Hooks ‘N’ You: Midget, “Jukebox”

Written by Hooks 'N' You, Music

hooksnyou.jpgRemember the glory days of Sire Records? There have been precious few major labels with such an exemplary track record — the kind that made you feel like you could buy everything they released because, statistically, the odds were way in your favor that you were going to come up with a winner. Sire Records sure as hell fell into that category. Technically, they were just a subsidiary of a major label — they started as an independent, founded by Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer in 1966, then they were acquired by Warner Brothers in 1978 — but still, they were one of the coolest cogs in the WB machine.

Although one of the biggest stars in the world was on the label (Madonna), I didn’t manage to fall into Sire’s gravitational pull until I got my first CD player, but once I picked up the label’s 1987 compilation Just Say Yes, I started buying albums left and right by the artists who were represented on the disc.

If you’re not familiar with the collection in question, it’s no understatement to call it a near-perfect sampling of what was cool in alternative music in the post-new-wave/pre-grunge era, featuring tracks from Depeche Mode, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Mighty Lemon Drops, James, the Smiths, the Ramones, the Replacements, Aztec Camera, Erasure, Throwing Muses, Figures on a Beach, the Wild Swans, Jerry Harrison’s Casual Gods, and even Ice-T. Not too shabby, eh? And Just Say Yes proved so successful that it spawned six — count ’em, six — sequels, with each volume sporting a title that played off the original, including Just Say Yo, Just Say Da, and Just Say Anything, to name a few.

In 1995, however, Sire moved from the Warner Brothers family and went to crash with their cousin Elektra Records, and … well, frankly, the magic was gone. Indeed, I’m of the suspicion that the label itself might have been gone, as I can find no significant release under the Sire banner for the better part of two years; 1996 saw nothing emerge, and the first three-quarters of 1997 only resulted in jazz albums which came out as joint releases with JVC.

But in late 1997, the label began to stir once more, making an unabashed attempt to reproduce its earlier successes by digging for the best and the brightest in rising new talent. A lot of great stuff made it into stores as a result, including records by the Apples in Stereo (Tone Soul Evolution), Jolene (In the Gloaming), Clem Snide (Your Favorite Music), and Taxiride (Imaginate), as well as Rialto’s self-titled album and Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project. I’d have to guess that not a single album in that bunch ever recouped its initial investment via its U.S. sales, but every one of them made enough of an impression on me that they’re all still in my collection today. The greatest impression, however, was made by a trio of lads from Stamford, Lincolnshire, who called themselves Midget.

Midget started off being called the Smokin’ Lizards, but one presumes that whatever they were smoking when they came up with the name finally wore off. The group’s kick-arse live performances led to their scoring a deal with Radar Records in 1996, and their first effort for the label was a two-minute powerhouse called “Kylie and Jason.” Great song, but talk about a title that ensures no chance of being released in the States. (Ms. Minogue couldn’t get arrested here from 1989 to 2000, but at least she had “The Locomotion.” Only an NME-studying Anglophile would offer you more than a blank look at the mention of Jason Donovan.) The follow-up single, “Camouflage,” found Midget on the charts for the first time, and they followed up on its success by releasing two EPs in short order, Welcome Home Jellybean and Optimism.

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Actually, I have to admit that I didn’t really know the details of the band’s discography ’til I started putting together this piece; now that I’ve gone back and checked, however, it turns out that no less than 7 of the 15 songs on the band’s full-length debut, Jukebox, were released as singles at one point or another. If that sounds surprising, keep in mind that there’s a reason they titled the album the way they did; once you’ve given it a spin, you’ll find that most every song on the record had single potential … in the UK, anyway. Here, of course, I’m sure Sire didn’t bother to release any song as a single. I presume someone at the label must’ve selected a few “emphasis tracks” to pitch to radio, but you couldn’t prove it by me; if I hadn’t read a review of Jukebox in some music magazine or other, I wouldn’t have even known it had been released.

My musical tastes haven’t meshed with the mainstream in years, but honestly, there’s so much about this record that could’ve been huge on American radio with just the slightest nudge from Sire that its failure remains utterly mystifying even a decade after its initial release. Certainly, any album that starts off with a song as catchy as “Invisible Balloon” should’ve been worth the consideration of your average Bobby Britpop or College Radio Connie:

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As noted, it was far from the only potential hit in the bunch. Jukebox was skillfully produced by Dave Eringa, who’d helmed the Manic Street Preachers’ first post-Richey James album, Everything Must Go, as well as Northern Uproar’s self-titled debut. He knew how to keep things sounding tough while still spotlighting Midget’s pop hooks. Dig the soaring harmonies and guitar work that open “A Guy Like Me,” not to mention the bouncy chorus. Speaking of choruses, the horns that drive the ones in “The Day of Your Life” will set anyone’s foot to tapping. And I don’t know about you, but when I hear the lyrics of “Ben Wants to Be a Secret Agent,” I instantly find myself imagining a brilliant Bond-themed video:

Somewhere to be, someone to see
Now Moneypenny wants a little bit of me
Dr. No, the double O
The places in the world that I will get to go

Of course, it was all for naught. Jukebox did nothing in the States, and Midget’s subsequent albums — Individual Inconsistent and The Milgram Experiment — received no stateside release. I’ve never been able to afford import copies, so I’ve never heard them, though I did find a copy of Midget’s Japanese-released B-sides collection, The Lost World, in a sale bin. Granted, I mostly took the plunge because it included a cover of “Daydream Believer,” but there are several interesting experiments to be found, particularly the closing instrumental, “Heavier Than a Really Heavy Thing.”

As it turns out, Midget are still alive, kicking, and — once in awhile, at least — even releasing new music. In fact, if you head over to their MySpace page, you can check out their most recent effort, 2007’s “My Infatuation,” which sounds pretty damned good for a band who hadn’t recorded anything new in six years. Based on the time between studio sessions, I get the impression that music isn’t necessarily a full-time gig for the guys anymore, but reports indicate that they’re still getting out there and playing whenever the opportunity arises … and that’s something, innit?