LEVEL 42 ELEVATES ITSELF WITH POP HIT
Mark King gagged as the memory of that night came back to him. “I cringe when I think about it,” groaned King, who plays bass for the English pop/funk/jazz quartet Level 42, which has the Top 10 hit “Something About You.” “It was awful, even painful.”
King, who’s quite animated and excitable, was being overly melodramatic. The staggeringly grim night he was referring to was a recent opening at the Roxy.
To hear him tell it, Level 42, which also includes Mike Lindup (keyboards) and brothers Phil (drums) and Boon (guitar) Gould, sounded horrible and the Roxy is an ill-equipped dungeon. “I hated every minute of that night,” King, 27, reiterated. “The sound system wasn’t any good, the lights were weird and there’s absolutely no room on that stage.
“And they even set up tables! Can you believe that? How could anyone get up and dance if they’ve set up tables with bloody napkins? The second night was better. The band was used to those conditions. We weren’t in shock any longer.”
Actually, the show, part of the band’s first American tour, wasn’t bad. The band played some exciting, absorbing pieces.
Level 42 is a funk/fusion unit masquerading as a pop band. True, the club’s sound wasn’t terrific, but band’s primary strength, King’s bass playing, came across loud and clear. His “slapping” bass reverberated throughout the Roxy and helped provide a scintillating foundation for their funky, danceable pieces.
Level 42 sounds much better live. Its latest album, “World Machine,” is a slick, pop version of its basic jazz/funk sound. On the album--No. 18 on the Billboard pop chart--you’re treated to just a fraction of Level 42’s live power. King, candid and outspoken as usual, explained why this album is different from its other, more esoteric works:
“We wanted a pop hit so we had to make a pop-sounding record. For five years we had been trying to get a hit in America and nothing worked, so we had to change. That meant individual virtuosity had to take a back seat. There was no room for all my bass slapping. The emphasis was on hooks and singable rhythms. If that sounds calculated, it is.”
King feels Level 42 is primarily an instrumental band that uses vocals because it has to: “I sing because my voice is the best of our voices, which aren’t very good. I’m not the biggest fan of our singing. I’m sure millions of Americans will agree with me about the singing.”
Inspired by late ‘60s and early ‘70s jazz-rock fusion, Level 42 started in 1980 as an instrumental unit. The band, on PolyGram Records in America, has been popular in Europe since the early ‘80s. Though Level 42 has recorded seven albums, “World Machine” is only its third U.S. album release. The last one was “Standing in the Light,” on A&M; Records, in 1984.
“That was a wasted release,” King said sarcastically. “Nobody knew it was out.”
The band had to resort to threats to get another American release earlier this year. “We told Polydor in England (which is affiliated with America’s PolyGram) that if we didn’t get any action in America, we wouldn’t renew our European contract. We’re successful in Europe. They didn’t want to lose us for that market. They guaranteed us they would put ‘World Machine’ out in America and work hard to make it a hit. So here we are, with a hit record.”
Another factor in the American success, King noted, is the band’s new management company, Outlaw Management. The American failure of the 1984 A&M; album led to a change in management. “The old manager didn’t want us to risk playing in America,” King explained. “He felt we were doing fine in England and Europe, so why should we go to America and lose money? The band lost 140,000 (about $210,000) on this tour. That wasn’t what the band wanted to do. So we got a new manager.”
It wasn’t that easy. Their old manager was Boon and Phil Gould’s brother. “Business and families don’t mix,” King said. “The whole experience left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.”
For a great bass player, King has a strange attitude toward playing bass. “Practice, are you kidding?” he replied incredulously, as if he had been accused of some dastardly deed. “I don’t practice, not ever. I don’t like it. Playing bass is just a job. It’s not my whole life. I spend enough time with it when I’m working.”
Bass players, he said in a condescending tone, don’t really turn him on: “I’ve never been a great fan of bass players. I like Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius, but I don’t get great thrills from bass players.”
Surprisingly, King is not a veteran player. He started playing bass in 1980, the same year Level 42 was organized. Before that he was a drummer. King, who grew up on the Isle of Wight, started playing drums at 9 and continued until he moved to London when he was 20. If King had been better at playing drums, he might never have tried bass.
“Phil Gould (the band’s drummer) was a friend from the Isle of Wight,” King recalled. “He was a better drummer than me. When we started the band, we didn’t need two drummers. That’s when I started playing bass.”
But his passion for drumming hasn’t abated. “I even prefer listening to drummers, people like Billy Cobham, Tony Williams and Lenny White,” he said. “Drums do something to me that bass doesn’t do. But I earn my living playing bass. I’m stuck with it.”