Emerging on the Isle of Wight in the late 1970s Mark King and the Gould brothers (Phil and Rowland “Boon”) joined up with Mike Lindup once they discovered a shared love for Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett and Jan Hammer, and a desire to translate their influences into technically tight jazz funk fusion chops. Guitarist Dominic Miller was a friend from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama and played on some early rehearsals before Boon Gould resumed the seat – Miller would of course go on to great things himself with Sting.
The Level 42 house sound really emerged once King introduced the American funk thumb-slap bass technique pioneered by the more progressive Motown players, and initially the band concentrated on an entirely instrumental approach. A connection with Wally Badarou persuaded them to adapt and incorporate vocals and songwriting of their own and their independent track “Love Meeting Love” won them a deal with Polydor Records. In 1981 they released the single “Love Games”, a respectable hit and then cut their critically acclaimed debut album, Level 42. Working with producer Mike Vernon they simply gelled as a credible act and the track “Starchild” made inroads in America. They were now up and running, fusing their quartet line-up to Badarou’s Prophet 5 and Minimoog, Leroy Williams’ extra percussion and the sax duo of Barnacle and Dave Chambers.
Such is their rise that a set of previous sessions – The Early Tapes aka Strategy – is made available in 1982, though the recordings date back to summer of 1980. While their fans greeted this good news Level 42 hit them with The Pursuit of Accidents, a Top Twenty entry that spawns “the Chinese Way” and suggests a change of direction with Pete Wingfield adding clarinet and Badarou starring on the Solina String Ensemble. Standing in the Light fares even better, thanks in part to the FM smash “The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)”, featuring Lindup on lead vocals. The latter two discs are available back to back with fine bonus material.
By now Level 42 have both the pop and broadsheet press in their pockets and True Colours ups the dance ante with noted producer Ken Scott (David Bowie, The Beatles, Jeff Beck, Pink Floyd etc.) bringing his experience of working with Billy Cobham, Stanley Clarke and Mahavishnu Orchestra to the desk for a flat out classic that concentrates on the album format while finding space for some adventurous single cuts.
Given their status by this time it’s hard to insist that World Machine is a breakthrough album but it does define them since it is where they conquer America. Self-produced with Badarou World Machine will go double Platinum and boats the almighty hit “Something About You” and the lovely broken love ballad “Leaving Me Now”. This disc has been reissued as a 2-CD Deluxe Edition with an extra slab of live material from Hammersmith Odeon, London and a triumphant Isle of Wight show from 2000.
That multi-million feat is repeated on Running in the Family, the last album in this era to feature the Gould brothers. Aside from the enormously popular title cut this is where we first hear “Children Say”, “Fashion Fever” and “Lessons in Love”, songs that take pop craftsmanship to a new place. Again look to discover the reissue with bonus tracks, stellar examples of cutting edge digital technology.
Staring at the Sun sees the return of Dominic Miller and the arrival of Gary Husband (drums) and Alan Murphy (guitars). Unfairly dismissed by certain critics at the time it sounds absolutely fine to us today with the usual standouts “Staring at the Sun” and “Tracie” augmenting the typically atmospheric “Heaven in My Hands.
The band returns to reunite in 2006 with Retroglide and we’re pleased to report that Boon Gould is back on board and that Level 42 are in fine shape. Given their track record it’s no surprise that we also have several classic compilations: Level Best, The Very Best of Level 42, Classic Level 42 – The Universal Masters Collection, The Definitive Collection and the sumptuous Living It Up, released on the eve of Level 42’s 30th anniversary, Universal Music are proud to announce the availability of a beautifully packaged 4-disc box set that includes all 34 of the band’s A-side single releases plus rare live, acoustic and remixes galore with great notes and full recording details to pore over.
There’s something about these guys that should appeal to newbies and staunch fans alike. Still a fantastic draw on the festival circuit this is where they came in. Delightful discovery lies ahead.
Words: Max Bell
By Running in the Family, Level 42 had almost completely thinned out their early jazz-funk and soul roots in favor of a radio-friendly keyboard pop with a light R&B vibe. The sound lies somewhere between Kool and the Gang and early Tears for Fears. But if early fans might have felt betrayed by the new direction, the band's newfound aptitude for attention-grabbing hooks and airtight instrumental polish attracted more than enough new fans to replace them. Running in the Family included the band's sole number one hit in the U.K. charts, "Lessons in Love." It also featured a handful of other respectable pop nuggets including "Children Say" and "Fashion Fever." The record is a little uneven, faltering especially when the band indulges its taste for sappy ballads like "It's Over." But for the most part, Level 42 was extremely successful in its attempt to create something that would strike a chord with mainstream pop audiences. And they manage to do it without being obnoxiously derivative. Of course, the whole project reeks of 1987. But the solid craftsmanship of the writing as well as the group's ability to adapt to the popular tastes of the time helped them survive the '80s and become one of the more durable bands to have arisen in that era.
Words: Evan Cater
Level 42 was one of Britain's most successful bands by the time World Machine was released in 1985, but U.S. success was elusive. But that changed with the engaging single "Something About You," which became a Top Ten hit in America and sent this album soaring into the Top 20. World Machine pushes their newfound radio-friendly sound into the forefront, and the result is one of the finest pop albums of the mid-'80s. "Something About You" exemplifies Level 42's sound at the peak of its success. Bassist Mark King's vocals, while limited in range, are soulful and yearning, while keyboardist Mike Lindup's complimentary falsetto backing vocals add just the right ingredient to the mix. Given the group's original guise as an all-instrumental jazz combo, the musicianship is brilliant, and "Something About You" proves how good a song can sound coming from the radio. Unlike most albums that contain one strong single surrounded by duds, World Machine has more than its share of fine tunes. The jazzy, upbeat title track is one of the band's finest moments, the should've-been-a-hit "Leaving Me Now" is an effective ballad, and the midtempo "Good Man in a Storm" is catchy and thought-provoking. While not perfect -- "Physical Presence" drags, and "It's Not the Same for Us" is a bit too cutesy for its own good -- World Machine is the most successful album in Level 42's career, both in terms of sales and quality.
Words: William Cooper
A Physical Presence, released in 1985, is the first live album from the British quartet Level 42. Recorded at various small European club venues, A Physical Presence is an impressive document of the band's dynamic live performances, and the live renditions of many of the songs improve on the original studio recordings.
Much of the material on A Physical Presence comes from the band's first four studio albums, and several of Level 42's minor British hits ("Hot Water," "The Chinese Way") are included. Physical's highlights, however, are the blistering live takes on lesser-known non-single releases. For example, "Kansas City Milkman," which originally appeared in a somewhat lackluster version on the 1984 release True Colours, is given new life in concert; the version here is slightly faster and more energetic than the original. "Eyes Waterfalling" (originally from the 1982 album The Pursuit of Accidents) is given the same treatment and features Mark King's mind-boggling thumb-slapping bass-playing technique, which is all the more impressive considering his simultaneous role as lead vocalist. King is an amazing musician, but his fellow bandmates are no less capable; vocalist and keyboardist Mike Lindup, drummer Phil Gould, and guitarist Boon Gould give first-rate performances. Level 42's studio efforts (particularly on the early albums) tend to suffer from over-production, barely giving the musicians room to breathe. That certainly isn't the case here; on A Physical Presence, Level 42 truly shines, combining energy, talent, and songcraft to breathtaking effect.
Although the sound quality isn't exactly stellar, A Physical Presence is still far better than Level 42's 1996 effort Live at Wembley. That album was recorded while the band was touring in support of its worst studio effort, Staring at the Sun, and contains entirely too much material from that anemic 1988 release. Live at Wembley also suffers from the absence of the Gould brothers and from the obviously less intimate arena setting; by the time Live at Wembley was recorded, Level 42 had become a major U.K. success. Mark King also became more of a show-off than a musician, and his half-hearted performance on Live at Wembley makes the album virtually unlistenable. A Physical Presence is a MUCH better indication of Level 42's capabilities in a live setting, capturing the band at the top of its form.
Words: William Cooper
Whether your a newcomer or only own their greatest hits album 'Level 42' is an album you will want to have.Having already recorded before Level 42 proved to be the Brit Funk movenemnts answer to the American trend of "sophisti-funk" acts such as Heatwave,The Whispers,The Brothers Johnson and Con Funk Shun.The one difference is that like their US contempories Steely Dan and The Dooibie Brothers,rather then relying on more blues based horn funk for inspiration Level 42 take more cues from jazz.'Level 42' emphasized heavy leflon slickness and polyphonic synthesizer arrangements.Every song is extremely strong and features very lean,economical production values."Turn It On",the first song on the album and the closing "Starchild" really typifies the sound;a lot of space,keyboard and bass solos and an overwelming dreaminess.Even taken at ballad pace "Why Are You Leaving" and the instrumental "Heathrow" emphasize these qualities even better,with the latter actually gaining a hardcore groove around the middle."Almost There",the hit "Love Games" and another insturmental "42" all focus on mean,chunky grooves.That leaves "Dune Tune",the third instrumental here that really showcases the bands jazzy,musicianly side.Another important aspect of Level 42 that this debuts showcases in abundance is that that Mark King,the bands inventive,percussive slap bassist and keyboard player Mike Lindup are both superb songwritings-capable of penning music that is funky,jazz and passionate while always demonstrating carefully crafted tunesmithship.Between the bands own keyboardist Mike Lindup and "longterm guest" Wally Badarou 'Level 42' is so dominated by synthetic keyboard polyphony that many have accused the bands type of jazz-funk as being somehwhat cold and sterile.And even if you find that to be so you just aren't going to be able to fault the passion,longing and humanity found in Mark King's emotional voice and lyrics:"It's time for honesty,I can see there's someone else" he sings at one point.If there is one thing that is often said about the early 80's R&B in general is that it lacked heart and innovation;again even for them all you really have to do is step into the songs and grooves of 'Level 42' for a STRONG refreshment!
Words: Andre S. Grindle
Although they didn't really begin to have dance/pop hits until later in the '80s, the English group Level 42 provided some fine performances on this album. While vocals weren't their strong suit, they did a reasonable job of harmonizing and at least getting through the melodies, while the production and arrangements helped embellish and compensate for their singing inadequacies. Although such groups as the Pet Shop Boys and even Thompson Twins do this type of thing better, Level 42 at least isn't irritating or self-indulgent.
Words: Ron Wynn
In the early 1980s, most newly successful British bands like Duran Duran and Depeche Mode were knee deep in the synth pop/new romantic/new wave/post-punk/whatever movement. But Level 42 distinguished itself by combining R&B and jazz influences (Earth, Wind & Fire, Stanley Clarke, Average White Band) with a strong pop sensibility, churning out a series of successful albums and Top Ten singles. The band began to achieve major U.S. success by 1986 with the albums World Machine and Running in the Family. Unfortunately, U.S. success was short-lived; Staring at the Sun, released in 1988, tanked, for an obvious reason: the album just isn't good.
Level 42's most visible members had always been bassist/vocalist Mark King and keyboardist/vocalist Mike Lindup. Founding members Phil and Boon Gould, the band's primary songwriters, left the group prior to the making of Staring at the Sun. Level 42 would never fully recover from the loss of the two key players; their departure severely affected the band's sound. Veteran session musicians Alan Murphy (guitar) and Gary Husband (drums) joined Level 42 the year Staring at the Sun was released; while their talent and capabilities are obvious, the lifeless performances on the album suggest a severe lack of chemistry and direction. The usual awe-inspiring musicianship displayed on the band's previous releases is non-existent here. (Murphy died in 1989.)
Considering the poor quality of the songs on Staring at the Sun, the sluggish performances are perfectly understandable. The rock-ish "Heaven in my Hands" is catchy enough, and the Mike Lindup-penned ballad "Silence" is the album's best song...but the rest of this stuff! "Man" sounds like bad '70s art rock (complete with pretentious spoken word narration), "Two Hearts Collide" is flat and completely void of purpose, and "I Don't Know Why" boasts some of the most inane lyrics ever written for an album by a major band ("I don't know why...I love you like I do...but baby I love you...and always I'll be true"....ugh.)
Worst of all, Mark King who, over the course of the band's existence was becoming a more expressive and effective vocalist, sounds bored and uninspired, particularly on "Two Hearts Collide." And Mike Lindup's complementary falsetto background vocals are barely used this time around.
It might be easy to excuse the band for losing enthusiasm; after all, it lost two key members along the way, and perhaps Level 42 was pressured into repeating its newfound American success. But this album is unforgivable. It became a big hit in the U.K., charting at number two, but went nowhere in the States. It would take Level 42 several more years to release an album that would even come close to restoring the quality of its previous releases (Forever Now, which became the band's swan song). Now out of print, Staring at the Sun is, by far, the least essential album in Level 42's catalog.
Words: William Cooper
Standing in the Light was Level 42's first major success in the U.K., hitting the top ten in 1983 and beginning a string of successful recordings that would continue throughout the band's career. The band's previous releases were pleasant but somewhat tepid exercises in jazz-lite; Standing in the Light not only marked a significant change of direction, but proved Level 42 could truly be an ace pop band.
Level 42's first three releases Level 42 (1981), The Pursuit of Accidents (1982), and The Early Tapes (a compilation of material recorded in 1980, prior to the band's signing to Polydor) revealed a promising young band with undeniable talent and melodic instincts. Despite modest success with strong singles such as "Turn it On" and "The Chinese Way," pointless instrumentals and slick production added unnecessary weight to these albums. Standing in the Light was different for two main reasons : the songs were shorter and more accessible, and for the first time, all the songs included vocals. The group began as an all-instrumental jazz outfit; in order for Level 42 to become more commercially viable, bassist Mark King and keyboardist Mike Lindup eventually began to open their mouths and sing. Never a strong vocalist, King nevertheless was an engaging frontman, becoming more relaxed and self assured as the band's career progressed, while Lindup's falsetto backing vocals added a distinctive touch. "Micro Kid," the opening cut here, is a good example of their approach; the synth-heavy track also prominently features Lindup's brilliant keyboard work.
Produced by Larry Dunn and Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire (one of Level 42's obvious influences), Standing in the Light contains a number of strong tracks; the funky British top-ten hit "The Sun Goes Down" and the midtempo ballad "People" are highlights, and the band's amazing musicianship is always a pleasure to hear. Only the goofy "A Pharaoh's Dream (of Endless Time)" bogs down the album, and Mark King's trademark thumb-slapping bass playing technique makes even that tune worth hearing. Like most early-to-mid 80's albums, Standing in the Light also suffers from a somewhat dated sound, but it is one of the most impressive offerings in Level 42's strong body of work.
Words: William Cooper
Level 42 was steadily perfecting and evolving their dance/pop, funk, and rock mix during the '80s, and when they hit the big time, the label began reissuing their earlier, less successful material. It's hard to understand why this didn't do as well as later albums like World Machine, Running in the Family, and Staring at the Sun, although the obvious reason would be that no singles ever broke that compared with the ones from those releases. But it was just as well produced, the songs were almost as cutely performed, and the arrangements are very similar.
Words: Ron Wynn
After several hit albums in the U.K., Level 42 finally found American success with the 1986 album World Machine and its hit single, "Something About You." When 1987's follow-up release Running in the Family also scored on this side of the Atlantic, it seemed Level 42 was here to stay. But 1988's Staring at the Sun was an artistic catastrophe and a commercial failure, and Level 42 would never again reach the artistic and commercial peak of its two U.S. successes. Guaranteed was a considerably better album than Staring at the Sun -- not that the band could do much worse -- but it went virtually unnoticed in America. The departure of founding members and primary songwriters Phil and Boon Gould in late 1987 began a series of major setbacks for Level 42. The Staring at the Sun album was misguided and flat, and replacement members Alan Murphy and Gary Husband didn't seem to gel. To throw the band into further disarray, Murphy died of AIDS in late 1989 and Level 42 was dropped from Polydor after almost a decade. Apart from a 1989 greatest-hits album, the band had not released a new album in three years. The group recruited guitarists Alan Holdsworth and Dominic Miller and signed with RCA, which released Guaranteed in 1991. Guaranteed boasts a number of catchy, if unremarkable, pop tunes; the title track (a Top 20 hit in the U.K.) is pleasant enough, and the almost-country number "My Father's Shoes" is unlike anything else the band ever recorded. Vocalist and bassist Mark King, who sounded nearly comatose on Staring at the Sun, is rejuvenated and energetic here, particularly on the upbeat "Overtime" and the funky "Her Big Day." Keyboardist Mike Lindup leads on one of the album's best tracks, the ballad "Lasso the Moon," and "With a Little Love" is a simple but engaging plea for (what else) love, peace, and happiness. Unfortunately, many of the songs here are dull and forgettable. The band itself is in top form, but even the best musicians can't do much with lifeless material. A couple of tracks are downright awful; "The Ape" is as silly as the title, and the overblown "If You Were Mine" is the album's worst song, proving drummer Gary Husband isn't much of a songwriter. It's nice that Level 42 was able to regain some of its credibility with this album; Staring at the Sun was so mind-bogglingly awful, anything the band had recorded afterward would have been an improvement. But compared to the rest of the band's output, Guaranteed barely registers. It isn't necessarily a bad album, but one listen makes it painfully obvious that Level 42 was on its last legs. The band would release one more album (1995's very good Forever Now) before disbanding.
Words: William Cooper
The commercial face of the '80s jazz-funk movement, the unashamedly unfashionable Level 42 may have been ridiculed by the genre's purists, but their percussive slap-bass-heavy sound regularly competed with the likes of Sade and Simply Red for the decade's dinner party music of choice, while the band scored four consecutive Top Three albums and 20 chart hits before disbanding in 1994. Twelve years on, and one of the music scene's few bassist-cum-lead singers, Mark King, returns with their 11th studio album, Retroglide. He may be the only permanent original member left, but co-written by guitarist Boon Gould (whose brother Phil features on the uncredited arrangement of "Ship"), and with keyboardist Mike Lindup adding his trademark falsetto vocals to many tracks, it's the first album to feature all four founding musicians since 1987's Running in the Family. But loyal and patient fans expecting to hear the same kind of hook-laden and funky bass-led tunes of their heyday will be sorely disappointed, as apart from the manic thunder-thumb skills displayed on the melodic rock-tinged opener "Dive into the Sun," and the frenetic fretboard-showcasing of "Sleep Talking" which, bizarrely, features a breakneck speed rap from the unlikely MC King, its 11 tracks are very much at the progressive, ambient, and occasionally directionless end of proceedings. None more so than on the meandering, seven-minute "The Way Back Home" which opens with some clock-ticking sparse electronica before it chugs along slowly into a Johnny Hates Jazz-esque slice of over-polished new wave pop which suggests King hasn't spent the last 12 years listening to any music post-1987, a problem which swamps the self-produced LP. Elsewhere, "Ship" is a limp and plodding AOR ballad featuring an interminable prog rock guitar solo; "Just for You" is a monotonous, sub-Sting dirge which is instantly forgettable despite its seemingly neverending, repeated chorus, while the aimless "All Around," which features the quintessential '80s musical touch, the sax solo, is inoffensive incidental music at best. Having all but ignored their unique slap-bass sound which had previously set them apart from their fellow coffee-table contemporaries, Level 42 just sound like a very ordinary '80s wine bar house band. Those who don't want to tarnish their memories would be advised to give Retroglide a miss. Despite the few flashes of their old self, Retroglide is ultimately a poorly produced comeback which unfortunately hasn't been worth the wait.
Words: Jon O'Brien