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.
Following the post disco freeze out of most soul and funk music in the early 80’s? It would seem that the British music scene really kept the progression of that level of instrumental and melodic eloquence continuing. It can be heard in funk oriented bands of the new wave era such as Englands Spandau Ballet,Heaven 17,Level 42,Duran Duran and,on the rockier side of it The Clash and former Sex Pistol John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. There was also a strong multi racial jazz based end of this scene that would emerge with Matt Bianco, which originally featured their very soulful lead singer Basia,Sade and Jean Paul Maunik’s Incognito. After a one off recording in the early 80’s,the band didn’t re-emerge again until the 90’s. During this time Incognito helped pioneer with acid jazz fusion of American jazz/funk and house music. At the very end of the decade in 1999,they released their album ‘No Time Like The Future’-featuring the song that really got me deeply into their music entitled “Get Into My Groove”.
Kicking off with a counting down type snare drum,the song goes into what is basically a contemporary hip-hop/soul drum machine rhythm with some beautifully orchestrated,cinematic soul strings. Shortly after these spirited horn charts kick in,along with two prominant bass lines in a wah wah fueled electric solo and a walking Moog synth bass one. After a brief vocalese scat from Jamiroquai front man Jason Kay,Wonderlove alumni Maysa Leak comes in for the lead vocal. She is talking about someone,a politician maybe, who is willing to preach about the woes of the world while taking no specific actions to correct them-asking “tell me how do you change the world if you haven’t got the nerve”. On the melodically ascending chorus Maysa asks this invidual to come and feel her groove,step into her shoes and that to “get into my mind,you gotta get into my groove”. After a consoling and very jazzy bridge,the song repeats that chorus with variations to the songs conclusion.
On a personal level? I feel that the post Columbine/pre (alleged) Y2K world of 1999,one defined by a great deal of paranoia and lack of hope,was in need of “people music” with a message perhaps more so than any other time in history. In America people such as Erykah Badu were beginning to deliver an Afrofuturist musical vibration of their own. But this combination of a former Stevie Wonder singer,along with a British acid jazz band also featuring backup vocals from…the lead singer of the biggest crossover act of the British acid jazz funk scene in America made a bold statement (to me anyway) that the humanistic message of the funk/jazz spectrum was every bit as alive as the music was. And this was sophistifunk at that. Yes rhythmically it actually did incorporate some of the mechanized hip-hop/soul rhythm. Yet the arrangement-with elegantly produced live strings,horns and bass synthesizers gave it that flavor of a fully formed futurist groove,modeled on the EWF/Roy Ayers musical attitude to lead the way into the new millennium.
One of those fascinating coincidences in the history of soul and funk music is the tendency of the British music scene to fill in significant gaps when the music is experiencing a low popularity and audience in the United States. Funk oriented new wave era groups such as Level 42,Heaven 17,Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet provided this during the US post disco radio freeze out. Some maintained this style through mid decade even. Sade,Simply Red,George Michael and Soul II Soul continued this tradition later in the decade. Aside from American adoration’s such as Prince and Talking Heads,the popularity of funky soul grooves seemed to be in a strange holding pattern on this end of the pond. In the mid 1990’s onward through the post 9/11 world? This pattern came back in play-with 2006-08 being the height of this ethic. Years after his debut in 1991,English soul/funk artist Kenny Thomas emerged in 2006 with a song that showcased this impulse entitled “I Will”.
Starting off with a fan faring drum roll and a plast of joyful,gospel inspired horns the song gets started with thickly grooving mix of high stepping drums,highly melodic electric piano chords and the fantastically vital horn section providing the life force that keeps the entire song alive. With a chunky bass/guitar interactive holding the keyboard riffs all together, Kenny himself sings lyrics with the same level of joy expressed in the horn parts and melody revolving around the most optimistic outlook on newfound romance that one could possibly ask. On the refrains,the melody changes to include a few minor chords but when going back into the main theme of the song,the melody rises up into the major chord as Kenny declares “I WILL” on the chorus. His voice-a passionate cross between Teddy Pendergrass,Michael McDonald and Heatwave’s Keith Wilder,provides an almost ideal reflection of the songs overall joyousness.
From my own personal observations, the era in which this song was recorded was not among the happiest or secure time for the planet Earth, A never ending war on terror was going on,people were divided even more than they were in the 1960’s and that 90’s era cynicism prevented a great deal of action from occurring to counter this. Music was in a great need for empathy over apathy,release instead of tension. And for those who followed the music of Kenny Thomas (which I unfortunately wasn’t at the time),this song in particular provided just what a proverbial Dr. Funkenstein might want. Its another one of those songs defined by a hybrid sound-in this case a mixture of the Chi-town funk of Earth Wind & Fire and the sleek West Coast style of late 70’s Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. Also there’s a strong element of Phil Collins’ early 80’s Brit-funk approach as well. This song is a perfect example of,on a purely musical level of what Mick Jagger sang in 1969: you can’t always get what you want,but sometimes you just might find that you get what you need.