Level 42’s World Machine: 30 Years Old Today

level-42-world-machinePolydor Records, released 26th October 1985

As a young band starting out in the ’80s, your ideal career trajectory would probably go something like this: get together with a few mates, start rehearsing, get the gear in a van, tour the nation’s toilets, slowly build your audience, get a manager, get the (dodgy?) record deal, release your debut, get on ‘Top Of The Pops’ and then hope you’ve got a career.

level

But it’s one of the rules of pop that some folks can’t handle fame when it hits. To paraphrase Bill Bruford: first you cope with failure, then you cope with success. From Syd Barrett through Ian Curtis to Billy Mackenzie (is it mainly a British thing?), there are always artists who have bailed out when the constant routine of promotion and miming to the hit single becomes too much like a regular job.

The syndrome even affected pop/jazz/funk heroes Level 42, who in 1985 produced arguably their finest album in World Machine, though lost half their original line-up in the process including one of the finest-ever British drummers.

The band’s popularity had been steadily building throughout the ’80s. Though their live following had always been strong and they always had hits, the singles usually seemed like happy accidents – ‘Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’, ‘Chinese Way’ and ‘Hot Water’ were all last-minute album additions based on studio jams. Now their record label Polydor wanted a more concerted assault on the singles charts and a more current sound, and to that end outstanding bassist/vocalist Mark King took much more of a lead than before.

Alongside co-producer/keys man Wally Badarou, the band laid down the most cohesive, streamlined collection of songs in their career thus far with two or three obvious singles at demo stage (though not a view apparently shared by then manager John Gould whose negative reaction to the new songs contributed to him being given the push in a heated band meeting).

Not everyone in the band was happy with this brave new musical direction either. Main lyricist and drummer Phil Gould (brother of ex-manager John and guitarist Boon) had always peppered Level 42’s songs with allusions to psychology, science fiction and esoteric spirituality, drawing on writers like Arthur Koestler, Hermann Hesse and EM Forster, but by early 1985 the pressure was on to deliver boy/girl songs with universal themes.

In an excellent recent interview, Phil has talked about Polydor wanting the band to do party anthems like ‘Let’s Groove‘ and suggesting they do a cover version of ‘Nature Boy‘. He struggled against this direction, rightly surmising that they would quickly become typecast as a clichéd Brit-funk band. Though he did eventually tone down the lyrical imagery a bit on World Machine, he still smuggled in some depth and despair to songs such as the title track, ‘Physical Presence’, ‘Leaving Me Now’ and ‘Coup D’Etat’.

Oh yes – the music. One of the great pleasures of World Machine is its consistency of tone; you can drop the needle anywhere and hear the quality. The band had mastered the kind of half-time funk groove which had frequently littered their earlier work, and the style reached its apogee here with bassists and drummers rushing off to play along to ‘Good Man In A Storm’ (why has it never been played live?), ‘A Physical Presence’, ‘Leaving Me Now’, ‘Dream Crazy’ and ‘It’s Not The Same For Us’ (which was initially going to be a Mark King lead vocal as revealed on this amusing demo). But the sequence-heavy nature of some other tracks (particularly the title track, ‘Something About You’ and ‘I Sleep On My Heart’) also aroused some musical differences in the band. It’s intriguing to imagine what these songs would have sounded like shorn of their ‘hi-tech’ elements.

Level 42 had secured several hits before, but for many people ‘Something About You‘ was the real breakthrough. Incredibly, it reached number 7 in the US singles chart, perhaps inspired by a really good accompanying video. It still sounds like a great pop song today despite a rather stiff groove (is it Level’s ‘Every Breath You Take’?!).

So whether it was a breakthrough or breakdown, or both, World Machine delivered both commercially and artistically. It reached number 3 in the UK album chart, staying in the top 100 for 72 weeks. I saw the band at the Hammersmith Odeon on the – as usual – completely sold-out UK tour. They then went off to the US to tour with Madonna and Steve Winwood. The brothers Phil and Boon Gould left the band soon after recording the follow-up Running In The Family and the classic line-up was no more. Great memories, great sounds, great band.

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21 thoughts on “Level 42’s World Machine: 30 Years Old Today

    • Nice one, Mr VC, I wasn’t aware of the Boosh/Level connection, though never been able to get into that show for some reason. I did read that Julian Barratt of the Boosh is a huge Allan Holdsworth fan though, right?
      Yes, ‘World Machine’ is the frothy pop peak of the band, kind of their ‘Avalon’, but I would also highly recommend the debut self-titled one which showcases more of their early ‘fusiony’ sound, with some great grooves thrown in. Hope you can find something to enjoy.

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  1. Great to see a post on Level 42! So rarely appreciated these days. And definitely their best album – although the next one, Running in the Family, proved to be their commercial peak. Didn’t know ‘Physical Presence’ was released as a single!

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    • Thanks for dropping by, Ad, and totally agree. Yes, it’s weird that ‘Physical Presence’ was the first single, I vaguely remember hearing it on Radio 1 but it really didn’t cause much of a stir. They barely played it live as far as I know although there’s a really good Wembley ’86 version knocking around on Youtube.
      I find ‘Running In The Family’ doesn’t hang together very well now, it seems a bit ‘formula’. What do you reckon?

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      • In fact, I just listened to world machine and physical presence this morning – arguably the best 2 tracks from the album. Can’t wait to jam along these next week when I regain access to my drum kit!
        Quick prediction on my part – do I sense upcoming posts on “So” and “Christopher Tracy’s parade” or is it only wishful thinking?

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      • Nice one JH, sure you will enjoy playing along to those. I will be very impressed if you can nail the samba on ‘World Machine’. I struggled with that during Level It Up, although Mr Gould seems to have simplified it a bit by playing four-on-the-floor kick drum when they did it live in ’86.

        ‘So’ and ‘Parade’? Sure, why not?! ‘So’ isn’t my favourite PG album but it’s pretty darn good, ditto ‘Parade’. Thanks for the recommendations. Will try and unearth some good behind-the-scenes stories.

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  2. I had faint impressions of L42 in imported issues of Smash Hits [?] but did not hear their Brit-funk until “Something about you began to break through in the USA. After that, I bought in and got it all up through the ill starred RCA era with “Forever Now,” when the band seemed to implode. I was lucky enough to catch the band in a club tour for “World Machine” when the last [possibly first?] time the original lineup hit The States. I got my US 12″ of “Hot Water” signed by all members! “An impeccable groove,” indeed! I saw L42 on one more tour, for “Running In The Family” when opening for Tina Turner in a huge arena. My friend and I had very excellent seats and we were there with some younger fans [we were in our mid 20s] who had even brought a banner. The band were shocked at the great response, and as usual, Mark King was happy to meet fans afterward. Especially those who would drop big money on front row tickets to Tina Turner and blow her show completely off afterward! I’ve paid to see Tina Turner twice, but only for her opening act.

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  3. I Had been a fan of Level 42 through hearing The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up), The Chinese Way and Hot Water (the one that really made an impression) on the radio back in the 80s. I bought their True Colours album as my gateway drug to the funk their music represented. Then I discovered their earlier albums such as The Early Tapes and The Pursuit of Accidents. The “A Physical Presence” live album was something a much younger me played a lot of “air bass” to in my bedroom.

    But the problem is “World Machine” is none of those things. The sound has changed. The bass riff heavy songs have morphed into things consciously trying to be 3 or 4 minutes of mainstream pop. The jazz sensibility that this might go on for a while has disappeared. Maybe it made the guys richer but, for me, something was lost. Side two of the record really signals the end of the band that had been before to me. The Goulds, of course, would have agreed.

    “Physical Presence” is my favourite song from this album. And, yes, Phil Gould is a great, great drummer!

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    • Know what you mean, Andrew, thanks for those interesting comments. My induction was very similar to yours, only ‘Physical Presence’ was the gateway album. ‘World Machine’ is certainly a very different kettle of fish to the early albums. In a way, I too prefer the earlier, jazzy sound of the band. But I think WM was a natural progression given the songwriting potential of the band and the technological nous of Wally B. For me, ‘Running In The Family’ was where it started going wrong (though it has some strong tracks on it) and became a formula. It would have been great if they could have taken some time out after ‘World Machine’, settled their differences and come back with a different direction altogether. Now THAT I would have loved to hear…

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  4. Nice tribute – my favourite album of all time. Physical Presence wasn’t released as a single by the way. Something About You was the first single, followed by Leaving Me Now. In the US they released a 12″ of World Machine remixed by Shep Pettibone.

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      • Yeah, the Wiki discog is incorrect. In 1985 Level 42 released two albums. The first, “A Physical Presence” was a live album. The second was “World Machine”.

        The track “Physical Presence” – note no “A” in the title – was an album track on “World Machine”.

        There was the “A Physical Presence EP” which preceeded the release of the corresponding live album but neither this nor the album contained “Physical Presence” the song.

        Trust me, I’ve been collecting the band’s music for 31 years.

        Sorry to be a bloody pedant!

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