paying member of the Juke Box Appreciation Society. I am always happy to kick in a quid for the pleasure of hearing five of the gramophone industry’s finest efforts, or two quid the dozen for that matter. A well husbanded juke-box, stuffed to the coin-slots with the right stuff, brings joie de vivre where once glum silence lay heavy as suet pudding; it lifts as it brightens as it shines!

Of course there are pitfalls.

First, there is the matter of good taste. If you were to flip through my record cabinet you would likely scoff, perhaps mock, or even come to look up on the very basis of our friendship with jaundiced eye. And the reverse would likely be true. Consider, then, a public bar containing, let us say, 30 people – what are the chances that all will be equally enthused upon hearing, to pick an example quite at random, the surging of the Hammond organ at the commencement of ‘Stop in the Name of Love’? Up to a point, this cannot be helped: a jukebox containing only songs that no one dislikes would be like a hospital meal of steamed fish and boiled potatoes. The soundest advice is to avoid the deep end of the pool – songs containing full-throated Scandinavian metal screaming, dischord intended to evoke mans inhumanity to man, treated piano, laxative basslines, children’s choirs, and so on. Jukebox songs ought to elicit a tapping of the foot, perhaps a gay whistle, but oughtn’t interfere with the conversation.

Deference to the essentially democratic character of the process provides an additional safety mechanism: the five songs you choose may be of the ripest Stilton but they will soon pass, making way for someone else’s selection of stinkers. Of course you could convert a couple of crisp purple notes into a double-handful of jangling stuff and tie up the infernal box for the entire evening – there is no law against it – but you would soon find your beer tasting as old boot leather in the mouth, hot under the curdling stares of your fellow saloon-flies. Resist the urge to monopolise the queue!

The choices on a pub Jukebox in central London.

A related sin: I have seen, in my time, a certain foul blister employ a single pound coin to play ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ by Pink Floyd – all 26 blasted minutes of it — five times in a row. The atmosphere in the bar brought to mind the occasion when an acquaintance, through no fault of his own, found himself to be the fourth person to perform ‘Sonny Boy’ in a single evening of entertainment. As then, at the second rendition of ‘Crazy Diamond’, if I may truncate it as such, knuckles were cracked and a certain growling got up among the restless crowd. The culprit ceased to snicker, beginning to look instead as if he had eaten a packet of pork scratchings and found an toenail at the bottom. The publican – a pragmatic cove – acted swiftly, presenting the offender with a pound coin and, with the other hand, yanking the plug from the wall.

If the bar too often falls quiet there is a polite solution: charge the machine generously and then walk away, as bountiful as H.M.Q. dispensing the coinage on Maundy Monday. Indulge those poor, huddled masses yearning to hear Free. I believe such behaviour is redeemable for a certain wedge of karma, if you are collecting the stamps for said scheme.

Acting without malice, I have also seen a poor sap, whose head was apparently installed to balance out the composition rather than for the carriage of brain cells, accidentally queue John Hannah’s reading of W.H. Auden’s ‘Stop All the Clocks’ from the soundtrack to Four Weddings and a Funeral. It is a very fine dramatic interpretation, if one likes a heavy hand on the soup ladle, but in a public house it had something of a dampening effect. A mere two minutes long it nonetheless felt like a main feature, with overture and intermission. It was difficult thereafter to recover the former bonhomie, what with the feeling that the Reaper himself had propped his scythe in the umbrella stand and was standing at the counter sipping weakly at a lime and soda.

But perhaps these materteral words of advice arrive too late? Where once jukeboxes could be found in every public house they have in recent years made like the Balearic shrew (Nesiotites hidalgo) and vanished, leaving only a void upon the woodchip. (The jukeboxes leave a void, that is – I shouldn’t think the shrews had anything to do with wallpapers of any description. Blast it, where was I? Oh, yes…) Is this guidance past its use-by-date? No, I don’t believe so, because much of it applies just as well to the bar manager’s ‘curated’ Spotify playlist streaming from the cloud via a Chromebook connected to speakers over Bluetooth. (I don’t understand a word of that but trust the two bob I slipped in the direction of my nephew, whose ears have not been seen without a pair of Beats by Dre since his twelfth birthday, by way of an editorial consultancy fee, was not wasted.)

‘Give it in short!’ I hear you cry, not without piquancy. Very well.

In short – you see? – regardless of its source, music in the pub must be a service to the greater good, a source of warmth, without protrusions. It is a bath in which we soak together into which… No, I shan’t follow that metaphor through. As it were. What I mean is, play your part, indulge your fellows their weaknesses, and maintain an open mind – perhaps you will discover your new favourite song amid the Motörhead album tracks and Ace of Base B-sides?

3 thoughts on “Modern Pubmanship 6: Jukeboxes”

  1. You don’t seem to see them anywhere near as often as you used to. Maybe the reason is that pub operators don’t want to let customers spoil their desired atmosphere by putting on “unsuitable” tracks. Also the rise of TV football leaves less space for music.

    In the old days it was always annoying that they didn’t play the tracks in the order they had been selected.

  2. I have to own up to being one of those perverse people that would play “unsuitable” tracks like SOYCD or Agadoo. I’ve noticed that JBs seem to be far more common outside of major city centres.

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