Level 42

TrackAlbum
Theme To MargaretThe Early Tapes
Love GamesLevel 42
The Chinese WayThe Pursuit Of Accidents
Standing In The LightStanding In The Light
I Want EyesStanding In The Light
True BelieversTrue Colours
Almost There (live)A Physical Presence
Something About YouWorld Machine
Good Man In A StormWorld Machine
It's OverRunning In The Family

Level 42 photo 2

 

 

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Level 42 playlist

 

Contributor: Sean Farrell

Level 42 were one of the most popular – and misunderstood – bands of the 80s. Starting out in London’s jazz-funk scene they were initially mocked as music for the furry dice set and ended up derided as backing music for yuppies to play at dinner parties on their new CD players.

Yes, the band rode the decade of excess to produce increasingly slick pop-funk tied to an aspirational image. But at their best, Level 42 produced expertly crafted, superbly played songs with lyrics that questioned the assumptions of the era.

Level 42 were an accidental band. Phil Gould moved to London from the Isle of Wight in the late 70s to study piano at the Guildhall School of Music where he met Mike Lindup, a percussion student from London whose father was the composer David Lindup.

Separately Gould’s friend Mark King, a drummer and all-round musical prodigy, and brother Rowland, known as Boon, also moved to London looking for musical careers. The Goulds and King had played in various bands on the island, sometimes overlapping.

In 1979, King, Lindup and Phil Gould started jamming with Dominic Miller, later a top session player and Sting’s musical director, on guitar. Miller made way for Boon Gould and Phil Gould drafted in synth wizard Wally Badarou, who had played with him and King in M (of Pop Muzik fame).

King had blagged his way into a job at Macari’s music store by saying he could play bass and he quickly picked up the increasingly popular slap style from visiting US musicians. When King started playing bass in the jams, Phil Gould became the drummer with Lindup taking up keyboards and Boon Gould on guitar.

The band started playing live without Badarou, who had a fourishing session career with Grace Jones and others. Badarou was effectively the band’s fifth member, playing, composing and co-producing on all their 80s LPs.

King became Level 42’s focal point by taking on the role of lead singer when the band started writing lyrics. His bass playing also marked Level 42 out at the start of the 80s when slap was increasingly popular, and many of the group’s songs revolved around his upfront lines.

Level 42 composed partly as a collective with many members contributing ideas but King and Phil Gould were the main songwriting team. Phil wrote most of the band’s lyrics and much of the music with King while Lindup came up with his own songs and Boon Gould supplied more lyrics from the mid-80s onwards.

King and Phil Gould’s partnership became tense as Gould’s lyrics increasingly dealt with serious themes such as war and the environment. The pair’s world views would also polarise with King hungry for commercial success and Gould unhappy about the band’s drift into a more generic 80s pop sound. Politically the band was divided between Phil Gould and Lindup on the liberal left and Boon Gould and King, who embraced Thatcherite individualism.

After a string of moderately successful albums and hit singles the band hit the big time with the World Machine LP in 1985. They followed up 18 months later with the even more successful Running In The Family album, whose title track and Lessons In Love were international hits.

But the slog of endless touring and internal tensions took their toll just as the band hit its peak. Exhausted and with Phil at loggerheads with King, the Gould brothers quit in 1987, leaving King and Lindup to recruit new members. Both brothers stayed in touch with the band to varying degrees and an attempted reunion in 2003 collapsed because of continued animosity between Phil Gould and Mark King.

After the Goulds left, Level 42 released three more LPs before breaking up in 1994. The best, Forever Now, featured Phil Gould in a brief return, but none was a match for their peak 80s output. All the songs on my list are drawn from that period with at least one from each of their seven studio LPs and the band’s double live LP.

King and Lindup have toured with a revamped version of Level 42 since the mid-2000s and have released an LP, Retroglide, and an EP. I saw them in 2021 and had a good time. A full reunion is now impossible after the tragic death by suicide of Boon Gould in 2019.

 

THE MUSIC

Before signing to Polydor in 1981, Level 42 recorded an album’s worth of material for Elite Records, an independent label at the centre of Britfunk run by Andy Sojka and Jerry Pike, who were leading lights of the scene. The tunes included the band’s first single, Love Meeting Love, which I’m excluding because of Boon Gould’s sickly lyrics. Most of the tracks were instrumentals that started off as jams and Theme To Margaret is the funkiest with an aggressive King bassline and the whole band on top form. Polydor bought the rights to the Elite sessions and released them as The Early Tapes LP in 1982.

The band’s first single for Polydor was the best song from their self-titled debut LP. Love Games was a template for much of what was to come with King thumping his low E string and combining his lead vocal with Lindup’s falsetto in the bridges. The Gould brothers provide a sparse drum groove and tasteful rhythm guitar and the whole package is held together by Badarou’s recurring synth line. Love Games edged into the UK top 40 and earned Level 42 their first appearance on the BBC show Top Of The Pops. Across the UK, budding bass players hitched their instruments higher and copied King’s slap technique.

The first two singles from Level 42’s second album, The Pursuit Of Accidents, stalled outside the UK top 40. But it was third time lucky for The Chinese Way which gave the band their biggest single so far, reaching number 23. One of many Level 42 hits completed in a rush, the song has almost nonsensical lyrics with a vague Chinese mystical theme. But it grooves and again features the combo of King and Lindup on lead vocals. The band released many superior songs but it’s probably the best cut from The Pursuit Of Accidents and it put them on the map with another Top Of The Pops performance.

With their reputation growing, Level 42 caught the eye of Larry Dunn and Verdine White from Earth, Wind and Fire who offered to produce the band’s next LP in Los Angeles. Ditching the instrumentals that featured on earlier albums, the band produced a fine collection of songs that spanned upbeat dance tracks and more serious themes. The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up) provided their first UK top 10 hit but instead I’m going for the title track Standing In The Light. It’s a great groove with a restless lyric from Phil Gould and a revelatory key change for the chorus. King’s often overlooked finger playing is tasty and again there’s the trademark one-two of his and Lindup’s vocals.

Phil Gould, the band’s main lyricist, was increasingly interested in politics, history and social issues. The result was this intense song on Standing In The Light that still resonates today. Gould’s mother had two pictures, taken by a friend of his father’s, showing statues made by blind Korean orphans and one was called I Want Eyes. He kept the title in mind and used it for this lyric about the horrors of war and the cheapness of human life. Beautifully constructed, it features a heartfelt vocal from King that produced tears at the recording desk – though Gould says the song’s message barely registered with King.

 

After the mostly sunny sounding Standing In The Light, Level 42’s next album, True Colours, was a more rocky, austere collection apart from the raucous top 20 single Hot Water. As a result, the album didn’t do as well commercially as its predecessor though it contained some good songs. The pick of the bunch is this powerful groove with Phil Gould’s satirical lyric about the quest for meaning in the modern world. The playing, including a funky instrumental break, is terrific and True Believers whizzes by in what feels like much less than its five minutes.

Level 42 could sometimes seem a little laid back on record so people were often surprised by their intensity as a live band. The group’s endless touring contributed to the Gould brothers’ burnout but it turned them into a powerful, tight unit that played everything 20% faster and harder than on record. In 1986, when the festival was still more counterculture than part of the summer season, Level 42 took Glastonbury by storm in a headline set. The band captured their live act on the 1985 double LP A Physical Presence and Almost There was the opener. One of the best songs on the band’s first LP, it thunders along in this version, powered by King’s relentless bass and highlighting Boon Gould’s nifty rhythm and lead work.

 

After the disappointing reception for the True Colours LP, Level 42 were under pressure from their record company, Polydor, to come up with a big hit. They found it in Something About You, though not without a lot of hard work. Starting from Lindup playing the ascending opening line on the piano, the whole band was involved in assembling this piece of pop perfection. When the song was taking shape, Boon Gould brought in a new set of verse lyrics to replace the ones his brother had written. This annoyed Phil but helped the song reach another plane, according to Lindup. King pares back his bassline to give Something About You a spacious sound that helped Level 42 achieve their second top 10 single in the UK and a No.7 hit in the US. The single was supported by a glossy storyline video, reflecting King’s mantra to “think Rolex”, featuring the actress Cherie Lunghi. Something About You took Level 42 into the big league and paved the way for the success of the World Machine LP later in 1985.

World Machine is Level 42’s best album and is packed with great songs, including the second single Leaving Me Now. That song and several others reflected Phil Gould’s disorientation as his relationship with King, Polydor and the band’s management deteriorated and pressure for hits came up against his more serious lyrics. Good Man In A Storm is another of those songs and features a striking line about his brother Boon being “the boy who never learned how to cry” that now seems particularly poignant. The excellent melody is given room to breathe by an understated arrangement and King delivers a soulful vocal. Complete with sax solo, Good Man In A Storm has 1985 stamped all over it – in a good way.

The Running In The Family album, released in 1987, was the peak of Level 42’s popularity but augured the band’s implosion. The band abandoned their funk roots for a processed pop sound that produced a string of hit singles including the title track and their highest charting UK single, Lessons In Love. But beneath the glossy sheen few of the songs matched up to those on World Machine or Standing In The Light and the album has dated. Phil Gould hated the new direction and plotted his departure. An exception to the dip in quality was It’s Over, the album’s fourth UK top 10 single, with lyrics by Boon Gould. Ostensibly a love song, It’s Over hints at band problems that would prompt Boon to leave before his brother in 1987. It’s Over comes close to power balladry but it’s a very good song and the “feel the tears, running through the years” ending (longer on the LP version than the single) sung by Lindup is highly affecting and feels like a coda to the decade.

 

 

Level 42 official website

Phil Gould official website

Mike Lindup official website

Rowland “Boon” Gould (1955–2019) Wikipedia

Wally Badarou official website

Level 42 private facebook group

Level 42 biography (AllMusic)

Sean Farrell is a journalist who has worked at the Guardian, the Independent and other publications. He first saw Level 42 play at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1984. Sean lives in Ramsgate on the Kent coast. He is on Twitter @farrell_s

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3 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Jun 5, 2022

    A fantastic band who did feature one of my all time heroes Allan Holdsworth for a bit. Holdsworth was such that very few could play with him so it says a lot about his and their musicianship. My other favourite Level 42 related item outside of this marvellous list (and nearly everything else they did) is this French and Saunders skit – keep an eye out for Mark King. I’m pretty sure he can read the dots.

    • Sean
      Jun 5, 2022

      Glad you liked the list. Blimey that sketch goes on!

  2. Ian Ashleigh
    Jun 11, 2022

    Level 42 played a fabulous set at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention in 2015. I’d forgotten just how good their music was – and I cannot believe it was 7 years ago!

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