The band formula… what works? Case study: Level 42

What makes a band click and strike a chord that resonates with many people?

Case study: Level 42!

Even though Level 42 still plays in some form, I will use the past tense as I’m interested in their 1980′s legacy.

Mark King, he would admit himself, is/was not a great singer but he’s always been able to sing with confidence, and in tune! His main skill was playing the bass, I would say he was peerless in his rhythmic slap style. His bassplaying, singing, his enthusiasm and most of all, his acceptance and relish of being the front man of the band really showed.

Mike Lindup: A refined falsetto voice complimenting King’s gruff tones. A great keyboard player (Guildhall graduate), he looked like he really had freedom to do his thing, they all clearly loved the jazz fusion they’d been listening to in the 1970s: Return to Forever, Weather Report, Miles Davis. His Jan Hammer-style synth solos and comping gave the band that fusiony sound right from the beginning of their jams and first recordings in 1980.

The Gould brothers, (Phil-drums, Boon-guitar) took a back seat on stage, but were very good players, especially Phil Gould, highly respected for his tasteful, musical playing. Again, these two were key to the success of the band because, though they didn’t make a big deal out of it, they wrote most of the lyrics, and so the concepts and subject matters of these songs were theirs.

The 5th Beatle: Not George Martin, but in Level 42′s case, Wally Badarou (France/Benin) co-wrote and played keyboard on many of their tracks. It’s hard to know exactly the extent of his influence, as he’s one of these producers who likes to do things behind the scenes and not take the limelight.

Level 42 is one of the few bands (or only band?) to have incorporated jazz fusion lines and melodies into their pop hits, without anyone noticing… normally these phrases would be edited out as being unnecessary for pop tastes, but not with L42. For example, one of their biggest hits “Hot Water” starts with a bebop/blues style riff with rhythmic displacement (muso-talk!)… and they play this even to a mainstream Wembley crowd!

Intellectual subject matters that seemed to go in direct opposition to the bouncy funk beats slapped by Mr King… e.g. Kansas City Milkman- “I’m just a common man, of that there is no shame, is there?”; Running in the Family- “Like a dream within a dream we’re all somewhere in between”; A Floating Life- “Shed your tears for a shallow dream/Let your cry be a primal scream/A song through the mists of time/ A serenade to your concubine” …and what about this, from World Machine: “Teachers teach and preachers preach of spiritual evolution/But this big I am from Uncle Sam just adds to my confusion”!

Watching the 1986 Live at Wembley concert, there’s almost a yob, football crowd mentality about cheering Mark King on with his slap bass solo, like a macho thing… “Go on Mark! Give it some Mark!” I don’t think anyone else has pulled in that type of reaction for slap bass solos in front of a mainstream audience (maybe Flea from RHC Peppers). In that solo, you can’t actually hear the notes he’s playing, just the percussion, but that doesn’t matter, it’s entertainment!

It’s hard to define what pulls in a crowd at a certain point in time. Level 42 somehow hit the zeitgeist in 1986/7, their album Running in the Family was their biggest album by far, with singles doing well all over the world. They managed to bring funk, jazz, intellectual (if a bit pretentious) lyrics, football crowd style adulation of the bass guitar, and pop sensibilities together into a successful product.

They then went over the edge in my opinion, the original essence of that jazz fusion sound was lost, and the music just became regular pop schmaltz. Two of those unique ingredients of the original successful recipe, the Gould brothers, left the band after making Running in the Family, and it showed, as session musicians Gary Husband, Alan Murphy and others came in to fill the gaps. The new guys were great players but didn’t have that X factor that had made the original band formula work so well.

I wonder what some of those great basslines Mark King played would have sounded like with some great soloists of the 80s improvising on top… like guitarist Pat Metheny or saxophonist Michael Brecker…? Well it probably would have stayed in some vault, stored as obscure jazz! That’s why Level 42 was a winning formula for more than 5 years…

Moral of the story: Use the strengths and resources of everyone in the band and don’t worry if you haven’t heard that mix of elements before… “If it ain’t broke…”