Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Level 42 - On The Level

Driven by commercial interests, ie. their label, the mid 80s saw Level 42 make the conscious decision to shift to a more accessible pop-soul style of music, with King providing vocals on nearly all tracks, putting them in league with the likes of Deacon Blue, China Crisis, Hipsway, Style Council, and Swing Out Sister (see previous posts).  The movement became a dominant presence on British charts throughout the mid to late 80s.  However, Level 42 retained the added dimension of mild fusion funk, and jazz-rock to the mix, giving them a stylistic depth that critics (and fans alike) approved of.

In late ‘85, Level 42 released their fifth studio album, ‘World Machine’, upon the world.  The lead out single was the radio friendly, ‘Something About You’ (UK#6/US#7), which finally broke Level 42 in a major way Stateside.  The track was indicative of the style and sound across the album’s nine tracks.  Mark King was in fine vocal form, whilst Mike Lindup comes more to the fore with his falsetto vocal harmonies.  The follow up single, the soulful, slow tempo ‘Leaving Me Now’ (UK#15/OZ#98), further revved up the appeal of ‘World Machine’, pushing it to #3 in Britain (US#18), where it stayed for 72 weeks, eventually notching up double platinum status.  And it wasn’t just the public that fell hook, line, and sinker for the stylish new model Level 42.  Mark Sinker wrote in the N.M.E. in November of ‘85 - Level 42’s sound is like a “Brit-trot-punk band with glossy panther sheen, rippling hammer blow psycho motion, and pellucid colourwax drawl”.  I couldn’t have said it better myself, in fact I didn’t say it at all.

In early ‘86, Level 42 released the new single, ‘Lessons In Love’ (UK#3/ US#12/ OZ#65), almost a year ahead of it’s source album - my guess is they were trying to maintain the momentum established by ‘World Machine’.  Co-written by King, Badarou, and Phil Gould, ‘Lessons In Love’, was a pristinely polished piece of soul-pop, with exquisite instrumental craft, and smooth vocal harmonies.  Eventually the source album arrived in early ‘87, in the form of ‘Running In The Family’ (UK#2/ US#23/OZ#35), another double platinum disc to add to its predecessor.  The title track, ‘Running In The Family’ (UK#6/ OZ#43/US#83), consolidated Level 42’s position in the upper reaches of the charts.  It was the first Level 42 single I purchased on vinyl 45.  The soulful ‘To Be With You Again’ (UK#10) followed mid year, as did a stint as opening act on Madonna’s summer tour, before the band headlined their own arena tour, confirming their arrival as a major league pop-rock act.

The slow tempo ballad ‘It’s Over’ (UK#10) delivered Level 42 their fourth consecutive UK Top 10 single.  The soul tinged ‘Children Say’ (UK#22) was the fifth and final of nine album tracks to chart from the ‘Running In The Family’ album.  It was a prosperous period for Level 42, with the group being voted best British group three years running by Blues & Soul magazine.  Mark King was also in high demand during this period, working in studio with the likes of Nik Kershaw, Midge Ure (see previous posts), and Robert Palmer (see future post).  But the band was struck a double blow late in 1987, when both Gould brothers did a ‘running in the family’ and left the band.  It upset the balance of the band and in time would prove the undoing of the magical commercial formula they had attained over the ‘World Music’/‘Running In The Family’ phase of their career.  Guitarist Alan Murphy, and drummer Gary Husband were recruited to fill the vacancies.

The Gould-less Level 42 re-emerged in September of ‘88 with the album ‘Staring At The Sun’ (UK#2/ OZ#86/US#128), complimented by the lead out single ‘Heaven In My Hands’ (UK#12).  The rock infused soul of the track opened the album’s proceedings, but was a highlight among few from the ten tracks on offer.  The follow up single, ‘Take A Look’ (UK#32) was singularly uninspiring, though the funk laced ‘Tracie’ (UK#25) pepped up proceedings nicely.  I purchased both ‘Heaven In My Hands’ and ‘Tracie’ on vinyl 45 (the latter featuring photography by Linda McCartney on the cover art).  Overall, ‘Staring At The Sun’ had a few too many blind spots to be considered in the same league as its predecessors.

The band suffered a further set back in 1989 with the death of guitarist Alan Murphy, and didn’t release any new material save a greatest hits album ‘Level Best’ (UK#5), which contained one new track in the form of ‘Take Care Of Yourself’ (UK#39).  The best of package was the last on Polydor before the label dropped Level 42 from its playing roster.

Level 42 took some time out over 1990 and into ‘91, before recruiting new guitarist Alan Holdsworth, a renowned fusion guitarist, to the fold.  The new quartet signed with RCA and committed to recording a new album over the summer of ‘91, not to be confused with the summer of ‘69, which is a Bryan Adams song and belongs in an entirely different post.  ‘Guaranteed’ (UK#3) kept up the band’s streak of UK top 5 albums (now at 5), but the best single related stat it could manage was with the title track (UK#17).  Flashes of the verve and vibrancy of earlier efforts surfaced in patches throughout the album, including the up-beat single ‘Overtime’ (UK#62), and the horn driven funkification of ‘Her Big Day’.  The third single, ‘My Father’s Shoes’ (UK#55), didn’t have as much soul as other tracks, even venturing into a country-esque feel.  Whilst the album recaptured splinters of soulfulness, it was an inconsistent offering overall.

A three year wait elapsed before the release of Level 42’s 1994 album, ‘Forever Now’ (UK#8).  The album marked the return of drummer Phil Gould to the fold, and also marked a resurgence in creative form for the band.  The lead out single was the title track, ‘Forever Now’ (UK#19), evoking the likes of Kool & the Gang, and Earth, Wind & Fire with it’s bold and brassy sound.  Two more of the album’s fifteen tracks found a reception inside the U.K. top 40 - ‘All Over You’ (UK#26), and the sleek ‘Love In A Peaceful World’ (UK#31).

Despite a return to creative form on ‘Forever Now’, Level 42 all but disappeared from view over the next ten years, save for some occasional tour dates, of which Mark King was the only constant member.  In 2006, the band resurfaced, featuring Mark King, Mike Lindup, with contributions from the Gould brothers on the album ‘Retroglide’.  There were one or two highlights harking back to the band’s glory days, but overall it lacked the funk-based edge of the band’s original sound, and offered more forgettable than memorable moments.

In 2010, Level 42 celebrated its 30th anniversary with a tour, and a four disc box set titled ‘Living It Up’, which featured a disc of newly recorded acoustic versions of Level 42 hits, by King and Lindup.

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