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. You always feel he would be happier breaking out the monumental jazz/rock fills and only really comes into his own on the excellent, very John McLaughlinesque instrumental ‘Gresham Blues’.

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 which looks very striking even now (though weirdly isn’t on YouTube). ‘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 (I love the key change after the first half of the second chorus) 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’s name?). 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 recently, 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.

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.

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.

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 patently on the cusp of their mainstream breakthrough, but their sheer ‘professionalism’ in no way blunts the improvisational edge.

It’s hard to imagine any other British band before or since attempting the audacious fusion instrumentals ‘Foundation And Empire’ and ’88’. The 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. 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.