25 Great Drum Grooves Of The 1980s

Steve Jordan
Photo by Deborah Feingold

Could it be that the ’80s spawned more ‘drum-based’ songs than any other music decade?

New recording technology meant that the drums had never been louder and prouder in the mix. Stylistically, influences from ’70s fusion and classic soul/R’n’B were still fresh and relevant. Hip-hop and go-go brought a funky swing. Metal and punk added a unashamedly aggressive dimension. And let’s not underestimate The Collins Effect: Phil brought a whole lot of attention to the drums.

Here are 25 notable grooves from the decade. My defintion: pieces of music where the drum parts are intrinsic to the architecture of the piece. Eagle-eyed readers will spot lots of shuffles here – fast ones, slow ones, medium ones, half-timers. Bernard Purdie and John Bonham’s influences apparently loomed large. Play ’em loud…

25. Lee Ritenour: ‘Road Runner’ (1982)
Drummer: HARVEY MASON

How does he find time to fill out the groove with all those 32nd notes on the hi-hats? With such solidity? Only the master knows.

24. Steve Khan: ‘Uncle Roy’ (1983)
Drummer: STEVE JORDAN

Apparently Khan’s instruction to Jordan was to play an ‘Elvin Jones type of thing’ on this half-time shuffle. He completely ignored the guitarist and came up with an outrageous groove , turning the snare off, smacking the crash/ride cymbal as if his life depended on it and adding some tasty footwork for good measure.

23. U2: ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ (1983)
Drummer: LARRY MULLEN JR.

Love or hate the track, it was the beat of choice for air-drumming schoolkids across the land (at least it was at my school). You can even hum it.

22. TONY WILLIAMS: ‘Sister Cheryl’ (1985)

In essence, Tony ‘straightens’ out the jazz swing ride cymbal/hi-hat pattern, adds some snare backbeats and then dials in almost a Latin feel. It’s a revolutionary beat on an album full of them (Foreign Intrigue).

21. Weather Report: ‘Volcano For Hire’ (1982)
Drummer: PETER ERSKINE

Maybe Joe Zawinul came up with this pattern, but it’s superbly played and certainly one of the most striking and powerful in WR’s illustrious drumming legacy.

20. INXS: ‘What You Need’
Drummer: JON FARRISS

Nimble-of-foot dancefloor funk/rock smasher from one of the best groove drummers of the ’80s.

19. China Crisis: ‘In Northern Skies’ (1989)
Drummer: KEVIN WILKINSON

A different kind of half-time shuffle, with crossed hands, neat ghost notes and a nice tom-tom emphasis on the ‘3’.

18. Prince: ‘Dance On’ (1988)
Drummer: SHEILA E

Sheila unleashes her ’70s fusion chops on this curio from Lovesexy. Quite unlike anything else in her or the Purple One’s discography.

17. Joni Mitchell: ‘Be Cool’ (1982)
Drummer: JOHN GUERIN

LA session legend Guerin ended his 10-year sideman gig with Joni playing this inspired take on a medium jazz swing. Holding two brushes, one marks out time with triplets and other ‘brushes’ in quintessential jazz style.

16. Level 42: ‘It’s Over’ (1987)
Drummer: PHIL GOULD

One of many crafty, original ’80s grooves from the Isle Of Wight sticksman, this one was achieved by playing 16th notes on the hi-hat with both the foot and the hands. On a good system you can really hear the subtleties.

15. Jeff Beck: ‘Space Boogie’ (1980)
Drummer: SIMON PHILLIPS

Of course it takes its cue from Billy Cobham’s famous ‘Quadrant 4’ double-bass-plus-ghost-notes shuffle, but Phillips’s beat is in 7/4 and bloody hard to pull off. He maintains the intensity remarkably well and throws in some killer fills.

14. Jeff Beck: ‘Star Cycle’ (1980)
Drummer: JAN HAMMER

Another classic from Jeff’s There And Back album, the composer/keyboard player takes the sticks himself for a classic, still-funky, displaced-snare groove. Hammer has always been a superb drummer – check out his First Seven Days album for more evidence.

13. Weather Report: ‘Molasses Run’ (1983)
Drummer: OMAR HAKIM

Lots to choose from in Omar’s prestigious ’80s discography but this one sticks out. His beats have a sense of structure befitting a natural songwriter/arranger (which, of course, he is too).

12. Joni Mitchell: ‘My Secret Place’ (1988)
Drummer: MANU KATCHE

Kind of a variation on number 8, this cyclical groove almost IS the song.

11. Bennie Wallace: ‘All Night Dance’ (1985)
Drummer: BERNARD PURDIE

Another classic from the shuffle master on this track from the saxophonist’s hard-to-find Blue Note album Twilight Time, this managed to incorporate both of Purdie’s trademarks: ghost notes and hi-hat barks.

10. Adam & The Ants: ‘Ant Rap’ (1981)
Drummers: CHRIS HUGHES, TERRY LEE MIALL

There are two or three grooves on this and they’re all corkers. The song led to an outbreak of desktop hand-drumming by schoolkids in the early ’80s, driving teachers to distraction.

9. Grace Jones: ‘Warm Leatherette’ (1980)
Drummer: SLY DUNBAR

Trust Sly to come up with two such original takes on the shuffle.

8. Paul Simon: ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ (1982)
Drummer: STEVE GADD

What a treat to hear and see this classic live version from Central Park, possibly with some tiny deviations from the recorded take. Much imitated, never surpassed. And check out Gadd’s superb extended coda.

7. John Scofield: ‘Blue Matter’ (1986)
Drummer: DENNIS CHAMBERS

One of the great beatmakers of the ’80s or any other decade, the Baltimore master busted loose with two classic go-go grooves for the price of one.

6. Van Halen: ‘Hot For Teacher’ (1984)
Drummer: ALEX VAN HALEN

Modern Drummer magazine said it best: ‘The song begins with Alex pounding out a fairly complex floor-tom pattern featuring the ever-popular hairta rudiment, played over shuffling double bass drums. Add some tom hits and then a driving ride cymbal, and you’ve got one of the most classic drum tracks of the ’80s—or any decade.’

5. The Police: ‘Murder By Numbers’ (1983)
Drummer: STEWART COPELAND

Yet another ingenious variation on the medium jazz swing, Copeland turns 4/4 into 6/8, adds some weird emphases and catches the ear every time.

4. King Crimson: ‘Frame By Frame’ (1981)
Drummer: BILL BRUFORD

At Robert Fripp’s prompting, Bruford plays the lion’s share of the beat on one of his Octobans, not the hi-hat. From the classic album Discipline.

3. Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers: ‘We Need Some Money’ (1985)
Drummer: RICKY WELLMAN

The right foot that floored the drumming world.

2. Toto: ‘Rosanna’ (1982)
Drummer: JEFF PORCARO

Impossible to leave out this half-time classic. Porcaro fused The Purdie Shuffle with a Bo Diddley beat to create a monster.

1. John Martyn: ‘Pascanel (Get Back Home)’ (1981)
Drummer: PHIL COLLINS

Phil came up with numerous cool variations on Harvey Mason’s ‘Chameleon’ beat in the ’80s, but this is my favourite. It’s basically ‘Chameleon’ but with a very groovy triplet figure inserted between the hi-hats and snare. From the classic Glorious Fool album.

Any more classic ’80s drum grooves?

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Great Drumming Albums Of The 1980s (Part Two)

So here’s the second instalment of essential drum albums from the 1980s (check out part one here), a selection of the decade’s movers and shakers who either pushed the boundaries, flew somewhat under the radar or simply made the music sound better.

19. Chuck Brown And The Soul Searchers: Live ’87
Drummer: Ricky Wellman

Alongside Keith LeBlanc, Jonathan Moffett and Dennis Chambers, Wellman played some of the scariest single bass drum of the decade, laying down the go-go template that would influence everyone from Trevor Horn to Miles Davis (who headhunted Wellman in late 1987).

18. Nik Kershaw: The Riddle (1984)
Drummer: Charlie Morgan

Another somewhat underrated Brit sessionman, Morgan does exactly what’s right for the songs with a lot of panache. His ghost-note-inflected grooves on ‘City Of Angels’ and ‘Easy’ are treats for the eardrums.

17. Tackhead: Friendly As A Hand Grenade (1989)
Drummer/programming: Keith LeBlanc

Included because of the sheer variety of grooves, both human and machine-generated. Some beats bring to mind the sounds of electro and early hip-hop, but Keith also provides precise, tight, funky grooves on the kit.

16. XTC: English Settlement (1982)
Drummer: Terry Chambers

He was not subtle but the unreconstructed Swindon powerhouse could mix it with the best of ’em when it came to rock. Strongly aided by the dream Lillywhite/Padgham production/engineering team, his cavernous grooves always hit the spot. Currently residing in the ‘where are they now’ file (Or is he? Check out the comments section below… Ed.).

15. Power Tools: Strange Meeting (1987)
Drummer: Ronald Shannon Jackson

Ex-Ornette/Ayler collaborator and serious Buddhist Shannon Jackson cut a swathe through ’80s drumming with his striking solo albums and occasional projects like this frenetic trio alongside Bill Frisell and future Rollins Band bassist Melvin Gibbs. Free jazz with balls and humour. Play LOUD.

14. Roxy Music: Avalon (1982)
Drummer: Andy Newmark

Hard to bet against this masterpiece of tasteful, empathetic song-accompaniment. Even more impressive is the revelation that Newmark was usually the last musician to overdub, replacing a skeletal drum machine part.

13. Nile Rodgers: B Movie Matinee (1985)
Programming: Jimmy Bralower

Much-in-demand NYC programmer Bralower wasn’t every drummer’s cup of tea but he came up with many memorable, catchy beats on Nile’s forgotten second solo album. Even classy ballad ‘Wavelength’ chugs along to what can only be described as an electro groove.

12. Yes: Big Generator (1987)
Drummer: Alan White

Possessing one of the crispest snare sounds of the decade, White played 4/4 rock with lots of surprises – both listener and band alike have to be on their toes – and conversely also made the most complex arrangements sound completely natural.

11. Grace Jones: Living My Life (1982)
Drummer: Sly Dunbar

Sly came up with not one but two classic, much-imitated beats on this album (‘My Jamaican Guy’, ‘Nipple To The Bottle’) and also proved he could play rock with the best of them. Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan were definitely listening.

10. Mark King: Influences (1984)

We knew he’d started his musical life as a drummer but finally hearing the results of his misspent youth was well worth the wait. He gives his heroes Billy Cobham and Lenny White a serious run for their money on this varied collection, from Level-style funk to Latin-tinged jazz/rock.

9. King Crimson: Discipline (1981)
Drummer: Bill Bruford

Impossible to leave out. Aided by Robert Fripp’s ‘rules’, the Surrey sticksman redefined rock drumming for the new decade, adding unusual timbres and taking the emphasis off the hi-hat. He also delivered one of the great over-the-top performances on ‘Indiscipline’.

8. Weather Report: Sportin’ Life (1985)
Drummer: Omar Hakim

The fusion supergroup’s penultimate studio album is also one of their best, and Omar is a big reason why. His touch on the hi-hats and ride cymbal is instantly recognisable, and he swings hard on the inspired cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’.

7. Stewart Copeland: Rumble Fish (1983)

Not for nothing was the ex-Police man calling himself The Rhythmatist around this time: he hits anything and everything (xylophone, drum kit, marimba, piano, typewriter) to create a colourful, unique soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s black-and-white curio.

6. Sadao Watanabe: Maisha (1985)
Drummers: Harvey Mason, John Robinson

A superior example of big-budget ‘smooth jazz’ before it became a cliché, Mason and Robinson split the drum duties and perfectly compliment each other. The latter particularly lets his hair down a bit more than usual, particularly on ‘Paysages’.

5. Simple Minds: Sparkle In The Rain (1984)
Drummer: Mel Gaynor

Slinky, powerful grooves from South London’s answer to Omar Hakim. He has the walls of Shepherds Bush’s Townhouse studios shaking with his uber-grooves on ‘Up On The Catwalk’, ‘Waterfront’ and ‘C Moon Cry Like A Baby’.

4. Level 42: A Physical Presence (1985)
Drummer: Phil Gould

An exciting live performance from one of the great British drummers. His top-of-the-beat feel and crisp sound suggest a mix of Billy Cobham and Bill Bruford, and he could also lay down explosive multi-tom fills to match both of them.

3. Chick Corea Elektric Band: Eye Of The Beholder (1988)
Drummer: Dave Weckl

Love or hate Corea’s Scientology-infused, neo-classical jazz/rock, Weckl’s stellar performance on this album was beyond question. He delivered a gorgeous sound, a total mastery of the drum kit and stunning chops when required.

2. Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989)
Drummer: Terry Bozzio

One of the loudest drummers this writer has ever heard in concert (Hammersmith Odeon, December 1989), Bozzio delivered some of the fastest double-bass playing on record (‘Sling Shot’) and also unique takes on reggae (‘Behind The Veil’) and funk (‘Day In The House’).

1. The Clash: Sandinista! (1980)
Drummer: Topper Headon

The rebel rockers embraced rockabilly, reggae, dub, calypso, punk and even funk on this ambitious triple album, but they wouldn’t have been able to go there without the versatile London sticksman.

Any albums missing? Of course. Post your suggestions below.

‘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.

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.

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. 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.

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.