Level 42: British rockers with jazz roots ride high in US

The English pop band Level 42 has been popular in Europe for several years and has recorded six albums in Britain. But the group didn't get its first United States release until ``World Machine'' in 1986, which, along with the follow-up album ``Running in the Family,'' helped establish its reputation in America. This past summer it appeared as the opening act for Madonna's ``Who's That Girl'' tour. Proving that it doesn't have to ride on Madonna's coattails, Level 42 recently completed its own successful tour of the US and Canada. In a interview here, Mark King, bassist and lead singer of Level 42, said that the early albums were primarily instrumental. When the band was singing, ``...it was so apologetic, like - what are we doing, we sing awfully, why are they making us do this?''

In 1980, when the band started, the members wanted to sound like Chick Corea's Return to Forever, or John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra - serious jazz artists. Nevertheless, Level 42 (whose name derives from the book ``Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,'' by Douglas Adams) has become a successful pop band - Mr. King sings all the time now, and he's stopped apologizing.

King talked about his music and what it's like to be a creative musician caught up in the world of pop music performance.

``You have an awful lot of lights, light shows, maybe even some special effects, which go to make that event even more of an event. It doesn't have a great deal to do with the music - it's much more just the choreography of the thing.''

In spite of this, he enjoys playing for huge audiences: ``It's fantastic! It's much better than playing in front of a small audience. There's nothing worse than hearing the audience breathe during those quiet passages,'' he laughed. ``I can't stand to see people's eyeballs roll when you hit a bum note! If it's huge, then it's just too big to matter - it's like playing to an alien organism.''

Nevertheless, King is sure he will tire of the ``alien organism'' before long, admitting that one can only go so far with pop fame:

``I feel we're almost there ... it's getting pretty much exhausted. I wouldn't like people to point the finger at us and say, `You seem to have found a formula and you're milking it to death.' Hand on my heart, I don't think we've been working a formula. I think that whatever we're doing is not like what we've done before. But I'd like to be much more experimental musically.''

Level 42 is a band that has evolved naturally, from its jazz instrumental roots to the harmonically rich vocals and instrumentals it does today, filled out with the jazz-inflected keyboard work of Mark Lindup. Stylistically, the band falls more or less into the group of young British musicians who are heading in a more sophisticated, yet soulful, musical direction, a direction which, according to King, is not popular with the British press: ``The British music press has always slighted you if you had ability on your instrument. That's why they embraced the punk thing. It's not like here in America, where you get duly rewarded for the hard labors you put in....''

Although King has had little formal musical training, he writes much of the music for the band, with Mr. Lindup harmonizing his melodies.

At the rock emporium the Ritz, the band sounded even better live than it does on record. It had a chance to stretch out and play more solos, and the tight, empathic relationship between King's slapping, percussive bass playing and Phil Gould's steady, sensitive drumming was more evident than on their recordings.

All of Level 42's previous albums are now available on LP, cassette, and CD.

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