Level 42 are one of those bands along with Earth Wind & Fire,Heatwave,Sly & The Family Stone,James Brown and Kool & The Gang where I could write about their songs for a month. And not get board doing so. Even though Level 42’s identity didn’t become known to me until 12 years ago or so,their four piece jazz/funk sound was approached in such a wonderful way. And one that was very suited for its time as well. This is especially true with Level 42’s first six albums-from their self titled debut in 1981 to 1985’s breakout album World Machine.
Right around the time I was first getting into Level 42,Polydor reissued Level 42’s first eight studio albums on four 2 CD sets. These sets not only included informative notes,but also the addition of unreleased demos and 12″/7″ single mixes of some of the songs. The most fascinating of these sets were the first two-especially the second volume. That one began with Level 42’s second proper studio release The Pursuit Of Accidents. This particular album represents the height of the band’s instrumentally inclined,contemporary jazz/funk approach. A perfect example is its opening track “Weave Your Spell”.
Mike Lindup’s synthesizer and Phil Gould’s cymbal kick provide the intro to the song. After that the rest of the band,especially Mark King’s bass,enter the mix in full musical motion. On the refrain,the percussive drums and King’s bass provide an ultra phat rhythm. Lindup’s different synths provide both high and low call and response to his and Mark’s vocal harmonies. This is especially true on the musically and vocally thick chorus. There is a musical bridge where King’s slap bass becomes the star of the show-with Lindup assisting on synth brass before the chorus fades out the song.
“Weave Your Spell” might be the definitive musical example of Level 42’s general sound. At its core,its an uptempo jazz funk song filled with a lot of dancability. Mike Lindup’s synthesizer’s have that strong new wave quavering reverb about them too. King’s slap bass and Phil Gould’s progressive fusion drumming give this song its own kick. The loose jamming feel of it,especially on the instrumental bridge,remind me of a sleeker version of Prince’s approach to funk-especially with the synth horn responses. So over the years,this has become one of my very favorite Level 42 grooves.
Out of the many bands to come of the UK post punk/new wave era,Level 42 were probably the most significant on a purely musical level. American funk,R&B and disco-dance music were an important element of early 80’s new wave in Europe. But Level 42,led by electric bassist/one time drummer Mark King and keyboardist Mike Lindup,came straight of a strong jazz-funk/fusion underground that was still thriving in Europe during the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Their style celebrated strong musicianship over the flamboyant rock ‘n roll authenticity of the UK punk scene-full of raw,angry emotion. Still this devotion to musical eloquence had it’s shortcomings for Level 42.
While the band were critically acclaimed on their first few albums from 1981 and 1982? Their label Polydor,interestingly enough the same label James Brown had been on during his funk heyday in the early 70’s, were looking at Level 42 as consistent hit makers. And having met them while on tour,the band developed a strong musical report with Earth Wind & Fire’s bassist Verdine White and the bands keyboardist Larry Dunn. Both of them were very able at creating funk music that was melodic and commercially popular. And it was agreed they would produce Level 42’s fourth album in 1983. That album was called Standing In The Light. And it was likely best personified musically by it’s title song.
Starting off with a light breeze of drum cymbal-seemingly carrying a wind of bassy synth orchestration on it,the song quickly emerges with an economical slow funk beat accompanied by an equally economical,minor chord electric bass line from King. After a jazzy guitar solo takes over Lindup’s,or possibly unofficial fifth member Wally Badarou’s ethereal synthesizer harmonies King’s lead vocals kick on. On the chorus,the instrumentation suddenly enters into a sunnier end of the minor chord with Lindup’s falsetto vocals. There’s a bridge in the middle of the song where the keyboard plays a progressive jazz fusion styled ascending two-chord solo which includes a jazz oriented vocal refrain from King and Lindup’s vocal harmonies. After this the song goes through one more chorus of the same one with which it started.
Musically influenced to a great degree by the electronic oriented pop/funk hybrids emerging from Compass Point around this time,this song is musically representative of the type of stripped down funk that emerged from the post funk environment. Yet also comes from a reverence for the modal style of fusion pioneer Miles Davis-whom Mike Lindup musically admired and who had a huge influence on his compositional style.It’s the nature of the music and lyrical mixture on this song that speaks most to me on the other hand. This song tells the story of a young man whose approach to music comes from imagination and creativity,and many around him want to subsidize that with their own personal tastes,needs and requirements.
As the chorus grows happier,this inner creativity becomes an inner light he’s standing in as he asks for people not to “shadow the genius”. It’s a poetic,intelligent yet plain spoken statement for creative autonomy and freedom of expression-coming from a decade where supposedly such ideas were totally limited. And to me,it’s one of the most significant rallying cries to creative musicians from this point onward. Considering that two key members of Earth Wind & Fire produced this album,it’s not surprising that Level 42 felt a bit freer to write music with a message as their sound became more outreaching to the public. And if I could personally thank all parties for their participation in this song and it’s message personally? I’d be more than honored.