Lessons in Level 42: ‘The Complete Polydor Years Volume 1’

❉ Are You Hearing What I Hear? Ange Chan on a stunning Level 42 retrospective covering all their releases from 1980 to 1984.  

You may remember Level 42 as a jazz-funk fusion band that had considerable success in the 1980s?  Well, they’re back in a big way, with a 10-disc retrospective The Complete Polydor Years Part 1 (Part 2 to follow) and a UK stadium tour planned for October 2021, COVID-willing.  Forming in the dying embers of the 1970s, Level 42 started as a funky fusion outfit reminiscent of Steely Dan and Weather Report, before embracing slick ‘dance-rock’, for which they would eventually be best known.

Formed by four friends at London’s Guildhall of Music and Drama via Paris and the Isle of Wight, the quartet each had a unique skill to bring to the party. They quickly signed to Polydor in 1980, after a brief sojourn with Elite Records, ­­­­and went on to produce a series of catchy tunes and cohesive albums with Polydor that have set them in good stead over the years, achieving success on both sides of the pond as well as across Europe.

Mark King and Phil Gould were the initial driving force for the band and were joined by Mike Lindup and Boon Gould.  King was originally a drummer, but Phil Gould convinced him to be the singer/bass player and the rest as they say, is history.  Keeping it in the family, quite literally, Polydor’s A&R man was Phil and Boon’s brother and his input and promotion helped considerably in placing the band exactly where they wanted to be. The fifth band member in all but name was Wally Badarou (ex ‘M’ of Pop Musik fame) who was the glue that brought the four band members together.

The band’s name was originally going to be 88, based on the number 88 bus that passed the Music Guild each day, but on discovering that there was already a band called Rocket 88, they decided to use 42 instead, in reference to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy sequence of books, which bathetically revealed the answer to life, the universe and everything to be the number 42.

Throughout the 1980s the band released eight albums and toured regularly, building a large and devoted fan base. The earliest years are featured here in Volume 1 are from the years 1980 to 1984.  Post-1985 onwards will be included in Volume 2 to be released at a later date. Cherry Red’s 10-disc presentation box set comes in a substantial case with 10 beautifully packaged discs which are made to look like mini albums in their sturdy cardboard sleeves, and the spines’ detail each disc title. The glossy booklet that accompanies the set is an all-colour affair with new interviews with band members past and present, and sleeve notes by Record Collector’s Daryl Easlea.

The set includes all the albums during that era as well as discs of the singles collection, B-sides, 12” singles and rarities, 12” singles, and bonus tracks.  It’s an incredibly thorough collection, and something which will appeal to fans of slick ’80s music as well as ardent fans of the band.

Their first single released on Elite Records, Love Meeting Love brought the band to the attention of Polydor, who they subsequently signed with.  Disc One is the eponymously titled Level 42 album which spawned the first single with Polydor, Love Games which reached the top 40 at number 38.  This initial success was followed by Turn it On (reaching number 47), and Starchild reaching number 57 in the UK but also achieving moderate success in both USA and Europe.  The album was produced by veteran producer Mike Vernon (John Mayall, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After) who would go on to work with the band through most of the decade.  It introduces us to what was to become the band’s signature funky fusion sound with songs like Turn it On and Heathrow, reminiscent of the smooth Yacht Rock of the previous decade with staccato-style slick keyboards and funky lift music approach to song writing, punctuated with silky sax sounds to complete the overall effect.

Disc Two, The Early Tapes (alternative name: Strategy) album features Love Meeting Love and was a compilation album of material from their Elite Records period.  The subtle switch between the Elite and Polydor period is evident here, with overtones of trying too hard, too many instrumental layers which confuse the overall melody and making a joyful cacophony in the process, instead of the more accomplished band which they were later to become.  Love Meeting Love is a ’70s-esque smoothie so typical of that era.

Disc three, The Pursuit of Accidents, was the band’s third album and was also produced by Mike Vernon. It was released in September 1982 on vinyl, and later in 1985 on one of those new-fangled CD things.  It produced three singles, Are You Hearing (What I Hear?), Weave your Spell, and the most successful single from the album reaching number 24 in the UK Charts, The Chinese Way.  You can start to hear their commercial prowess here; the intros aren’t several minutes into the song, and the instrumentation harmonises beautifully with the bassline and vocals.

Disc 4 is their fourth album (anyone else see a pattern emerging so far!) Standing in the Light which was released in 1983 and was the band’s first Top 10 album, also producing their first Top 10 single with The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up).  By this point in the game the band were well established in the UK music charts and were making significant headway in both Europe and America too.

Other singles on the album were Micro Kid which made the Top 40 and Out of Sight Out of Mind which just scraped a miss at number 41. By the time Level 42 had reach this album they were an accomplished act, and you can hear it in the production and song writing.  The Sun Goes Down (Living it Up) is a perfectly constructed pop song and its no accident that it was one of their greatest hits.

Disc 5 and the last original album in this compilation, True Colours was released in 1984 and was a shift in the band’s sound, from jazz-funk to a more mid-tempo rock/ballads style approach. It yielded the singles The Chant Has Begun and Hot Water which was a big hit in the UK, The Netherlands and Belgium. By this point in their career, the band had secured a mass fan base and featured regularly on UK music shows such as Top of the Pops and The Tube and their most successful tour to date, at that time. In short, they were in demand.

Midway through this hefty collection we’re presented with The Singles Collection on disc 6, most of which are the original 7” versions, with (Flying on the) Wings Of Love in the 7” US Edit format.  The CD also features Love Meeting Love for the first time on CD format.  Disc 7 gives us the B sides of those singles with some different versions of songs including The Return of the Handsome Rugged Man, Dune Tale, Love Games and Turn it On all being in the live format.

Disc 8 and 9 include various mixes, US formats and full-length versions of their singles in 12” format and the final disc 10, includes thirteen bonus tracks which will no doubt please the avid Level 42 fan, containing the Dub Edit version of The Chinese Way for the first time on CD, and several live tracks from their February 1983 show at the Regal Theatre, Hitchin.

This epic collection is a joy for fans of Level 42 and the jazz/funk fusion sound and perfectly tells the story of how the band progressed from their beginnings through to the most successful period of their career. We eagerly anticipate the Volume 2 section of the Level 42 story which will be released by Cherry Red at some point in the future.  Watch this space!

❉ Level 42: ‘The Complete Polydor Years Volume 1 1980-1984’ (ROBINBOX45) released March 26, 2021, by Robinsongs/Cherry Red Records, RRP £44.99. CLICK HERE to order from Cherry Red. 

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Ange Chan is a Freelance Writer, having produced two novels and six volumes of poetry. A prominent contributor to Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon) and lifelong lover of music, Ange is also We Are Cult’s Social Media Administrator.

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