11 Digital Funk Classics

Peaking between 1983 and 1985, the digital funk sound took the base elements from early pioneers James Brown, The Isley Brothers and Sly and the Family Stone and combined them with the new studio technology of the early ’80s.

Producers Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin, Leon Sylvers III (The Whispers, Shalamar), Kashif, Prince and Steve Arrington, and keyboardists/programmers such as David Gamson, David Frank and Robbie Buchanan, instigated a new kind of funk incorporating syncopated synth parts, percussion and intricate rhythm guitar.

The resulting sound is instantly recognisable and an influence on everyone from Beck and Bruno Mars to Daft Punk and Mark Ronson. Here are 11 tracks that still retain the wow factor. Play ’em loud…

11. Zapp & Roger: ‘More Bounce To The Ounce’ (1980)

Roger Troutman took the key elements of George Clinton/Bernie Worrell’s P-Funk template (squelchy synth bass, solid drums, clipped rhythm guitar) and stripped them back to their bare essentials, creating this classic single which made the Billboard top 100 in 1980.

10. The System: ‘You Are In My System’ (1982)

Later covered by Robert Palmer, ‘You Are In My System’ was the trademark track by the New York outfit comprising Mic Murphy on vocals and David Frank on keyboards and programming. If the opening minute of this doesn’t make you move, you’re probably dead…

9. Person To Person: ‘High Time’ (1983)

This was former ABC drummer David Palmer’s bid for solo pop stardom after jumping ship from the ‘Lexicon Of Love’ tour. Produced by David Frank, it’s catchy and beautifully arranged but lacks a decent vocalist and didn’t dent the charts on its 1983 single release.

8. The Girls: ‘I’ve Got My Eyes On You’ (1983)

Minneapolis was a hotbed of digital funk in the early ’80s too, not all generated by Prince (but I’d definitely have included ‘DMSR’ or ‘Erotic City’ if they were on YouTube…). This curio, produced by his 1979-1981 touring bassist Andre Cymone, lacks a decent chorus but is still a catchy funk stew all the same. The Girls released their one and only album in 1984.

7. Kashif: ‘Stone Love’ (1983)

This has more than a whiff of Luther’s ‘Never Too Much’ about it, but it was also a major influence on Scritti Politti (see below). Kashif released five studio albums between ’83 and ’89 and worked with Whitney Houston and George Benson before his death in 2016.

6. Chic: ‘Believer’ (1983)

The corking title track from their last studio album of the ’80s which received a critical mauling at the time. It sounds pretty fresh these days though maybe lacks the killer pop hooks that categorised their most successful work.

5. Scritti Politti: ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’ (1984)

Arif Mardin produced this classic single which made #10 in the UK chart in March 1984.

4. Wally Badarou: ‘Chief Inspector’ (1985)

Best known as keyboard player for Grace Jones and Level 42, Badarou also scored movies (‘Kiss Of The Spiderwoman’) and came up with this classic Afrocentric take on the digital funk sound.

3. Loose Ends: ‘Hanging On A String (Contemplating)’ (1985)

Obviously at the commercial end of the sound, this reached the giddy heights of #13 in the UK singles chart and was all held together by a superb performance by Ron Jennings on guitar.

2. Chaka Khan: ‘I Feel For You’ (1984)

Overfamiliar it may be, but this Prince-penned epic is undeniably the commercial apotheosis of the digital funk sound. The famous opening was apparently a total mistake, producer Arif Mardin getting trigger-happy with the sampler. Chaka was not amused and wanted it erased, but Mardin insisted on keeping it, telling her: ‘Don’t worry, my dear, it will be a hit.’ A hit it was, the only number one of her career.

1. Beck: ‘Get Real Paid’ (1999)

The Los Angeles pop chameleon revived the sound for his underappreciated 1999 solo album Midnite Vultures.

‘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

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.

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.