Level 42 (Every Album, Every Song): the book

‘Level 42 – Every Album, Every Song (on track)’ is my first book and the first in-depth study of the band’s illustrious catalogue.

It features recording information, musical analysis, studio gossip, full credits, stories from the road and contributions from head honcho Mark King and previous members Gary Husband and Phil Gould. The book also places their output within the wider musical landscape of the 1980s and 1990s.

‘Level 42 – Every Album, Every Song (on track)’ is published on 28th March 2021 and available to pre-order via the links below:

UK:

Burning Shed
Hive
Amazon
Book Depository
Waterstones
Foyles
Wordery

USA: 

Barnes & Noble
Indigo

(The book will also shortly be available from Amazon in Europe and the USA.)

Book Review: Kick It (A Social History Of The Drum Kit) by Matt Brennan

What’s your favourite drummer joke? One attributed to legendary London saxophonist/club owner Ronnie Scott particularly sticks in the memory:

‘Dad, I want to be a drummer when I grow up.’

‘Well, make your mind up, son. You can’t do both.’

Though Matt Brennan’s excellent new book ‘Kick It: A Social History Of The Drum Kit’ commences with a raft of such jibes, it does so only to make a point and might even put pay to them forever. The book puts skin-spankers right at the forefront of modern music and is surely the best PR job for the profession yet to emerge.

Though ostensibly an ‘academic’ work, ‘Kick It’ is anything but stodgy or overly-analytical – rather, it’s an enjoyable, fast-paced, truly internationalist voyage through the evolution of the drum kit and status/profession of the drummer, from slave ships to the modern-day, multi-tasking, technology-savvy ‘beat-maker’, via Congo Square, the swing/bebop revolutions of the 1930s/1940s and advent of the studio player in the 1960s.

‘Kick It’ unflinchingly outlines how racial and cultural stereotypes initially hampered the status of the percussionist in modern industrial societies, but also brilliantly describes the vital role of the multi-faceted, ambidextrous drummer in vaudeville, minstrel and music-hall traditions (drummers were called upon to supply everything from rainfall to thundercracks during live performance).

Accordingly, Brennan also shows how drummers’ demands accelerated technological developments both in kit/cymbal construction and recording techniques, and also how German, Turkish and British manufacturers were arguably just as important as the American companies.

Earl Palmer

Brennan outlines the careers and styles of such legends as Gene Krupa (who put the tom-tom on the map), Kenny Clarke (who brought the ride cymbal and kick drum into play) and Earl Palmer, who served as a link between ‘jazz’ and ‘pop’ players, ‘swinging’ his rock grooves on records by Fats Domino and Chuck Berry even as pianists and guitarists were moving towards ‘straight eights’. Brennan also looks at the issue of sexism in the percussion industry, with particular focus on the tragic career of gifted drummer Karen Carpenter.

Later Brennan makes fascinating parallels in the careers and playing styles of first Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, then, in a moving section, Keith Moon and John Bonham (the latter two dying at the depressingly young age of 32 – Brennan fascinatingly explores how both may have suffered from feelings of inferiority and insecurity, not helped by the attitudes of their bandmates).

‘Kick It’ moves intriguingly into the 1980s, looking at the careers of Billy Cobham, Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Neil Peart and Steve Gadd, exploring how recording techniques and drum machines revolutionised percussion sounds, and finally comes right up to the present to investigate how sampling and programming have given drummers a whole new lease of life in the streaming era.

A tremendous achievement – both a history lesson and exciting story to boot – ‘Kick It’ had this drummer newly inspired, rushing to his kit with some gusto and not a little pride. Players will find a host of fascinating photos and stories – the book may also have you questioning everything you ever assumed about the traditional kit – while the general music fan will find an intriguing, fast-paced history of modern music.

Don’t let ‘em ever tell you you’re ‘just’ a drummer…

‘Kick It’ is published by the Oxford University Press.

Book Review: My Life In The Purple Kingdom by BrownMark

It’s a time-honoured music-biz story: The Hometown Kid Makes It Big. Or to paraphrase Bill Bruford, first you get used to failure, then you get used to success.

But BrownMark’s new memoir ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’, outlining his five-year stint as bassist with Prince And The Revolution, has a few intriguing twists to the old story – firstly, it’s a very timely work, since there’s very little documentation about the Inner Workings of the Purple Rain circus (though this excellent new podcast lifts the lid a little more).

Then there’s the added intrigue of the book mainly taking place in the huge, often-underestimated Midwestern city of Minneapolis. The early sections are gripping, a vision of a young man flourishing as a musician, getting by in (racially and economically) difficult conditions, supported by a loving mother and extended family.

He documents the Minneapolis music scene of the 1970s very well, tracing his development from young Staple Singers/Ohio Players/Earth, Wind & Fire fan into the local ‘star’, with lots of talk about image creation in the era of Rick James and Controversy-era Prince (‘Only women had clothes that fit the vibe I was looking for, but I didn’t want to dress in drag’…).

Soon Prince has his number, and there’s a long, strange section on his recruitment for The Revolution (spoiler alert: hardcore Prince fans should approach the book with caution…), and a memorable account of the infamous October 1981 gig supporting The Rolling Stones in Los Angeles. There are some excellent photographs, many of which this writer had never seen, and a fine introduction by Questlove, Prince fanatic and esteemed Black Music documentarian.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is also a cursory tale, a veritable How Not To Succeed In The Music Biz, and it has to be said that Mark sometimes comes across as incredibly naïve, even for a nineteen-year-old. This speaks to something very strange at the heart of the book.

There are missing details that put everything else into doubt – nothing about the status of the offer Mark received from Prince’s management upon joining The Revolution (whisked out of nowhere to join one of the most successful bands of all time, he never discusses terms and then is shocked when ‘cheated’ out of a bonus); nothing about his knowledge of Prince’s music before he joined The Revolution; barely a mention of any Prince songs or interesting musical moments during his time in the band (only Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink get cursory mentions).

The book has a ‘happy’ ending of sorts, ending with Mark’s late-‘80s solo deal with Motown Records, but bizarrely the recent (very successful) Revolution reunion isn’t mentioned. It’s almost as if he wrote it back in 1990, at the height of his bitterness and brain fog. The closing, cursory thanks to Prince almost raises the first proper laugh of the book.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is an absolute must for 1999 and Purple Rain completists and those wanting to know more about the Minneapolis music scene. It’s an arresting piece of social history, often gripping and definitely original, especially in its early sections.

‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ by BrownMark (with Cynthia Uhrich) is published by the University Of Minnesota Press.

Book Review: The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma by Ben Sidran

What exactly does a record producer do? Of course the role covers a multitude of aspects but generally falls into two categories – the techie or the psychoanalyst.

Tommy LiPuma was definitely in the latter camp, a five-time Grammy winner, label boss (courtesy of his cult imprint Blue Thumb) and bona fide music fan who worked in the upper echelons of the biz for nearly 60 years (he died in 2017).

A cursory look through his credits reveals a natural collaborator with good taste and good ears, via key albums by Bill Evans, Michael Franks, Randy Newman, George Benson, Randy Crawford, Dr John, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Miles Davis (who, along with co-writer Marcus Miller, named the track ‘Tomaas’ after him), Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney and Willie Nelson.

Ben Sidran’s hugely enjoyable ‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is the first biography of the producer, and it’s hard to think of anyone better qualified to tell his story. Sidran’s a veteran singer/songwriter and pianist who has recorded over 30 solo albums (including a few for Blue Thumb) and written some key music tomes too, including the superb ‘Talking Jazz’, and he interviewed LiPuma extensively for the book.

The fast-moving, entertaining early sections come over a bit like ‘The Godfather Part II’ rewritten by Lord Buckley. LiPuma’s rite of passage takes him through Mob-riddled Sicily, to grim, industrial Cleveland where shoe-shining and hairdressing seem like his destiny.

But a long period recuperating from injury delivers to him the power of jazz, specifically Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s miraculous bebop excursions. LiPuma thus finds his true calling, and a brief career as a jobbing sax player leads to a short period as promotions man par excellence.

But he quickly realises that production is his true metier, and embarks on a glittering career that takes him from MOR vocal acts (The Sandpipers, Claudine Longet) to classy jazz-related roots and pop projects. Cue a succession of amusing, fast-moving anecdotes: a fabulous section on the making of George Benson’s Breezin’, an amusing trawl through Rio with a blasted Jobim, a voyage to Planet Miles via the Tutu album, a surreal encounter with Willie Nelson, interesting sections on breaking Michael Franks and Diana Krall and finally all the recent machinations of the Universal Music Group.

‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is warm, witty and resolutely un-PC, initially a portrait of the music biz’s bygone Wild West era featuring an engaging roll call of shysters, hucksters and hipsters, but also encapsulating the whole history of modern recording techniques and philosophies. It’s a great companion piece to Seymour Stein’s autobiography. There’s a lot about the business, but it’s always shot through with humour and an emphasis that, finally, music is about people.

It’s also a valuable historical document too as it’s hard to believe there’ll be any space for these kinds of hands-on, ‘daddy’ producers in the future. Thankfully Sidran doesn’t scrimp on the musical detail – there’s a lot of sage advice for aspiring producers and arrangers alike.

Perhaps the key takeaway from the book is music’s healing power. As LiPuma writes to a friend, ‘I might have been on my own at times but I was never alone. When you’re blessed with the love of music, you are never alone.’

‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is published by Nardis Books.

Book Review: Le Freak by Nile Rodgers

One of the few musical blessings of the last decade was Nile Rodgers’ career reinvention.

But the future had looked pretty bleak at the outset of 2010, with serious illness virtually putting paid to his live career and no new studio product in sight.

Then of course there was a well-received guest spot on Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ and a glorious concert reboot of the Chic brand, which went from strength to strength as the decade progressed. So it seems a good time to revisit ‘Le Freak’, Nile’s 2011 memoir (and it accords nicely with my current early-’80s NYC obsession).

The focus on gigging during the last decade has been a distinct volte face for a guitarist/songwriter/producer best known for his studio work with Chic, Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, Sister Sledge, Johnny Mathis and Al Jarreau.

Chic were to disco what Steely Dan were to rock, bringing jazz chords, complex arrangements and subtly subversive lyrics to the top of the charts, but it’s easy to forget how out of fashion they were in the early ’80s, as ‘Le Freak‘ grippingly outlines.

But it’s also that rare thing for a music memoir, arguably at its best when it steers away from the music. Rodgers was born to a 14-year-old jazz-loving mother in late-1950s New York City, and his early life was a jaw-dropping sequence of underage sex, drug addiction and bohemian excess on all levels. His stepfather Bobby, a heroin-addicted beatnik, nicknamed the asthmatic Rodgers ‘Pud’, short for ‘pudding pie’, and used to reprimand him thus: ‘Pud. Dig yourself.’

Soon, both parents were junkies, and Rodgers turned to TV, movies, truancy and illicit substances, finding his own brotherhood of Puerto Ricans and Italians in Greenwich Village. Rodgers brilliantly captures the flavour of this bohemian underground and black music scene that flourished in the big cities of the US in the ‘60s.

There are tales of studying jazz harmony with legendary pianist Dr Billy Taylor, an early gig with the ‘Sesame Street’ house band and notable cameos from Thelonious Monk, Lenny Bruce, Timothy Leary and Jimi Hendrix. Later his Harlem Apollo debut sees Rodgers being chased around the stage by a crazed Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

With musical soulmate, bassist Bernard Edwards, he toured the Chitlin’ Circuit playing the soul, jazz and R’n’B hits of the day, returning to New York to see that dance culture was taking over. Their Big Apple Band quickly became Chic, a black fusion of Roxy Music and KISS, and although Chic quickly became synonymous with the disco movement, their roots in jazz, rock and R’n’B and desire to always include a Deep Hidden Meaning (or DHM) in their lyrics always kept them at some remove from the likes of the Bee Gees.

But things take a turn for the worse when the scene that embraced Chic suddenly implodes and gives way to New Wave, and Nile is brutally candid about his embarrassment that his band (and first solo album) can’t get arrested. Not in David Bowie’s opinion, though, and the extended riff on the making of Let’s Dance is essential reading for any fan of that album.

The passage on the passing of his musical brother Edwards while on tour with a reformed Chic is also moving and perfectly judged, encapsulating Rodgers’ philosophy of music and life.

All in all, ‘Le Freak’ is a fast-moving, well-written, original account of the life of a self-confessed ‘half-hippie, half Black Panther’, and a must for anyone with even a passing interest in black music over the last 50 years.

Rodgers has also intimated that there may be a second volume on the way – yes please. Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Jarreau, Mariah Carey, Robert Plant, the B-52s and David Lee Roth are only mentioned in passing, and it would be good to get the full story of Chic’s live renaissance.

Book Review: High Concept (Don Simpson And The Hollywood Culture Of Excess) by Charles Fleming

Director Robert Altman once said of his classic 1992 satire ‘The Player’: ‘What we show is a very, very soft indictment of Hollywood’.

Revisiting Charles Fleming’s excellent, coruscating ‘High Concept’, one can easily believe it. It is to the ’80s and ’90s movie scene what Peter Biskind’s ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ was to the ’60s and ’70s.

The main focus of the book is Don Simpson, producer of ‘An Officer And A Gentleman’, ‘Flashdance’, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’, ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Days Of Thunder’. He died in 1996 at the age of just 52.

‘High Concept’ explores this fascinating, contradictory character; an egotistical monster who was also inordinately generous to friends and relatives; a rampant egomaniac and alleged sex pest who was nonetheless haunted by his God-fearing Alaskan upbringing; a producer best known for lowest-common-denominator fodder but described by various people as a creative genius whose 30-page memos to screenwriters became legendary. Many also heralded his uncanny ability to find a screenplay’s crucial flaw.

Both the Simpson character and this book feel incredibly prescient. He comes across as half Trump, half Weinstein. There are endless stories that could have sparked a #MeToo moment had Twitter been around in the late ’80s.

He flourished at a time when corporate skullduggery in the movie business was a given. You could get away with anything as long as the studio was profitable. As Fleming puts it, ‘As long as he didn’t kill anyone he was always going to be welcomed back. If he did kill someone, well, arrangements could be made’ (indeed Stephen Ammerman, a doctor, was found dead at Simpson’s pool house in 1995).

Other people very much in Simpson’s orbit included Heidi Fleiss, OJ Simpson and Kato Kaelin. He was ahead of his time but always went too far. Or, to put it in Simpson-speak, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. It’s not enough until it’s too much. Because how do you know it’s enough until it’s too much?’ Fad dieting, plastic surgery, Scientology, junk food, kinky sex, prescription drugs, cocaine – they were all meat and drink to him.

Simpson was also always super-competitive, in the classic ‘Wall Street’ style, from day one. Late in his career, he said: ‘Anytime I see someone come into the business who is smart and talented…and likes to go to lunch and dinner…I know he was failed already. He hasn’t got a prayer. Because someone like me is going to run all over him…’

But ‘High Concept’ opens out intriguingly to look beyond Simpson and explore the rampant egos of the entire Planet Hollywood generation, outlining staggering tales of excess involving Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Downey Jr., Julia Roberts and Charlie Sheen. Only Eddie Murphy and Tom Cruise emerge with anything approaching dignity.

Fleming – an experienced, respected movie writer who has contributed to Vanity Fair, LA Times, Variety and Newsweek – writes superbly, with natural elan and a swinging turn of phrase. Along with ‘Indecent Exposure’ and ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’, ‘High Concept’ is the best book I’ve read about the darker side of modern Hollywood.