I first became aware of the legendary jazz/funk/pop band Level 42 in January 1983 when I saw them on Top Of The Pops miming to their hit single The Chinese Way.
I was just another young music fan and burgeoning drummer enjoying the Second Golden Age of British Pop, but this was different: the band was tight, soulful, and yet somehow otherworldly. And their musicianship was superior to other chart acts of the day. For a few years, they were my band.
Cut to 2000. I was embarking on a career as a session drummer. However, all the gigs I’d been offered had been with sub-Stone Roses indie bands or smooth jazz acts. Then I saw an ad in Loot magazine: ‘Drummer Wanted for Level 42 tribute band. Call Nick on…’ My mind started racing. This was the dream gig.
I rang Nick – playing the ‘role’ of famous bassist/vocalist Mark King – immediately. I managed to impress him by mentioning that it would be fun to play The 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’m gonna go with you. The other drummer sounds like a muppet.’
Nick had also recruited Peter, a keyboard player, and the three of us met for a drink, sharing Level 42 stories and trivia. These were the halcyon days. We were all buoyed by a shared love of the band’s music. Nick was an amiable, chubby, meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, a builder and decorator by trade, wearing tracksuit bottoms and a scruffy polo shirt. He did have a passing resemblance to Mark King, but also had the rather distressing habit of calling all the drummers he had ever worked with ‘w*nkers’…
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 the band’s trademark keyboard sounds. I was trying to replicate Phil Gould’s drum parts to the letter and doing a reasonable job. We named ourselves Level It Up, a pun on the band’s 1983 hit The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up).
After only a few rehearsals, Peter got us a gig at a Level 42 convention in a huge hotel off the A303. We were nowhere near ready to be playing live, but felt we might recruit a much-needed guitarist and backing vocalist at the venue. The initial omens were not good – I had contracted laryngitis the day before the gig. By the time we arrived at the hotel, I was almost incapable of speech.
I looked at the live stage and immediately noticed something: no drums. Suddenly two assistants appeared and an Ikea-like structure was erected next to the keyboard rig: the dreaded, electronic V-Drums, with all of their naff connotations to the ‘boooo!’ sounds heard on terrible disco records. I had never played them before in my life, and the chances of Phil Gould ever playing them were miniscule.
We were told we would be playing at 9pm. I peered at the clock. It was 4pm. Somehow we got through the afternoon with regular toilet breaks and watching bass players trying to play exactly like Mark King in a soundalike competition.
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? The stage manager rushed on 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.
A dilapidated 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.
Nick’s sister sang with us for a rare gig at his local and we got someone in to play guitar – he papered over the cracks for a while, but wasn’t the main problem. The problem was that my relationship with Nick was starting to echo the real, troubled relationship between the people we were ‘impersonating’ in the tribute band – Phil Gould and Mark King – whose falling out precipitated the breakup of the original Level 42 lineup.
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 management skills and forced intimacy that entails, do you naturally take on the roles that characterised the original band?
All I knew was that whereas I once looked forward to rehearsals, now I dreaded them. My attempts at suggesting a passing chord or arrangement were met with increasingly bizarre efforts by Nick to change the subject. I suddenly couldn’t shake the fact – revealed to me at that first pub meeting but somehow sublimated by me – that Nick was a passionate Chelsea FC fan (I’m Fulham).
That’s when reality finally kicked in. It was time to leave the cut-throat world of the tribute band. Sure, 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 Green Man in Guildford 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.
Level 42: Every Album, Every Song by Matt Phillips is out now.