Live Zone

Level 42 + The Blow Monkeys, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK,17th October 2018



There’s a right old Royal connection tonight. First of all, this lovely £30 million venue was opened by The Queen in 1991.

A few days ago, a woman who probably thinks SHE is the Queen, was here fronting the Tory party’s annual conference.

But tonight, it’s the boys’ turn…There’s a King in the house – jazz funk Royalty. He’s got Princes with him too.

Mr Mark King and of course, Level 42. Old thunder thumb himself. One of the best-known bassists in the world. He can sing a bit too and has been known to pen a decent tune or two.

So, what’s occurring on this mild October evening? The 13th of 19 UK shows on the band’s “Eternity” tour, and another close-to-sell-out of this 2,262 capacity all-seated venue.

The age range of the audience, from teenagers to those, who just like me, were into Level 42 when they first burst onto the scene in 1981. Whose backs go out more than they do these days, hence the desire to stay in their seat as long as they can tonight. Before the groove-soaked set acts like cat nip, and gets many up on their feet for a bit of a jig about. On a school night too!

There’s more than a few bass players in attendance too, and a smattering of local celebs. Brummie Royalty Roy Wood and Jaki Graham among them. Top session bassist Paul Pryor (Ruby Turner, Jason Donovan, Marti Pellow) is in, happy to be sat near his two ex-bosses Jaki and Roy. A  few rows from the front and turning up in the backstage bar for “after show” drinkies later on with Mark, Mike and Pete and a few other VIPs. Oh, and me!!!

First up for a very decent 45-minute opening set are 1980s pop chart darlings The Blow Monkeys. The full four-piece original line-up, fronted by Dr Robert, aka Robert Howard. (I was wondering if he could take a look at this nasty rash after the gig….). With Neville Henry, Mick Anker and Tony Kiley.

The British pop band formed in 1981 and split in 1990, after a raft of hit singles and albums. Their first hit song, “Digging Your Scene”, charted at # 12 in the UK and # 14 in the USA. Since reforming in 2007, they have dropped four studio albums and a live record. Their latest album is 2017’s “Wild River”, the title cut also a single. A return to their soul/funk roots.

Dr Robert has issued seven solo albums, the last one in 2016. The band’s celebrated cover of the 1963 Lesley Gore track “You Don’t Own Me,” was featured on the soundtrack to the smash hit movie “Dirty Dancing”. The good doctor’s voice still intact and he is a bloody good guitarist too. Well worth going to see them live in 2018.

But it’s that blonde bloke from the Isle of Wight and his mates we are all here for tonight. And on they come at bang on 9pm, for a 95 minute set of 13 songs, before a three-song encore.

The fabulous Mike Lindup on keys and vocals, Nathan King, (Mark’s brother) on guitar and backing vocals, the blisteringly good three-piece horn section of Sean Freeman on sax and vocals, Dan Carpenter on trumpet and vocals and Nichol Thomson on trombone and vocals.

And of course, last but not least, Sheffield’s pocket rocket Pete Ray Biggin – very much’ in-the-pocket’ behind the biggest drum kit you’ll see on any stage. Just this baseball cap,  mirrored sunglasses and headphones visible in the gap between the cymbals. Pete grinning from ear to ear for the duration of the gig. He loves his work does our PRB.

A brief reminder of Level 42’s career: 11 studio albums, between 1981 and their last one “Retroglide” in 2006. They have 11 live albums, the last one was “Sirens Tour – Live in 2015”. At least 18 compilations, and there have been special extended re-issues over the years.

They have sold an estimated 30 million records and released 33 singles – with six Top 10 hits on the UK singles chart and one Top 10 US hit, “Something About You”. Just the one EP in their career, “Sirens”, five years ago. That’s a cracker by the way.

On stage for this tour, a big cloth backdrop with their name on, and the tour’s “Eternity” moniker. Big white discs floating in the air, where stunning lighting effects are reflected during the show.

They kick off with the classic “Running In The Family” from 1987, the title track of their seventh studio album, which delivered not one, not two, not three, not four, but five hit singles. This was the last Level 42 album of the 1980s to feature brothers Phil (drums) and ‘Boon’ Gould (guitar), from the original line-up. The album was certified two times Platinum in the UK, and did well around the world, including a number 25 spot in the US. The title track single made it to # 6 in the UK.

Sounding really good tonight. Next up, an instrumental to flex their muscles on. “Heathrow”. It goes way back to the band’s self-titled debut album, which came out in 1981, two years after they first formed.

The debut album, produced by Mike Vernon, reached # 20 in the UK chart and the record spawned three successful singles, “Love Games”, one of my favourites “Turn It On” and the gorgeous “Star Child”.

The audience get into sing-along mode for “The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)”, such an infectious track. From the 1983 album “Standing In The Light”. Mike Lindup on lead vocals, with Mark chipping in on the vocal too. It was the band’s first single to reach the Top 10 in the UK singles chart. Produced by Larry Dunn and Verdine White of the legendary Earth, Wind & Fire.

Fourth up tonight, “The Machine Stops, the final track on “Standing In The Light”. Bass players freak out at this track, for Marks exceptional skills featured across it. I am told by those bottom end feeders that on this cut, he excels on his usual slap groove technique.

But that he also strums harmonic chords, bends the neck of the bass and, wait for it, wait for it…throws in some “popped triplet fills”. Sounds like something a plastic surgeon would recommend to some rich old bird!  The song’s title comes from an E.M. Forster short story published in 1909.

For the lovely “Starchild”, another one from their debut album and their fifth single, the boys get their balls out. Ohh, I say! Disco balls, madam! Taking us back to the dance halls and disco clubs of the 1980s, with sparkly silver lights all over the venue.

Mark shimmying across the stage to his right hand side, to smile at the good folk in the boxes at the side, to yells of “We love you Mark” coming back at him. His accountant or the Tax Man?

One we don’t hear often, “Good Man In A Storm” from their sixth album released in 1985, “World Machine”. Written by Phil Gould and Mark King, about Phil and his brother Rowland, aka Boon, and their childhood story. Mark bathed in white light for this one, and featuring a sweet sax solo from Sean Freeman. Heck of a player…

“Right, have some of this,” Mr King tells us, before they launch into “A Floating Life” from 1984’s “True Colours”, another Phil Gould and Mark King song. The horns and Nathan’s guitar lock in tight and sound awesome together on this one.

But for me, the jewel in the crown from this reigning Monarch and his A Team is the next one. One of the best ballads I know. Truly. I remember how it connected emotionally first time I heard it back in 1985 on the “World Machine” album, and it has pretty much the same effect 33 years later.

“Leaving Me Now”, is such a finely crafted piece of song writing from Mark, Phil and Wally Badarou. Mike Lindup’s piano solo at the end of the song is gorgeous, the soulful sax solo adds value too and Mark’s heart wrenching vocal sounds as real, as honest and as effing good as it did back in the day. Really does.

One quirky little thing, before we move on. Guitarist Boon Gould in the original “Leaving Me Now” video, looks the spitting image of Daniel Osbourne, Ken Barlow’s son in Coronation Street, played by actor Rob Mallard!!! Check it out.

In “Sandstorm”, a (mostly) instrumental from “The Early Tapes” (also known as “Strategy”) – an album that came out in 1982, but was actually recorded in 1980 before their debut record came out – someone yells out, “You’re fucking good” to Mark, as he slaps the buggery out of his lit up bass. Good? A bit like telling Michelangelo he’s pretty nifty with a paint brush!

Mark scat sings a few times at 80 MPH across the song, and steps to the very front of the stage for a bass solo that of course, gets loud cheers. Show off! His brother is not to be out done and he gets a solo too. No nepotism here folks, so Pete gets his turn and then Mike gets busy on the synth for his spot. Got to say, Pete was really “on it” for this song too.

At this point, nature calls and while I am outside of the auditorium, I overhear a conversation with four blokes who feel that the band needs to “step it up” and “play some classics soon”. They are remarking about the inclusion of the lesser performed album tracks in the set. Songs they don’t know.

Four of them and one of me, so I choose not to chip in. But I can safely do so now….Er, if you just want hit after hit after hit, then stay home and put the damn records on. It’s called pacing the set and giving light and shade. Yes, there were a couple of songs where not everyone stayed fully attentive, perhaps. But it is nice to hear the more obscure stuff from the 300 songs the band have to choose from, if you are a real Level 42 fan, surely.

But “The Chinese Way” needs no introduction to Level 42 fans from back in the day. The third single from their 1983 album, “The Pursuit Of Accidents”. Their first Top 30 single in the UK, which was penned by Mark, Mike, Phil and Wally.

Mark and one of the horn guys and Mike and Nathan pair up, and bang the shit out of percussion in the middle of the stage on the next one, “The Chant Has Begun”. The opener on their fifth album “True Colours” from 1984. It is also on the band’s 1985 live album “A Physical Presence”.  The second single lifted from “True Colours”, after the fabulous and live staple, “Hot Water” which closes the set later on tonight.

A big, big cheer when the opening notes of “Something About You” kicks off. A hit single from “World Machine”. Most of the 2,000+ on their feet for this one. The sole Level 42 song to reach the US Top 10, peaking at # 7. Their second Top 10 hit in the UK, reaching # 6. Killer song and sounds as fresh as the day it was written and committed to tape. All three in the horn section adding backing vocals.

Final song of the set tonight, before the inevitable and well-deserved encore was “Heaven In My Hands”. The first single from 1988’s “Staring At The Sun” album. The first not to feature the Gould brothers, following their departure from the band the previous year. Boon wrote the lyric to the track though.

Mark and Mike’s vocals together on this one sound so good. Fish and chips. Morecambe and Wise. King and Lindup! Mark getting a tad  over-excited on this track, and jumping up and down in front of the horn section. Perhaps an under-appreciated song from their back catalogue and good to hear it again.

The band leave the stage, but are soon back to thunderous applause and screams for more. Mark glances at an empty seat in front of Mike’s gear and launches into an ad-libbed bass solo to fill time, commenting, “We are a man down”, and then laughs when he sees his partner in crime dash onto the stage.

They leap into a biggie to start the encore, “Lessons In Love”. From their hit album “Running In The Family,”. It’s the opening track, which got to # 3 in the UK singles chart. It’s a real sing-a-long tonight for the audience, and the horn section decide to do the conga across the stage, mid-song.

The penultimate song is one of their newest offerings. The fun, “Build Myself A Rocket” from the fabulous 2013 EP, “Sirens”. A real return to form for the band and some superb song writing and production. Mark’s vocal on this one on the EP and tonight, sounds so natural and shows this song is a tight fit.

I am still recovering from the Shadows-style ensemble dancing in the song tonight by the whole band – even Mike coming out from his keyboard nest! Strictly will NOT be calling you guys!!!

The final song of the set is the classic “Hot Water”, from the 1984 record “True Colours” and a Top 20 single in the UK, produced by Ken Scott. Many call this “Sons and Daughters”, as that is the main lyric in the chorus. A bloody great song and tonight, one of the highlights.

Mark was genuinely thrilled with the warm reaction tonight, and just before they left the stage for the final time, announced he loves “this hall” and the people who came out to see the band tonight. “Beautiful”. “Wonderful”. “See you all again in 2020”.

As they formed in 1979 and 2019 is therefore their 40th anniversary, I am a little surprised there’s not a full diary of celebrations lined up, and by the sound of it they’ll wait until 2020 to do this all again.

The last of these 19 UK shows which kicked off in Glasgow, is as usual at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall, on 25th Oct. Then a night off and nipping across to Europe to start a tour in the Netherlands until 10th Nov.

Level 42 are not what they were. Fact. But that is only in reference to the personnel. In terms of quality, class, style and utter ‘shit-hotness’, they really are as good as they ever were. They have evolved. They have developed. They have grown. They have matured. But this is not a nostalgia thing. A listen to the material on “Sirens” will deffo confirm that.

And in not just doing a ‘Greatest Hits’ set and a few filler covers, they are avoiding sounding like a tribute band to the original line-up. Or a bunch of hasbeens with their eyes purely on the dosh, the spondulix, the bread, the filthy lucre.

They still excite as much as they did when I first saw them, in a Midlands Polytechnic canteen hall which held maybe 200 people, not long after they first started. I could not believe my ears and my eyes when I walked into their afternoon soundcheck, having been sent there by a music paper to take pictures. I had not heard of them. No idea if they did rock, punk or a striptease in a bucket of ferrets.

So, there was this fresh faced blonde kid in a white vest, sat on an amp playing the Bejeezus out of his bass. The chattering catering ladies cleaning down the kitchens after lunch service. I was gobsmacked with what I heard. But when that band kicked in, I almost soiled myself. Right up my Strasa; that glorious jazz funk sound I had just discovered for the first time.

Wind forward just a few years and they were filling the huge NEC Arena, and there was this same blonde bass kid; this time literally flying over the heads of the thousands there, on a “Kirby” wire and harness while playing his bass guitar, like a crazy circus act

I was being blown off my feet, literally, at that gig; when the confetti canon was set off as I was stood on my metal camera case in the pit taking photos, just a few feet from it with no warning. No H&S bullshit in them days. Since then, that band and that man on bass have become part of British pop history.

But how many bands or artists do you know, who have not released a new studio album since 2006 or had a hit single in the chart for yonks, but can still fill 2,000 and 3,000+ capacity venues on every tour, and even bigger venues in Europe?

It’s no museum piece. It’s no juke box. Most definitely not like those former chart bands who are a poor imitation of an original line-up from years ago. In some ways, the music sounds as fresh as if they are a current chart band. Not an outfit with a 40-year pedigree and household name brand.

I honestly believe they could have more hits with the right songs and the right record label support. They have the loyal fan-base to make it happen, trust me on that.

Mark King celebrates his 60th birthday on Saturday (20th Oct) on this tour in Cardiff. The main driving force of this band, keeping the L42 brand alive and kicking. And looking a lot younger, the lucky git.

Here’s to many more years of him doing just that, and please Mike, forever stay in the Level 42 family. Not the same without you.

A very happy birthday big bad bass man. Cheers….



Words & Photos: Simon Redley






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