The band gained fame for its high calibre musicianship, especially that of Mark King, whose percussive slap bass guitar technique provided the driving groove of many of the band's hits. They are also known for the combination of King's lead vocals and keyboard player Mike Lindup's falsetto backing vocals. After originally disbanding in 1994, the band reformed in 2001.
Level 42 was formed in 1980 as a jazz-funk fusion band. Mark King and the Gould brothers - Rowland (universally known as "Boon") and Phil - came from the Isle of Wight and had played together in various bands during their teenage years.
In late 1979 both Phil Gould and Mark King were living and working in London. Phil introduced King (who was working in a London music store at the time) to keyboard player Mike Lindup, whom Gould had met while studying at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Lindup was studying piano but had taken a course in percussion alongside Phil and the two had found that they shared musical heroes - Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett and Jan Hammer.
The future band began to coalesce via loose rehearsal sessions - the first of these featured Dominic Miller as guitarist, but he was soon replaced by Boon Gould on the latter's return from the United States (Miller would later find fame playing with Sting). Initially, the instrumentation responsibilities in the band were not easy to decide. Boon was equally adept on bass and guitar (and also played saxophone) and, like Phil Gould, Lindup had trained as a percussionist and played drums in addition to keyboards.
At the time, King was primarily a drummer (though he'd also played guitar) but the band needed a bass player, so King volunteered to learn how to play the instrument. He developed his soon-to-be-infamous bass style during a couple of weeks, having observed visiting American funk players demonstrating thumb-slaps in the store where he worked. With the bassist position taken care of, Boon could concentrate on guitar, Phil settled in as drummer and Lindup moved almost entirely to keyboards.
Prior to Level 42 Phil Gould and Mark King had been involved in Robin Scott's pop project M (during 1979) and Gould had contributed to the US number one single 'Pop Muzik'. Another musician who had contributed to M was the reknowned Afro-French keyboard and synthesizer player Waliou "Wally" Badarou. Badarou, would later become Level 42's longtime co-producer and, although he only ever played in the studio with them, the band's unofficial "fifth member". King, Badarou and Lindup would generally write Level 42's music, with the Gould brothers concentrating mainly on lyrics.
Having being seen jamming together, the band got signed to a small independent record label, Elite Records. They were encouraged to branch out into vocal music (previously, the band had been purely instrumental). After considering looking for a singer from outside the band, King and Lindup (with some reluctance) became the band's singers. They developed a complementary style with Lindup's falsetto frequently used for harmonies and choruses while King's deep tenor generally led the verses.
The Elite Records single "Love Meeting Love" brought the band to the attention of Polydor Records, with whom they signed their second recording contract. In 1981 they released "Love Games", a Top 40 hit. They then cut their critically acclaimed, self-titled debut album, which was an immediate success throughout Europe. Polydor capitalised on the band's success by releasing The Early Tapes (a compilation of material from the Elite Records period)later in the same year.
In 1982 Level 42 released their second album The Pursuit of Accidents. Both of the singles from the album - "Weave Your Spell" and "The Chinese Way" - charted. The latter in particular rose high in the charts and gained the band a much wider audience than before and ensuring that the parent album went on to become a huge seller.
A fourth album Standing in the Light was released in 1983. Produced by Larry Dunn and Verdine White (of Earth, Wind & Fire), this album debuted a new era for the band (less experimental and jazzy than previous releases) and gave the band their first top ten hit in the UK in the shape of "The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)". Notably, the album featured no instrumental tracks whatsoever (the band would not return to instrumentals until the Staring at the Sun album in 1988.
The 1984 album True Colours veered between funk, power pop, mid-tempo rock and moody ballads. It yielded the singles "The Chant Has Begun" and "Hot Water". The latter was a Top 20 hit in Britain and a Top 5 hit in the Netherlands where the band became very popular (the song reached also #7 in Belgium). During the same year, Mark King released his first solo album Influences on which he played the majority of the instruments (with Lindup guesting on additional keyboards and an appearance by Aswad's Drummie Zeb).
By this time, Level 42 were reknowned for their power as a live band (as showcased on the 1984 double live album A Physical Presence). For live gigs the band added Krys Mach, who toured with the group from 1984 to 1988 and contributed to some album recordings.
The next studio album, World Machine, was released in 1985. By this time, the band was heading further away from their original jazz-funk sound and towards a much more mainstream pop sound, with King's bass and Lindup and Badarou's chugging keyboards serving as templates for smart pop songs such as "Something About You" and "Leaving Me Now" which were both UK Top 20 hits (Top 40 hits in Holland). Significantly, "Something About You" was also their first (and only) US Top 10 the following year; also reaching the Top 5 in Canada and the Top 20 in Italy. "Leaving Me Now" was the second hit from this album, peaking at #15 in the United Kingdom but less successful in Europe. Elements of Level 42's roots could still be found in the funky "Coup d'État" and "Dream Crazy" on the UK version of the album, as well as a long instrumental track named "Hell", which was also recorded during the World Machine sessions (This last track did not see the light of day until the early 2000s as an MP3 download on the original Napster).
During the recording of World Machine, the first major tensions between Phil Gould and Mark King began to surface over musical direction, production and their personal relationship. This led to Phil leaving the band for a week and nearly being replaced by Allan Holdsworth's drummer Gary Husband (some three years prior to Husband actually joining Level 42). However, Gould and King's dispute was resolved and the group enjoyed their most successful year to date.
The "Lessons in Love" single arrived in early 1986 - a song taken from 1987's Running in the Family album. Running in the Family was a massive international hit and became the band's biggest seller. It gave Level 42 their first number one album in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and South Africa, increasing the band's popularity considerably (the album also placed at #2 in Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden, #3 in the UK and in Ireland, #4 in Austria, #10 in Norway, #12 in the US in 1987 and #22 in France). Further singles continued and built on the band's existing success - "To Be With You Again" (#6 in the Netherlands and in Ireland), the ballad "It's Over" (#3 in Ireland and #7 in the Netherlands) and Running In The Family's title track (#1 in Norway and Denmark, #3 in the Netherlands, #4 in Ireland, #5 in Switzerland).
During 1987, both Phil Gould and Boon Gould left the group, both apparently suffering from nervous exhaustion. Boon left in late 1987 following a support slot on a Madonna tour - his place was taken by stand-in guitarist Paul Gendler (ex-Modern Romance and sessions) for a six-week headlining tour and for support slots with Tina Turner. Phil Gould left mid-tour in December 1987, and was replaced by another stand-in - Neil Conti (drummer for Prefab Sprout).
There were other contributory factors to the departure of the Gould brothers. Phil Gould's relationship with King had broken down and they found it difficult to work together: Phil was also reportedly dissatisfied with the band's direction in terms of its newer "pop" sound (even going as far to call it "shallow pop music, which I'd had as much fun playing as when I played in holiday camps"). Boon Gould's decision to retire had more to do with crippling stomach pains and his desire to settle down with his wife and children. His relationship with King was far more amicable, and he continued to write lyrics for the band after his departure.
Following the tour, Level 42 recruited Gary Husband as the band's new drummer, and he in turn recommended Steve Topping (ex-Drowning Not Waving, Esquire, John Stevens) as a replacement guitarist. Topping's recruitment did not work out due to personality differences with King, and he eventually left the band in early 1988 after initial writing and rehearsing sessions in Dublin. For this reason, most of the next Level 42 album - Staring at the Sun - was recorded without a permanent guitarist. Rhythm guitar in the studio was handled by the band's old friend Dominic Miller (plus an uncredited King).
Keeping up the momentum, the band had played at the Prince's Trust concert in July 1987, with Eric Clapton standing in on lead guitar for a performance of "Running in the Family". King and Lindup - as "house band" - also performed with artists including Ben E. King on "Stand By Me" and The Righteous Brothers on "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'". .
Towards the end of the Staring at the Sun sessions in April 1988, Alan Murphy (a rated session guitar player who'd worked extensively with Kate Bush and was a member of Go West ) joined as permanent Level 42 guitarist and added lead lines and solos to the album recordings (recording all of his parts in a single day).
Staring at the Sun was released in 1988, reaching number 2 in the UK and the top ten in several European charts. It included the hit-single "Heaven in My Hands" (number 12 in the UK and also top twenty in the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, etc.). Boon Gould co-wrote many of the tracks with King, Lindup and Badarou. Gary Husband was credited with his first co-write with King on "Tracie".
The band then went out on a four-month European tour culminating in six sell-out nights at Wembley Arena (recordings from these concerts were released seven years later as the Live At Wembley album.)
During 1989, Alan Murphy contracted pneumonia, which was complicated by the fact that he was already suffering from AIDS. His decline was rapid, and he died on October 19, 1989. It's been suggested that Murphy was aware of his condition before joining Level 42, and that one of his reasons for joining the band was to ensure that he spent his last days playing the music that he loved (at the time, Go West had been stalled by internal disagreements).
This was a huge shock to the band, who had not known of Murphy's condition and who had grown so fond of him that they stated they "could not replace Alan." Devastated, Level 42 took a year off to regroup and rethink. To cover the gap and to fulfil the band's contract with Polydor Records, Level Best (a greatest hits compilation) was released in 1990. During the break, Mike Lindup recorded and released his debut solo album, Changes (featuring Dominic Miller, Pino Palladino on bass and Manu Katche on drums).
In December 1990, the band returned to play a record run of concerts at Hammersmith Odeon, London (the concerts had been booked almost two years before). The role of guitarist was filled by Gary Husband's former employer - virtuoso jazz-fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth. Husband had asked Holdsworth to play as a favour to the band whilst they searched for a permanent guitar player, and in tribute to the late Alan Murphy, (to whom Holdsworth was a hero and major influence). These concerts also featured Lyndon Connah (ex-64 Spoons) on additional keyboards and backing vocals (years later, he would replace Mike Lindup).
The band signed a new contract with RCA Records in 1990. During the early 1990s, the group tried to blend more of their earlier influences, such as Mahavishnu Orchestra, into their sound. This was made evident on their next album, Guaranteed. Although most of the rhythm guitar work on the album was once again handled by Dominic Miller, Husband asked Allan Holdsworth to provide some guitar work (notably on "A Kinder Eye"). Husband himself contributed keyboards to the album, as well as drums, and co-wrote many tracks with King, Lindup and Badarou. The album includes the only track completely written by Husband (If You Were Mine), which also featured on the "Guaranteed" single release. King also brought in American lyricist Drew Barfield to contribute to songwriting.
Though well-received (especially by US music critics who appreciated the group's musicianship and regarded it as Level 42's most musically sophisticated work to date), the album was less commercially successful than previous efforts. Many of the band's jazz-funk fans did not like the album's mostly progressive/rock-oriented style, and the pop music scene in the UK had moved in a different direction. The album did not get good reviews in the UK, despite the title track reaching #17 and the album reaching #3 in the UK charts.
Despite this, the band continued to be a potent live draw, with the studio members joined on stage by singer Annie McCaig (who also did backup vocals on the Guaranteed album) and the brass duo of sax player Gary Barnacle and trumpeter John Thirkell, aka The Hen-Pecked Horns. (Barnacle had already played on several Level 42 studio albums, dating back to the self-titled 1981 debut).
After the recording of Guaranteed and a week-long promotional tour, Mark King assumed Holdsworth would be unwilling to play guitar permanently with the band. Consequently, he hired Jakko Jakszyk, a guitarist with a broad pop, progressive rock and jazz-fusion background who'd previously played with 64 Spoons, Dizrythmia (with Danny Thompson), Henry Cow spin-off The Lodge and Tom Robinson (as well as on innumerable sessions). (After hiring Jakszyk, King discovered that Holdsworth had been willing to continue with the band after all). Although he didn't play on Guaranteed, Jakszyk features on the album's cover photo; he also took part in promotional duties and the tour for the album. He does play to great effect on two B-sides from this era: "At The Great Distance" and "As Years Go By". Jakszyk's other studio input with Level 42 came in the form of two unreleased tracks ("Fire" and "Free Your Soul") recorded between the Guaranteed and Forever Now albums.
In early 1993 Gary Husband left the band. Various reasons for this were cited at the time - some stated that Husband did not like to play with a sequencer or click track and that the band were increasingly using more of these in their performances at the time. Husband was also keen to continue his ongoing work with Allan Holdsworth and to develop his other career as jazz composer and bandleader (both as drummer and keyboard player/pianist). However, some music industry rumours suggested that record company pressure was on King and Lindup to work with Phil Gould again after the disappointing reaction to Guaranteed. Gould's role as co-writer on many of the bands early hits was seen as a recipe for creating a more commercial Level 42 album.
Whatever the truth of this rumour, 1994's Forever Now album did indeed mark the return of Phil Gould as studio drummer and principal lyricist. This had apparently followed an out-of-the-blue invitation from King, after which they had both agreed to put their long-running differences aside. The album saw the group move closer to its R&B/jazz roots, especially in the lush ballad "Romance", the acid-jazz-influenced "Sunbed Song" and the dance-pop "Learn to Say No". Jakszyk did not play on the album - instead, the band used American session guitarist Danny Bloom. Jakszyk has suggested that this too was due to record company politics, as with Husband now gone and Phil Gould only contributing in the studio, Level 42 were now marketed as just King and Lindup. Promo shots and videos for the album's singles ("Forever Now", "All Over You" and "Love in a Peaceful World"), only featured King and Lindup (The ony other time this had happened was for the promo of 1987's "Children Say", which was the first promotional video shot after the Gould brothers left.)
With the critical success of Forever Now and with one further album required as part of the band's three-album deal with RCA, fans saw a bright future for the band Hwever, the reunion was short-lived. Phil Gould, dismayed at what he felt was the record company's ineptitude, did not go on the road with the band for their Forever Now tour. Having apparently played only one promotional gig, he was replaced as live drummer by Gavin Harrison (ex-Renaissance and a long-term Jakko Jakszyk associate and session veteran, Harrison was later to become the drummer for Porcupine Tree). Jakszyk also returned to the band to play guitar for the tour and TV/promotion.
The years of personnel upheaval and hard gigging had taken their toll, and it was announced halfway through the Forever Now tour (on the day of the Manchester Apollo gig) that Level 42 would be disbanding permanently.
In 1996, a second Level 42 live album - Live At Wembley - was released, featuring a 1988 concert from the Staring At The Sun band.
In 1998, Mark King released a solo single "Bitter Moon" (Lyndon Connah, who played with Level 42 at the Hammersmith Odeon live shows in 1990, played keyboards on the track). This was followed up by his second solo album One Man (featuring lyrics by Boon Gould). The album was not a big commercial success, and King has expressed an unwillingness to get involved in record industry politics again after his experience with Eagle Records.
Mark King later toured as a solo act, playing his own new compositions and some Level 42 favourites. In 1999, he played some shows at the Jazz Cafe in London under the name of "The Mark King Group". This was of notable interest to Level 42 fans as the band included former Level 42 members - drummer Gary Husband and guitarist Jakko Jakszyk - as well as second guitarist Nathan King (Mark King's younger brother) and Lyndon Connah on Keyboards. Over the next couple of years King toured with his new band (sometimes called "Grupo Mark King"), although Jakszyk left the band after the Jazz Cafe shows and the lineup was augmented by saxophone player Sean Freeman.
In August 1999, three-quarters of the original Level 42 line-up reunited for a private show. Phil Gould invited some musician friends to play at a party, including his brother Boon and Mike Lindup. In 2001, King, Lindup and Phil Gould played together (at Lindup's wedding) for the first time in ten years. This led to a tentative get-together of the original line-up along with Wally Badarou, to work on a new studio album only. However, the reformation was short-lived. Old tensions began to resurface, particularly between Phil Gould and Mark King, who decided they could not work together again and subsequently the sessions were abandoned.
Increasingly King and his band were playing more and more Level 42 tracks at their live shows. In late 2001, King came to a business agreement with Mike Lindup and bought the rights to the name Level 42 (Lindup agreed to play on future albums, but did not want to tour). King announced the new lineup of Level 42 as himself, Gary Husband on drums, Nathan King on guitar, Lyndon Connah on keyboards and Sean Freeman on Saxophone (in effect, his solo band under the old name).
2005 saw a burst of reissue activity. In March, two classic-era Rockpalast shows from 1983 and 1984 were released on DVD, and in April a show from 1983 recorded in Scotland was released on CD as The River Sessions". In June, The Ultimate Collection II was released (including a brand new song called "Genius Of Love" - this was in fact a Level 42 tribute/collaboration by Italian-American dance producer Hardage featuring Mark King on vocals and incorporating a sample of the Level 42 track "I Want Eyes").
A new album, Retroglide was announced in February 2006 with a supporting tour throughout the UK, Netherlands, Germany and some other European countries. The album was chiefly recorded by King at his home studio. Husband, Connah, Freeman and Nathan King were all on the record (for Husband, his first Level 42 studio album since 1991's Guaranteed). Retroglide also featured input from past Level 42 members - Mike Lindup added keyboards and vocals to many tracks, and Boon Gould co-wrote most of the album with King as well as contributing a guitar solo on the track "Ship". Although Phil Gould is uncredited on the album, the track "Ship" is the first song since 1986 worked on by all four original members - Phil originally arranged the track with his brother Boon.
In May 2006, prior to the start of the tour in October, Level 42 announced that Mike Lindup would return full time to replace Lyndon Connah on keyboards. (Connah went on to play keyboards with a revived Go West, as well as continuing work with his own band 3 Blind Mice).
On Sunday 26 August 2007, Level 42 played a landmark outdoor gig at the Arundel Festival in West Sussex. Set in the grounds of the ancient Arundel Castle, in the village of the same name, the performance was notable due to a number of unexpected changes to the setlist. "Running in the Family", a top 10 hit from 1987, was the second song in the set for the first time ever. The track usually appeared towards the end of the show in a medley of the band's most successful singles, which King affectionately refers to as "a string of knackered old hits". The concert was Level 42's only UK show of 2007. At the end of the concert Mark King promised a full UK tour for 2008.
In 2008 Universal Music was set to re-issue the Running in the Family album in the label's 'Deluxe Edition' format, which takes a single disc album and turns it into a double disc package with previously unreleased bonus material. Extended re-issues of the True Colours and Standing in the Light albums were scheduled for release at the same time.
A new twenty date Level 42 UK tour for 2008 was announced by the band on the 16th January.
Both King and Lindup have been quoted (King in the magazine Record Collector, Lindup at level42.com) saying they are considering releasing a new studio album. This would possibly consist of new acoustic versions of Level 42 songs, following the band's success in performing acoustic shows on various European radio shows in 2006 while promoting Retroglide. Two notable points in these live radio performances were King singing and playing acoustic guitar (along with his brother Nathan), instead of his trademark bass playing, with both Lindup and Husband performing on acoustic pianos. This possible "acoustic" album was also mentioned in syndicated radio interviews.
On various fan sites, there are rumours that King, Lindup, Husband and the other members of Level 42 are working on new material, co-writing with both Boon Gould and Wally Badarou again, with a view to recording a new album, possibly for release in 2009.
The band is contracted to deliver a further two albums to Universal Music subsidiary W14 Music, as part of a Distribution deal signed prior to the release of Retroglide in 2006.
The Level 42 lineup has stayed consistent since 2006, when Mike Lindup returned to the position of full-time keyboard player.
1 Boon subsequently wrote lyrics for the albums: Staring at the Sun (1988) and 2006's Retroglide. He also played a guitar solo on the track "Ship", which was originally his composition, which was added to by King.
The origin of the band's name has been variously described as being inspired by a sign in a lift in a very tall building in the US; the top level of the biggest car-park in the world, in Japan; the floor on which Jonathan Pryce's character resides in the film Brazil (which was released long after the band gained international recognition); or after Tower 42 (also known as the NatWest Tower) the tallest building in the City of London.
King and Boon Gould decided the band should be called simply by a number, and they both favoured '88' - the number of the bus they used to catch to the recording studio. However, Lindup and Phil Gould saw a poster for a band called Rocket 88 so their idea was abandoned (although '88' was later used as a song title). King and Gould both claim to have been reading Douglas Adams' comical science fiction novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy wherein the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, is '42'. Therefore '42' was suggested as a name for the band.
It should be noted that their then producer, Andy Sojka (now deceased), similarly claimed to have been reading the book, and claimed to have put forward the number as a suggested band name. It is known therefore, that the use of the number '42' in the band name came from either King, Boon Gould, or Sojka. The appendage of the word 'Level' is claimed to have been from either Sojka's lawyer, or John Gould's (the third brother and band manager) lawyer.
Other names considered for the band were 'Powerline' and 'Kick in the Head'. 'Powerline' was rejected and given to another of Sojka's groups, and it was on a white label promotional record numbered 'DAZZ 4' that the words 'Level 42' first appeared. The band providing the B-side - a track called "Sandstorm" (a track which they also wanted to call "Kick in the Head"). The A side was provided by 'Powerline'.
'Kick In The Head' was finally used by the band as a working title for the song "A Floating Life" on their True Colours album. The lyric features in the song.
Three further songs (all instrumentals) were 'numbered' by the band: '43', '88' and the B-side 'Forty-two'.
Rowland Gould was apparently gained his nickname of "Boon" from his uncle, who found him so quiet and well behaved as a baby that he informed Rowland's mother that the baby was 'a real boon'.
At the band's peak Mark King, whose nickname was "Thunderthumbs" was often cited as "The world's best bass player", and his thumb was reportedly insured for over £1 million. He was also one of the first artists to have LED lights up and down his bass guitar neck/frets.
Mark King appears in an episode of the UK comedy show French and Saunders, along with Dire Strait's Mark Knopfler, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, Gary Moore, Motorhead's Lemmy and Ralph McTell, in a sketch about learning how to play the guitar.
In 2006 Anthony David recorded a cover version of "Something About You" on The Red Clay Chronicles album.
In the Mighty Boosh episode "Hitcher", the character known as the hitcher claimed to have a thumb war with Mark King, who lost the thumb and thus his place as the Slap bass president.
Between 1980 and 1994, Level 42 had a total of 30 Singles in the UK charts. The following 20 singles reached the Top 40 of the UK Singles Chart:
1981: "Love Games" - #38
1983: "The Chinese Way" - #24
1983: "The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)" - #10
1983: "Micro-kid" - #37
1984: "Hot Water" - #18
1985: "Something About You" - #6
1985: "Leaving Me Now" - #15
1986: "Lessons in Love" - #3
1987: "Running in the Family" - #6
1987: "To Be With You Again" - #10
1987: "It's Over" - #10
1987: "Children Say" - #22
1988: "Heaven in My Hands" - #12
1988: "Take a Look" - #32
1989: "Tracie" - #25
1989: "Take Care of Yourself" - #39
1991: "Guaranteed" - #17
1994: "Forever Now" - #19
1994: "All Over You" - #26
1994: "Love In A Peaceful World" - #31