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A Midnight Christmas MessA little history: Christmas music became a really huge deal during the 1940's, and its popularity remained high through early 1960's. Back then, everybody recorded a Christmas album, and often more than one. By the late 60's, thanks to the rise of the godless counterculture, holiday music had fallen out-of-fashion. Try to imagine a Christmas song by the Doors or the Stooges or Janis Joplin, and you'll see what I mean. The 1970's, subsequently, were a veritable desert of Christmas music, where the hippest artists putting out the stuff were ones like the Partridge Family, the Carpenters, and John Denver. I mean, I like 'em, but I'd never defend them as cool....

Anyway, things started to heat up with the advent of punk rock in the late 70's. Punks liked singles, and they loved to skewer traditions, and these factors led to a profusion of 7-inch releases - but relatively few albums. In 1980, there was the cacophonous and profane Yobs' Christmas Album, followed in 1981 by two far more urbane collections, A Christmas Record (Ze) and Ghosts Of Christmas Past (Crepuscule). And, in 1983, we got the tremendous, if brief, Boston Rock EP. All good stuff, but slim pickings.

And, that was about it until New York City's Midnight Records stepped into the fray with three wonderful vinyl albums: A Midnight Christmas Mess (1984), A Midnight Christmas Mess Again!! (1986) and It's Midnight Xmess Part III (1987). These albums hardly burned up the charts, and they were very focused both on the American Northeast and the nascent garage rock revival. All the same, I think their influence exceeds their sales figures. Midnight Records was a tastemaker, and, as such, their Christmas albums helped pave the way for the explosion kicked off by A Very Special Christmas. After that, everybody began recording Christmas albums again - a trend that continued unabated till somebody invented the internet. Thereafter, the annual tide of holiday recordings turned into a veritable flood that continues unabated.

A Midnight Christmas Mess AgainA little more history: Midnight Records was both a label and store. The business had been established as mail order business in 1978 in New York City by French expatriate and record dealer J.D. Martignon. He launched the label in 1983, and opened the record store in 1984 in Chelsea, across the street for the infamous Chelsea Hotel. The notoriously cranky Martignon and his enterprises were key factors in the development of the New York-based garage rock revival that grew out of the seminal mid-70's punk scene that produced the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, and Blondie. That revival, of course, spread worldwide, but Midnight Records never really took off the way similar labels like Norton and Bomp did as the century wore on - perhaps due to Martignon's storied irascibility.

Still, the Midnight label stayed in business till 1993, and the store kept its doors open through 2004. Thereafter, Martignon sold records out of his apartment, before passing away in 2016. Today, Martignon and his legacy are largely forgotten. As for those Christmas albums, they have never been reissued in any digital format, and copies are now hard to come by. After Martignon's death, the label's master tapes were auctioned off, and, with that diaspora, it's hard to imagine the Midnight Christmas albums will ever again see the light of day.

Like I said, Midnight Records is known as a garage rock label, and that was, indeed, their focus, with signings as (relatively) notable as the Fuzztones, Cheepskates, the Vipers, the Tryfles, the Brood, and Plan 9 - all of whom contribute tracks to the Christmas Mess albums. But, as evidenced by the rest of the tracks, Midnight reached far afield from garage rock. You'll find strains of rockabilly (Johnny Rabb), blues (The Senders), jangle pop (The Tryfles), and nascent riot grrl punk (The Sterilles). There's even a track by horror rock pioneer Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who worked with the label for a while, including on a great live album with the Fuzztones.

Midnight Xmess Part IIITaken as a whole, the Christmas Mess series is really impressive and wildly entertaining. These are all-new recordings of mostly original songs, though, bear in mind, the production is programmatically lo-fi. And, the line-up of East Coast bands is now obscure to all but the most fervent garage rock fans. I mean, who the hell were Nadroj & The Wolrats? I don't know, but their contribution, "Forget It" (1984) is a screaming slice of holiday fury that sounds like the Sonics came back from the grave (with apologies to the Sonics who, as of this writing, are still very much alive).

As impressive as the series is, it's the first volume, A Midnight Christmas Mess, that is the real peach and, I suspect, had the most impact on garage rock and Christmas music. The album is packed non-stop with original Christmas nuggets that really, truly rock. Nearly all the tracks are keepers, but the hands-down classic is the opening song, Wednesday Week's "Christmas Here (Could Never Be Like That)." Wednesday Week hailed from Los Angeles, making them one of the few bands on the album not from the New York area. Their song, however, is an askew ode to Christmas in the Big Apple - ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, plastic nativity scenes in store windows, burning trash cans in homeless camps. It's one of my Top 100 Songs, and it's the only track from the Midnight Christmas Mess series to appear on CD, showing up on Santa's Got a GTO (1997) and Ho Ho Ho Spice (2002) - though I suspect both were mastered from vinyl.

The pickings are a little slimmer on the second and third editions - only half the tracks are classics, geez! - but fans of the genre will dig them, too. Songs like the Psycho Daisies' grinding "Santa Is Comin' Down Again" or Das Furlines' manic "O Tannenbaum Now" (on the second volume), or the Crocodile Shop's guitar-fueled freak-out "December Mourning" (on the third volume) are lost classics that, someday maybe, will be rediscovered by rock anthropologists. Probably not, but the Midnight Christmas albums deserved a wider audience from the very start and, had they been released a few years later, they might have found it. The fact that they didn't, and probably never will, is one of the little injustices that make record collecting a fascinating and rewarding pursuit. Happy hunting!

Editor's Note: When I first reviewed the Midnight Records Christmas albums, the record store was still in business, J.D. Martignon was still alive, and the internet was still young. After sharing some of the tracks, I did more research and discovered that much had transpired, and a lot more information was available online. In particular, a Cheepskates-related website had preserved an in-depth, two-part history of the label by Bananas Magazine. Among other things, I also discovered a great website called Shake Some Action about the New York City garage punk scene, including several posts about Midnight Records; a thorough postmortem for the store; and an interesting peek into Martignon's life after Midnight. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Are You Ready For Christmas (Luther n' BBB's, 1987)
  • Celebrate! (Whooping Cranes, 1987)
  • Christmas Dance (Johnny Rabb, 1984)
  • Christmas Here (Could Never Be Like That) (Wednesday Week, 1984)
  • Christmas I'll Be Home (The Vipers, 1986)
  • Christmastime With You (Cheepskates, 1984)
  • December Mourning (Crocodile Shop, 1987)
  • Forget It (Nadroj & The Wolrats, 1984)
  • Gloria (In Excelsis Deo) (Tryfles, 1984)
  • Gotta Get Lucky For Xmas (Johnny Rabb, 1984)
  • Here's What I Want On Christmas Day (Justin Love, 1984)
  • It's Christmas (A Time For Giving) (Screamin' Jay Hawkins, 1984)
  • Last Minute Rush (Cheepskates, 1984)
  • Merry Christmas (Plan 9, 1984)
  • Merry Christmas Baby (Senders, 1987)
  • Mrs. Claus Has Menopause (Sterilles, 1987)
  • O Tannenbaum Now (Das Furlines, 1986)
  • On Comet (The Point, 1984)
  • One Winter's Night (The Brood, 1987)
  • Santa Ain't Santa (Woofing Cookies, 1986)
  • Santa Is Comin' Down Again (Psycho Daisies, 1986)
  • Sleighbell Bop (The Holidays) Star (Cheepskates, 1986)
  • Xmas Time (It Sure Doesn't Feel Like It) (Dogmatics, 1984)
  • Xmas Will Never... (Love Pushers, 1987)
  • Yuh Xmess (Gorehounds, 1987)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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