It’s a bit surprising in these enlightened digital times to realise that there are still some records (and not particularly ancient ones at that) that are not officially available for purchase. The common assumption with music now is that everything’s instantly accessible: think of a song when you’re walking down the street and you can probably just pluck it out of the ether direct to your phone. This ease of access was certainly not the case in my formative years. Back in the day I seemed to spend most of the free time I had (when I wasn’t playing guitars badly in cellars or making compilation tapes for people who probably wouldn’t ever be bothered to listen to them) wandering around record shops and sometimes record fairs in search of rare stuff. By which I don’t mean bootlegs or live recordings or anything non-official and almost certainly not sanctioned by the artist – what I was looking for were, for the main part, albums and singles that had been released by properly legal record companies but had since been deleted from their catalogues, normally because they hadn’t sold well enough to justify a re-pressing.
So, to get to the case in point. My favourite single of the 1990s, with the possible exception of Common People, is Geek Love by the singularly unpromisingly named Bang Bang Machine. While this is not a very, or even moderately, well known track (it certainly wasn’t a hit), it’s also not barrel-scrapingly obscure – it was after all voted the best song of 1992 by listeners of the John Peel radio show, and he must have had a few hundred thousand listeners at the time. The great man himself was a fan, and a quick look on Wikipedia turns up his effusive tribute: “Even if they never made another record, they’ll have achieved more than most of us do in our entire lives.” I heard the song at the time, but it didn’t really register until a chance hearing about three years ago transfixed me and sent me straight to Amazon and iTunes – it was absent from the latter, and there were only secondhand copies of the 12 inch and CD single available from the former at tea-splutteringly ridiculous prices. Ditto eBay, and everywhere else I looked. I ended up downloading an MP3 from somebody’s blog, which made me feel perversely guilty for some reason as I was hardly depriving the artists of revenue when the work in question is no longer in catalogue, but there you go.
Geek Love exists as a number of different mixes and edits but it’s fair to say that the definitive version is the one that takes up one side of the 12 inch single which has the overall title The Geek. It’s one of those relatively rare long, luxuriantly unfolding tracks that really requires the extra space a 12 inch provides, as opposed to the much more common pointlessly extended versions of perfectly adequate three or four minute songs that abounded in the 80s and 90s. Other examples of 12 inch perfection would include Bela Lugosi’s Dead, and Blue Monday, and How Soon Is Now? If forced to locate this track within a style you’d have to say that it fits closest within the curiously limp and bloodless genre known as “shoegazing”, which involved serious and pale groups of youths with complicated effects pedals and shuffly dance beats you couldn’t actually dance to, and was briefly prevalent in indie circles before Nirvana unleashed Nevermind and gave young people license to both rock out and whinge a lot. Rest assured, this single sure as hell transcends the collected works of the barely remembered Chapterhouse, Slowdive and Curve.
Geek Love starts quietly, with a gentle and mildly accented beat underpinning a stately cycle of chord changes before a lead guitar enters to pick out a nagging but elegantly simple riff. Eventually a high ethereal female vocal reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins comes in, and while you’re pretty sure the lyric is made up of English words it’s hard to make many of them out beyond the opening “float around her” – the effect is however beguiling. The song pulses along dreamily for two minutes or more, and seems as though it may be on the verge of winding down with the vocal dropping out and the instruments sounding more muted when the killer punch arrives: suddenly a full band weighs in, with multiple chunky guitar overdubs and full drums, and the vocal comes back and verily soars. This time the words couldn’t be clearer: “to love/but never to be in love/never to be in love” repeated and taken higher over a haunting and somehow incredibly affecting melody. Samples of dialogue start appearing in the mix, and when you find out where they’re from it makes the track even more powerful – Geek Love is inspired by the 1932 movie Freaks, about a group of deformed circus performers doomed never to forge conventional human relationships. The track surges on, still cycling around the same chords but using them as a base for developing melodic and dynamic ideas, with occasional returns and variations on the refrain. If it didn’t elicit such an emotional response you could even call it prog rock. After nine and a half minutes the track fades out, which sounds like a long time but there’s no doubt the unusual length is justified.
I did manage to get hold of a copy of Geek Love in the end, via Amazon Marketplace, though it took a while before someone was selling one for a reasonable price. I still think it’s a bit of a disgrace that no-one’s ever re-issued it (or even included it on a film soundtrack, where you could imagine it could work very well in the right circumstances). Maybe in the future every piece of music ever recorded, or even thought of, will be immediately available via some Apple or Sky device, but until then…