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BBC – Music – Review of Level 42

Written by on October 18, 2020

For one brief, shining moment at the start of the 80s, Level 42 were underground and cutting edge. They were outsiders: they had a resolute lack of fashion sense, an Isle of Wight address, played hard-hitting grooves and, in Mark King and Mike Lindup, an unconventional pairing of singers. Fleetingly, they seemed as relevant to 1981 as Talking Heads, Grandmaster Flash or The Fall.

With the “princess” on the album’s cover, Level 42’s debut reflected the aspirational glamour of sections of their audience: dressed-up people in the clubs of east London, Essex and north Kent where this music thrived.

Easily derided by those outside, their early releases, running alongside the new romantic movement, were something exciting and vibrant. Even a few rock journalists at the time were prepared to nail their colours to the mast and support them. On Level 42, you can still hear echoes of this time.

The group had already recorded an album for indie label Elite when they were signed to Polydor. Elite wanted a huge sum to let their new label release it, so the band quickly wrote and recorded new material. With veteran blues producer Mike Vernon at the helm (King loved the fact he’d worked with progressive band Focus), they cut eight tracks, and in Love Games, Turn It On and Starchild, they created three indestructible singles.

Turn It On starts the album with all of their youthful, swaggering confidence on display. The propulsive groove of Almost There is exhilarating and the instrumental bass showcase, Dune Tune, is shimmering, soulful jazz-funk.

Heathrow and “43” are a trifle perfunctory, but the listener is more than compensated by the album’s lead single and debut top 40 hit Love Games, which captures the salt’n’sweet combination of King and Lindup’s voices perfectly. Level 42’s influences were clearly signposted – Stanley Clarke, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock – and they were delighted to share them with young British ears.

Despite their enormous and prolonged success Level 42 were never this pioneering again, but this debut album still sounds fresh and vital. It is one of those records that is both understated and triumphant at the same time.

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