How Not To Follow Up A Hit Album #3: Level 42’s Staring At The Sun

level Polydor Records, released September 1988

Bought: Our Price, Leadenhall Street? 1988

4/10

‘Breaking America’ was the goal of many a 1980s Brit pop band. For some, like Culture Club, Tears For Fears or Scritti Politti, it was somewhat of a doddle, the result of a breakout hit single, great video, great image or combination of all three. But for others, it was a pretty nebulous, elusive concept.

Level 42 had made a great start (albeit five years into their career) when their 1985 single ‘Something About You’ breezed into the US top 20 and they found themselves touring with Madonna and Tina Turner as well as playing umpteen one-nighters. But their hard work seemed to be producing diminishing returns in terms of US chart action, even while they continued to take Europe by storm.

The departure of drummer Phil Gould from the band at the beginning of 1988 was not exactly a surprise to Mark King, Mike Lindup and manager Paul Crockford; Gary Husband, his eventual replacement, had been waiting in the wings at the first sign of discord during late 1986, but wasn’t officially announced as a new member until early 1988. The departure of Phil’s guitarist brother Boon was more unexpected.

But this clearing of ‘old wood’ was the chance to really make a concerted effort to court the US market and deliver a Stateside album hit. ‘87’s Running In The Family had been a massive success and proved they could mix it with Europe’s best. Staring At The Sun was the opportunity for Level 42 to do a Sting, Chris Rea or Bryan Adams. But it didn’t quite go to plan…

The album was recorded during spring 1988 in the beautiful Provencal environs of Miraval in France. ‘Fifth member’ Wally Badarou co-produced with King alongside Julian Mendelsohn, the engineer on World Machine. In the absence of Boon Gould (though he did write lyrics to almost all the tracks), Mark King played most of the guitars with occasional contributions from sessionmen Dominic Miller (briefly a member of Level 42 in 1980) and Alan Murphy, who was subsequently offered the official guitar spot in the band.

But, even as a Level-mad 15-year-old, I picked up something iffy about Staring At The Sun from the word go. Mark King’s bass playing was ultra-tasteful – almost to the point of anonymity – and almost always doubled with synth bass. Boon Gould’s catchy guitar hooks were much missed. And it was always going to take a while to get used to Husband’s drumming. A brilliant, rock-solid player though he is, compared to Gould his grooves feel rather leaden.

And then there’s the songwriting. ‘Heaven In My Hands’ was a decent single and album starter – memorable, bombastic and musically rich with a cracking Murphy guitar part, but it feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to ‘rock’ and subsequently underperformed in the UK (number 12) and US (didn’t chart). Steve Barron directed a fine video. ‘I Don’t Know Why’ is possibly the nadir of the band’s career, a puny piece of pop/reggae from the bottom of The Police’s demo cassette box. ‘Over There’ is a departure for the band (being in 6/8) but is based on the flimsiest of King strummed-bass chord progressions.

‘Take A Look’ is a fine single though, a deceptively jaunty piece, full of clever melodic modulations and enigmatic major/minor chord changes, hinting at great depths lyrically with its tale of a happy-go-lucky, naïve protagonist derailed by a doomed love affair (given a weird twist for the song’s video).

Lindup’s ‘Silence’ is passable, though again far too musically pat. The title track and ‘Two Hearts Collide’ barely register. ‘Man’ is by far the best track on Staring At The Sun, featuring a good melody, some brilliant ‘talking’ bass from King, a few witty musical homages to his heroes The Mahavishnu Orchestra and even a soupcon of prog-rock attitude.

The album was a hit in the UK, reaching number 2, but didn’t make the top 100 in the States. A botched Polydor marketing campaign may have contributed to that. The cover art is beautiful though (anyone know the designer?). A friend of my brother’s had a theory that Staring At The Sun was a concept album about a Buddhist ‘journey of the soul’ – maybe the cover lends some credence to that…

Mark King himself was possibly underwhelmed by Staring At The Sun – a Sun article quoted him as saying that it was a ‘waste of vinyl’ (though he later claimed a ‘misquote’…). He was also less than chuffed with some audience reactions to the new material when the band toured the album – this writer heard him tell the Wembley Arena crowd to ‘f**k off home’ after a few encores of old hits!

But the whole Staring At The Sun debacle did produce a classic documentary, ‘Fait Accompli’, a fascinating snapshot of the late ‘80s record biz (check it out below, it’s brilliant). One can only feel pity for the pretty clueless Polydor bean counters and marketing men (they do all seem to be men). As Love And Money’s James Grant told movingtheriver.com, in the late ‘80s, when PR and marketing were taking hold in the music business, people would have nervous breakdowns over bad business decisions. It seems a few were taken over Staring At The Sun.

Maybe Mark King and Mike Lindup should have taken stock and had a break at the beginning of 1988. It was certainly a challenging, life-changing split when the brothers Gould jumped ship. But it’s hard to stop a commercial juggernaut once it starts rolling. Level 42 eventually got back on track for Staring At The Sun’s follow-up, 1991’s Guaranteed, though sadly at the expense of guitarist Alan Murphy – who tragically died in 1989 – and also their Polydor recording contract. It was time for another new start.

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How Not To Follow Up A Hit Album #2: Tears For Fears’ The Seeds Of Love

courtney pineFontana Records, released 25th September 1989

Bought: Oxfam Notting Hill?!

4/10

Tears For Fears’ second album Songs From The Big Chair did the business. A relatively cheap record to make, it sold millions and elevated the Bath boys into the big league.

Early ‘80s technology, boy-band looks and some great hooks had carried TFF through the first two albums but now they felt they had to deliver a polished, ‘musicians’ album’ to match their heroes. Big mistake…

The Seeds Of Love was the result, and with it they tragically o’erreached themselves in the search to emulate their heroes Gabriel, Ferry and Sylvian. Four producers. Nine studios. Over a million pounds in studio costs. Broken marriages. Dozens of session musicians.

A famous Q article outlined the painful, sometimes embarrassing lengths the two protagonists Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith went to to complete Seeds. Orzabal said he wanted to make something musicians would love, something ‘world-class’. This over-egged curio shows what happened when pop stars tried to buy credibility in the late-‘80s, undeniably under a fair amount of record company pressure to follow up a monster.

The intro of ‘Woman In Chains’ still retains some Blue Nile-ish power before being obliterated by Phil Collins’ sledgehammer drums and overblown AOR guitars; Gabriel/Joni/Sting drummer Manu Katche plays a blinder on ‘Badman’s Song‘ but the melodies barely register; ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ still stands up though as a decent Beatles tribute complete with some lovely woozy drums from Big Chair producer and ex-Ant Chris Hughes and a very cool chord sequence.

Standing On The Corner Of The Third World’ is initially very attractive complete with Jon Hassell’s ethno-trumpet and some typically slinky fretless playing from Pino Palladino, but its grand atmosphere and ambience can’t obscure the lack of structure and good ideas; ‘Swords And Knives’ starts with an interesting piano/voice melody but quickly gets mired in a succession of annoying guitar solos and grandiloquent key changes.

Year Of The Knife’ (these boys really like knives…) is a pretty ugly collision of gospel vocals and a sub-‘Broken Wings’ groove. Again, the song runs out of stream after two minutes and tries to cover it up with a fiddly string arrangement and weird avant-metal guitars. Even uber-drummer Simon Phillips sounds uninspired.

The Q article, September 1989

The Q article, September 1989

Orzabal almost achieves a Sylvian-ish level of sophistication on the closing ‘Famous Last Words’ but once again blows it, neglecting to supply a B section or cogent lyrics. Quiet/loud dynamics alone do not a good song make.

The album was a hit, going straight to number one in the UK and selling well in Europe and the States, but was it worth all the effort? Orzabal and Smith were barely on speaking terms and didn’t record together for over a decade after Seeds‘ completion. It was certainly a big and bold farewell to the ’80s from one of the decade’s success stories.

How Not To Follow Up A Hit Album #1: ABC’s Beauty Stab

abcMercury Records, released 14th November 1983

Bought: Notting Hill Record and Tape Exchange, 2006?

6/10

The ’80s were positively dripping with fine debut albums but equally cursed with a lot of substandard sophomore efforts. As the music biz cliché goes, you have your whole life to come up with your first album but only six months to make the followup.

ABC could hardly have got it more right with their 1982 debut Lexicon Of Love, a ravishing collection of string-drenched, post-disco torch songs, but they came seriously unstuck with Beauty Stab a year later.

martin fry

Martin Fry in 1983

Seen as ‘ABC go heavy metal’ by much of the music press at the time of release, these days Beauty Stab just sounds like a pretty tuneless but beautifully-produced rock/pop album with the odd ‘political’ lyric and barmy moment thrown in (the jazz-waltz interludes in ‘Love’s A Dangerous Language’, cacophonous finale to ‘That Was Then’, atonal strings that kidnap ‘Bite The Hand’ and Martin Fry’s astonishing rhyming couplets throughout…).

Though by no means heavy metal, the guitar playing is pretty unreconstructed throughout and seems to be searching in vain for some Robert Frippery.

But the album is thankfully graced with Roxy/Lennon/Sly drummer Andy Newmark, whose playing is lovely, especially on the very Avalonesque ‘If I Ever Thought You’d Be Lonely’. Co-producer and future Art Of Noise member Gary Langan does a great job too, in the main eschewing ‘80s production values in favour of a dry, ballsy mix and some strikingly original touches.

The problem is, for all its undoubted craftsmanship, amusing lyrics and faux grittiness, the album is short on memorable choruses. ‘Hey Citizen’, ‘King Money’ and ‘Power Of Persuasion’ have classic ABC hooks but fail to deliver catchy B-sections.

A quick survey of the track titles and it’s almost impossible to remember a chorus, save the opening ‘That Was Then…’, and that spells trouble. Unsurprisingly the album works best when the guitars simmer down a bit and Fry’s vocals take centre stage, as on ‘By Default By Design’ and fine state-of-the-nation closer ‘United Kingdom’ – you’ve got to hear Fry crooning the words ‘Barratt Homes’…

Commercially, Beauty Stab was not an outright disaster, reaching number 12 in the UK album chart and selling over 100,000 copies, but it was a big disappointment after such a successful debut. Acclaimed music writer Simon Reynolds even went as far as to call it ‘one of the great career-sabotage LPs in pop history’.

In late-1983, Britain was turning its back on back on guitars and kitchen-sink lyrics; glamour and fun were back in, typified by Wham!, Howard Jones, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, all of whom cashed in on the vibe and musical exuberance of Lexicon Of Love.

At the end of ’83, Fry famously burnt his gold suit in protest. Maybe that wasn’t such a great idea. But, happily, the decline wasn’t terminal – he returned with some big hits later in the decade.