25th January 2021
One of the bands from the 80s that always stood out for me is Level 42. The funky jazz feel that they specialized in struck a chord with me from the outset. Today I am taking a few hours break from work to indulge in my favourite hobby and bring you a quick mini-feature about one of the masters of their genre, Level 42.
The band formed in 1979 on the Isle of Wight, and although they underwent numerous line-up changes and a few breaks along the way, and haven’t produced an album since 2013, they still have a busy touring schedule.
Having played with numerous local bands, 1979 saw future frontman, Mark King, and co-founder Phil Gould based in London playing with ‘M’, Robin Scott’s pop project. A series of chance meetings saw Gould, King and Mike Lindup playing some improv sessions in the studio, and so the not yet named band started developing its distinctive sound.
As multi-instrumentalists, the initial members were flexible as to who played what, and although Mark King was primarily a drummer, it transpired that Phil Gould was better, so King (known to be a fast learner) took to the bass and developed his distinctive finger-slap style within a couple of weeks. They took on the name Level 42 after Douglas Adams ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, where the number 42 was discovered to be the meaning to life, the universe and everything!
1980 saw the new band being signed to the independent Elite Records label. At this time they didn’t have a fixed vocalist and despite suggestions, decided not to audition for one as the combination of Mark King’s tenor voice and Lindup’s falsetto worked perfectly together. They recorded one single with Elite before being noticed and signed by Polydor. The Top 40 hit Love Games preceded their self-titled debut album, with both becoming runaway successes throughout Europe.
Polydor was quick to release a second album The Early Tapes from their brief time with Elite Records and followed up with the Persuit of Accidents album in 1982 that saw the band honing their jazz-funk sound while encompassing more of a pop feel. This combination further increased the band’s popularity amongst a new market segment.
Let’s start with that first big Polydor hit. Here’s Level 42 miming to the audience on BBC 1’s Top of the Pops.
1983 saw the release of Standing in the Light, the first album not to contain any instrumental tracks and provided their first UK Top 10 hit, The Sun Goes Down. True Colours quickly followed in 1984. The mix of funk, power-pop ballads and mid-tempo rock found favour with European audiences.
Within just five years of forming Level 42 were well established and if anyone still had any doubts as to their credibility, 1985’s album World Machine quickly dispelled them. AllMusic’s respected music journalist, William Cooper, listed Standing in the Light as one of the finest albums of the mid-80s. It seemed that they couldn’t set a foot wrong, but rifts were beginning to show due to disagreements in the direction their music was going.
Lessons in Love was released as a single in 1986 to keep up the band’s chart momentum while they were on tour in the US and went on to become one of their biggest international hits, and became the lead track from 1987’s Running in the Family album. 1987 saw Phil and Boon Gould leave the band. Both were suffering from exhaustion and this, coupled with the brewing rifts, saw the first of the many line-up shuffles that level 42 underwent.
The 1988 album Staring at the Sun reached #2 in the UK and charted well in Europe resulting in a four-month European tour, and culminating in six sell-out nights at Wembley Arena. These latter dates were recorded for what would become the band’s second live album, Live at Wembley (released in 1996).
Tragedy hit when guitarist Alan Murphy passed away from HIV/AIDs related problems in 1989. The band took a year’s break to rethink and regroup. 1990’s Guaranteed album release for the RCA label was one of the least commercially successful, although musically superb. Further changes in the line-up saw Phil Gould return briefly for the release of the 1993 Forever Now album, but didn’t join the band on the promotional tour.
It was during this tour that Mark King announced that they would be disbanding permanently following their concert commitments, and played the last gig at the Albert Hall in October of 1994. For my second choice for today, we rejoin Level 42 on Top of the Pops with one of my favourites of theirs, Running in the Family.
With Level 42 now disbanded, Mark King signed to the Virgin label to release the solo albums Blue Moon followed by One Man, neither of which was a commercial success. While touring with his solo ‘The Mark King Group’ he found (naturally) that the Level 42 songs were being requested more than his own compositions.
In 2001, Mark King came to a business arrangement with Mike Lindup to purchase the Level 42 name and announced the return of the band with (yet another) new line-up. They spent the next few years touring regularly with a playlist of old hits.
2005 saw a burst of re-releases which culminated in the release of The Ultimate Collection II, their second greatest hits collection. It had been 12 years since the band had released a new studio album, but this dry spell ended with Retroglide. Although billed as a band album, most of it had been recorded in King’s home studio with only a few contributions from fellow musicians Retroglide was promoted with a tour throughout the UK and several other European countries during October 2006.
It was to be another seven years before the release of the 6-track EP Sirens on King’s new label – Level 42 Records. It was produced by American DJ Morales and brought an updated dance feel to their normal sound. The band has settled into a solid touring routine, and before 2020 brought live performances to a standstill, they played 20 major festivals from Quebec to Russia on their 2019 tour.
When asked if Level 42 were going to take things a bit easier after decades in the saddle, Mark King said “No Way. Touring with the band this year has been about as much fun as I can remember having had on the road, and If you had asked me back in 1980 if I thought we would be selling out theatres around the world when I was sixty years old I probably would have laughed! Hand on heart, this year has been AMAZING. Re-invention can be a wonderful thing!”
To show how Level 42’s sound hasn’t really changed over the years, I’ve chosen a song from the Sirens album to close today. Here’s My Independence Day, recorded during the Siren’s tour in 2015. Thanks for joining me today for a look at a band that, for me, epitomises endurance. Catch you soon.
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do do more than just share a song.
The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.
Words © Andrew Knapp 2021