Home / Celebrating Level 42’s Jazz-Fusion Roots

Celebrating Level 42’s Jazz-Fusion Roots

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Continuing the bass theme of last week's column, this week's column focuses on the rock/pop bass skills of Mark King and his group Level 42.

Before I describe their best work, I'll grant you this: yes, much of their 80s material falls victim to then-common overproduction and heavy dependence on synthesizers. Sure, they scored only one major hit in the U.S.: “Something About You” from 1985's World Machine album. I admit that, while suffering from synthesizer overkill, their follow-up album Running in the Family has long been a guilty pleasure of mine. In fact, I posit that “It's Over” is one of the best ballads of the 80s, and still packs an emotional punch today.

However, it's their earlier material, which never charted in America, that makes Level 42 stand out from other 80s bands. U.S. music fans may not know that the group began as a jazz-fusion group, driven by King's “slap bass” style, a style popularized by Larry Graham (Sly & the Family Stone and Graham Central Station) and Bootsy Collins, among other artists. For more information on slap bass style, check out Wikipedia's entry and the always excellent Bass Player Magazine site. Rounded out by original members Phil Gould (drums), Boon Gould (guitar), and Mike Lindup (keyboards and vocals), Level 42 formed in 1980, primarily composing instrumentals. However, their record company encouraged them to add more vocals to their material to achieve greater mainstream success. Thus King emerged as the lead singer for most of their tracks, and they transformed into an R&B-influenced group. Thus the period between 1980-1985 remains their most creative, soulful, and natural.

courtesy www.level42.comTheir self-titled debut album (1981) showcases their funky sound and jazz leanings. “Love Games,” a disco-tinged cut, prominently features King's slap bass and vocal interplay between King's funkier vocals and Lindup's gentle falsetto. Lindup also propels “Starchild,” a catchy merging of R&B and jazz chord changes, while “Turn It On” shows King's considerable bass skills. Their artistic growth continues with their next release, Strategy, which features standout instrumental tracks like “88” and “Mr. Pink,” along with a personal favorite, “Wings of Love.” 1982's The Pursuit of Accidents began leaning toward a pop sound, as evidenced by “Are You Hearing (What I Hear),” an up-tempo cut fueled by King's lightning-fast playing and new-wave synthesizers. “The Chinese Way,” while filled with mythical images, manages to sound closer to pop without sacrificing their funk roots. Finally, “Weave Your Spell” transcends the typical “boy meets girl” genre through King's bass groove and Lindup's simple, clear vocal. I defy you to listen to this song without at least tapping your foot to the infectious beat.

Standing in the Light (1983) ventures further toward rock/pop, but retains its fusion roots. “The Machine Stops” features an amazingly difficult bassline only a gifted slap bass player like King could manage. While charmingly dated, “Micro Kid” involves insecurity about then-current technology. Alternating between Pac-Man blips, bass, and jazz progressions, the song captures a particular time when popular culture attempted to incorporate this new digital world into music and art. By their next release, True Colours, Level 42 clearly heads toward a pop/rock direction with cuts like “The Chant Has Begun,” a Tears for Fears-like track urging revolution. Still, King gets a funk workout with “Hot Water,” again striking a nice balance between rock and R&B. By 1984, the band finally hit the British top ten with the single“The Sun Goes Down (Livin' It Up),” a still-catchy track with odd lyrics concerning social anxiety and fears about war. King's and Lindup's vocal exchange—one world-weary and cynical, the other naive and fearful—makes the song stand out. Level 42's early period ends with 1985's A Physical Presence, a live album highlighting their impressive concerts. Like many jam bands, they often extend songs such as “Love Games” into longer funk/jazz workouts. Don't miss King's bass solo introduction to the aforementioned song.

Although Level 42 has continued to record with different line-ups (their last album, 2006's Retroglide, is available by import-only in the U.S.), they never returned to their earlier sound, which is regrettable. The U.S. market missed their most creative period and best examples of King's unique playing style. Thanks to various reissues, all audiences can discover (or rediscover) their funky sound and cease to think of Level 42 as a one-hit wonder.

To experience early Level 42, check out the albums previously mentioned. If you'd rather invest in compilations, try Level Best , The Ultimate Collection (import only), and The Early Tapes: Level 42 (also available by import). All of these albums can be found on Amazon.com, and some songs are available through the U.K. iTunes store. Fortunately You Tube contains a variety of Level 42 videos and live performances; check this link for a thorough listing. Level 42's official site also contains a complete listing of videos available on You Tube.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • It’s an interesting parallel to Journey’s own story where the band achieved fame only after moving away from their fusion roots and squarely into the mainstream.

    Mark King is even arguably the band’s Neal Schon; the virtuoso on his instrument and the only original player still left standing (Retroglide is essentially a King solo album with guest players).

    His bass line on “Good Man In A Storm” (from World Machine) is one of my favorites from the eighties; it’s not his most difficult but still amazing considering that he can play that and sing at the same time.

  • I agree, Pico–it’s amazing how Mark King could play those fast, intricate bass lines while singing. Interesting comparison to Journey’s, um, journey to success; it can be difficult to cross over while staying true to your roots.

  • Rosemary Miller

    You rock like Elvis! Great article : )

  • Forgot to give you props for the article, Kit. It’s always intriguing to me to read about how bands start out on a different path than where they end up when they achieve their fame. I was aware of L42’s fusion roots but you filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about it.

    Speaking of fusion, it’s also interesting that in their “post-fame” period they had fusion guitar meastro Alan Holdsworth on board for one album.