Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Level 42 - Levelling Up

 During 1987 and 1988, my vinyl 45s purchasing reached its peak.  It’s hard to estimate just how many singles I bought, but it would have been between 200-300.  One of those singles was ‘Running In The Family’ by Manchester quartet Level 42 (it wasn’t the last Level 42 45 I picked up).  I fell in love with the song, and not long after I bought my first CD player, I purchased a copy of the source album, ‘Running In The Family’.  To be more specific, I purchased the ‘Platinum Edition’ of the album, which featured several Shep Pettibone remixes.  It remains to this day one of my favourite albums to throw on and listen to from start to finish (maybe with a few repeat tracks thrown in).

During the 70s, Mark King (bass) became friends with the Gould brothers, Boon (guitar), and Phil (drums), when they were living on the Isle of Wight.  King had played the drums in other bands, but when the trio decided to start a band of their own, it was Phil Gould who won out in the battle of the drummers stakes.  With opportunities limited at home, the trio opted to move to the big smoke, Manchester, during 1978.  They soon after hooked up with keyboardist Mike Lindup to complete their line-up.

The quartet soon became regulars on the London funk and jazz-rock fusion scene (influenced heavily by the likes of Stanley Clarke, Average White Band, and Herbie Hancock), aligning themselves with the likes of Atmosfear and Incognito.  Level 42 played mostly instrumentals during their early days, with Mark King handling any vocal requirements.  King also developed his distinctive thumb slapping bass style during these formative years (in time he would be voted the best bassist in the world by Blues & Soul magazine), which would provide a signature dynamic to the Level 42 sound.

Level 42 were signed to Andy Sojka’s independent Elite label in early 1980.  Over the summer they laid down 8 tracks in all that would comprise their debut album, ‘Strategy’ (later released in 1982 by Polydor as ‘The Early Tapes July-August 1980’ - UK#46).  It’s important to note that a fifth musician, keyboardist Wally Badarou (the unofficial fifth member), contributed significantly to the debut album as well as subsequent albums (he would co-write a number of the band’s hits).  The two singles lifted from the album were well received on the London dance club scene, and made a mild splash in the mainstream charts; ‘Love Meeting Love’ (UK#61) and ‘Wings Of Love’.  Five of the eight tracks were instrumentals, allowing the quartet to show off their considerable instrument craft.

Having shown considerable commercial potential, Level 42 were snapped up by the Polydor label in early ‘81.  The band hit the studios to lay down another eight tracks, this time to be released as their self-titled sophomore effort (UK#20).  The album was a mix of slick soul and R&B, produced once more by Andy Sojka, and realised three minor hit singles; ‘Love Games’ (UK#38), ‘Turn It On’ (UK#57), and ‘Starchild’ (UK#47).

In early ‘82, Level 42 began an extended run playing at London’s famous Barracuda Club, further solidifying their reputation with a legion of fans.  By mid ‘82, the band had recorded their third album, ‘The Pursuit Of Accidents’ (UK#17), which by no accident yielded three more top fifty hits; ‘Are You Hearing (What I Hear)?’ (UK#49), ‘Weave Your Spell’ (UK#43), and ‘The Chinese Way’ (UK#24), keeping the Level 42 brand in the British charts into 1983.  The writing stakes for Level 42 were evenly shared between members, though King was a stronger contributor overall.  It’s also worth noting that all but one of the ten tracks clocked in at over five minutes, so at this stage Level 42 were not geared toward being a ‘singles’ band.

For 1983’s album, ‘Standing In The Light’ (UK#9), Level 42 signalled a shift in style and substance that would lay down the early plans for future chart domination.  Of the nine tracks, all but one stopped the clock at under five minutes, much more palatable for commercial radio to air, and all of the tracks featured vocals.  They were clearly positioning themselves for greater commercial accessibility.  Produced by Larry Dunn and Verdine White (of Earth, Wind and Fire - see future post), it spawned three more British hits, including their first foray into the top ten; ‘Out Of Sight Out Of Mind’ (UK#41), ‘The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’ (UK#10 - very Earth, Wind and Fire come Kool & the Gang, and worth noting King and Lindup shared lead vocals), and ‘Micro-Kid’ (UK#37).

In the summer of ‘84, Mark King released a solo album titled ‘Influences’ (UK#77), but immediately following that returned to the Level 42 fold to work on the band’s fifth studio set.  The lead out single, ‘Hot Water’ (UK#18) received a warm round of applause from record buyers, whilst the follow up ‘The Chant Has Begun’ let itself be heard at UK#41.  The source album, ‘True Colours’ (UK#14), didn’t quite come up to the level of its predecessor, but Level 42 were displaying a consistent standard of quality and commercial appeal on their product.

They band were also one of the top live drawcards on the London club scene, captured in the summer ‘85 album release ‘A Physical Presence’ (UK#28), an album of live recordings from UK club dates.

Level 42 had steadily built a momentum toward mainstream appeal, but as yet hadn’t broken through in a major way.  Their next album release would change all that.

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