Bought: Virgin Megastore Oxford Street, 13th July 1985 (the morning of Live Aid)
We could all probably name a few live albums but it’s pretty likely that none of them will be in the jazz/funk, R’n’B or soul genres. James Brown’s Live At The Apollo. Donny Hathaway’s Live and Bill Withers’ Live At Carnegie Hall might get a mention, but I would make a case for Level’s A Physical Presence belonging in the same company as those classics too.
Quite simply, this album is the nearest a British band has ever come to the kind of effortless fusion of black music styles achieved by US supergroups such as Weather Report and Earth Wind & Fire. But Level 42 were always a far edgier proposition than those bands, mixing up the funk, world-class musicianship and jazz/rock with an almost punky intensity.
Recorded in March 1985 at such suburban funk meccas as Golddiggers in Chippenham, The Coronet in Woolwich and The Hexagon in Reading, A Physical Presence showed off Level patently on the cusp of their mainstream breakthrough, but their sheer ‘professionalism’ in no way blunts the improvisational edge.
It’s hard to imagine any other British band before or since attempting the audacious fusion instrumentals ‘Foundation And Empire’ and ’88’. The Police-esque ‘Follow Me’ and driving ‘Chant Has Begun’ hinted at a new rockier direction which was quickly jettisoned when they got back into the studio. Mark King’s vocals are punchy, distinct and soulful throughout.
Has there ever been a better British funk/R’n’B rhythm section than Mark King (bass) and Phil Gould (drums)? Bass players beware – this album features a succession of some of the most memorable and inventive B-lines in funk history. Try ‘Eyes Waterfalling’, ‘Kansas City Milkman’ and ‘Turn It On’ for starters.
Phil Gould’s drumming is a perfect combo of groove and chops, whilst somehow also retaining a ‘British’ sound, kind of a mixture of Bill Bruford and Billy Cobham. And keyboardist Mike Lindup gets through so much work that he sometimes sounds like he’s got four hands (with a real Lonnie Liston Smith influence on the Fender Rhodes), and 90% percent of his intricate playing is without the aid of a sequencer.
It’s hard to believe that only 18 months later, after recording commercial breakthroughs World Machine and Running In The Family, the classic Level line-up would splinter for good amidst touring pressures, musical differences and personal issues. But APP is a glorious snapshot of a golden summer and the pinnacle of surely the UK’s greatest ever jazz/funk/pop band.