Ipswich Regent – 15/10/16
Isle of Wight Brit-Funk stalwarts are still reeling in the crowds
Mention Level 42 to most people and you’ll get a look or comment that conveys an opinion that they were nothing more than Eighties cheese-meisters and pop lightweights, loved only by Essex boys in chunky sweaters driving Ford Capri’s with furry dice. Well, I never drove a Capri, nor had fabric-based windscreen garnishes and whilst I may be East Anglian, I was always north of Essex and hated large knitwear. I was snared by Level 42 in my early teens, feeling uncontrollably moved by the immense musical technicality on display and Mark King’s trademark bass style. A style of playing that garnered him Sounds Best Bassist award on at least one occasion back in the day.
“There’s not a bum note in sight. King even manages to hit all his high vocal notes, and Lindup’s falsetto is as distinctive and bright as ever.”
Emerging from the Isle of Wight in the early Eighties, they spearheaded the Brit-Funk movement and were clearly the only band who would ever go on to achieve mainstream acceptance with their blend of political lyrics and pop melodies, peppered with that inimitable slap bass. Each album saw them grow in stature, and as the Larry Dunn & Verdine White produced ‘Standing In The Light’ yielded them major success with tracks like ‘The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’, the follow up, 1984’s ‘True Colours’, saw them mature into something far beyond the slick, shiny pop-funk of the earlier years. And in 1985, ‘World Machine’ finally saw them straddle the line of being a successful chart act whilst retaining their hard-earned status as one of the tightest live bands in the land. And that’s where it all started to go wrong, with drummer and key lyricist Phil Gould deciding to part company after the hugely commercial success of 1987’s ‘Running In The Family’, citing that very commercial sound as a key factor in his decision to leave and maintain some artistic integrity. His brother, Boon, would also leave at the same time due to illness, and Messer’s King & Lindup soldiered on for a few more years, drafting in the great and the good of the jazz/prog scene to fill in the missing parts.
I last saw Level 42 play live, in the very same venue as this evening, on what turned out to be their farewell tour in 1994. The tour hadn’t started out as such, but half way through, King & Lindup announced that it would be the end of the road and few could blame them. After that, Lindup went off to pursue his own musical path, guesting here and there and releasing a second solo album in 2003, whilst King also released a solo album (‘One Man’) and put together a band that would increasingly rely on Level 42 songs in their set, until they both rejoined forces in 2006 to produce a new album, ‘Retroglide’ under the Level 42 banner and begin touring again, extensively.
Whilst the only new material to emerge from Level 42 since then has been an EP of new material, entitled ‘Sirens’, in late 2013, the band continue to tour and this new venture, entitled Sirens II, sees the band playing a greatest hit set list, much to the pleasure of their ever-ageing fanbase. And that really is the first thing you notice about a Level 42 gig. Everyone is in their late 40s, early 50s and many more beyond that. It’s more than a little disconcerting to see a 50+ man with little of their own hair and substantial beer bellies getting animated as Mark king embarks on some thumb-based shenanigans. The band today consist of Lindup and King, with Mark’s brother Nathan on guitar and Pete Ray Biggin on drums. The latter has a proper fairytale story of his ascension to the role of tub thumper for Britain’s least trendy eighties act. A fan from childhood, he managed to snag the drum stool after his hero, Gary Husband, vacated it after ‘Retroglide’. The line up is completed by the delightfully named Clunge Horns, an all male brass/backing vocals trio that reside at the rear of the stage and add some much needed oomph to proceedings, as well as relieving Lindup from various brass stab duties.
Entering stage right amid a rumbling sequenced bass riff, the band assume positions and kick off with a surprise opener in “If You Were Mine” from 1991’s ‘Guaranteed’ album. Last time I heard that played live was in that same year, at some venue in Peterborough. I think it also took some of the audience by surprise too, particularly those who really only know them for those two hugely successful albums in the mid-Eighties.
Once the shock of the opener wears off, the first thing you notice is that the entire band are wearing suits and ties and that they all carry it off quite well (particularly Lindup) but King’s attire looks a tad off-kilter, like he missed the fitting session. But it doesn’t seem to affect his performance and he retains his attire throughout the show, accentuated by the silver sheen and illuminated fretboard of his bass. King continues to wield this like some kind of enchanted weapon, delivering both a solid groove and technical brilliance in an effortless manner. In fact, the entire band are, as they always were, whichever incarnation you knew best, tight as the proverbial nun’s chuff. The one consistent thing about everyone that has played in Level 42 is their superior technical and musical ability. There’s not a bum note in sight. King even manages to hit all his high vocal notes, and Lindup’s falsetto is as distinctive and bright as ever. Nathan King’s guitar playing is almost a carbon copy of the band’s founding guitarist, Boon Gould. Both Gould and King demonstrate a masterclass in understated embellishment. Level 42 were never a guitar band in the traditional sense. Bass and keys were the musical foundation, but the six-string filled the necessary gaps so that you hardly noticed them but would miss them if they weren’t there. As for Biggin on drums, the guy is a monster. He is one of life’s “active” drummers, like an octopus in a cage. My only criticism would be that he can be a bit over-elaborate with his fills. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. But the immediate impression I get from this latest version of the band is that it is streamlined, well-organised and very much “in the pocket”. It dawns on me, just as we reach the title track of ‘World Machine’, that despite the horn section at the rear, this is very much a four-piece band, just like it used to be, with everyone bouncing off each other in a very comfortable, familiar way. It also dawns on me that the dynamic of the band is balanced by siblings again. Whereas originally, it was Phil and Boon Gould, now the brothers King seem to provide a familial bond that seems to be quite sweet and reassuring. Like I said, Level 42 are a bass and keys band, and the other ‘family’ tie between the two remaining original members is still strong and deeply respectful.
By the halfway point, having played songs from five different albums already, the crowd, who for the first few numbers seemed undecided as to whether they should sit or stand, are now favouring the latter. Maybe the age thing does come into play? I, for one, have noticed that I’d much rather sit at a number of gigs in recent years. My back is shot to bits and I’m a mere 5’6”, so as soon as someone in front of me chooses to rise, I have to (reluctantly) follow suit. But the halfway mark sees the band break out the big guns and the staccato chords of “The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)” has even the most ardent and resistant of us out of our chairs and in the aisles.
Whilst the band knock out the big hits (‘Running In The Family’, ‘Lessons In Love’, ‘Something About You’, etc.) it’s quite refreshing to see them delve into other songs that may have not seen the light of day in public for many years. Tracks like ‘Micro-Kid’ and ‘Starchild’ definitely get my stamp of approval, harking back to the pre-global fame days. The only bum choice of the night is the newer track, ‘Build Myself A Rocket’ from the Sirens EP. Of the six songs on that release, it is by far the weakest, but they follow it up with the ‘crowd-pleasing ‘Hot Water’ which still, some 32 years on, manages to feel fresh and groove-laden as ever. The arrangements of all the songs played carries on the Level 42 tradition of adding new elements to the songs, with little journeys into classic Brit-Funk/Acid-Jazz solos, improv’s and middle-eights that mean that even the most recognisable hits get a new lease of life.
As ‘Hot Water’ comes to a resounding end, the band, who all displayed light-up instruments in some kind of “me too” nod to King’s illuminated bass, take a bow and depart.
What? No bass solo???
The crowd continue their show of appreciation as loud as any I’ve heard in recent years and Mark reappears after a few minutes, straps on his mighty weapon and delivers the bass solo that all Level 42 fans have come to expect. His ability to draw so much musicality out of the bass is the stuff of legend. Forget the machine gun slapping, King has a way of coaxing far more musicality out of that thing than many of his peers dare. He strums it like a six-string, embellishes with harmonics and effortlessly switches playing styles that eventually ramp up to the inevitable rendition of ‘Love Games’ that has faithfully followed such events over the years. This is followed by the classic ‘Chinese Way’ where King almost inserts his adult version of the bridging lyric that talks about “thighs wide open” and “feeling a breeze” but resists the testicular reference that was once common-place in days gone by.
And with that, the band take a second, prolonged bow and bring the proverbial curtain down. King & Lindup remain on-stage for a good 5-10 minutes, greeting the front rows with handshakes, selfies and autographs which is actually a really nice touch.
The musical landscape has changed so much since Level 42 broke into it nearly 40 years ago. Their combined and individual musical prowess and craftsmanship is a thing of the past within the industry, nowadays. They were always seen as four masters in their respective instrumental fields, like session musicians who’d had the added ability of being able to write great pop songs. And they have had to rail against an unfair stigma of being the band of choice for Southern wide-boys and those who couldn’t quite get into the blacker funk and soul on offer elsewhere. I had told a friend earlier in the day that I was off to see Level 42 and the reply was, “Well, someone has to!” and yet it was immediately followed by an acknowledgement of their ability and achievements. It’s never quite been ‘cool’ to say you like Level 42 outside of the company of other Level 42 fans. But the bottom line is, even to this day, there’s no band quite like them live, and they still sell out mid-sized venues with consummate ease. And after this performance, long may it continue.
If You Were Mine
Running in the Family
The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)
Something About You
Lessons in Love
Build Myself a Rocket
The Chinese Way