The E Brothers Guide To Jukebox Etiquette 

As Dr Johnson once put it :”When a man is tired of jukeboxes, he is tired of Life by Simply Red”. Or was that Don Johnson? Whichever, his sage words merely underscore the quite tectonic importance of the jukebox to the pubgoing life, which is to say to the national life. But how many boorish users of the magic box fail to observe even the simplest articles of etiquette? A sin as apparently trivial as overselection from Leather And Lace Vol.2 can cause Benatar-related coarsening of the entire drinking experience and might well result in revenge selection. Let the E Brothers, both long-time supplicants at this altar of pub entertainment, be your guides through the minefield of jukebox do’s and jukebox don’ts.


The first thing you have to be aware of is that there are two basic kinds of jukebox doing the rounds in London pubs. The distinction between the two isn’t to do with decoration or capacity or price or range, it’s to do with how the devious machines choose which music to play next. On your first visit to a jukebox-positive pub, it’s wise to try and work out which type you’re dealing with, to minimise the future possibility of song loss. The primary species of jukebox selects what to play next in a pitiless first-come-first-served manner: your songs come up in the order you program them, and then the next person’s songs come up, and so on. This is, granted, a pretty logical way of doing things, and has the advantage that you can make like a DJ and take your unwitting audience on a Musical Journey (or indeed a Literal Journey to another pub). But it has two pitfalls. First of all, because all your songs are played in a bloc, there’s no escape from the ridicule of your companions if you’ve picked a guilty pleasure: it was blatantly you who put on Luther Vandross and you’d better just own up now. Second it means it’s best to get to the pub early if you want your musical say: not necessarily a bad thing.

The second kind of jukebox is rarer and wilier. In a CD juke (which in truth is the only kind you’re going to see outside the sort of self-conscious retro joints no drinker should be seen dead in) each disc comes with a number. This type of jukebox will flagrantly ignore the order in which the songs were programmed and will revert to obeying this numerical structure – a song on disc 37 will come before a song on disc 84, even if the disc 84 track was put on an hour before. To put it mildly, this sort of jukebox will irritate the fuck out of you, but once you’ve identified one you can work it to your advantage – simply work out which song is playing and put on a selection from the discs immediately following. In this way you can get tracks on even half an hour before switch-off time, ensuring at least a pyrrhic victory over your rivals’ shoddy tastes.


Most capital boxes now are mean-minded things offering little bang for your buck: 50p for one song, £1 for three, and £2 for seven seems to be the rule. How much should be offered to the Jukebox God, and how can you best ensure value for money in your selection?

First of all, only fools and drunks – admittedly not the rarest of pubular creatures – take the fifty pence option. It’s a plain rip-off and as such is only used by people who don’t like music in the first place or people who have some desperate compulsion to hear a particular track just…one…more…time…..Like we said, fools and drunks. The former are going to put on either something unspeakable from that one CD you’d jokingly bet earlier never gets played – an Irish jig with sticky 80s production, perhaps – or they’re going to put on a singalong track. Oh, they may know no better but that’s of little comfort when you’re under sustained fiddle-and-syndrum assault. As for the drunks, well, what kind of song do you think they want to hear so badly? That’s right, a ballad. A weepy one. That they’ve played twice before. Judge them not, though: there but for the grace of God go you.

Mostly, the jukebox veteran knows that an investment of £2 is required to get the most out of the machine. That will allow you a satisfying cross-genre spread of songs, and if chosen with care those songs will be your accompaniment for the most part of a pint. What if you feel flush? Well, we’ve both crossed that two-pound barrier and will undoubtedly do so again, but essentially putting in more money at one go is greedy and swinish. The pub is the agora of our times and all citizens must have a voice, etc. Good jukebox form is probably to wait until your selection is over before stepping up again. Of course, if you and your companions each want to hurl a nugget or two into the sonic void, fair do’s, and the above rule is suspended.

Pubs with a jukebox in tend to leave them on all the time – in fact, if you’re in a juke-pub and the machine isn’t on, for goodness sake ask whether it’s working or not before you throw your money at it. If music is playing, though, it’s not necessarily down to human agency. There’s a good chance the jukebox is randomly (or by some devilish selection process beyond mannish ken – either way The Jam seem to come up a lot) running through tracks as an advert for its own existence.

This usually means that as soon as you pick a song the music will recede like a tide and your pick will start. Which in turn means two things, re. your first choice:

i) Don’t pick anything really embarrassing or ‘ironic’ as everyone will start looking at you. If you’re being ironic about music you deserve to be hated, of course, but we have at least warned you.

ii) Don’t pick anything short. You’ll still be choosing stuff by the time it’s finished and you’ll in essence have missed out on a selection.


Luckily there’s always almost a way round the second problem, and here we introduce the concept of the value for money song. VFM Songs are long – sometimes absurdly long – and act as a buffer zone between the music starting and you sitting back down to enjoy it: almost every jukebox will have a few. But use them with care – long songs are generally not so for any very good reason and you stand a fair chance of boring the skull off everyone in the pub. For the same reason, don’t put a VFM song on just because it’s there.

VFM songs vary widely. For a while I would kick off proceedings with The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, which is very long but sadly also a bit silly. “American Pie” is a predictable and grim favourite of the sensible-slacks set, and the best juke I ever knew had the full-length Weatherall mix of “Come Together” on it. To be honest you’re probably safest with anything that lasts five minutes or so – beyond lies only trouble. Several jukeboxes have a scary Pink Floyd album called A Collection Of Great Dance Songs (oh! the wit of them!) which will do the trick and then some, but at the price of your immortal soul (see also bring-down songs). The most suicidal VFM-bait I ever saw was a pub in Oxford which featured both discs of that monsterpiece of hash-ridden pointlessness, Orb Live 93, with tracks measurable only in geological time. (Flash Fact: That title reverses to Evil Bro 39, which the band claimed was a hidden political statement about Hitler. Mmm.)


Helmets secured, chaps? Bible in your top pocket? Tear-stained letter from your sweetheart crumpled likewise? Well then, time to go over the top and into the minefield of song-picking. You’ve chosen your VFM song and time is now a-ticking as you select six other tunes – what principles should you follow?


The joy and pain of jukeboxing is its status as a social pursuit, in other words you are at the mercy of your fellow punters’ tastes. That’s the pain bit. But they are also at the mercy of yours. That’s the joy bit. So it is that one of the most common temptations for the juke maven is Revenge Selection: the elitist and snobbish act of judging the previous user’s taste on five or six tracks and then putting on records designed to piss them off. Strictly speaking we do not recommend this childish and vindictive pursuit, but then strictly speaking we don’t recommend wasting money on a jukebox in the first place. To tactics!

Let us consider the psychology of people who put cash into pub jukeboxes (Freaky Trigger-reading hipsters aside). They are people who like music. What does this mean? As if you don’t know: almost invariably it means they like Proper Music – you know, with Songs, and sung in an Affected Bluesy Accent. Dammit, let’s name names – they all like Weller. Every pub jukebox has a Paul Weller CD. Every pub has customers who will play it. And hey, people who like Weller aren’t mugs. They know that 3 songs is better value than one. So they put on Ocean Colour Scene’s “Traveller’s Tune” and something by the Doors, too, and then they go back to their seats for a good old nod.

There are two objections to this ranting. First objection – what’s wrong with Weller? Ah, well now. His music is overdetermined try-hard blues-rock mulch, he thinks that gobbling a gravel pit will make his voice soulful, and he’s elevated out-of-touch grumpiness to some kind of fashion statement. Objection over-ruled.

Second objection – this is just crass stereotyping! What if the previous user put on lots of that bangin’ dance music the youngsters enjoy so much these days? Well then, you’d reach for the 70s Arena Rock, obviously. But trust us – in general the situation doesn’t arise. No matter how cavernous certain chains try and make their pubs, people do not go to boozers for the purposes of largin’ it. If these people wanted to hear monster nosebleed techno-disco, then they would be out getting pilled in Fabric or wherever.

(BE A DANCE JOURNALIST WITH FREAKY TRIGGER: It’s easy. Simply take any noun – look around your room for inspiration – and add the prefix “getting” (optional) and the suffix “-ed” (not optional) and bingo, you’ll be writing club reviews for Mixmag in no time. Try these for starters – “Pez was out last night getting completely speakered”; “You should have seen Goz – he was well trammed”; “Flamin’ Nora, Wug, you’re absolutely desking it!” Well, maybe not.)

Not that pubs have learned that people don’t like dance music on jukeboxes. First off there’s some glorious statutory rule that every jukebox must have the last few Now! Cds, so that even in the most Mojo-esque environment you can still get a good selection of bouncy Chart tat. (This doesn’t apply in Goth and Metal pubs, which all have special black jukeboxes the owners built from kits. Approach with care if at all.). And also, hidden away on even the most staunchly rockist box there tends to be Ibiza Trance Brute VIII as mixed by the Blockster et al, forgotten and unplayed since 1996, waiting for your keypress to return it to unholy stomping life, the perfect avenger for a half-hour dose of Paul. The only word of warning we need offer is that no jukebox anywhere comprehends the idea that dance songs have different mixes, so if you’re putting one on you may well end up with (Shuffly Faff Mix) or (Arsebag’s Dub). Such is the way of the beat.


Track X is the secret revenge weapon of any selection veteran, a jukebox equivalent of the special move. Every box contains a Track X: sometimes you have to work for it, but it’s there. The theory runs as follows: musicians are either clever or stupid. The clever ones are insecure, neurotic about their fated role of peddling mere entertainment to the pap-swilling mass – they seek to ‘challenge’ their audience. The stupid – or stupidly rich – ones just want to make a fucking huge racket and put dumb noises on a CD. Either path leads to Track X, that one song – almost always an album track – which by chance or by design can baffle or appal a whole pub, and which nobody except you realises is there. An example: the second Stone Roses album is a notorious partykilling bore (sorry, on this one received wisdom is right) – and yet on track 97 lurks an extraordinary instrumental track wherein the drug-ravaged non-saviours of British rock ‘go country’ by miking up a rocking chair, swinging on it and saying “Yee-Ha” for six minutes. You see the CD, you know it’s there, you know you shouldn’t – nay mustn’t – play it, but still you do. Classic Track X.

(Sometimes it’s actually too easy: the same pub which had “Come Together” also had Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads which has the distinction of being an album made up almost entirely of Tracks X. I confined myself to the epochally sweary “Stagger Lee”.)


Let’s see if we’ve got this right. As your speed approaches the constant c, that being the speed of light, your mass increases towards the infinite. Similarly, as your drunkenness approaches the constant d, that being the moment when you disgrace yourself, your music taste likewise approaches the infinite. An inebriate will ultimately like anything, particularly if there’s something on his mind. Something…personal.

Jukeboxes and heartbreak were made for each other, though, and there’s no shame in putting on tracks you can wallow around in like the great grieving hippo you are. It’s possibly not a good idea to advertise the fact, but if you’ve been hit that bad you’ve no doubt found ways of bending the conversation to your morose will anyhow. No, those songs are or were – (sniff!) – Your Songs, so go for it. Two quick points, though:

One. Every harmless ballad is somebody else’s Our Tune, so beware. Even the most absurdly unromantic of records may have soundtracked that Special Grope in the back of a second-hand Fiat: if whimsical pomp-sludge like “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” can get called ‘romantic’, anything can. If the bond the tune signified has since been severed, you don’t need to hear about it. If the bond hasn’t been severed, you definitely don’t need to hear about it. And fair’s fair, if someone puts on your own favourite bit of Lover’s Gabba, a discrete “Oh, I (used to) really like this.” will do, OK?


Two. There exist songs which it is never a good idea to play, as even if they didn’t soundtrack every break-up around the table, they surely should have done. These are the bring-down songs, best heard at 4AM if at all, and it is our sad duty to report that in the late 90s they have bred like flies on a suicide’s corpse. You could blame “Creep” if you liked, but “Creep” has the advantage of being funny. Ish.

Radiohead, though, are indeed kings of the bring-down. Now is not the place for an argument over their merits, but even the contrariest of souls would be hard-pressed to claim OK Computer rocks the party all night long. But there it is, on every jukebox in Britain, calling out to pubgoing lost souls and killjoys who grope for their money and – inevitably – put on “Paranoid Android”. Yes, yes, a magnificently constructed tripartite boundary-breaking masterpiece of soul-searing spectral beauty, hem hem, but it’s still choke-on-your-beer miserable.

We’ll admit it, we’re hypocrites. Many is the time when the Admiral Nelson in Wood Green resounded to the jolly strains of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, and the whole pub would gather round the old joanna for “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. And just wait until the Manics put a best-of out. Even so, sticking to one bring-down track per jukebox helping is probably for the best.

Undisputed champion of the bring-down genre is “The Drugs Don’t Work”, which of course shot to Number 1 when Princess Diana died, thus burning itself into Britain’s synapses and guaranteeing it a place on jukeboxes everywhere until the machines gain robot life and wipe such maudlin junk from their memories. “The Drugs Don’t Work” is particularly virulent because it’s so well-known it almost qualifies as a singalong.

The selection of a singalong is the worst of jukebox crimes, the final refuge of the imagination-free. There are thankfully very few of them around – to be a singalong song the entire pub must know the words (or at least the chorus) and be of a mind to join in. To return to the late Princess, everybody knows “Candle In The Wind”, but it’s not likely to induce ghastly swaying and beery good fellowship, so it’s not a singalong, whereas the unspeakable “Don’t Look Back In Anger” is – even the drunkest of wretches can manage a hearty “Soooooooooooooo sallihcudwud!” at the chorus. Oasis’ tune indicates another ideal characteristic of the singalong – its original singer should be so characterless and blokey that it’s obvious anyone could and should have a pop at it. That’s why the singalong sovereign is and always will be “Three Lions”, at least so long as England are plucky yet mediocre at football.


All good things come to an end, even this article. And every jukebox has a shut-down time. It’s best to advise yourself of this early, of course, but on the other hand it doesn’t really matter. After all, if you’re in the pub late enough for the jukebox closedown to matter, you’ll most likely be more than able to persuade yourself there’s time for another three. Sheer hubris – in the eternal battle between punter and bartender there can only be one victor, and so you will find the music cuts out in the middle of a song, in fact just before ‘that really good bit’. Do not rage against your fate, there will be other evenings and other jukeboxes. Go in peace. So say the E Brothers.