From the age of ten I have loved juke boxes. Much of my earliest musical education – Elvis, Chuck, Buddy and the like – came from a red and yellow one in a coffee bar near Mill Bridge in Skipton where I was raised. Some years ago, whenever I was tasked with compiling a weekly shopping list that Mrs Charlesworth might need for a trip into town, I would slip ‘juke box’ somewhere in between the food and drink items, only stopping when the joke wore thin. 

Over and above the music, there was something tantalisingly attractive about gaudy American Rock-Ola juke boxes, the lights that twinkled, the plastic that shone, the chrome that glinted, the curves that somehow reminded me of American cars to be found in ads in National Geographic magazine, low and flat with sweeping tailfins and sleek, flowing bodywork. 

        Not often does your man from Just Backdated find himself spending a weekend in a private house equipped with a Rock-Ola juke box but that’s what happened last weekend when we stayed with our friends Adrian and Lynne at their home in a village a few minutes’ drive away from Bridport in Dorset.

        Adrian has owned the blue Rock-Ola 449 pictured above since the late seventies. Made in the US in 1972, it was shipped to Germany for use on an American army base before it found its way to the UK where Adrian paid about £250 for it from its previous owner. It’s set up to take 25 cent coins (American quarters) but like all juke boxes can be fixed to circumvent payment. 

        It contains 100 7-inch singles, two 12-inch speakers and is very loud. Indeed, the volume is difficult to control and even on the quietest setting booms out like sound systems at Notting Hill Carnival. Speaking of which, it comes as no surprise that almost all the singles on Adrian’s juke box are early reggae, not just Bob Marley, but less celebrated names too, as can be seen from the picture below.

        Perhaps more impressively, when it broke down about six months ago Adrian was told by the only juke-box repair man for miles around that it would be at least six months before a home visit to diagnose the problem could be arranged. So Adrian downloaded the manufacturer’s manual from the internet, took it apart and fixed it himself. Respect. Here are some pictures of the insides and scans of pages from the repair manual.

        While working on his machine, Adrian noted that missing from the manual was information about the device within that logs the number of plays for each record. This enabled its owner to report back to those who compiled record charts based on juke box popularity, which might be subject to fraud if tampered with. “They didn’t want anyone to know how it worked,” Adrian says. “You could fix the charts if you altered the readings.” 

The disc with the yellow ring records the number of plays. 

A bit of research on the internet tells me that the Rock-Ola Scale Company was founded in 1927 by David Cullen Rockola to manufacture all kinds of coin-operated entertainment machines. During the 1920s, Rockola was linked with Chicago organized crime – no doubt Mafia dudes offering ‘protection’ in return for the profits of coin-machines they supplied – but Mr Rockola escaped a jail sentence by turning State’s Evidence, which probably meant he watched his back for the rest of his life. 

           He added the hyphen because people often mispronounced his name – the long ‘o’ is important – and the name of his company was changed to Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corporation in 1932. From 1935, Rock-Ola sold more than 400,000 jukeboxes under the Rock-Ola brand name, some of which were shipped to the UK. One of them ended up at that coffee bar in Skipton, for which I gave thanks every day of my life. 



Considering the esteem in which Nick Drake is now held, there is a paucity of albums by various artists covering his songs. Perhaps it’s because they are a bit tricky to play and sing, or maybe too personal. Some years ago, I bought one called Way To Blue which features recordings from concerts in Melbourne and London, assembled by Joe Boyd, Drake’s original producer, which is superb. Now, along comes another, The Endless Coloured Ways, which is equally lovely.

        Available in a variety of formats, which suggests Chrysalis is rather milking the concept, The Endless Coloured Ways is quite different from Way To Blue insofar as almost all these cover versions are designed to enhance, as opposed to replicate, the originals. It offers 25 Drake songs in total, across two CDs, in four ‘episodes’, A, B C and D, designed to create a seamless flow, all performed with instructions from producer and Drake estate manager Cally Callomon to the artists to ignore the original versions and perform them in their own styles. “We asked the contributors to adopt each song as if it were their own,” writes Calloman in the accompanying booklet. “Not only do the songs stand up as great songs in themselves, regardless of the original recordings by Nick, we believe the results are typical of each performer.” 

        Which is precisely what the artists do, in some cases turnings songs inside out, in others adding layers of inventive instrumentation, in others taking turns where Nick stayed straight. The most notable feature to these ears, though, is how the lyrics seem clearer in almost every song. While veneration of Nick Drake appears endless, if there was a flaw in the 60-odd recordings he made during his lifetime it was his uncertain enunciation. This tendency to mumble meant the words were lost amidst the maestro-like guitar picking and orchestration, so on many songs, oblique as they are, we can’t grasp what he’s singing about. Without exception on this tribute set, all the singers involved, many of them women, enunciate with far greater clarity. Most of them aren’t from the UK either which makes it all the more intriguing. 

        As a prelude, we hear an a cappella verse from ‘Voice From A Mountain’ before Fontaines DC rattle off ‘Cello Song’/’Strange Face’, drums establishing a brisk pace behind a distorted guitar, with Nick or Robert Kirby’s cello part now a choral backdrop as part of a 90-second prologue before the vocals enter. Accustomed over time to hearing Nick’s rather plummy accent, it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear Grian Chatten’s Irish brogue. An extended outro replicates the intro. French singer Camille follows with a delightfully fragile ‘Hazy Jane II, backed by guitar and what sounds like a plucked cello. 

        Elbow’s Guy Garvey interprets ‘Saturday Sun’ in the blunt drawl he applies to his day job, the tempo so slow it almost grinds to a halt with a minute to go, followed by a coda of Lennon-like dissonant noise. ‘Road’, by Bombay Bicycle Club & The Staves, is another brisk outing, enhanced by a lovely acoustic guitar figure, while ‘From The Morning’ by Let’s East Grandma is set to a drum machine and synths, Jenny Hollingworth’s vocal soaring over the top.

        David Gray sings ‘Place To Be’ over a stark accompaniment, as does Stick In The Wheel’s Nicola Kearey on a spooky stab at ‘Parasite’. Aside from when he sings in a higher register towards the end, Ben Harper’s turn on ‘Time Has Told Me’ is one of few tracks that differ only slightly from Nick’s recording, while Emile Sandé skates nicely through ‘One Of These Things First’, complete with metronomic programmed drums. This is followed by a truly lovely reading of ‘Northern Sky’ by Scotland’s Karine Polwart and Kris Drever, perfect harmonies enhanced by a melancholy trumpet. 

        Of all the songs that Nick Drake wrote and recorded, none are bleaker than ‘Black Eyed Dog’, a meditation on depression that dances around a simple guitar figure, at least by Drake’s standards, with spare lyrics and sparser instrumentation that foresee imminent mortality. Nick sang this song in a high, plaintive voice that left little doubt he was singing about his own isolation, the incessant harmonic of his ringing strings and occasional frayed note adding to the tension. Over now to Craig Armstrong featuring Self Esteem who add plenty of echo to the haunting guitar lines, taking the song from its skeletal blueprint into something altogether richer, with double-tracked, whispered vocals, a false ending to herald a slide back to the start, and that nagging guitar figure which on this reading somehow reminded me of U2’s ‘Bad’ from The Unforgettable Fire

        CD2 opens with another a cappella chant, this time ‘Road’, reprised by Bombay Bicycle Club & The Staves, followed by a gorgeous ‘Poor Boy’ by Nadia Reid and the ringing acoustic guitar of Christian Lee Hutson accompanying himself and Elanor Moss on a reverent ‘Which Will’. Skullcrusher & Gia Margaret offer up a delicate ‘Harvest Breed’, as does Katherine Priddy on ‘I Think They’re Leaving Me Behind’ and Norway’s Aurora (aka Njål Paulsberg) on a brief ‘Pink Moon’. 

        There is no better example of the clear enunciation I referred to earlier than Joe Henry and Meshell Ndegeocello’s lovely ‘Time Of No Reply’, enhanced by an alto saxophone. Famous Blue Cable, with Leslie Feist on vocals, tackle ‘River Man’ delicately, played largely on fretless baritone guitar with brushed drums. Liz Phair swings nicely through ‘Free Ride’, Radiohead drummer Philip Selway takes the vocals on ‘Fly’, fragile, almost spoken, and Icelandic John Grant takes us on a mysterious ride for ‘Day Is Done’ before the CD concludes with a reprise of ‘Voices’ from The Wandering Hearts.

        I’ve been playing this CD at home and in our car for the last two weeks, enjoying it more and more each time. If you like Drake you'll like this too.