Mark King interview / Level 42 and Running In The Family
Mark King and Level 42 are this year celebrating the 25th Anniversary of their 1987 album Running In The Family. A massive commercial success, the album contained the hit singles Lessons In Love and Running In The Family, and would be the last record put out by the original line up formed in the late 1970s. The line-up was Mark King (on bass, of course), Phil Gould (drums), ‘Boon’ Gould (guitar, saxophone) and Mike Lindup (Keyboards). Wally Badarou was the unofficial ‘fifth’ member of the band with a significant contribution in terms of keyboard playing, songwriting and production.
Universal Music have just released Running In The Family as a four-disc super deluxe edition box set featuring the Fait Accompli documentary on DVD (only previously available on VHS) and three CDs which include an entire new acoustic version of the album re-recorded by King, and as well as live tracks, remixes and of course the album remastered.
We caught up with Mark King recently and spoke to him about the Running In The Family reissue…
SuperDeluxeEdition: How did the idea of creating the four-disc box set come about? Was that something the record label suggested or did you go to them with the idea?
Mark King: It was a little bit of both really. For the last ten years or so, I’ve been the guy who keeps pushing the Level 42 thing on. Taking it out on the road, and keeping the message alive, as it were. I thoroughly enjoy doing that. But if I want some support from record companies then it’s down to me to try and do it. A year ago, when I had the tour dates lined up for this coming autumn, Live Nation [the promoter] asked if I was going to be promoting any new material, and I had no plans to do that really. I had a few other irons in the fire, like a week at Ronnie Scott’s as a solo artist, and that was taking up quite a bit of my time and focus really, so I didn’t think that I was going to be coming up with a new Level 42 album. But I put my thinking cap on and I thought, well it does mark the 25th Anniversary of what was easily our most successful album – it sold bucket loads. It came around at a time when CDs were relatively new back then and the record companies were looking at re-marketing stuff, and so about three months after they put Running In The Family out in its first ‘vanilla’ edition they released the Platinum Edition. That did really well and sold something like 600,000 copies. In essence it was the same album but just included some 12-inch remixes. That was seen as heralding this dawn of new marketing .
SDE: The remix album was quite a popular concept at the time with Howard Jones and the Pet Shop Boys both releasing albums full of remixes.
MK: Yes, and of course that’s exactly the same period in time, around 1987. So that was all very good. But coming back to the end of last year, I got in touch with Julian Fernandez (at Universal Music) who I’ve worked with on a couple of projects – in 2010 we did the Living It Up box set, which was to celebrate the 30th anniversary – and one thing that came up was that while doing promotion for tours, to actually get radio stations interested in talking to you, they always say, oh great can you bring your guitar in and sing a couple of songs, acoustically? Of course being the bass player in Level 42, this wasn’t really my forte, and not something that I’d really done before. But if I said that I don’t really do that, they’d say okay well we’ll leave it then and you’d lose the promotion. So sure enough, I dragged the acoustic guitar out! But I really loved doing that, and it’s been a very interesting exercise, for me, in terms of looking for songs – the old hits – and seeing how they worked when interpreted acoustically.
And this project was no different because one of the first things I said to Universal was that – so that there is something new for the fans – I would really like, as part of the package, to do acoustic reinterpretations of every track on the album. I was saying this before I’d done it, without really knowing whether it would be feasible or not, but it’s turned out to be great.
When I looked at the lyrics, one of the tracks that has worked out really very well is To Be With You Again. It was great really looking at Boon’s words. There’s such a melancholy in there, that I never realised at the time. 25 years ago we were so sort of heads down, being this successful Jazz/funk band that had stepped way out of the club scene – we were doing arenas. I was going pretty nuts, and we were working so hard. Because Something About You had gone top ten in the States for us, we were picking up Madonna tours and were quite hot property.
That workload gets different people in different ways. For me, I didn’t mind it, even though I had a young wife and two kids back at home, the career thing for me was something that was really, really burning and I was so happy to be involved in. But of course it didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t that way for everyone in the band. When Boon wrote the lyrics for To Be With You Again, he’d come up with these set of words that on this occasion didn’t quite work, and I said to him can you do a re-write, because I think this could be a hit. He went away, and the pressure must have been ridiculous, because he had bugger all time to do any of this stuff, and he came up with the finished lyric that when I looked at it 25 years later I realised what a cry for help it was. Because he was saying things like [speaks the lyrics] “I’ve been making moves in chains / wrapped around my hollow heart / the thought of you remains / I can’t replace your face no matter how I try / and in the night I cry from wanting you / you know I thought I could not lose / America was calling me / you said I must choose /between a life of love or visions that will fade / and now the choice is made I’m so lonely..”. While I was looking at it, I thought, god the poor sod, he was really going through the wringer. So much so, that three months later he left the band!
SDE: Was that a surprise when that happened?
MK: Yes, for sure. Phil, the drummer, we all knew he was going to be leaving because for the last three years he kept saying I’ve had enough of this, I wanna leave. And he said it every time we had a meeting. But Boon never ever said that, but he just said, I can’t do it any more, I’m off. See ya. And that was it. No warning, no nothing, he left. I mean I’ve kept working with Boon all the time and he’s been my main songwriting partner over the years – he emails me every couple of weeks and we stay in touch. Sometimes you get to work with somebody… and there’s so much you don’t have to say that saves so much time. He knows how I feel about certain things and I know how he feels about things. But I wish I’d been a bit more thoughtful at the time.
SDE: You have these acoustic reinterpretations on the new super deluxe edition of Running In the Family, but you’d done some acoustic tracks on the Living It Up box. Are there any repetitions?
MK: We did do three tracks [Lessons In Love, It’s Over, Children Say] but I revisited them, so they are reworked. I wasn’t that happy how I’d sung them originally, so I re-sang them. It’s terrible, you get the luxury of tweaking and it’s very hard to leave these things alone! The other six tracks are completely new and they’re the ones, like I said, that were a real revelation. And it opens up another channel because I’m doing the Dermot O’Leary show [BBC Radio 2] tomorrow and they don’t want me to bring the bass in, they want me to bring the acoustic guitar in and play some songs.
SDE: I guess doing the acoustic reinterpretations gets you actively engaged with the process, rather than just leaving it to people in an office to work out track listings for the reissue?
MK: Yes it does, and it’s interesting that you say that – people sitting in an office putting together a compilation – because it takes me back to working with Polydor records. Record companies used to be so different. 25 years ago you’d go in and the place used to be buzzing. You really thought that you were working with people who loved music, and it’s just not like that anymore. I can’t remember the last time I went into record companies offices and heard music blaring, people rushing around with artwork and all this sort of stuff…
SDE: Because Polydor got swallowed up by Universal, a large part of your work is now owned by a big corporation – has working with them proved to be tricky over the years?
MK: I’ve never felt they’ve been putting their hands up and getting in the way of anything, but it’s the same as it ever was in many ways, in that if you want something to happen, you’ve got to make it happen. You’ve got to be the one who goes in there and starts waving the stick around to make sure that people get on and do things. And you can be quite bullish about it. For example when I went and had a meeting in January this year to get the ball rolling on this whole 25th Anniversary set, I went in with an independent PR guy – Steve Guest – and said I want to use these guys because I want to do this, I want to do that, and I’m not so sure you did a brilliant job last time around, and they all sat around blinking at me, looking quite shocked [laughs]. But you know you have to take your career into your own hands. If you don’t do these things and you just pass it over then whatever happens, you deserve that, you know? I’m not happy to do that, and I’m just really chivvying them on, and everyone starts doing their homework and we get a four star review in Q magazine, which came out yesterday and that’s the good stuff, you think yes, this is what should be happening and people should be working this. Because it is a really good compilation and a great snapshot of what ‘state of the art’ was like 25 years ago. It was successful and it was understandably successful because the album is really strong – there’s some really good songs on there. The lyrics are really strong. Yes, it’s of its time, but it’s valid.
SDE: The album was a big commercial success, but creatively, would you put it at the top of what Level 42 did?
MK: It was part of what Level 42 did. For me, it was a natural progression in us marching on to become as big as we could get. Yes, it started collapsing and falling in on itself, because it was getting too big and there were grumblings… Boon’s leaving of the band wasn’t anything to do with the musical direction we were taking, but it was certainly the case with Phil, his brother. The paradox for them, was if they were unhappy with what was happening… well, unfortunately it’s been hugely successful, so it’s almost like… “dammit, we need to be less successful” and that doesn’t really make sense, do you know what I mean?
SDE: The previous album World Machine was also fairly successful, and you mentioned that you had the US top ten hit with Something About You, but I’m interested in the fact that the record company asked you for what became Lessons In Love quite quickly afterwards, before an album had been recorded. Were you working at your own pace, or been dictated to by the label?
MK: We were out in the States and I remember the manager phoning me and saying Polydor need something to run with because they’d released Something About You at home, and they’d released Leaving Me Now, the ballad from World Machine, and they didn’t see anything thing else on the album that would be a success as a follow-up single. So they were asking if we could get in the studio – pronto – and come up with something that they could run with. So we had this really small window of time. We came home at Christmas 1986, having really been out working Something About You in the States, and when we got back, we all convened in my loft with this 8-track studio in Streatham [south London]. I said I’ve got this idea, and it was the bones of Lessons In Love that was taken from an arrangement we were doing of Physical Presence, which we had been playing live. On the record of course, everything fades out, but you always have this conundrum when you go out live, [which is] how do you end songs? We’d become famous for these big pompous endings! This particular one was no different and in essence it was a slowed down version of Lessons In Love, the melody, the chord sequence etc. So I stuck that down with the trademark ‘sixteenth’ bass stuff, and I played it to Wally, Mike and Boon and they said this is really great, and then Mike came up with that great middle eight [sings] “Lessons in love, when will ever learn… “ and Boon had this killer lyric and it was all really, really fast. And you think, we’re on a bit of a roll here.
And then I had the idea for the riff for Children Say, and Phil came up with the lyric for that one, which worked really well. It was a totally different track to Lessons In Love, but I still felt we needed a third option and so we wrote Freedom Someday with the idea being that we were so short of time, we’d take three ideas into the studio, see which one works best and then give the record company the option of running with one of the three. So a third of the Running With The Family album was recorded five months ahead of the rest of the album being worked on, or even thought about!
SDE: Looking back, you were releasing an album a year in those days, whereas today artists tend to release an album every three years or four years. It seems almost leisurely these days compared to the past…
MK: Yes, it does seem like that. When we started doing this, our very first producer Andy Sojka he had Elite Records, this little independent label that he was working out of Harlesden in North London, and that was great. Then we went to Polydor six months later, and the expectation wasn’t that great on us at the time. We’d been signed along with Shakatak and a few other Brit-funk bands because they [the record label] needed to be seen to be taking on some of these bands because the other record companies were picking up [bands such as] Light Of The World, Central Line and Incognito etc., so I’ve got a feeling we were just part of Polydor’s token effect getting on board the Brit-funk thing.
So we made the first Level 42 album and it went silver, which is 60,000 copies, and we just thought, that’s great, and I think the record company were very happy with that too. But to tour on that and to keep working, it’s not a massive amount of sales really. We were always out on the road, so to tour again the next year – and this is what we were doing to make a living – we’d go into the studio and make another album. So we were doing this album-tour-album-tour thing, which was on a yearly basis. You’d make an album for three months and then you’d go and tour it for 9 months, and then you’d go back into the studio and make another album. So that cycle we were on it was ‘needs must’ –we were doing that because that’s how we were making a living, to pay bills and pay mortgages. We all had young families and it was part of the job.
When we got to 1985 and wrote the World Machine album, that was a real sea change in our thinking. Our five year contract with Polydor was nearly up, and if we wanted to be signed again, we had to make the next leap because every time we were dropping an album it was doing 60,000 copies and we’d go out and tour it, but there was no development, it wasn’t really moving on. That’s why we sat down and came up with Something About You and Leaving Me Now. Those songs were efforts at writing more accessible hit records, and not quite so club orientated stuff.
SDE: When that success came, how much did you enjoy all that went with it, Top Of The Pops, etc.
MK: I loved it. It’s what I always wanted. I’d grown up watching Top Of The Pops. Getting a slot on there was big news. The palpable excitement of listening to the chart rundown on a Sunday realising that you’d gone up and then wondering if you’d get a slot on Top Of The Pops – it was big news, not least because you’d phone your mum up and say, hey I’m on Top Of The Pops this week!
SDE: The only trouble with having a bit hit album or single, is that you’re then always judged by that success and if subsequent releases don’t match it then they are considered relative ‘failures’. Did that pressure get to you?
MK: No, it didn’t get to me. I’m thick skinned and pragmatic about the fact that when we started doing this, we had to do it to make a living anyway. As soon as we started to deliver and had this rich period of 85/86/87 where we were coming up with songs that were big hits internationally, the pressure was brought to bear upon us. You know, can you come up with more? But I didn’t get hung up on it. When we went to do Staring At The Sun, after the Running In The Family album, I just thought, well we’ve got Gary Husband [drummer] on board, we’ve got Alan Murphy [guitarist] coming in – in fact Alan joined us in the studio while we were making that album – and this could be a good opportunity to jump back to the roots of where we’d come in, and explore the jazz side of things. That was the task I set myself. Of course the record company were expecting another Running In The Family, and I think they were pretty disappointed with what we’d delivered. However, I had a great chat with David Munns who was the MD at the time, and he told me that it was alright, and that when he’d been at EMI and looked at what Queen was delivering, they’d have a big album and then might follow it up with something that wasn’t so successful, but that was okay because they’d come up with something else down the line which would be fantastic.
SDE: This relates to the period documented in the Fait Accompli DVD, which is exclusive to the Running In The Family box set?
MK: Yes it does, and that’s a wonderful way to bring us back on topic! [laughs]
SDE: Having watched it recently, some of the scenes of the executives in the board meetings discussing fashion strategies – the fact that you’d be wearing more denim this time around rather than suits – seemed vaguely depressing..
MK: Yes it is, but it’s incredible to see how they were trying to market the thing. Today you have this rather false idea that the artist is running the whole thing, but they’re not. It’s the record companies that are selling. The whole Amy Winehouse thing, they worked that like a charm. I reckon they were quite exasperated the way the whole thing ended, but nevertheless, if you buy into the idea that anything successful hasn’t been marketed or worked, then you’re wrong.
SDE: There’s actually an Amy Winehouse box set coming out soon, so the ball rolls on in that respect.
MK: It does, and it will do, and in a way proves the point of what I’m saying. It’s a commodity and it’s being marketed and sold. That’s where a website like yours comes in, because the ‘Super Deluxe Edition’ is all about remarketing and that’s just how it is.
SDE: It’s hard for the industry to make money selling CDs these days, and the advantage sets like the Running In The Family super deluxe edition is that when you get a book, photographs and the like you can’t download that stuff off the internet illegally, you have to buy it.
MK: Yes, and it’s nice that the Fait Accompli DVD is in there because if you watch it in its entirety, there’s so many great clips with Al Murphy, and I found it quite moving seeing myself sitting in a hotel room with him, when he died a year after that. I miss him, and seeing that was fantastic because I had the VHS but I never watched it then, but to have this back now is cool, and I’m very happy with it.
SDE: Can we talk about remixes, because you haven’t gone all out with seven-inch remixes and twelve inch remixes on this set. There are three included but there are a fair few not on there – was that a deliberate decision?
MK: Yes it was. The ones that are there are actually the ones featured on the ‘Platinum Edition’, with the Shep Pettibone and Dave ‘O’ remixes. I didn’t want to go too off-line with what this project was about. I wanted to create the acoustic version of the Running In the Family album by re-recording every track, and of course the album itself which has been out of print for ages, so for me it’s fantastic that it’s available again. The label were saying, have you got concerts from that time, and yes, I’ve got them but it can step too much ‘off-piste’ again because you end up with only three or four tracks that relate to the Running In The Family album. The Fait Accompli film was fantastic because it’s following straight off the back of our most successful album, and we’re out, we’re touring doing the arenas, and you get to see exactly what the pinnacle of pressure was like on the back of Running In The Family.
SDE: What about demos? A lot of artists might consider putting them on special editions or reissues?
MK: Yeah, we’d done a bit of that in the past. There was a period around five or six years ago where Polydor were putting out two albums at a time in a double CD set, and when they were looking for some extra material for that, they took a lot of the demos off me and we included those as part of the package back then. So I have got some demos from those times but they’ve already been aired, they’ve already been heard.
SDE: Mark King, thank you.
Level 42 are currently touring the UK as part of the 25th Anniversary celebrations and play Southend-On-Sea tonight and London’s Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 28th October. Tickets are available here.
The Running In The Family four-disc super deluxe box is out now and can be ordered using the links below. Full track listings are here.
- • UK Pre-order: Running In The Family (25th Anniversary Box set)
- • USA Pre-order: Running in the Family (25th Anniversary Box set)
- • CANADA Order: Running in the Family (25th Anniversary Boxset)
- • GERMANY Pre-order: Running in the Family (25th Anniversary Box set)