Ten years previously he had been at number one as the 16-year-old lead singer of
soul octet Sweet Sensation, made famous by New Faces, with “Sad Sweet Dreamer.” The last Tony Hatch production to date to top the charts, the record indeed blends sadness and sweetness in a way that is uniquely British; King sings the song with a passion almost uncomfortable for a would-be child star, even a Moss Side Michael Jackson, against the swirling strings and palais band saxophones which unmistakeably nail the single as Pye Records in 1974, with that very characteristic Marble Arch studio echo. Manchester
But the fame did not last; after one more hit, the band struggled despite many fine singles (especially “Hide Away From The Sun”) and after a failed attempt to gain the British nomination for 1977 Eurovision split up. What became of Marcel King in the intervening years is unclear, but in the spring of 1984 he abruptly and unexpectedly re-emerged on Factory Records with the one-off single “Reach For Love” (FAC 92). Produced by Bernard Sumner, it received enthusiastic, if slightly baffled, notices in the music press but sold minimally, even though it filled the floor of the Haçienda regularly; to this day Shaun Ryder regards it as the best record Factory ever released. King more or less vanished again until his death in 1995 from a brain haemorrhage, aged just 38. Two years later his son Zeus was shot dead in a drug feud; he was nineteen.
Superficially, then, here we have another story of a child prodigy who didn’t, or wasn’t allowed to, fulfil his promise. I am sure the full tale is a lot more complex and less able to fit into preordained storylines. But listening to “Reach For Love” now, it seems like a pop single just slightly out of its time – it should have been a huge hit, but Factory’s legendarily crap distribution and marketing facilities militated against that, as did lack of radio play. There is also the question of whether “Reach For Love” was slightly too intense a song and performance to become that huge a hit. The rhythm and bass lines set up at the beginning thrust themselves forward in a somewhat menacing manner, although their propulsion cannot be denied; Happy Mondays would go on to use it as their 1988-9 rhythmic template. The beats are intense enough to qualify as rock rather than dance; there is an unusual thickness to their solidity.
When King’s voice first enters – “Girl when I first met you” – we could almost be listening to a better Bros, but he then develops a seamless union between grace (the floating stream of “so strong” in the line “Our love was so strong”) and franticity (the teeth-extracting agony of “feel” in “Now I feel everything’s going wrong,” echoed by the emergence of a high-pitched string synth). Then the track lightens for ripples of sunlit electronics to decorate the chorus of “Everybody needs love baby/Ain’t no lying/Everybody wants love babe/We’ve got to keep on…striving!” and suddenly we are in 1990 Madchester half a decade early.
King continues to extemporise on his increasing pain – “I’ve been trying to show you better things,” he exclaims while an icy backing chorus chants “You keep on giving me shots!” (make whatever analogy you will of that) – climaxing in the bloodcurdling “freeeeeeeeeeeze” of “I freeze, baby, at the thought of leaving you behind.” This is vocal control of an exceptionally high level, both technically and emotionally. As the string synths melt into formalism behind him he is preaching to the grey skies: “Girl when you reach for love you’ve got to hold onto it!/Music is the love that helps me through EVERYTHING…makes you hold on, move on…” and his perspective shifts from the girl to music as salvation (“Yes it does,” he whimpers, “Sweet music,” the backing chorus responds). As a dance record it is exceptionally forceful, perhaps too forceful for the general treble-friendly politesse of 1984 daytime radio; and it only ever appeared as a twelve-inch single, clocking in at just under five and a half minutes. Overall, however, there was something just too real about “Reach For Love” for it to thrive in a culture of masks, irony and timidity. Yet it now stands as one of the great pop hits that never was (or hasn’t yet been) and should be sought out and cherished to demonstrate the untapped greatness of this saddest and sweetest of dreamers.