ON THE LEVEL WITH MARK KING
Whatever happened to proper pop music? Remember the halcyon days of Wham, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club and ABC all battling it out to be number one? They wrote their own music, had their own style, could all play live and – most important of all – were genuine, homegrown bands that evolved over time and grew up as you did. Speaking as a record store manager, I can testify that their music endures : the sudden interest in all things 80s may not just be some fashion industry trend started when they suddenly realised they’d finally scraped out the barrel marked “70s tat”. It’s more than that : it seems anyone over twenty is reminiscing about our schooldays all of a sudden. There’s nightclub nights for thirtysomethings popping up all over the place, and most of it is down to the website FriendsReunited for making it happen.
The burning question for me is whether all this nostalgia will see a new pop movement emerge, rather like there was in the ’90s with Blur and Oasis and the so-called BritPop scene. There’s no doubt that “real” music is on the way back : you just need to look at all the guitar-heavy rock bands out there both here and in America to see that. And the local scene is healthy too, with the various showcases and live venues around the south buzzing with up and coming acts.
But none of it is what would be termed “classic” pop music. Where is the next “big pop thing” gonna come from? Well, who better to ask than the last local hero to bound around on TOTP with a cheesy grin and a bass guitar hanging round his neck? Mark King is quite simply the best bass player in the world. He always has been … and he always will be. He can play. He can really play. Anyone who’s ever seen Level 42 live will bore you to death with tales of his legendary thumbmanship and immediately start playing “air bass” at the same time.
Having formed the band in 1980 with a couple of pals from The Isle Of Wight, Mark and the boys racked up a series of global hit singles including Hot Water, Lessons In Love, Something About You, Running In The Family, Leaving Me Now, The Chinese Way and their very first top ten smash Sun Goes Down (Livin’ It Up). They’ve sold millions of albums worldwide, regularly played Wembley Arena for a week at a time and headlined all over the planet as well as supporting acts like Madonna on US tours. But in terms of musicianship and respect from within the industry, they’re right up there with the all time greats. Ask anyone to name a bass player – try it – and “Mark King!” will be the answer nine times out of ten. Having been there, done it, and sold a truckload of t-shirts along the way, he’d surely know the answer …
Well, the day had finally arrived : I was to do my first ever interview for AND MAGAZINE with a real hero of mine, Mark King.In these days of manufactured pop idols, I wondered how he felt about the current state of musicianship and the “scene” in general. As I’m a big fan, it was with eager anticipation that I picked up the phone and dialed the number. Kitted out with a brand spanking old dictaphone I’d borrowed from Martin, the editor, I finally heard the voice of the thumbster and nervously set about my task …
AND MAGAZINE : You’ve got a Greatest Hits Tour coming up : was that to promote anything in particular or just something you wanted to do?
MARK KING : No, it’s just a way to get back out on the road and for people to see a decent band again. I’d been listening to some of our old stuff and to be honest, it still sounded good, fresh and relevant. I’ve got no axe to grind against the current music business scene but I don’t really think there’s many people out there capable of playing live and putting on a very good show. There’s nowhere for the real talent to go.
AM : I’m in a band myself and the bass player, Rob, absolutely adores you …
MK :Oh! Say hello to him from me!
AM :I will do, yeah! He’ll be dead chuffed! I had a customer in the shop a while back who was a fifteen year old lad looking to get into the bass thing as he’d just started playing one and I recommended your solo album, Influences.
MK :Oh cheers! Well done!
AM :He bought it and went to see you at The Brook too. I also told him to check out Marcus Miller, who I saw recently.
MK :Yeah, top guy Marcus. Really good player.
AM :I’ve seen you live myself and … er … you like a bit of drama, I think *he laughs* … dramatic entrances, trapezes and all that kind of stuff : can we expect to see any of that on the new tour?
MK : *laughs* Well, I’m an old man now so you might see me come out with a glittery zimmer frame but that would be it! Really, it’s not about that anymore. It’s more about playing great live music really well. I feel really strongly about the current scene. Where’s the next big thing coming from? There’s no one out there. It’s all manufactured and I have no axe to grind about that like I said but I do wonder what’s going on. All we want to do is get back out there so if anyone wants to see a decent bass player they can come and see me *laughs* and if you wanna see a really good drummer too, then you gotta see Gary Husband : he’s amazing. That’s what it’s all about for us. We want to give people something to see. It’s swung back that way for us.
AM : … erm .. you have been accused in the past … I don’t want to say this … of “selling out” your funk roots.
MK : We never sold out. Not true.
AM : No!! I know it’s not, because I love your music and it really annoys me when people say that !
MK : No! What happened was … if you listen to all the albums – and there’s fifteen years’ worth don’t forget – it just kind of evolved. We learned to write songs!! We had to! Over time you develop, people leave the band … and there’s nothing wrong with that : it’s just life. But you can hear a change in our sound for sure. We never sold out … You have to grow or … or … else you die! That’s exactly what we did. And I’ll tell you what, if that was the case then, what’s it like now?
AM : Sure. And it’s rich when you do consider the current state of the charts and pop music in general. I think the “shelf-life” for groups now, especially with things like Pop Idols is just so short … I think Gareth and Will are gonna be out the door in the next week when Pop Rivals or whatever takes over….
MK : At least when we started, we could play our instruments and we were given the chance to go into the studio and do our thing. I just despair of any new talent that’s trying to break through today. How do they do it? Where do they go? The opportunities we had just aren’t there anymore. There’s nowhere for them to go, nowhere for them to come out and show what they can do. I think it’s so sad.
AM : Well, there are still some people out there doing their own thing. I read in The Guardian last week that Roots Manuva, the British hip-hop artist, cited you as one of the biggest influences on him. Did you see it?
MK : No, I missed that but that’s nice of him to say it.
AM : Yeah, he’s pretty big right now so you’re down with the kids, man!
MK : *laughs* Yeah … .okay! Well, when you’ve been going as long as we have it’s nice to know that we still reach people. Fifteen years is a long time and that was back then! You know, it really does get me about this lack of talent coming through. Who is gonna be the next big thing? I’ll say it again, I’ve got no axe to grind but I’m just telling it like it is …
AM : Is there anybody out there you’d like to work with?
MK : No … they’re all dead! *laughs* Seriously … erm … well, yeah there’s loads of people I’d like to have worked with but they really are all dead … um … yeah.
AM : Well, you probably could still work with them : like Natalie Cole and her Dad …
MK : Nat King Cole and his daughter! Yeah! No! Oh god, no … I think that route’s best left … unsolved! It’s funny though because although I said all those people are dead – all my heroes if you like – I don’t think I would like to work with them. You know, you put them up there on a pedestal and sometimes … sometimes it’s best not to take them down from there.
AM : Is this from personal experience?
MK : Oh no … no, not at all. It’s just you don’t wanna finally meet someone and work with them and all that only for you to turn around and at the end of it think “Oh, he’s just a twat like you!” You know, I’m just a normal bloke but they’re my heroes, you know? You don’t want to shatter the illusion …
AM : So what about now? Is there anybody out there you really like at the moment?
MK : … er … there’s people I like … a bit, I guess *laughs* but not that many I’d go out of my way to see. I’d rather see us live! *laughs* I’d just like to know where the next great stuff is coming from.
AM : Stupid Question Time : How much was your thumb insured for?
MK : Well, at the height of it all … it was three million.
AM : Jeeeez!!!
MK : Yeah, but that was a long time ago. I can tell you now, it ain’t worth that much anymore! I might get a few quid for it and anything else that I can throw in *laughs* I would assume I’d still get something for it though … maybe with the other fingers chucked in, too.
AM : Speaking as a first time interviewer, what’s the weirdest question you’ve ever been asked?
MK : Oh, blimey … er … there was a time in Holland. A while back. We were doing a festival there … The Reflex of the 80s … and it was a big place, a big “do” … ten thousand people were there. All kinds of acts … Samantha Fox : she was one of ‘em!
AM : She’s quite big in Europe, isn’t she? I mean, she’s quite big everywhere isn’t she?!!
MK : *laughs* She’s quite big up top! *laughs* Yeah, I think she was at the time. But everyone was miming or using tapes and stuff and it really … well … disappointed me that nobody played. The punters there weren’t too happy with it all but luckily for them, we were on last and we did play live and we blew the roof off and left them feeling really good about the event … but there was this bloke afterwards – German, he was – he asked me … well he said something really weird. He said *terrible but very funny German accent* “Mark King! You are a Steamroller and you cannot get enough verk!”
AM : What?? What does that mean??
MK : And then he just looked at me … and he’d read this off a bit of paper … and I just sort of looked back at him and said “Yeah! Great!”
AM : But it’s not a question, it’s more of a statement and it doesn’t make sense!!
MK : I know! I didn’t know what he was on about … but it was in Holland, you gotta remember! I didn’t know what he meant but I’m hoping it’s something like … er … I’m a steamroller! I still don’t know what he meant …
AM : What about all those 80s reunion tours that are happening at the moment? Like the Human League and Culture Club? Ever been asked or ever been tempted to go on one of those?
MK : Well, it’s funny because it’s not really what we do, you know? We still play live and I go on my solo tours, the other guys are all working and it’s not really something that’s appealed to me to be honest.
It’s all about good music being played live and that’s not something you see much anymore. Just tell anyone who likes music to come and see us because that’s what we do! We’re a bloody good band and we just wanna get out and show people we can still do it and that there is still live music out there and happening!
AM : Mark, it’s been a pleasure and real fun to meet you – thanks!
MK : No, thank you, mate
So … there you have it. There is no answer … but in the meantime if you want to see some proper music being played really well, you know what to do!
Level 42 are appearing at The BIC on October 18 and Portsmouth Guildhall on Nov 9 as part of a massive UK Greatest Hits tour.
Originally published in 2005