Level 42’s ‘Level 42’: 35 Years Old Today

levelPolydor Records, released 1st August 1981

Here’s another key exhibit to support the motion ‘1981: The Greatest Ever Pop Year’. When three caulkheads – bassist/vocalist Mark King and brothers Phil (drums) and Boon Gould (guitar) – hooked up with keyboardist/vocalist Mike Lindup in London, they were fairly speedily signed to indie label Elite Records.

After adding their ‘fifth member’ Wally Badarou – who had just begun his epochal keyboard work with Grace Jones – they released the ‘Love Meeting Love‘ 12” single in the summer of 1980. It got the attention of Polydor, who speedily re-released it and then the follow-up ‘Flying On The Wings Of Love‘. Both stalled outside the UK top 40 but there was suddenly a massive industry buzz about this band.

At this stage in their career, Level 42 were very much lumped in with the new wave of Brit-funk and jazz/funk bands, leading to an instant following, lots of noisy club gigs and many a provincial Soul Weekender alongside ‘Funk Mafia’ DJs with nicknames like Froggie and Wolfie. None of this harmed Level’s popularity, though in truth they had little in common with the dancefloor scene – their sound was a much edgier proposition, with more guitar, a distinct jazz/rock influence and a punky energy. As one fan apparently commented to Boon after a November 1980 all-dayer supporting Shakatak: ‘We didn’t expect Status Quo’. No matter – Polydor signed them to a five-year deal soon after that gig.

Legendary Bluesbreakers/Fleetwood Mac producer Mike Vernon was chosen to helm their debut album – Mark King was apparently most impressed that he had worked on Focus’s Moving Waves. Vernon turned out to be a superb choice. They all convened first at the very haunted Vineyard Studios in South-East London (later owned by Stock, Aitken and Waterman) to record ‘Love Games’. It gave them their first hit in March 1981, scraping into the UK singles chart at number 39, and leading to their first appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’.

But these guys lived and breathed music. Though songwriting didn’t come particularly easy early on in their career, there was an infectious, thrilling, percussive propulsion to their sound. It helped that they were all drummers (with the exception of Boon Gould). Obvious influences such as Return To Forever, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Stanley Clarke merged with less obvious ones like Yes and Fairport Convention (mainly Phil Gould’s passions) to produce a very tasty brew, naturally easy on the ear. And after barely a year of singing, Mark King’s vocals were even starting to match his prodigious talent on the bass.

Level 42 presents a great variety of material littered with intricate, memorable arrangements. Wally Badarou’s mastery shines through throughout the album but especially on ’43’ – on the right channel, he sprinkles in shards of Prophet 5 synth, almost taking on the role of rhythm guitarist.

Why Are You Leaving‘ is a superb quiet-storm ballad, not unlike something George Benson might have come up with in the Breezin’ era. Stanley Clarke is a towering influence – ‘Heathrow’ nicks the ‘Lopsy Lu’ shuffle (and also features a fantastic Gary Barnacle electric sax solo) while ‘Dune Tune‘ rather spiffingly riffs on ‘Desert Song’ from Clarke’s classic School Days album. Phil Gould’s sparkling glockenspiel solo on ‘Starchild’ only emphasised how versatile the band really were.

slipstream

Level 42 is also a decidedly more lush and expensive-sounding album than any other ‘Brit-funk’ band managed to produce. The evidence is Slipstream, a compilation which featured the band’s ‘Turn It On’ alongside other contemporary bands such as Light Of The World, Freeez, Morrissey Mullen and Incognito. The Level track sticks out a mile.

Level 42 reached number 20 in the UK album chart, apparently a pleasant surprise to Polydor. Two UK tours followed in quick succession before they embarked on a seven-date German trip supporting The Police, which, by all accounts, didn’t go particularly well. During one gig, a firecracker was hurled in the general direction of Mark King, lodging itself between his bass and elbow. Looking down, he recoiled from the mic in horror, believing he had been shot!

Despite Level 42‘s solid chart placing, there was still uncertainty about the future of the band – King was headhunted by Jeff Beck for a possible power trio with Simon Phillips on drums, and a few jam sessions ensued. Also, Barnacle’s band Leisure Process had recruited Mark and Phil for their upcoming album and there was talk of the them making the permanent switch. Thankfully, neither project materialised – one of the great bands of the 1980s were back in business. Next stop: The Pursuit Of Accidents.

Advertisements

Getz Meets Grover: Sadao Watanabe’s Maisha

sadaoElektra Records, released 25th May 1985

7/10

Ah, the joy of tape-to-tape machines. One day, when I was about 16, my parents’ cool music-biz friend Steve brought me round a pile of cassettes, all tape-to-tape recordings, two albums per tape. That was an important little selection right there: Little Feat’s Last Record Album, Steely Dan‘s Katy Lied, Talking Heads ’77 and a few others that have skipped my mind.

Sadao_Watanabe_jazz_musician

Sadao Watanabe’s Maisha was also amongst them. I’d never heard of Sadao. He’s a highly-regarded Japanese sax player who has performed in many different idioms from straight ahead to bossa nova, but is probably best known for his late-’70s jazz/funk material when he borrowed Grover Washington Jr‘s band (Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Ralph McDonald and Anthony Jackson) for some huge home-country gigs and a few fairly popular albums on CBS.

Maisha is a fairly light jazz-funk album of a mid-’80s vintage, but on reflection it’s got more in common with MJ’s Thriller than anything by Spyro Gyra or Shakatak. This is due to a really phenomenal rhythm section and very subdued production with no blaring synths, drum machines or digital reverb.

Instead, it’s a lesson in groove construction. Drummers John Robinson/Harvey Mason and bassists Nathan East (fresh from Anita Baker’s The Songstress, Randy Newman’s Trouble In Paradise and Lionel’s Can’t Slow Down) and Jimmy Johnson have seldom played better. Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante’s keys are typically tasteful and considered, sticking to a Rhodes and acoustic piano rather than synths, while Jerry Hey adds brilliant horn arrangements to various tracks. Paulinho Da Costa is his usual effervescent self on all manner of percussion. And finally, guitarists Carlos Rios and David Williams play beautifully, the latter of course a mainstay of Thriller.

sadao 2

In general, the musicianship is loose and spontaneous, a world away from the studied session-head sounds usually associated with the ’80s LA studio scene. John Robinson marshals the band through ‘Paysages’ with a fantastically loose interpretation of the famous Bernard Purdie shuffle. Herbie Hancock pops in to contribute a ridiculously great synth solo to ‘What’s Now’ (which is surely due a big-band cover version) while Brenda Russell’s attractively-artless vocals feature on the Calypso-tinged ‘Tip Away’ and infectious ‘Men And Women’. And not even Stanley Clarke could have bettered Nathan East’s bass-and-scat solo on ‘Good News’.

Unfortunately Sadao’s sax chops get a bit swamped by all this classy playing, but he does have a lovely tone, like an alto-playing Stan Getz, and writes several memorable themes on the album.

So, thanks for this one, Steve, and for the Steely, Little Feat and Heads. Oh, and the China Crisis. I knew I’d remember eventually.

In a movingtheriver.com first, I’m afraid I can’t bring you any excerpts from Maisha because I can’t find any decent ones. So let’s instead enjoy a bit of Harvey Mason from 1985, stadium-funk style. Why not.

Gig Review: Phil Gould/Mike Lindup/Wally Badarou @ 606 Club, 11th January 2016

Level42-phil_gould

Phil Gould in 1987

‘Pocket’ is hard to define but you know it when you hear it. Something akin to a drummer’s ‘feel’, musicians often say that you’re either in the pocket or you ain’t, and as such the expression is mostly used in association with great US groovemasters like Richie Hayward, James Gadson, Bernard Purdie and Andy Newmark.

But ex-Level 42 drummer Phil Gould has been busy over the last 35 years (and a personal musical hero for about 30 of those) laying claim to be the UK’s premier proponent of ‘pocket’, though he has a lot of other weapons in his arsenal too.

Though he has been relatively quiet since leaving Level 42 in 1987 (making a brief return in 1994), Gould pops up on the London live music scene now and again, releasing his first solo album Watertight in 2009.

This 606 gig was very much a Level 42 reunion of sorts featuring keyboards and vocals from Mike Lindup and honorary ‘fifth member’ Wally Badarou, though, in an unexpected but typically generous move from the modest drummer/leader, the focus was very much on excellent vocalists Diana Winter and Sumudu with added support from the superb Yolanda Charles on bass, guitarist Fabio Balestrieri and Alex (son of Phil) Gould on piano and occasional drums.

The opening ‘Madness’ was a reliable portent of things to come, with Gould’s beautifully-behind-the-beat groove underpinning some gentle Latin percussion and Mike Lindup’s strong vocals and electric piano. Winter and Sumudu took centre stage for most of the rest of the first set, their voices combining exceptionally well especially on the catchy ‘Supergirl‘.

Badarou dusted off a funky, rough-and-ready version of the mid-’80s dancefloor classic ‘Chief Inspector‘, adding some piquant synth flavours, while Lindup aired an excellent songwriting collaboration with Billy Cobham and Dominic Miller. Perhaps predictably though, the highlight of the evening was a nifty run-through of the classic Level 42 instrumental ‘Heathrow’, with Charles powering the band superbly and even supplying a note-for-note rendition of Mark King‘s original bass part.

On somewhat of a difficult day for music, with the earlier announcement of David Bowie’s death, Gould provided an uplifting – if very light – evening with lots of healing sounds, fine vocals, lean grooves and good vibes. It’s always a pleasure to hear him at the kit, and it’s also always a pleasure to get down to the 606, one of the great hidden gems of the London music scene.

West Coast Bliss: Lee Ritenour’s Rit 2

ritenourSequels are seldom a good idea in the movie business, and thankfully they’re a lot less prevalent in the music game. But one of the most successful ‘franchises’ of the ’80s was guitarist Lee Ritenour’s Rit/Rit 2 combo, now re-released by Cherry Red on a single CD, and they’re two of the best-sounding albums of the era. Of course that shouldn’t be a huge surprise when you notice the presence of names such as Humberto Gatica, David Foster, Harvey Mason, Jeff Porcaro, Jerry Hey, Abe Laboriel, Alex Acuna and Greg Philinganes on the song credits, but then again a lot of albums at that time featured all the right ‘names’ but didn’t deliver the goods.

LEE RITENOUR rit rit 2

But if 1982’s Rit 2 is not quite in the same league as its predecessor, it’s still another classic piece of sumptuously-produced, blissed-out West Coast AOR with touches of jazz and soul, helped by the excellent vocals, keyboards and songwriting of Eric Tagg. To these ears, it sounds as if Quincy Jones had produced Toto and got a good singer and a few decent songwriters in.

Promises Promises‘ is superior disco/funk/rock and wouldn’t sound out of place on Quincy’s The Dude or Jacko’s Thriller. ‘Dreamwalkin‘ is kind of the ‘happy’ version of Earth Wind & Fire’s ‘After The Love Has Gone‘ and would make a great theme song for a an early-’80s, California-set Chevy Chase/Goldie Hawn vehicle. Ditto ‘Keep It Alive’.

‘Tied Up’ and ‘Voices’ initially seem like standard AOR fare, but reveal their superiority with interesting, layered vocal arrangements and surprising chord changes (and a classic bit of Porcaro drums on the latter). But the real standout is killer instrumental ‘Road Runner’ featuring Harvey Mason’s incredibly intricate hi-hat work, a spicy Jerry Hey horn arrangement, some tasty Fender Rhodes from Philinganes and a corking set of solos from Ritenour.

Ritenour tried to repeat the formula on ’84’s less successful Banded Together before embarking on a decade of underwhelming instrumental smooth jazz with the occasional high point (like this). But Rit and Rit 2 are classics of their kind and belong alongside Steely’s Gaucho, Randy Crawford’s Secret Combination, Quincy’s The Dude, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and George Benson’s Give Me The Night as key albums of the era.

Time for that long-delayed trip to the West Coast – Malibu beckons…

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.

Don’t Mention The Smooth Jazz: Lee Ritenour’s Rit

LeeRitenour Rit-FrontElektra Records, released August 1981

8/10

Is there a more wretched style of music than smooth jazz? We all know it when we hear it; there’s a good bet it will feature an insipid melody, usually played on soprano sax or clean-toned guitar, a dollop of white-man’s-overbite funk and usually a side order of cheesy slap bass too.

When the intricate, interesting jazz/rock played by the likes of Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Miles Davis and John McLaughlin started tanking in the mid-’80s, artists such as Bob James, The Rippingtons and Spyro Gyra took the classic fusion sound, sweetened it, added touches of light gospel and soul and repackaged it as yuppiefied, post-Windham Hill chill-out music, jazz for people who hate jazz. And they made a killing.

But a different kind of ‘smooth jazz’ had emerged a decade before, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a mixture of AOR, jazz harmony, classic fusion and Yacht Rock. It was the soundtrack for driving West on Sunset, decadent, expensive-sounding music full of dreamy Fender Rhodes playing and tasty grooves.

Musicians and arrangers such as Johnny Mandel, Jerry Hey, Tom Scott, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, Abraham Laboriel, Quincy Jones, George Benson, David Sanborn, Harvey Mason, Jay Graydon and David Foster thrived in this era when state-of-the-art production fused with jazz-tinged songwriting to create the missing link between Steely Dan and Earth, Wind & Fire.

lee ritenour

The unofficial headquarters of the sound was The Baked Potato, a nightclub in Studio City, LA, and one of the key musicians was guitarist Lee Ritenour (ironically one of the figureheads of the late-’80s Smooth Jazz scene proper). His 1981 album Rit is a classic of its kind alongside George Benson’s Give Me The Night, Larry Carlton’s Friends, David Sanborn’s Hideaway, Casino Lights, Randy Crawford’s Secret Combination and Steely’s Gaucho.

This sort of music was America when I was 13 or 14. In my daydreams, I was scooting along the West Coast in a Pontiac, top down, loud music playing, palm trees – you know the drill. Had I been watching too much Knight Rider and listening to too much Steely Dan? Yes…

Although early Ritenour albums had been tricksy fusion, more in line with what George Duke or Alphonso Johnson were doing, Rit saw him concentrate on collaborations with gifted Stevie-meets-Fagen vocalist/songwriter Eric Tagg. To this writer’s ears, George Michael very definitely checked out Mr Tagg. The track ‘Is It You’ got to number 15 in the singles charts and features one of the great middle-eights of the era:

Drum fans will enjoy Rit too; the great Jeff Porcaro plays a blinding shuffle on ‘Mr Briefcase’ (another pop hit from the album) and produces a classic rock performance on ‘Good Question’. According to Wikipedia, MTV broadcast the videos of ‘Mr Briefcase’ and ‘Is It You’ during its first day on air (1st August 1981)!

When things get too mellow, Ritenour always seems to know when to insert a spicy solo (in the days when he delivered high-octane jazz/rock playing a la Santana or Larry Carlton). The instrumentals are an appealing mixture of early ’80s technology (Linn LM-1 abundant) and the sparky funk of Abe Laboriel’s bass playing and Don Grusin’s soulful Fender Rhodes. And Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements are instantly recognisable and a great addition.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Rit was an influence on Thriller (compare Rit’s ‘Just Tell Me Pretty Lieswith Jacko’s ‘Baby Be Mineand various other Quincy productions later in the decade.

In 1982, Ritenour released the sequel Rit 2, which was almost as good and contained the superb ‘Roadrunner’. These are a couple of albums well worth revisiting.