Level 42 were never a particularly trendy band, but what they lacked in image they made up for with top musicianship and top tunes.
Running In The Family was amongst the first ever albums I ever bought– or should that be asked my Mum to buy me, being 7 at the time. I chose it solely because the promotional shelf stood out and, well, I just wanted to buy any cassette seeing as my Mum offered before she backtracked!
Fortunately I really liked the album, and still do. It’s something I once dared admit to friends, but it was to my undoing. Level 42 in the ’90’s was almost a swear word. I hid my cassette – in fact I too abandoned them.
It wasn’t until recently that I heard the album again, and came to the serious conclusion the band are so underrated. Level 42 delivered great pop in the mid 80’s and some serious Jazz-Funk in the early part. They’ve got a solid enough fan base to prove that they were not one of the disposable bands of the time; they even managed to limp into the early 90’s – though not may cared. A string of kind-of reunion shows (successful ones at that) are making way for some new material soon.
But let’s get to the point; despite familiarity with the band and their hits, I only own this album, so I’ll crack on with that.
One of the things that makes Level 42 it’s namesake is front man Mark ‘Thunder thumbs’ King, who sings, and plays an impressive and unique style of funkay bass which takes slap beyond the original template to a virtually percussive style. He’s been accused of showing off too much, but then when you have his ability why not? I have to add though that there’s nothing embarrassing or cliché about his playing. It’s often infectious and heavy. His voice too, though not great in range, is nice on your ears.
Perhaps what irked some people was the fact that all the other musicians were of high calibre too; a double no-no in a punk swayed chart system that was still somewhat anti-dance.
Mike Lindup is a very fast and talented keyboard player, and the Gould brothers (Boon on guitar, a guy who’d play modest funk guitar but let it rip on solos, and wrote all their lyrics, and the super tight and detailed Phil on drums) were a great asset that was unfortunately, irrevocably lost after the album, immediately putting the band on the slopes.
Like most bands who start cult and dip into the mainstream there was a fair backlash from fans of their earlier work, but they built up a large legion of new fans for that to not matter much. It got the band supporting Madonna, which is perhaps one of the biggest things they ever did. Their show at Wembley (where they headlined) showed a confident band in full command of the crowd – although Mike at times seemed to be playing panto!
Long time producer and virtual 5th member Wally Badarou has played a big part in 42’s sound, and his skills here are no less under appreciated. It’s a fairly slick album with some clear 80’s vibe to it, but it still largely sounds modern and fresh. The order of the songs is also perfect; it feels like it’s a kind of story in some way, though I don’t know how.
King’s bass lines may be a little less show-off here, but no less creative. Much of them are backed via synth bass. The layered keyboard parts are also quite a feast on the ears, and amidst all that are conservative but loving elements of extra percussion filling in the spaces.
The lyrics are often good, but sometimes tread the line on being too mushy or sweet, but I guess it was a sign of the times. The best-recorded guitar part is undoubtedly the acoustic solo to the ballad Two Solitudes where Mike takes up lead vocal duties opposed to his frequent falsetto backup. It’s a heart breaker if you’re in the particular mood.
Running In The Family yielded many hits, but only outside of the UK did they rise to #1. That song was opener Lessons In Love with it’s catchy rising bass line.
Children Say was also a single with a bass line that worked as a kind of melodic kick drum. The title track, again a single, featured keyboard horns. It’s Over (which saw the departure of the Gould two, who left due to both dissatisfaction with the pop direction and touring fatigue) is one of those tunes that you’d find on an 80’s ballad compilation, but is still pretty moving. The airy synths are the heart of the song. It’s broken lyrics could twin with the aforementioned Two Solitudes.
To Be With You Again features one of the busiest bass lines on the album with some pretty intricate rhythmic work from both keyboard and drums. Fashion Fever keeps up the pace with an attack on the fashionistas.
Bonus track (as advertised on the front of the pop-arty sleeve) Freedom Someday is a welcome one too with its laid-back bop and peace message.
So why is it not a full marks album then? It almost is, but letting it down is the fact that a number of passages sound dated, clearly a limitation of working within a pop style from a specific era. Some of the electric guitar also sounds a little too Brian May. Nothing bad about that, but it sticks out a little production wise. The lyrics largely survive, just.
Overall I think it’s a great album. It makes you feel good for most of it, and introspective in parts. It has enough beautiful layers and catchiness to warrant repeated listens and must’ve surely returned a few of their old fans in the end.
Unfortunately Level 42 would never match this standard again, by not building on their success the second time (the prior album yielded the hits Something About You and Leaving Me Now) the band drowned their legacy. The replacements for the Gould brothers may have been acceptable (and for the last album Phil did play drums, in the studio only however) but the chemistry was simply gone. Only Mark remains as the sole original member of the new Level 42 (Mike now plays solo, though has played at reunion shows).
Polydor re-released Running In The Family with follow-up Staring At The Sun as a double pack back in 2000.