Gig Review: John McLaughlin @ Barbican, 23rd April 2019

If this was John’s final London gig, what a way to go out. Though the audience’s response was at times reverential and/or strangely undemonstrative, the outpouring of emotion at the conclusion was heartfelt and seemed to come as quite a shock to the performers too.

It’s hard to think of another ‘jazz’ band which has endured for so long with the same personnel as The 4th Dimension. This unit (McLaughlin – guitars, Gary Husband – keyboards/drums, Etienne M’Bappe – bass, Ranjit Barot – drums) has toured the world and elsewhere since 2010, playing a fiery mix of jazz, rock, blues, Indian, old-school R’n’B and industrial.

Tonight was no exception, though there was a much larger dose of spiritual jazz than usual, courtesy of not one but two Pharoah Sanders covers: ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ and ‘Light At The Edge Of The World’. You could take or leave the slightly dodgy band singing, but the message of love and understanding was powerful and still relevant.

One can also take or leave John’s guitar tone these days (sometimes one wishes for a far less ‘refined’ sound), but his playing sounded back to its brilliant, fluid, lyrical best tonight, a little like his return to the electric in 1978 after the long acoustic sojourn in Shakti. And if the mood of the evening’s music was generally uplifting, with new takes on the frenetic modern classic ‘Hijacked’, Mahavishnu favourite ‘Trilogy’ and raunchy ‘Echoes From Then’, ‘Gaza City’ was heartfelt and touching, a lament for a lost place.

Just a few gripes: one occasionally hankered after another soloing foil for John, an L Shankar or Gary Thomas; this music asks a hell of a lot from Husband and Barot. Also, listening to the latter’s ‘hit everything all the time’ ethos (though his konakkol vocal/rhythmic interludes are always fascinating), one realised what a tasteful, selective drummer Dennis Chambers had been during the ’90s organ trio/’Heart Of Things’ era.

John started the evening heralding a slight return not to Great Britain but to ‘Great Brexit’, and ended it with a gentle: ‘You’re all one. Thank you’. A powerful, important concert, especially if we don’t see him on a British stage again.

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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.