Put Another Nickel In

Simon Warner

John Lennon's Swiss-made, KB Discomatic can now be seen and heard with this TV programme and CD, and it's a beautiful thing.

I've heard it said that a Mars Bar provides a useful means of measuring inflation. For instance, if that chocolate snack was around 6d — 2.5p in present UK currency, approximately 5c in US money — during the UK's pre-decimal days of the late '60s then when we extrapolate our graph to the present day and realise that the same chocolate snack now costs about 45p, a little over 80c, it provides a concrete sign that prices have risen some 18 times, or 1,800%, over the last 30-odd years.

But jukeboxes are another handy indicator. I recall in my first university year of 1974 there was a pub in Sheffield that had one of the last machines offering five plays for 10p or 20c. Thirty years later, the British bar that still retains such a feature is going to ask you for £1 for a mere three selections. So if a 1974 listen to a single track was going to set you back 2p, say 4c, a pop fan in 2004 will have to find 33p, or 60c, to enjoy one number in the snug of his local hostelry, at least 15 times the original cost.

However, jukeboxes, like that other glorious example of glimmering American kitsch, the pinball machine, are not as evident in Britain as they once were. Pubs that want to attract young drinkers will have their own, in-house soundtrack, sometimes their own DJs, to play the latest dance floor re-mixes, while pinball's brief ascendancy on British shores ended with the arrival of Space Invaders in the early '80s.

Yet the glories of the sheen and gleam, the sheer aural pleasure of the jukebox, the memories of press and play, have been sweetly resurrected in the last month with the release of a magnificent double CD celebrating the tracks with which one John Lennon filled his own portable system in the heady, early days of the Fab Four's rise.

The story goes that Lennon, no doubt flush with the lavish returns of his young group's success, splashed out on a state-of-the-art jukebox contained in a sturdy travelling case. He then, we assume, carried his favourite sounds around with him in the years that followed. Thus, on entering a hotel room in New Orleans or New York, New Hampshire or New Mexico, John was able to immerse himself in the very songs that made him tick. In the age of the iPod, Lennon's quota of 41 songs plus B-sides might seem a little meagre, but in the mid-'60s such an item — portable music on tap, wherever you laid your hat — must have been a serious object of desire. To be in a position to customise a collection and carry it, almost literally on your back, must have seemed the height of indulgent sophistication.

Forty years later, the Lennon catalogue is available for us all to enjoy, with all the A-sides, at least, gathered on two discs and released to coincide with a splendid British small screen documentary called, like the recorded release, John Lennon's Jukebox. Made by a long running arts series called The South Bank Show on the UK commercial channel ITV, I hope that audiences in America — on PBS, maybe — and beyond, will be able to enjoy this compelling piece of journalism themselves in the coming months. The album is a wondrous tour through half a century of classic rock'n'roll, R&B and pop — "In the Midnight Hour" sits alongside "Be-Bop-A-Lula", "Daydream" rubs shoulders with "Twist and Shout", "Quarter to Three" shares the racks with "Positively 4th Street", "The Tracks of My Tears" cuddles up to "Hi Heel Sneakers".

The premise of the TV show was that the producers would go over to the US and trace those artists and writers represented on the jukebox and therefore identified as key Lennon influences and inspirations, his heroes and his heroines. Some of the subjects were long gone: Otis Redding, Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. Some were barely remembered: Bobby Parker, Derek Martin and Jimmy McCracklin. Others remained quite familiar figures: the Isley Brothers and John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful. Then there were the surviving giants whose 45s featured on the music machine, like Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, who always tend to run for cover and hide from the light on projects like this. Intriguingly, another absentee from the show, Smokey Robinson, one of Motown's greatest singers and songwriters, enjoys a remarkable six performing and composing credits on the double collection.

But the ones who were persuaded to speak to camera — Bobby Parker, Fontella Bass, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Donovan, Gary US Bonds, Ronald Isley — provide some key jigsaw pieces in a compelling detective puzzle. Their words not only offer an evocative re-telling of the impact the new sounds had during that sensational decade from '55, but also remind us how far the tremors of the musical volcano spread. Lennon, a short-sighted art student in Liverpool at the end of the '50s, would mould these musical strands — a guitar riff here, a vocal inflection there, a harmonica solo here, a lyrical twist there — to become not only an international pop star but acclaimed as something of a global visionary during the subsequent 20 years.

The touching thing, the moving aspect, of the TV show is how black artists like Bonds and Parker and Isley recognise that their own distinctive sound, their own creative innovation, became a blueprint for Lennon's personal odyssey. But they do not exhibit resentment or bitterness. Instead, they seem proud that the various tributaries they fed into the stream found their way to the shores of the Mersey and gave the Beatle the impetus to cultivate an Anglo version of the Mississippi moan.

But what about the jukebox itself, a Swiss-made KB Discomatic, 15kg (around 35lb) in weight and not unlike an over-sized Dansette? How did this piece of technological ephemera, this solid-state curiosity, come to be the subject of the public gaze? Why did a mobile jukebox of '60s vintage owned by one of the 20th Century's most famous figures leave its private domain and offer us these fascinating glimpses into pop's evolution? The jukebox came up for auction at Christie's in 1989 and was purchased for £2,500 by a Bristol music promoter called John Midwinter. He then restored the player and spent a number of years trying to sell the programme idea. He died, aged 57, just days before the commission of the TV documentary was confirmed.

It doesn't appear that Midwinter was driven by a desire to cash-in on his prize object. He seemed much more interested in the archaeological gold to be mined in the jukebox's rich seams. A plan to return the Discomatic to the Lennon estate, via Yoko Ono, and to place it in the Liverpool home where he grew up — a residence now managed by the National Trust, a body that protects and conserves historic British houses — is likely to be realised. Watched and listened to in conjunction, the TV programme and CD set, are splendid bookends. Sadly, the notes attached to the album are insultingly brief: if ever there was a case for a 24-page booklet, explaining the ins and outs of this project, this was it. But that is a minor gripe. Taken as a whole, John Lennon's Jukebox is a terrific audio-visual document and John Midwinter's efforts to salvage and preserve this illuminating popular cultural document are to be warmly applauded.

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