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JookBoxFury by Kevern Stafford - Novel (Matador, 2009)


Front cover of JookBoxFury by Kevern Stafford. ISBN 9781848760394

I first discovered JookBoxFury when I saw a promotional display for it in Mrs Lofthouse’s Book Emporium (see the Other Websites page for details on this shop) in 2009. It was rare to see multiple copies of any book in this wonderfully shabby shop, let alone new and shiny copies. I wasn’t really in the market for paying the full RRP for a book at that particular time, but when I saw it in Scarborough Library, perhaps a year later, I immediately picked it up and took it to the issue counter. The photo used on the front cover was clearly taken inside Scarborough’s Harbour Bar and with the woman in the photo holding vinyl singles and sipping a bright green drink, I was intrigued, enthused and raring to read. I remember thinking it was brilliant; a funny concept with funny characters. With some of it being set in Scarborough and many mentions of songs and bands that I like, it is a book I have thought about occasionally ever since finishing it. Last year I decided I wanted to read it again, so I went online and bought a copy.

There is always the risk when re-reading a book years later that you find you don’t enjoy it as much as the first time. Sometimes you realise that your tastes have changed or times have changed. Over twelve years had passed since I first read JookBoxFury; would it be as enjoyable on the second spin?

The front cover has a brief description which reads: "The story of popular music, psychedelic alcopops and populating spreadsheets…" That’s three uses of pop in the description; certainly admirable, but it’s not really the story of populating spreadsheets. This is a story about shutting down the PC, taking a break from work, and going on an adventure.

The main character is Ray Mitchell who works in a bland office, doing a job he has little enthusiasm for. Ray is a music fan with a desire for more excitement than what updating the reporting matrix offers him. When his boss’ secretary hands him a flyer – designed like an old punk fanzine – for JookBoxFury, he can’t ignore it. A nice touch is that as readers, we actually get to see this fanzine as it has been scanned and printed in the book. The flyer explains that JookBoxFury is a touring competition designed to launch a new alcopop; Jook, which is an absinthe and greengage based alcopop. In a nutshell, JookBoxFury involves contestants selecting five tracks from a jukebox (one that houses CDs or Vinyl, rather than one that can connect to a massive database) and the audience voting for the person who played the best selections. It appeals to Ray who clearly has something to prove; he recognises that he has devoted his life to music, but has little to show for it. He has never played in a band, he has just been a fan of music and has built up something of an encyclopedic knowledge. Now, he has the opportunity to put this to good use. Seeing the names of the JookBoxFury contestants prompts Ray to turn up for the first night of the tour. He has something of a personal vendetta with one of the contestants; Simon ‘Pony Boy’ Rogers is described as an overly cheerful, often ‘wacky’ radio presenter who plays mostly naff music. Ray had to endure him and his selections in his youth, but now he has a chance to show Rogers what he thinks of his taste in music.

The tour gives the novel its structure and a large cast of characters provide the comedy and the drama. We are given a glimpse of what is to come on the very first night of the tour when there is a problem with the venue and it is left to Rhia – an assistant to the two Jook brand managers – to find an alternative. It soon becomes apparent that there may be a problem with the drink itself. Later in the novel, much comedy is derived from Jook’s psychedelic properties and the problems it poses for the brand managers, particularly Fran who criticises everyone apart from herself when things go wrong. There are nine people involved in the tour and most of the time they are in the same space together. Somehow, all these characters, as well as a host of others, are easily distinguishable from one another.

Part of the blurb, on the back of the book, describes the novel as "like a cross between Seinfeld and a beat generation Top of the Pops special." With many esoteric selections made on the jukeboxes, I can see where they are coming from with the beat generation TOTP idea. Perhaps Seinfeld was an inspiration for some of the comedy, but to me, what’s in the book feels very British. Some of the comedy is casual banter, but some is slightly surreal and perhaps the latter justifies a small nod to the chaotic and crazy plots of North America’s best sitcom.

Whilst most of the novel flows quite nicely, there is a section after the first night of the tour, and before the second, which could have done with a bit more action. There are three chapters which don’t really advance the story and could have been condensed or combined with a subplot to see the reader through to the next night of the tour. Some of the information provided in these chapters is essential to the story – mainly relating to Babs Golightly – and some helps to develop the relationship between Ray and Rhia, but much of the section where they are on the tour bus is concerned with music and its importance to the characters. The latter works best whilst the competition is underway and the characters are making their selections on the jukeboxes. Even when we arrive in Scarborough (surely the highlight for readers of this blog), the story moves forward slowly; there is a lot of talking and because the story is written in the first person – with Ray narrating – there are pages filled with dialogue. Ray is simply observing and reporting on what is happening – which isn’t very much. Upon their arrival at the Scarborough venue, I was thinking, is Ray enjoying this? What is stopping him from returning home? One of the female characters has turned against him and it’s clear that the Jook brand managers only really care about putting the product in front of their target market. The way they talk is so similar to the way that Ray’s boss talks; is being on the tour really better than being at his desk?

Scarborough’s Harbour Bar – named the Blue Moon of Ken’s Tuck Inn (I’m still not clear why) – is reminiscent of the 1950s/60s coffee bars that would have had jukeboxes. This appears to be the only reason why Scarborough was chosen as a location. It would have been good to have some reference to musicians from Scarborough, but sadly not. Fortunately, as the evening’s competition gets underway, so does the story and it’s a fun ride from here until the end. The two remaining venues are, like the two before them, characters in themselves. They are described well and there is enough variation to keep the JookBoxFury contest interesting.

Whilst the plot is not filled with twists and turns, it is engaging. The author creates excitement amongst the characters and we, as readers, can feed off that; it’s a fun journey, powered by the joy of music. There are also questions raised about the future of music; is rock ‘n’ roll dead? Can popular music exist in a world where MP3s offer limitless choices? The discussion around these questions is fun, but no firm conclusions are made. The end of the story is somewhat predictable, but fitting; enjoyable and uplifting.

The merits of this novel definitely outweigh its weaknesses. Whilst it had potential to be more of a romcom, the author was clearly keen to make it more about the music and to celebrate music obsessives. The author should be proud of this book. In writing it, he has undergone a parallel journey to Ray and put his music knowledge to good use. In the spirit of JookBoxFury – marking selections out of ten – I give this novel 7 out of 10. This is less than I would have given it the first time, when I was more obsessed with music, but it still stands up as an original concept and I recommend getting hold of a copy. It could be something to read at your desk on your lunch break; an aid to forgetting about those spreadsheets – at least for a short while.

ISBN 9781848760394

If you can't find it on the shelves in Mrs Lofthouse's then you may have to resort to ebay as the book is no longer in print.

Related Recommendation

Here's a band that should have been on the jukebox at the Scarborough venue in JookBoxFury: Grandads Don't Indicate

There was a brilliant documentary about the band screened at the 2022 Leeds International Film Festival and this Bandcamp release includes songs from the film (and more!)


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