Chartwise, Level 42 are a very big name. Their last LP. World Machine, went double platinum in Britain, and, with the second—biggest selling single in Europe last year (‘Lessons in Love‘) and a mammoth tour lined up for the remainder of the year, taking in no less than eight nights at Wembley Arena. it‘s quite obvious that Level 42 have arrived. Their current LP, Running in the Family, will probably prOpel them to the top rung ofpop fame. Their rise has been a gradual one,
immensely drawn—out by current standards. by which meagrely— talented clothes-horses can attain ‘stardom‘ for a few months before fading back into obscurity when the public have found a new novelty. Level 42 audiences just kept growing with each album. Even when Top of the Pops appearances increased in frequency, it took a while for most people to realise what hot property the band had become. Drummer. and (along with his brother Boon) main songwriter Phil Gould is pleased with the way they‘ve come up. ‘It‘s not just skin deep. we‘ve consolidated our following with every album.‘
The realisation of how far they‘ve come and what could lie in store must be a dizzying thought to this group. mainly considered Isle of Wight musos. They are, to be fair. not the most likely pop stars. ‘We were all complete know-alls when we first started.‘ Gould explains. ‘No-one could tell us anything. But no, it all seemed so unlikely that we‘d get that kind ofattention . . . Our first tour of the States was a club tour. and that sold out by word of mouth. Then in Canada it just took off! When we went back to the States we were supporting Steve Winwood, playing larger venues, and that gave us a more realistic view: that it was just a drop in the ocean.‘
‘a complete vacuum’
Level 42 surfaced in the Brit-funk/ jazz-funk boom of the early Eighties with several albums ofwhat could loosely be termed fusion. and had the misfortune of being lumped in with that scene. As always happens, most of the bands of that era have broken up or submerged again. Level 42. however. have gone from strength to strength.
‘We were scorned by all aspects of the media as a cultish left-field jam-funk band playing for bank clerks and Cortina drivers. The next minute we‘ve got a lot ofcredibility with the media that we didn‘t have before. So maybe it just turns out like that.‘
‘1 think in the early days it was always “Oh. they‘re good musicians“ and that was it. We used to get lumped into the same bracket as Shakatak. No disrespect to Shakatak. but I‘m about as close to that mentality as I am — well. it‘s just chalk and cheese really. It happened because we came from the same scene. there was the same background: Southern English jazz-funk clubs.
Alastair Mabbott talks to a band who have travelled to the top from an unlikely background.
‘But we were always very different musically. We just went with the flow. making the music we felt like making at any particular stage. and other people were saying this is jazz-funk. or this is jazz, or this is rock. That always bothered me. You wouldn‘t want to put people in little boxes. so why should you want to put their music and their culture in boxes?‘ He pauses for a moment and reﬂects. ‘lt‘s quite a surprise that anyone wants to listen to us nowadays, because at one stage we were shunned by all aspects of the media.‘
Phil Gould started playing drums ‘It polarised you‘ at fifteen, after a succession of short-lived attempts at different musical instruments. and joined a band with his older brother Boon. One thing led to another. and the
Goulds moved to London to start practising in a rehearsal room rented by keyboard player Mike Lindup. who was studying in the city at the time. With Mark King on bass guitar and vocals. Level 42 was born. and started to feel the Linnean classification ofthe music papers for the first time.
‘II was interesting growing up in the Isle ofWight in that respect. because it‘s a complete vacuum musically and artistically. There was a little music scene. but all the bands were doing chart numbers and we could only manage to do a couple of songs we wrote ourselves. It polarised you. You either stayed there and ended up working in holiday camps. which I did for a couple of years while l was saving up to go to London. or you got out of there. It was good because we didn‘t become part of any scene. or musical mentality.‘
Since those days their music has grown progressively poppier. tending towards commercial singles, rather than impressive musical workouts. Nevertheless. it has to be said that a huge factor in the band‘s success has been the stunning virtuosity of bassist and singer Mark King. A case in point: never a fan of Level 42‘s music myself. I could spend hours listening to King's lightning-fast snapping ‘n‘ plucking funk runs. How he manages to sing at the same time is quite beyond me. He also provides a visual focus for a band who have incredibly managed to remain almost faceless. despite their success. Yet in a recent radio interview. King told how he was playing down the musical pyrotechnics to concentrated on the arrangement and structure of individual songs. Everything suggests a tighter ship (or have they just realised the big bucks that could lie in store?)
“stunning Virtuosny‘ ‘lt‘s more controlled now.‘ says Gould. ‘lt‘s less like what happens on the day. We see the potential in ideas and exploit it now. as opposed
to going into a studio and laying down a track and thinking. Well. that could‘ve been really great if we‘d done it another way. People would always wonder when they came to live shows why the songs had completely different structures live from what was on the record. We used to just go into the studio and make stuff up on the road and change the arrangements. and by the end of the tour. the songs would sound as they should‘ve sounded when we recorded them. Now I think when we record the songs we get the structure that works best for whatever ideas we have.‘
And as for the poppier material that has ended in a string of hits that looks potentially endless? Are we to assume that it was a conscious decision to head in that direction?
‘Yes. I think “Something About You“ pointed us in that direction. It was one side of the group that was a smaller precentage ofwhat we did. and now it‘s taken over. more or less.
‘lt‘s more controlled now‘
We don‘t do instrumentals any more and we keep our chops to a minimum. We‘ve done all that stuff before. and we want to see how far we can go as songwriters.
‘I think the current album is a coming to the end ofour previous way ofdoing things. We started with World Machine and we‘ve brought it to fruition with Running In the Family. We‘ve exploited that way of approaching songwriting. The next time we go into the studio we‘ll be moving on. we‘ll be doing something different. We don‘t want to fall into a pattern. It may sound like we already have. but we‘ve just sort of consolidated the ideas we had on World Machine with this album.‘ Level 42 are at The Playhouse. Edinburgh on Sat 1/ and Sun 12 April. See Rock Listings.
8 The List 3 — 16 April