Level 42 hit a real sweet spot in the 1980s, with a string of top five albums making them a household name.
Now, to mark the 25th anniversary of the release their stellar album Running In The Family, a hit not only in the UK, but all across Europe, the band are not only putting the album back out, but also hitting the road once more.
We spoke to lead singer, bassist and all round musical legend Mark King about the re-release, his memories of conquering Europe’s charts and why you’ve always got be thinking about the size of your bass.
So, we have the 25th Anniversary Edition of Running In The Family coming out, what was the impetus behind releasing it?
Me! I had a tour booked for this year and back in December my promoters said to me “What are we going to hang this on?” Because I had plans to Mark King out on the road, I wasn’t going to be coming up with a new album, so I popped the thinking cap on and said “It’s going to co-incide with the 25th anniversary of Running In The Family. It was our biggest, most successful album by quite some way, so it was probably worth celebrating that.” They thought it was a good idea and they could run with that.
So next port of call was getting in touch with Universal and my friend there Julian and asked if they were up for coming on board and celebrating the anniversary. I have to say, they’ve done a fantastic job, the actual box set is really good and contains a lot of good and desirable stuff for the hardcore fans. Not to mention that Running In The Family hasn’t been available on CD for a few years, so it’s great that it is now, because it is a good album.
Looking back, what are your thoughts on the album now?
I’m very proud of the album and it doesn’t owe me a damn thing. I’ve been living off it for the last 25 years! When I think of how the album was made, it was made in a slightly different way than we’d made all the preceding albums. We were out promoting the World Machine album in the States after Something About You had gone top 10 and was doing a load of good work for us. America’s such a massive country, we were picking up with other tours like Steve Winwood and Tiny Turner. We were opening for these mega artists in big football stadiums and the like.
We were only supporting of course, but it still takes a lot of time and the record company back in the UK had released both the ballads off World Machine and they didn’t think they had anything else to work with. So, they were asking if it was possible for us to nip into a studio on the way and make a new single that they could run with in the UK while we were in America.
Well, we got back at Christmas and booked a few days in Maison Rouge studios in Chelsea and in the intervening time, I got the guys to come to my house and had a little 8 track demo studio upstairs. There we thought ‘What are we going to do?’ We knew that the record company was looking for a single and I had an idea I’d taken from an arrangement at the end of the songs we were doing live, and it quite a pompous melody that was quite dragged out. It was actually the melody for Lessons in Love when I sped it up and put a bassline on it.
I presented it to the guys and they liked it and asked where we go from here. Then someone piped up that we should just revert that whole sequence and Mike came up with that bridge and boom, it all sort of came together with this great lyric. The alliteration in its fantastic ‘Lifeboat lies lost at sea, I’ve been trying to reach your shore, waves of doubt keep drowning me’. It was a really strong lyrical base, but of course we didn’t know that, so we came up with a couple of alternatives and all three ended up on the album.
Bear in mind this is five or six months ahead of doing the album and we just had a few days to do it, so we went in the studio and stuck the three songs down, because they’re all very different to each other. I suppose we were just hedging our bets and we didn’t really know what the record company wanted, but until you lay them down for real you never know how they’re going to end up. Even then Lessons in Love did seem like it was going to be a hit right out of the box, it just sounded like a hit. The record company loved it and stuck it out. So we merrily flew back to America and started cracking on with the rest of work out there.
Two months later we had to come back to Europe and do a European tour and it was great because by the time we’d got down to Italy, the tour manager came in and said that Lessons In Love had just gone to number one in Germany.
It was just fantastic, one of those great moments. Sitting on a sun drenched beach, surrounded by beautiful girls and your record’s just gone to number one! It all started with three orphan songs we made to give the record company something to run with, and it got to June and July and we had to get in the studio and actually make the album that these three were meant to be on. So we went in and came up with six other tracks, four of which went on to become hits in their own right.
So, was it a surprise that Running With The Family hit the top of the album charts in Holland?
No, it wasn’t, because Holland strangely had given us our very first break as they’d really picked up on Love Games. Our very first TV appearance was in Holland. We’d just come off the back of opening for The Police in Germany and we got a call that we needed to get out to Holland because Love Games was a hit. It was great as we had no idea that the Dutch people liked what we were doing.
And they kind of sold it back to the UK, as Polydor UK saw that it was a hit in Holland and then got behind it here. Then it made the charts in the UK and got us on Top Of The Pops.
So Holland has always been a really rich ground for us. In fact so much so, about five years ago they presented me with an award for selling over a million albums, which is quite hard to do in Holland.
This re-release comes with a special acoustic version of the album, what was that like to do?
It was really great to do and it was quite moving in a way. I wanted to do exactly the Running In The Family album, but an acoustic version. Firstly new for the hardcore fans that was relevant and would give them a reason to buy the collection and secondly, when I looked back, there were still elements of us being a club band in the 1980s. A lot of it was aimed at the dance floor; I felt it was important that you could dance to the stuff.
When you strip it back to just an acoustic guitar you can’t have that idea. You can’t do all these synthesiser parts, because that’s very hard to recreate with an acoustic guitar. When you take that on board, it’s very liberating because you can say “I’ve got some strong melodies and some fantastic words. I’ll just reinterpret them for an acoustic guitar.”
Once I took that on board it was great, because you can take like To Be With You Again and saw if for the first time with clear eyes. Back in 86, when we were going crazy and I was just coming up with more of the bass stuff, because that’s what people wanted and I never really took on board what Boon (Rowland Gould) was trying to say lyrically until I sat down and couple of months back. It’s very poignant as three to four months after he left the band. The lyrics were a real cry for help!
When I read it like this, straight away I was able to approach it and get the melancholy right because that’s what it was. You’re talking about a guy going through real turmoil and conflict because he was putting his career ahead of relationship that was getting blown apart because he was on the road all the time. He really regretted that and it was sad and I was able to come up with something that suited it so much better. I was thrilled that went I sent it to Boon he came back and said “I love it, that’s what I meant”. So 25 years later, I finally got it right.
As you’ve touched on before, we’ve also got the tour linking in. What can people expect from the shows?
Well, we’ll be playing Running In The Family in its entirety, there are three songs on their that we’ve never played live, so that’s something totally new. It is our most successful album, so it’s bejewelled with hits anyway.
So we start the show with that then I want to put in two or three acoustic songs and then we can go out on a big knees up with Starchild, Hot Water and the stuff that people want us to do. Then we’ll see you at the bar.
What’s it been like to have Mike Lindup back in the band?
It’s good. I’ve known Mike 35 years now and he’s a lovely guy and a fantastic keyboard player. I know Mike so well that I don’t even have to say things. When I did the shows at Ronnie Scott’s in London early this year called Mark King and Friends, the first guys I called on were the guys out of Level 42 because they’re my mates.
I’ve worked with Mike all these years and as he said when we did that show, it’s great to play stuff that is part of our musical DNA. That’s a lifetime of working with somebody and knowing them and it’s always great to have him around.
Your bass is a real thing of beauty, when and where did you get it?
It’s actually called a King Bass and it’s something I designed with Rob Green who’s a British bass maker who runs a company called Status Graphite and he makes beautiful instruments. We started making these basses back in 2000 and every couple of years I’ve kept wanting to modify them and Rob’s always just gone ‘Yep, sounds good’ and been able to do it.
Then about 4 years ago I put on a bit of weight as I’d started to enjoy my wife’s fantastic cooking too much and porked out a bit and these basses are really nice, small and compact. So I then had to ask Rob “Could we make them a bit bigger to make me look thinner?”
So we created the ‘Thin and Crispy’ version, only for me to lose all the weight and need a small one again. So we made the ‘Mark 3’ and added a load of lights to make me look like some sort of rock God.
So, when you were back working as a milkman all those years ago, did you think you’d become such a massive figure in music?
Yes, I’ve always loved me! It’s a lonely job being a milkman. Waking up at the crack of dawn, and all that rubbish about frustrated housewives dragging you in by your lapels never happened to me once!
I have always had a belief that I was going to good in the music business. I know that sounds very un-British, but it’s just the truth. There’s only one thing I’ve really wanted to do and I do it for a living.
Just to finish off, what have you got in the pipeline after this UK tour wraps up?
Well, the tour carries on actually, in the New Year we’re off to Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, that side of the world because that’s always been good hunting grounds for us as well and that takes us up to the summer.
I suppose then I really should really then get on and come up with the next Level 42 album. There’s a lot of stuff to write about and I think I’m getting ready to do that again now.
This will have been a great full stop to where we’ve been and the stuff that we’ve done and I’ll always really happy to play it, I’m proud of the stuff we’ve done but maybe it’s a good time to crack on. So, hopefully when we next go out, which will be 2014, it’ll be with a new album.
Level 42 – Running In The Family 25th Anniversary Edition is out now.
FemaleFirst Cameron Smith