Something About Him - In conversation with Level 42 frontman Mark King
Matt Adams speaks at length to Mark King, legendary bass-wielding frontman for Level 42, as the band celebrates its 30th anniversary.
HIS was the thumb which inspired a thousand bass guitarists, the front man of one of the most popular bands of the eighties, successfully bridging the gap between funk and pop in a way no other group had ever achieved.
Between 1980 and 1994 hits including Lessons In Love, Something About You, Running In The Family, Leaving Me Now and The Sun Goes Down catapulted Level 42 into the premier league of British music acts, with the distinctive slap bass of guitarist Mark King a familiar characteristic of their work.
But the changing music landscape in the mid-1990s saw the group’s time in the spotlight come to an end, and solo careers beckoned until public demand brought key members back together once again in 2005.
Now the group is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a series of concerts across the world, including the St Albans Arena, and Mark is determined to prove he can still slap bass with the best of them.
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Growing up on the Isle of Wight, multi-faceted musician Mark King moved to London when he was just 19. Working in West End music shop Macari’s, he saw visiting American funk players demonstrating the thumb-slap bass guitar technique for which he would eventually become renowned.
He formed Level 42 in 1979 with fellow islanders Phil and Rowland “Boon” Gould, with the addition of vocalist and keyboardist Mike Lindup helping to develop their own jazz-funk fusion style through mainly instrumental material.
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The origins of the band’s name can be found in Douglas Adams’ sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the number 42 is reportedly the answer to life, the universe and everything, a source Mark freely admits pilfering from: “It’s a funny book. Boon and I were crashing in this place in Walthamstow and reading the book at the time we were looking for a name for the band.
“We originally wanted to call it 88 because we liked the idea of the numerology – punk had seen very aggressive names so the idea of calling ourselves ‘The something-or-another’ just didn’t seem to work, so we wanted something else. We thought if we give it a number that’s so away from the punk theme that it might help do the job.”
Mark started off playing drums before realising Phil was not only just as good a drummer as he was but also had his own kit. To cement the deal, the music store where Mark worked didn’t stock drums, preventing him from getting any extra practice during the day, so he switched to bass guitar, developing his own style in a matter of weeks.
“Our influences were largely the players who were coming out of America. We knew a lot of the players who had come out of Miles Davis’ extrapolation of jazz and electronic music and his love affair with Jimi Hendrix, and were trying to meld the whole thing into electric jazz.”
The band signed to independent record label Elite Records in 1980, which brought them to the attention of Polydor and their second recording contract.
At this time the group were encouraged to expand their vocal music, with Mark and Mike reluctantly becoming the band’s singers, although lyric-free tracks would continue to feature as part of their repertoire for many years to come.
Coming up with the titles for instrumentals had always proved a challenge, with the lack of any lyrics forcing some unusual decisions in terms of names, but also prompting Mark to draw on personal influences as well.
“We always had stupid titles. We were in the studio laying down one piece of music for a B-side and there was a magazine with this article about fashion jazz. It had a picture of this chiselled looking twat with the headline ‘now it’s the return of the handsome rugged man’. So there you go, the track became The Return of the Handsome Rugged Man.
“Theme to Margaret was actually my grandmother, bless her. I came up with that tune when she passed away, and that particular tune would have been four years old when we laid it down.
“I was a typical young kid – I think I was about 15 years old when my grandmother passed and I felt a duty to try and write something as a memorial to her.
“But actually it was just a great lesson as to what music’s like because I couldn’t think of anything sad. It was just really up and that was all that was coming out, and I was thinking oh God poor old gran, this is meant to be an elegy to her life but this thing’s up there and flopping around all over the place. Unfortunately that was Theme to Margaret, that’s my granny Margaret Flux.
“But it was a problem for us - what do you call these things? We had this perennial problem when we started. When you came to see us our set list consisted of Idea Number One, Idea Number Two, Funky-Souly Rift Three, Souly-Bluesy Vibe A, and goddamnit I remember being thoroughly unimpressed with this, so we came up with whatever was kicking around at the time and whatever tended to make us laugh.
“The title of Hot Water came about because in the chorus there’s a line in there which fits with the old gag about the guy who farts in the bath, and his butler comes in with a hot water bottle. The guy says “what are you doing?”, and the butler says, “well I distinctly heard you say ‘whatabout a hot water bottle?’, because of course he’s breaking wind in the bath. I know it’s very childish, but it fitted and you could sing this line to that thing.”
As the band developed, decent lyrics became more essential, with the burden for producing them falling largely to the Gould brothers.
“Phil and Boon, who were the primary lyricists, did a fantastic job in very tough circumstances, because there I was knocking these melodies together, and saying right, ‘come on let’s have some words you guys’, like by now or this afternoon or something, and they really did have to do it.
“And you’d get things like “but the butler’s on the breadline” [Can’t Walk You Home], but it sort of works. Boon had a real great take on working with lyrics because there’s a song called To Be With You Again, which was originally called Berlin Baby, and it’s just a great autobiographical lyric for Boon, I think that’s how he was feeling about all the work we were doing at the time. Funnily enough it’s a bit of a precursor because a year later he wanted out. He just suddenly stopped.
“In Running in the Family there’s this Josephine and Emily, these sisters, and it’s become a part of folklore in people’s minds. I did an interview where some guy said he was speaking to a lady the other day who said she knew who Emily was, she had met Emily. Lies! She never existed! It just worked well!”
By the time of studio album World Machine in 1985, the band had moved away from their original jazz-funk sound to adopt a more mainstream pop feel, resulting in Top 20 hits with the likes of Something About You and Leaving Me Now, but it was Lessons in Love which became their biggest seller, hitting number 3 in the UK and giving them a massive international smash with the album Running in the Family.
For the band, this mainstream success also meant embracing the opportunities of the video promo, which had become a huge part of the marketing for any artist in the mid-eighties, and was something Mark took great enjoyment in.
“I wanted to step out. It really started in the Something About You video, where the idea of putting some characters in the video to give it a storyline seemed to work for us. Videos back then cost an absolute fortune, nowadays you think they were having a laugh, it’s as if the film world suddenly found a way of making a bit of money on the side. They were just talking silly budgets for things, but they did have to be paid for nonetheless, and of course who pays for it, it’s only the artist at the end of the day…”
Things took an even more theatrical bent with To Be With You Again, which saw the group dressed in period British military costumes from the turn of the 19th century: “I liked the Napoleonic thing. I said can we not have something a bit flamboyant and colourful, and the wardrobe department came up with these things and we just jumped into them and we had a bit of a laugh.
“Then we went out to the Montreal Pop Festival, which was this big televised thing they used to do off of the lake there, and we thought we’ll take the uniforms out there and have them flown out. But Phil didn’t want to, and just refused point blank to wear the stuff, so I put mine on, and I think Boon put his on, and there were a lot of the other artists tittering and thinking it was a really bizarre thing to do, but I never saw it as that – you’re as out there as you need to be. Camp as nine-pence mate!”
Perhaps surprisingly, the critical acclaim which a group of highly-accomplished musicians like Level 42 deserved was often denied them during this period. The left-wing music press unjustly associated them with Thatcher’s Britain, and derided them for failing to adopt a socialist attitude, ignoring the strengths of their musical aptitude.
“I’ve spoken to a journalist in the past and he said, well actually I always liked your band but we were just never allowed to say that, which is sort of fine in a way.
“There’s an element of looking at the credibility that someone like Paul Weller has and understanding why he’s like the godfather of mod, but never really thinking it was backed up with any musical substance in all honesty.
“I thought that was much more a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes than with ourselves who were a band who could cut it on a ton of different levels, no pun intended, but we weren’t being looked at.
“We’d somehow got completely taken into Thatcher’s Britain because we never came out and said looking after number one is just the worst thing, you can’t do this and we should all be standing together and hitching onto some sort of social bandwagon, getting on board with the whole Red Wedge thing.
“Journalism is always incredibly one-sided, it’s like full right on. You can’t be apolitical, but I’m just interested in making music, that’s what I’ve always done, and that’s my role in life. I’m not going to stand on a soap box and bang on about everything else, that’s not what I want to do, all I want to do is bang on the bass. I’m happy with it, it’s 30 years on now and that’s still my thing.”
At the peak of their fame, Level 42 suffered a major upheaval with the departure of both Gould brothers in 1987. Boon had been suffering from nervous exhaustion and wanted to quit touring, but maintained an amicable relationship with the band and continued to write lyrics, whereas his brother Phil found himself unhappy with the group’s new pop direction and at odds with Mark.
The brothers were eventually replaced by Gary Husband on drums and Alan Murphy as lead guitarist, with the new line-up producing album Staring at the Sun (1988), but tragedy struck in 1989 when Alan suddenly died from AIDS-related pneumonia following a rapid decline. There would be new band members in the form of guitarists Alan Holdsworth and Jakko Jakszyk, and drummers Phil Gould and Gavin Harrison following Gary Husband’s later departure, and continued success with studio albums Guaranteed (1990) and Forever Now (1994), but by the mid-nineties it was clear that the years of personnel upheaval and constant touring had taken their toll.
Mark realised that there might not be a place for a band like Level 42 in the music scene anymore, and the group called it a day following the end of the Forever Now tour.
“By the time we got into the early nineties it just seemed really apparent that the whole musical landscape was changing.
“Blur and Oasis were banging it out at the top of the charts, and there was no doubt that where we’d come in from as serious jazz fusion musicians who were sort of crossing into the pop field, by 1994 we were writing out and out pop songs and the fusion element of it had been left back some years ago.
“We always tried to adapt, and I think that’s the reason why we could hang around for 15 years, but there comes a time when you say we just need to put our heads down now and let someone else do something for a bit. And that’s what happened in ’94 really.
“Mike and I just jumped out of the boat and put the whole band on ice. It seemed like, we’ve got to lay low for a bit now because everything’s changed, you had this boy band doing this thing on the same label as us, RCA, and we had just delivered this Forever Now album, which I thought was a good album, but they weren’t taking very much notice of it at the record company because this new phenomenon Take That were there.
“And that’s one of those times where you think, I’ve had enough of this, I’ve been working flat out for 15 years, I need a break.”
What might be considered the wilderness years for the band were actually very busy for Mark, as he began a new career as a solo artist playing a mixture of his own compositions and Level 42 favourites.
In 1999 he released Trash, a collection of unused and unpolished songs which were released through the Level 42 website, with Mark manufacturing and posting the CDs direct to fans, a revolutionary move away from the previous reliance on record companies and a sign of things to come for the music industry as a whole.
He explained how it came about: “I did the One Man album, and on the back of that Paul Hammond put together a website for me, which was great. A year after that I put out another album of demos and songs I’d never finished, that I was desperate to do something with because the bloody things wouldn’t leave me alone – everytime I went into the studios they were lurking, and I’d keep fannying around with them but you want to move on.
“This was the Trash thing and I put up on the website that I had all these old ideas knocking about and if anyone would like to hear them send us a couple of quid and I’ll burn at CD at home and send it out. There was a fantastic response and it’s still one of the most popular things we sell through the website today.
“It was beautiful – it completely cut out any middle man, it was just artist to fan with nothing in the way – and it was a real eyeopener, and so much so that because I just knocked out a cover on Microsoft Word 98 or whatever which is shit, but works because it’s Trash, but people kind of missed the joke because they’ve said they really like the album but the artwork’s dreadful, would you like us to design some?”
After buying the rights to Level 42 in late 2001, Mark relaunched his solo band under the old name, a process which culminated in the 2006 album Retroglide. Not only did this feature Mike Lindup on keyboards and vocals for many tracks, but Boon Gould co-wrote most of the album with Mark and Phil helped arrange the track Ship with his brother.
It was perhaps inevitable that Mike would eventually rejoin the band full-time, a reunion with Mark alongside Gary Husband on drums, Nathan King on guitars and Sean Freeman on saxophone.
For Mark, the chance to work alongside his old songwriting partner again is something he obviously relishes: “We’ve spent such a lot of time with each other I think part of the pleasure of working together again is the fact that you really don’t have to explain anything, you know.
“I won’t have to say ‘what I’m looking for is this’ because he knows exactly what I’m looking for and vice versa. If he plays something I feel I can just jump straight in and know exactly what he’s thinking and where he’s going with the whole thing, it’s lovely you know.
“You only get that through time, and you don’t get a chance to work 30 years with someone very often. Mike is a far more rounded player than me, he’s always out, he’s always working, he’s in about 15 bands, he’s just a real strong player and I think that’s what he loves to do and what he does. And as much as Level 42 is his real baby, it’s just one of the bands he plays in.”
In the thirty years since Level 42 turned professional, the music business has drastically transformed and evolved, particularly with the dawn of the digital age, and yet Mark has found himself constantly at the cutting edge of new trends and developments.
He explained: “There are some parts of the industry that are very different, and some parts that are fundamentally the same. If I think about how it’s changed technologically then it’s just incredible, because back in the day in 1979, 1980, when we used to go into the studio we all used to sit there at the same time and play the stuff and lay it down. Then hopefully you’d end up with a good backing track and after you’d patch and repair a few bits essentially what you’d be going for was a band performance.
“Nowadays because of digital technology and everyone recording into their Mackintosh computers in their garden sheds most people tend to work apart - you send an idea to one of the guys in the band and they work on it when it suits them, and they send it back and you get this kind of homogenised version of a band - it’s not like it was back in the day.
“It’s a shame, so in a few weeks we’re all off up to London and going into a room with a mobile unit recorder and we’re going to be very old school and bang out the six songs that I’ve got ready for an EP for the autumn tour.
“I want to do it this way because I’m enjoying playing with the band at the moment, it’s been great. We’ve done so many shows this year and had so much soundcheck time that it’s just fantastic to stand there and jam with the guys again - you don’t really get that chance to do that so much on stage because you’re working to a set. During the soundcheck everything goes and everyone starts farting about and it’s so exciting.”
It’s evident from the passion in his voice that Mark loves performing as much today as he did back in 1979, whether that’s jamming in a studio or playing before crowds of thousands, and time certainly hasn’t taken its toll on his enthusiasm.
“I still feel that I’m only 23 in my head. I know a bit better when to shut up these days, but then back then when you’re starting out nobody listens to you anyway because they think you’re just a gobshite, you’re just talking out your backside…
“But of course you’re the only one who believes in yourself and so you’ve got to do that, you have to be the one who says things and makes brash statements because how else are you going to give yourself some line in the sand to reach and cross? You’ve gotta have something to work towards. But now of course you can lip off because people say ‘well, he’s got the right to say that, he’s sold that many records’, and people listen to you.”
His early experience with direct sales to fans was an obvious precursor to today’s digital download market, and yet Mark is amazed it took the leading record companies so long to sense the coming changes in the marketplace: “What’s changed is the way that people actually buy their music, and that’s something that the major record labels were actually slow to realise was happening. They stuck their heads in the sand and didn’t see this happening at all.
“Which is ridiculous really when you’ve got a corporation like Apple who could see exactly how it was going to go and that’s how they came up with iTunes I suppose. The majors just didn’t buy into this and of course they’re regretting it now because they just didn’t understand how they were supposed to get new artists out there – your YouTube and this, that and the other - but if you talk to the labels now they’re saying who runs your MySpace and who runs your Facebook, who runs your Twitter and who runs your website and can we have it? And you’re like no, you can’t have it, it’s all going very well thank you very much, and it’s got fuck all to do with you!”
The past few years have seen Level 42 performing worldwide, including the current 30th anniversary tour, which has seen dates across Japan, North America, Europe and the UK.
Mark is delighted to be back on the road with the band again: “I’m so pleased to have been out in the States again, you’ve no idea what it’s going to be like after 20 odd years, and Japan was just mindblowing as well you know.
“The festivals that we’ve done this year have just been fantastic fun to do, and I feel really proud because this is what the band’s meant to be.
“We’re a live band, it’s a high level of musicianship, and that’s a wonderful thing for aspiring young players to come along and want to see.”
But there’s a personal story behind Mark’s belief that a band like Level 42 has a certain responsibility when it comes to encouraging the talent of the future: “The guy working with us on drums right now, Pete Biggin, came along because our regular drummer Gary Husband was just gig tired, he just hadn’t stopped working, so I had to find someone else.
“The drumming agency told me to have a look at this clip of this guy Pete on YouTube, so I gave him a call and he said he was a big fan of the band, so I said that’s very nice of you to say that mate, do you fancy coming along and having a crack because we’ve got a load of shows coming up, and he said he’d love to.
“So we got together in London and ran through some stuff, and he really does know it inside and out, the guy fits in a treat.
“But afterwards he said to me I don’t know if you remember but in 1990 when you did the Guaranteed tour you came to Leeds University and my parents brought me along to the soundcheck – I was 11 years old and you let me get up and I jammed three songs with you.
“He sent me all these photographs of him on Gary’s drums, and it was amazing because he was like this young prodigy, and the aspirational thing is that he’d obviously been a fan of the band and aspired to be a good musician and here he is today - he’s part of Mark Ronson’s thing, he works with Amy Winehouse, and he’s with Incognito, the guy’s never stopped working.”
The band’s anniversary has also seen the release of a special four-disc box set from Universal Music, not only including all 34 A-side singles, but long-lost studio recordings, previously unreleased demos and rare tracks that have previously only been available on vinyl.
But despite this cornucopia of material, the Holy Grail for most fans is the inclusion of the legendary Level 42 acoustic album, which had reached near-mythological status since its release was first rumoured more than four years ago.
“The acoustic album came about really as a case of needs must because when we were out doing the Retroglide tour in 2006 we were doing a lot of radio to try and promote the thing.
“They were always saying bring a couple of guitars and play some songs for us. I explained that there’s no slap bass involved in acoustic music and this was something completely alien to us - I think a couple of times I said we can’t do really that and they went well leave it then, so we lost the promotion.
“So the third time round I got a bit smarter and said ‘yeah right, we’ll bring the guitars in’, so I brought a guitar along, and Mike brought his electric piano and off we went.
“There just happened to be one thing called All I Need off the Retroglide album which really did lend itself to an acoustic version, so that made sense, but while we were there they said play Lessons In Love, and you think ‘oh bloody hell’, so we just sort of bluffed our way through a couple of radio sessions.
“I made a mental note and thought this does work, we should have a look at this and do it. Of course when we got the feedback from the website the fans were saying this is great, and then because it’s on the website people start saying it sounds really good and do you have any plans to release it, and we said ‘oh yes, we intend to make a whole acoustic album, any minute now’!
“Four years later I’m talking to Universal and they’re looking for stuff for this box set, so I said what about this mythical acoustic album, and they went ‘oh yeah OK’, so that was it.
“Four months ago the guys came down and we just sort of knocked it all out down here – it does work well and I think that’s because when you deconstruct these songs and put them back together you can sort of mess about with the melodies and find some really dark corners and you can turn them on their heads. I also think they were good songs to begin with and it’s very hard to muck them up!”
With a professional career spanning an incredible five decades, you might expect any musician to have become jaded with the business, but Mark remains as enthusiastic, lively and upbeat as the trademark melodies of Level 42’s greatest hits.
“What hasn’t changed in the last 30 years is that good inventive musicianship is still what wins the day. I’ve been trawling through the internet and there’s this band Everything Everything who have an album coming out later this month, and I think they’re a real exciting talent of just exciting music. I hear traces of Todd Rungren in there, and XTC, just some really bizarre stuff in there and I’m loving it and thinking great, this is a new, young band that’s right out of the starting blocks and I relate to it.
“I think this is what it was like in 1980, right at the beginning for us, we didn’t know where we were going or what was happening but we simply loved what we were doing. People thought it was a breath of fresh air at the time.”
Prior to the band heading out on tour across the UK through October, they’ve been working on new material for eventual release later this year: “In a couple of weeks time I’ll be in the studio with the band doing this EP – we’ve got these six songs that are very much in the direction of James Brown – and then it’s party time around the UK.”
One thing he won’t be able to count on is the hefty insurance policy which was once famously associated with his string-spanking thumb and weighed in at a hefty three million pounds.
“Polydor took out this policy when we re-signed in 1985. It was quite a lucrative deal and they do a key man clause. I suppose they were duty bound to insure it – I could have gone out and cut my thumb off or something and then everything would have changed and they would have lost their shirts. I dunno at what point the premiums stopped, I never got any sort of tap ups from Aviva or anybody saying ‘by the way you’re in arrears’!”
* Level 42 play the Alban Arena in St Albans on October 11 - For tickets call the box office on 01727 844488 or visit www.alban-arena.co.uk