Musical Space: What’s Happened to Jukeboxes?

Nov 8, 2016

Jukeboxes used to be cool. In the age of the 7” 45 record, bars and restaurants would rely on them to maintain the atmosphere and keep customers entertained. Singles were chosen to match the mood of the place; each jukebox was a unique mixtape that defined the establishment as much as their burger baskets and fries. 

The songs had value because each single had to be thoroughly vetted before it was given one of the precious slots in the machine. Customers had the numbers of their favorite songs memorized.

But retro jukeboxes are hard to find and impossible to maintain; even the CD machines are on their way out. So they’ve been replaced by internet machines. Now, instead of buying you a physical connection with a historic artifact, your quarter investment gets you an mp3 download from a huge centralized database. Bar owners don’t have a say in what’s offered by the jukebox; one customer can subject the rest of them to any of a million songs. There’s no context, no sense of place.

This gets me thinking about a problem with music in general: too many choices without context. A Patsy Cline tearjerker ballad like “Sweet Dreams” sounds incongruous through earbuds while jogging. But imagine the same song played on a jukebox in a lonely bar, the kind where they keep the venetian blinds drawn so it’s even dark in the afternoon, and then the song makes sense.

So, with jukeboxes, just like any music source, the medium is a big part of the message, and it’s too bad that the message has lost its clarity. It almost goes without saying, but you shouldn’t be able to play a Metallica song in a country bar.

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Listening list: Perfect jukebox 45s:

Should reflect the times when 45s were a thing from 1949, when they came out, to the late 80’s when they lost out to CDs. We’re being hipster here, so we need to have some obscure things. Also some one-hit wonders:

Little Richard, “Tutti Frutti” (1955)

The Tornados, “Telstar”(1962)

Arthur Alexander, “Anna (Go To Him)” (1962)

Blues: Howlin’ Wolf, Smokestack Lightning, (1956)

Patsy Cline, “Sweet Dreams,” Recorded 1963, just before she died in a plane crash.

Dub: Lee “Scratch” Perry, “People Funny Boy.” (1968)

Howard Tate, “Get it While You Can,” (1968) The Complete Legacy Verve Sessions. This song was covered by Janice Joplin and others.

Domenico Modugno, “Volare (Nel blu dipinto di blu).” (1958) Based on a Marc Chagall painting.

Procol Harum, “Whiter Shade of Pale,” Whiter Shade of Pale (1967) Over 1000 recorded covers of this song.

Funk 49, James Gang, James Gang Rides Again, Dumb rock and roll at it’s finest

Cameo, “Candy,” Word Up, Sax solo by Michael Brecker.

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