I remember seeing Level 42 on Top Of The Pops in 1983 doing ‘The Chinese Way’. I was 11 years old and fascinated.
The noise they were making was tight, soulful and yet somehow otherworldly, kind of like Japan mixed with Earth Wind & Fire. They had a completely different sensibility to other British funk bands of the time such as Shakatak, Lynx and Light Of The World.
There was a strange ‘rock’ weirdness going in plus some fairly futuristic synth sounds courtesy of Mike Lindup and Wally Badarou, all powered by the phenomenal rhythm section of Mark King and Philip Gould. Basically, they sounded as fresh as a daisy.
A few years after that (on the morning of Live Aid, actually), I bought my first Level album, the fantastic live set A Physical Presence. Something clicked and I knew they were going to be my favourite band for some time. I went back and excitedly bought all their other albums. I was already a big fan of Weather Report, Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clarke and could hear echoes of their work in Level 42’s music.
Cut to 2001. I was seriously thinking about a career as a session drummer. However, all the gigs I’d been offered had been with horrible sub-Stone Roses indie bands or smooth jazz acts. Then I saw an ad in Loot – ‘Drummer Wanted For Level 42 Tribute Band. Call Nick On…’ My mind started racing.
I called Nick, who would be playing the part of Mark King, immediately. He seemed to be talking from some kind of warehouse. I managed to impress him by mentioning that it would be fun to try and play the phenomenal ‘Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’, an obscure B-side that sounded like Jeff Beck jamming with Weather Report. ‘You sound like you know what you’re doing, mate,’ Nick sniffed. ‘I think I’m gonna go with you. The other bloke sounds like a muppet.’
Even in that first conversation, I had the distinct impression Nick didn’t understand what the hell I was on about. He wasn’t really listening to what I was saying. This became more of a problem later on. But for now, I thought, ‘Keep going, this is going to be good.’
Nick had also got a call from Peter, a keyboard player who lived down the road from me in Chiswick. The three of us arranged to meet in a pub in Hammersmith to talk about what we should play, each making a list of five songs that we felt embodied the spirit of the band. My five were ‘Why Are You Leaving’, ‘I Sleep On My Heart’, ‘Kansas City Milkman’, ‘Eyes Waterfalling’ and ‘Woman’.
Our initial meeting was a good laugh. We were all buoyed by a shared love of Level 42’s music. These were the halcyon days. Nick was an amiable, chubby, meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, wearing tracksuit bottoms and a scruffy polo shirt. He did have a passing resemblance to Mark King, but he had the rather distressing habit of calling all the drummers he had ever worked with ‘f***ing wankers’. He was a builder by trade and his family was from South-West London (big Chelsea fans – another future source of conflict, me being Fulham…). He told us he had attempted to set up various tribute bands before, including a Madness, a Specials and a Police.
I know… Warning bells should probably have been ringing by now, but I was blinded by musical excitement.
The first few rehearsals went well. Nick was a capable bass player and, vocally, a passable Mark King impersonator. Peter did a good job of aping Level’s trademark keyboard sounds. I was initially trying to replicate Phil Gould’s drum parts to the letter and doing a reasonable job. We were going to be called Level It Up, a pun on the song ‘Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’. We realised that we were lacking a guitarist and backing vocalist and hoped we would find a singer/guitarist to kill two birds with one stone.
In the meantime, Peter had got us a gig at something called the Britfest, a bizarre Level 42 convention mixed with some sort of Ukip meeting held in a huge hotel near Bedford. We had only done about five rehearsals at this stage and were nowhere near ready to be doing gigs, but felt we might recruit a guitarist/singer at the gig.
But the omens were again bad – I had contracted laryngitis the day before the gig, and on the way down in Peter’s battered Vauxhall Astra, I realised my throat was tightening up by the second. By the time we arrived at the hotel, I was completely incapable of speech. So much for schmoozing.
I sidled over to Pete, the humourless Britfest manager who was in charge of the live stage, and managed to croak, ‘Where are the drums?’ He gestured towards the stage. ‘There. Being set up.’ Oh shit. An Ikea-like structure was being erected next to the keyboard rig. The dreaded Roland V-Drums. I had never played them before in my life, and the chances of Phil Gould having ever having played them or wanting to play them were miniscule.
We were told we would be playing at 9pm. I peered at the clock. It was 4pm.
Somehow I got through the afternoon with a mixture of regular toilet breaks out by the motorway and watching bass players trying to play like Mark King in a soundalike competition. Yes, this was a kind of hell, and, as David Bowie once sang, there’s no hell like an old hell.
Suddenly the raffle was over and we were on. I sat behind the V-drums tentatively and peered out into the crowd. There was silent expectation. Opening number ‘Almost There’ went by without any big hitches. There was even an enthusiastic reception at the end. They knew we were trying our best. ‘Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind’, conversely, was an unmitigated disaster. My V-drums started faltering halfway through the track and suddenly cut out completely. Had someone pulled the plug? Pete rushed onstage to fiddle with the wiring while I tried to hide behind the keyboards. ‘It’s never happened before,’ he growled, throwing me an angry glance as the small crowd chatted amongst themselves. My throat tightened painfully as I tried to respond.
An acoustic kit was summoned from an anteroom and hastily set up. We resumed playing but the thrill had gone and we couldn’t recover. This was the first real omen that our little tribute band was heading for the skids but I still didn’t heed the warnings.
We subsequently limped along for another four or five months searching for a vocalist. Any vocalist. Someone who’d heard a few Level 42 songs. Anyone who’d heard of Level 42. Nick’s sister Jane sang with us for a rare gig at his Andover local, The Railway Tavern, which went fairly well. Occasional DJ and full-time Reading bachelor Wayne, 41, was hired to play guitar, and he papered over the cracks for a while, but he wasn’t the main problem.
My relationship with Nick was starting to echo the real relationship between the people we were ‘impersonating’ in the tribute band. Phil Gould, the original drummer, chief lyricist and ‘conscience’ of Level 42, left the band when he found he couldn’t communicate with Mark King. Mark looked upon Phil as a dreamer, a romantic, someone who couldn’t be relied on when the going got tough in the music business. Phil started to see Mark as ruthless, someone who had turned his back on the passion for music that once made their band great. The fire had gone, thought Phil; the music had become secondary to the ‘business’.
Ditto our band. Was life imitating art?
Maybe all tribute bands eventually start to ape their heroes in ways other than musical. Maybe it’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you spend many hours in a rehearsal room trying to copy another band’s music with all the man management skills and intimacy that entails, do you naturally take on the roles that characterised the original band?
Perhaps you live out a band’s career in microcosm and somehow the unpleasant side effects unavoidably creep up on you. Perhaps I subconsciously wanted to be in the band just in case Mark King was in need of a drummer and thought, ‘What the hell, I’ll employ someone who knows all the material.’ It’s happened before – Ian Brown recruited a Stone Roses tribute band to back him on a British tour. Judas Priest saved themselves hours of auditions by finding their new singer in a similar fashion.
All I knew was whereas I once excitedly sped along Askew Road in my knackered Golf to play the music I loved, I had started to dread rehearsals. My attempts at suggesting a passing chord or arrangement were met with increasingly bizarre efforts by Nick to change the subject. He was hell-bent on recording a demo CD. I was mystified. ‘Nick, we’re a Level 42 tribute band. Our demo CD is The Best Of Level 42. Why spend £300 on a CD that sounds like a crap version of Level 42?’ He wouldn’t budge.
I think that’s when reality kicked in. There was only one Level 42 and that was how it was meant to be. It was time to cut my losses. I was getting out of the cut-throat world of the tribute band. We’d ridden on the crest of a wave for a while, but let’s face it, the odds were stacked against us.
Yes, we might have played the Railway Tavern in Andover once a month, the King’s Head in Bishop’s Waltham now and again, the Old Red Lion in Carshalton if there was a last-minute opening. But the phone wasn’t ringing, and, anyway, as I found out later, there was already a Level 40-Who doing that circuit.