Though it’s strangely difficult to convince anyone of this these days (though then again, in turn, I’d always wondered who used those mail order record shops advertised in the back of the NME, until I got to University and met some people from remote rural locales who actually did), time was when your average high street record shop wouldn’t neccessarily stock everything that was in the charts. You could live somewhere that boasted an HMV, a Virgin and an Our Price in the city centre, and chances are that both would have three or four gaps in the top forty wall display wherein a red plastic thing with friendly white text on would advise ‘Sorry! We don’t have this item in stock’.
Even less chance, then, of getting hold of anything that hadn’t even come within Mac Band Featuring The McCampbell Brothers-troubling distance of the top forty, but that’s exactly the position I found myself in too many years ago to go into, when John Peel kept playing a mental scratchy disco-funk number by a band named Happy Mondays. And I tried to get hold of it, resembling nothing less than Mr Benn vainly scouting around for a costume shop in the first episode (oh, alright then, JR Hartley), and had all but given up completely when some older and wisers suggested a mysterious-sounding independent shop called Probe. And so it was that, for the first time ever, I took that slight turning off the main shopping street, ascended the suspiciously steep and numerous steps that indicated something akin to a theatre or cinema might lie within, found myself in a cramped and decidedly ‘low-level’ lit mass of well-worn wooden record racks being furtively scoured by people with unkempt fringes that in retrospect looked in danger of having Gene Hunt and Sam Tyler smash through the door at any minute, and left with the 12″ of 24 Hour Party People (the b-sides, in case you were wondering, were the splendidly-titled Yahoo! and Wah Wah (Think Tank)). Playing right throughout this, incidentally, was a record that featured hardcore guitar noises and screaming, overlaid with samples of a desperately concerned Harry Corbett attempting to locate Sooty and Sweep. No, really.
There were, I soon discovered, many other independents knocking around in the area – the endearingly hapless Backtracks, which seemed to fall off the edge of the Earth halfway across the shop floor; the comparatively cavernous Scene Of The Crime, which always had a steady stream of mysteriously exotic foreign language film soundtracks; and the revered Pink Moon, whose fault it is that I own a copy of Don’t Forget The Old Folks At Christmas by Bill Waddington – but none of them quite seemed to have the same sort of allure as Probe. Nor indeed would they become quite so important as a source of musical education, or indeed important to people’s lives in general. Music grouped by unconventional but tangible genres, scrawled annotations and recommendations, and a willingness to take a punt on small-scale offerings by small-scale artists (I’ve still got early singles by, amongst others, Belle & Sebastian and Stereolab with Probe price tags), all combined to push the curious music lover in unexpected directions – who else out there eventually gave in to curiosity over the plastic sleeve containing a sheet of card reading “Hey Sixties-Head – check out the Northern Soul section”? – and it was and still is rare to leave having only bought the item you came for. Plus, without wanting to get too sentimental, more friendships than you’d care to catalogue have been forged over shared enthusiasm for some obscurity pulled out of the racks.
In the early nineties, Probe moved from that record-swamped corridor to marginally roomier premises almost the entire length of the city centre away (and, hilariously, some utter lunatics were heard to grumble that the new look-venue, with its pesky ‘windows’, was too swanky and corporate and actually meant it), and today, to a surprising but deserved flurry of media excitement, it moved again, to somewhere literally between the two. And yes, I was indeed straight there on my lunchbreak to check out the new marginally roomier premises and of course practice my time-honoured ‘double flick’ through the sixties garage and psych CDs. All of this is a roundabout way of saying how utterly joyful it is to see something that the doomsayers would have had you believe should have fallen victim to the pressure of corporate giants years ago continue to blissfully and defiantly forge its own path, and to remind you to look in on your own local independent from time to time. And get Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan’s new one while you’re there, would you? Cheers.