The Greatest Band in the World: Discuss

My ten year old son regularly asks me questions like “Who would you rather be: Aragorn or Legolas?”, “Who would win a fight between Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee?” or “What is your favourite band?”

Some of these are easy to answer (Aragorn, obviously – who wants to be a pointy-eared Orlando Bloom?), some are difficult (I think Lee would kick Chan’s ass, but who knows?) and some are impossible: I really don’t have a favourite band anymore.

There may be a particular artist or band that you keep returning to again and again, (and for me this would include Neil Young, Foo Fighters, Led Zeppelin and a host of others) but I think the notion of an outright ‘favourite’ is something which you just tend to grow out of. My favourite album right now is the one I’m listening to whilst I write this piece (Eno’s ‘Ambient 1: Music For Airports’ if you’re asking…)

Things were generally a lot simpler and a lot more black and white when you were younger. You did have a favourite band which you would defend to the hilt to your friends.

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My first favourite band were Madness. When I was the same age as my son is now I bought the greatest hits album Complete Madness on cassette in Derby Woolworths. I played that album to death, loving the scatty humour, ska influenced rhythms and great pop melodies delivered in Suggs’ inimitable style (I can still rattle off all the lyrics to ‘Baggy Trousers’ in an authentic North London accent without missing a beat).

In my teens I had a short love affair with Level 42 (which you can read all about here). For this, I got the piss mercilessly extracted from me by my peers. This makes perfect sense to me now, but at the time I just couldn’t understand why others didn’t share my enthusiasm. My nemesis with regard to band-baiting at school was my friend Neil. Neil hated Level 42 and took every opportunity to tell me how shit they were and how his favourite band, The Cars, were so much better. I hadn’t heard any Cars stuff apart from their hit ‘Drive’ (which I quite liked) but I felt pushed into a corner. So with attack as the best form of defence we relentlessly slated each other’s favourite bands from our entrenched standpoints. There was a brief truce when we agreed to lend each other an album to listen to (I liked the Cars stuff but wouldn’t admit it, he hated the Level 42 stuff and revelled in telling me so) before we got back to slagging each other off again.

The ultimate irony of this particular story is that years later when I had a MySpace site (remember MySpace!) featuring some of the songs I had written and recorded in my home studio, I messaged Boon Gould (the guitarist from Level 42 who was also on MySpace) asking him to have a listen to my tracks. He took the time to listen to them and gave me some lovely comments including this one: “I really like the guitar on the intro to ‘Catching Sunbeams’, it reminds me of The Cars.”

How Neil would have laughed.

Going full circle, I actually wrote that song for (and about) my recently born son, the one who now asks all the questions that started this whole thing off. Have a listen and then let me know what your favourite bands were.

Leon Wilson

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Transient Teenage Obsessions: Level 42

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Those of you who knew me in my teenage years will know that I had a bit of an obsession with certain band between 1985 and 1988. I’d like to be able to say that between the ages of 13 and 16 my main musical focus was a so-called ‘cool’ band like The Smiths or The Fall or that I was right off the radar with a band like Half Man Half Biscuit. But no, I was infatuated with Level 42. Ha, I hear you scoff, that silly 80’s pop group, beloved of Yuppies, fronted by that fool spanking his half-mast bass with his gaffa-taped thumb. Well, yes and no. The supposedly superficial pop of 1985 led to some deeper musical discoveries, and I’d like to share the journey with you.

It started when I heard the song ‘Something About You’ in late ’85. I was taken with it’s driving groove, perfect guitar solo and intriguing combination of two vocalists, one being sung in a strange falsetto. It was, and still is, a great pop song. On the basis of this I bought the album ‘World Machine’ (on cassette, of course- see https://leonwilson12.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/c90s-and-the-lost-art-of-the-mixtape-the-cassette/ for more details…)

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By chance, I happened to buy a limited edition cassette with the album on one side and a bonus side of 12″ remixes on the other. The remixes covered a selection of their previous songs (dating back to 1981’s ‘Love Games’), but included one particular track I became infatuated with: ‘Hot Water’. This 10 minute mix by master producer Ken Scott (who has an amazing pedigree including The Beatles and David Bowie to name but two) was a slice of bass driven, horn stabbing funkiness which I couldn’t stop listening to.

It was time to explore the back catalogue. Being of a methodical nature, I decided to start from the beginning and went for ‘The Early Tapes’ which was an album recorded in 1980 for Elite Records before they were signed ‘properly’ for Polydor and released their eponymous first album in 1981. Boy was I in for a surprise. Half of the tracks were songs with vocals, but the other half were instrumental forays into the hitherto unknown world of jazz funk, like ‘Mr Pink’

Here were four guys who could really play: Phil Gould on drums, his brother Boon on guitar, Mike Lindup on keys and, of course, Mark King on bass. It was a combination of Phil’s grooves, Boon’s Chic-like rhythm playing and flowing lead guitar, Lindup’s analogue synths coupled with some funky, jazzy Fender Rhodes and King’s machine gun style slap bass.

I’d never heard anything like this before so I started to look into their influences and started to discover some wonderful music by the likes of Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea (and their fantastic band Return to Forever). One of my favourite discoveries, and still one of my favourite albums to this day, was ‘Spectrum’ by Billy Cobham (engineered by Ken Scott, incidentally). The gatefold sleeve (I bought this on LP) shows Cobham sat behind this massive clear-shelled drum kit and his creativity and energy leapt out of the grooves in the vinyl.

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With Leyand Sklar holding everything down on bass, Cobham would explode sonically all over the place yet still keep the groove going. Jan Hammer on keys and Tommy Bolin on guitar would spar with each other on tracks like ‘Taurian Matador’ and ‘Red Baron’ with sparks flying everywhere. A classic.

A lot of the the musicians I was getting into, Cobham included, had played under Miles Davis in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Davis has started to turn his back on conventional jazz and started to fuse other styles of music with his playing. As well as checking out these fusion era records like ‘Bitches Brew’, I started to go back into his bebop records of the early 1950’s and that opened up another whole new world: the world of jazz.

I shall leave the exploration of jazz for a future blog but needless to say, I worked my way though Level 42’s albums during 1986; the instrumentals getting rarer and the sound more commercial. I don’t really have a favourite studio album of theirs, each one has it’s own unique sound and merit. If I had to pick one album it would be their live LP ‘A Physical Presence’ recorded and released in 1985, just before the commercial breakthrough of ‘World Machine’. This album showcases a great live band at the peak of its powers. I played this album endlessly, trying to work out the guitar (and bass) parts on my newly acquired Westone electric guitar (see https://leonwilson12.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/bass-players-anonymous-2/ for my personal journey from guitarist to bassist).

1987 dawned and a new album was imminent. The stylistic signposts were there in the 1986 release of a single (not on ‘World Machine’) called ‘Lessons in Love’. This was their biggest hit to date and showed they meant business in the world of pop. The same ingredients seemed to be there; the driving slapped bassline, the distinctive dual vocals with catchy melodies, but the whole thing seemed a little too ‘shiny’ for my tastes (now that I was a hardcore jazz funker!). This was further evidenced in 1987’s ‘Running in the Family’ album. I was pleased to hear some new material from my favourite band, it was just a little polished for my liking. The good thing was that they put on a big tour and I got to go and see them in March 1987 at Birmingham NEC. This was my first arena gig and I really enjoyed it. Little would I know that later that year the original line up would be lost forever when Boon, and then Phil Gould, left the band. Boon’s departure was put down to nervous exhaustion from touring. He would continue to maintain links with the band, writing lyrics for them on various future projects. Boon was always my favourite member of the band. I was enthralled with his guitar playing, especially when I started learning to play myself. I wrote to him, and to my great surprise and delight, he wrote back, giving me all sorts of helpful advice on playing and other things. He also took the time to listen to, and write back about, a cassette of my band that got thrust in his hand following a solo gig he did at the Mean Fiddler in London in 1991.

Phil’s departure was thought to be more along the ‘musical differences’ line. He had, allegedly, left the band briefly in 1985, unhappy with how the sound of the band was leaning more to the pop side of things. This, and a deteriorating relationship with King were to signal the end for the drummer.

They recruited Alan Murphŷ (ex Go West and Kate Bush) and Gary Husband on drums to produce the more rocky ‘Staring at the Sun’ album in 1988, but I had kind of lost interest by now. This wasn’t the band I had fallen for back in 1985. My obsession had waned.

I still have a huge soft spot for Level 42. Mark King and Mike Lindup still tour as Level 42 with a killer band (they’re touring at the moment if you want to catch them) and I’ve been known to see them a couple of times over the past few years. Mark King is still a remarkable bass player. He is most well known for that percussive slap bass, but he has a fantastically underrated fingerstyle technique, almost Jaco Pastorius like in its fluidity. For the moment though, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite Level 42 tracks, a live version of ‘Hot Water’ from 1986. Now don’t tell me you’re not going to play air bass to this one….

Leon Wilson