‘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’ paraphrases ‘Desert Song’ from Clarke’s classic School Days album. Phil Gould’s sparkling glockenspiel solo on ‘Starchild’ emphasises 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.

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

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Phil Gould in 1987

‘Pocket’ is hard to define but you know it when you hear it.

Drummers 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’, but he has a lot of other weapons in his arsenal too.

Though 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. He also released 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 tasty, behind-the-beat groove underpinning some gentle Latin percussion and Mike Lindup’s strong vocals and electric piano. Winter and Sumudu took centrestage 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 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.

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.

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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.

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 later 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.

Level 42’s A Physical Presence: 30 Years Old Today

level 42Polydor Records, released 6th July 1985

Bought: Virgin Megastore Oxford Street, 13th July 1985 (the morning of Live Aid…)

9/10

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.

Mark King in 1985

Mark King in 1985

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 on the cusp of their mainstream pop breakthrough.

But you’d never know it. It’s hard to imagine any other British band before or since attempting the audacious fusion instrumentals ‘Foundation And Empire’ or ’88’.

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 for World Machine. 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.

Level 42’s Mark King talks about his ‘Influences’

Mark_King_-_Influences

EXCLUSIVE! Level 42’s Mark King speaks to movingtheriver.com about his classic solo album Influences, released by Polydor in July 1984.

MP: Can you just briefly summarise the story behind Influences? Was it your idea or did Polydor come to you?

MK: I was signed to Polydor Records via Level 42 and had a young, heavily-pregnant wife and needed to buy somewhere to live. This was back in 1981 I hasten to add, so Influences showing up in 1984 was really down to my tardiness in addressing the fact that I had taken the advance (£5,000) and, apart from delivering a single ‘Freedom‘, had somehow neglected to fulfil my contractual obligations! Polydor were actually very sweet about it and just before the agreement was due to expire gently reminded me that I needed to deliver an album.

You’ve talked about having loads of ideas in the tank for the album but how did you piece them all together on ‘The Essential’? Did you have to demo all the different sections before recording?

I may have exaggerated the ‘loads of ideas in the tank’ bit, but when push came to shove I booked a few days at Chipping Norton Studio and dived in. The opening piece ‘The Essential’ began on the studio Hammond B3 which Mike Vernon informed me had been used on the Focus album Moving Waves. I’m no keyboard player, but I fired her up and just hit the notes. Next I programmed the drum machine with a pattern so I could lay down some bass and guitar, and the riff and melodies just wrote themselves really. I was jamming with myself I guess, ha! Anyway, that’s how all the sections came to be, and in the twinkling of an eye I was 20 minutes into the album.

What was it like getting back into drumming again for the album? ‘There Is A Dog’ is an amazing tour-de-force.

Ta. I never stopped drumming, that’s what I love to do!

Did you put your bass and guitar parts down with a drum machine first and then overdub your drums? Or did you record your drums first?

I laid the bass and drum box down first. I had an Oberheim DMX drum machine that sounded awful but was a great writing tool because you could programme some pretty accurate drum parts that were in time! You have to remember that these were early days in digital technology, so ears weren’t so tuned in to accurate tempo, but I loved the idea of being able to f*ck about all over the groove and lean on the drum box because it had the time nailed. I laid the drums down next, Gretsch incidentally. Speaking of time, the guy with the greatest meter I know is Gary Husband. He IS a human machine… The guy is a phenomenon with tempo. Never shifts. The Level 42 track ‘Take Care Of Yourself’ was a first take at The Summerhouse Studio played on some Ddrums. That is AWESOME! The great Bill Cobham quote sings to mind: ‘You are either in time or you are out of time.’ I’m usually out.

How did you come to work with producer Jerry Boys? ‘The Essential’ features some really effective edits and cross-fades between the different sections.

Jerry was a good friend and had engineered some Level 42 stuff, which is how we had met of course, and Polydor were keen for me to involve a third party to keep an eye on me as I was three years overdue already, so Jerry was the perfect choice. A really good engineer, plus I respected his opinions. I probably did a lot of the edits myself. I certainly did for the Level 42 stuff.

How did Drummie from Aswad come to play on ‘Clocks Go Forward’? That track has a lovely feel.

Aswad were working in the studio next door and I bumped into Drummie in the corridor. I had just been running over the parts for ‘Clock Go Forward’ with Mike Lindup so I had no hesitation in inviting Drummie in to play with us. The Gretsch kit I had hired had only just shown up in the studio, and there was no stool…aaaargh! But this didn’t faze Drummie at all; he just pulled up a plastic studio chair and got stuck in. The studio floor was highly-polished parquet and it was quite funny watching him sliding around as he played, hahaha! The song is called ‘Clocks Go Forward’ because that was the day we recorded it on.

You play some great lead guitar on Influences – who are your favourite players apart from John McLaughlin?

Cheers. I love JM of course, but Clapton, Hendrix, Gary Moore and Bill Connors are all in there somewhere. So many, really. I love Al Holdsworth too and working with him on Guaranteed was a real privilege.

You played a lot of Influences at an amazing Ronnie Scott’s gig a few years ago – what was it like playing it live?

A lot of fun actually. I was so chuffed at how the guys were able to recreate the sounds for me. Nathan (King) in particular was fantastic on all the guitar parts. It didn’t feel like we were playing music from nearly 30 years before, and having not listened to any of it since then I was quite proud of what I had created way back when.

Thanks, Mark!

Find out much more about Mark and Level 42 at level42.com

More about my history with Influences below.

mark king

Some of these basses and guitars were used during the making of ‘Influences’…

Even though I’d been a huge Level 42 fan from the day I bought A Physical Presence in 1985, I didn’t even know Influences existed until two or three years after its initial release. I came upon a cassette copy in a ramshackle shop near the Swanage seafront while on a family summer holiday. It would be an understatement to say I couldn’t get it onto the hi-fi quickly enough.

And it didn’t disappoint. The sharp crack of the snare drum on opener ‘The Essential’ led me to believe that Level’s Phil Gould was behind the kit. But a quick look at the album credits blew my mind: Mark was playing all the drums, guitars and bass? Yep. Influences takes the ‘one-man-band’ ethos and runs with it. Not for a second does one rue the lack of a conventional band; this music swings, snaps, crackles and pops.

With a few decades’ more listening experience, I now hear some of the ingredients that went into the Influences brew – Chick Corea’s Latin excursions, Spectrum-era Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu and also Stanley Clarke’s mind-bending prog/fusion – but Mark’s musical voice also comes through loud and clear. ‘There Is A Dog’ could almost have graced Return to Forever’s Light As a Feather album. ‘Clocks Go Forward’ and ‘Picture On The Wall’ are in a Level style and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on True Colours or Standing In The Light.

To date, Mark has not returned to such unhinged jazz/rock outside of the Level 42 ‘day job’ (apart from a fabulous gig at Ronnie Scott’s in 2012), but this is one of the great British fusion albums, or fusion albums period. Influences also deserves a place alongside Innervisions, Lewis Taylor’s self-titled debut and Prince’s Sign O’ The Times in the pantheon of great one-man-band albums.

Level 40-Who? True Confessions Of A Tribute Band Drummer

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Boon Gould, Phil Gould, Mark King, Mike Lindup, London 1982

I first became aware of the legendary jazz/funk/pop band Level 42 in January 1983 when I saw them on ‘Top Of The Pops’ miming to their hit single ‘The Chinese Way’.

I was just another young music fan and burgeoning drummer enjoying the Second Golden Age of British Pop, but this was different: the band was tight, soulful, and yet somehow otherworldly.

And their musicianship was superior to other chart acts of the day. For a few years, they were my band.

Cut to 2000. I was embarking on a career as a session drummer. However, all the gigs I’d been offered had been with sub-Stone Roses indie bands or smooth jazz acts. Then I saw an ad in Loot magazine: ‘Drummer Wanted for Level 42 tribute band. Call Nick on…’ My mind started racing. This was the dream gig.

I rang Nick – playing the ‘role’ of famous bassist/vocalist Mark King – immediately. I managed to impress him by mentioning that it would be fun to play ‘The Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’, an obscure B-side that sounded like Jeff Beck jamming with Weather Report.

Nick had also recruited Peter, a keyboard player, and the three of us met for a drink, sharing Level 42 stories and trivia. These were the halcyon days. We were all buoyed by a shared love of the band’s music.

Nick was an amiable, meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. He did have a passing resemblance to Mark King, but also had the rather distressing habit of calling all the drummers he had ever worked with ‘w*nkers’…

The first few rehearsals went well. Nick was a capable bass player and, vocally, a passable Mark King impersonator. Peter did a good job of aping the band’s trademark keyboard sounds. I was trying to replicate Phil Gould’s drum parts to the letter and doing a reasonable job. We named ourselves Level It Up, a pun on the band’s 1983 hit ‘The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’.

After only a few rehearsals, Peter got us a gig at a Level 42 convention in a huge hotel off the A303. We were nowhere near ready to be playing live, but felt we might recruit a much-needed guitarist and backing vocalist at the venue.

The initial omens were not good – I had contracted laryngitis the day before the gig. By the time we arrived at the hotel, I was almost incapable of speech.

I looked at the live stage and immediately noticed something: no drums. Suddenly two assistants appeared and an Ikea-like structure was erected next to the keyboard rig: the dreaded, electronic V-Drums, with all of their naff connotations to the ‘boooo!’ sounds heard on terrible disco records. I had never played them before in my life, and the chances of Phil Gould ever playing them were miniscule.

We were told we would be playing at 9pm. I peered at the clock. It was 4pm. Somehow we got through the afternoon with regular toilet breaks and watching bass players trying to play exactly like Mark King in a soundalike competition.

Suddenly the raffle was over and we were on. I sat behind the V-drums tentatively and peered out into the crowd. There was silent expectation. Opening number ‘Almost There’ went by without any big hitches. There was even an enthusiastic reception at the end. They knew we were trying our best.

‘Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind’, conversely, was an unmitigated disaster. My V-drums started faltering halfway through the track and suddenly cut out completely. Had someone pulled the plug?

The stage manager rushed on to fiddle with the wiring while I tried to hide behind the keyboards. ‘It’s never happened before,’ he growled, throwing me an angry glance as the small crowd chatted amongst themselves. My throat tightened painfully as I tried to respond.

A dilapidated acoustic kit was summoned from an anteroom and hastily set up. We resumed playing but the thrill had gone and we couldn’t recover. This was the first real omen that our little tribute band was heading for the skids but I still didn’t heed the warnings.

Nick’s sister sang with us for a rare gig at his local and we got someone in to play guitar – he papered over the cracks for a while, but wasn’t the main problem.

The problem was that my relationship with Nick was starting to echo the real, troubled relationship between the people we were ‘impersonating’ in the tribute band – Phil Gould and Mark King – whose falling out precipitated the breakup of the original Level 42 lineup.

Was life imitating art? Maybe all tribute bands eventually start to ape their heroes in ways other than musical. Maybe it’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you spend many hours in a rehearsal room trying to copy another band’s music with all the management skills and forced intimacy that entails, do you naturally take on the roles that characterised the original band?

All I knew was that whereas I once looked forward to rehearsals, now I dreaded them. That’s when reality finally kicked in. It was time to leave the cut-throat world of the tribute band.

Sure, we’d ridden on the crest of a wave for a while, but let’s face it, the odds were stacked against us. Yes, we might have played The Railway Tavern in Andover once a month, The Green Man in Guildford now and again, The Old Red Lion in Carshalton if there was a last-minute opening.

But the phone wasn’t ringing, and, anyway, as I found out later, there was already a Level 40-Who doing that circuit.

‘Level 42: Every Album, Every Song’ by Matt Phillips is out now.