Happy 35th Anniversary to Level 42’s fifth studio album True Colours, originally released in October 1984 (specific date not available).
Normally when I sit down to write an anniversary piece for Albumism, I have a distinct idea of how to start it and where to go with it. I also normally have a very clear idea of how good the music is, as it is an intrinsic part of many people’s collections and demonstrably “classic.” I mean, how hard to can it be to extol the virtues of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book (1972) or Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (1959)? But sometimes it is difficult to unpick why the album resonates with you and even to make an objective judgment about the material contained within.
Timing, of course, is everything. The albums we devour in our teenage years often stay with us longer than those we consume in adulthood. Everything in those years is turned up to 11—the heartbreak, the joy, the coming to terms with who we are and the general, all-around awkwardness that permeates our lives. Disposable income also plays a part in how much we bond with an album—the less money you have to spend on music, the more important each purchase or loan becomes.
Beyond that, you have more time available and extra effort available to crawl inside and live with an album. Those memories of teenage life become indelibly linked to those albums and to play them as an adult is to be immediately transported to those days, no matter the pain and shame that accompanies them.
One of the albums that does that job for me is Level 42’s True Colors. Released in 1984, it was the band’s fifth album and, despite my deep and abiding love for it, it made only a moderate sized dent in the charts. Striking out only as far as number 14 on the UK album chart and spawning only one single to break the top 40, it is not hard to see how it might slide out of view and memory so easily.
Level 42 began life in the late ‘70s as a straight-up jazz funk band alongside such luminaries of the British scene as Incognito and Atmosfear. Alongside the Gould brothers (Phil and Boon on drums and guitar), the twin voices of Mark King and Mike Lindup issued four albums that garnered low level hits. As the 1980s progressed though, band members came and went and their sound changed to become more pop and rock influenced than those earlier jazz-funk forays.
As well as being the lead singer, King was most famous for his impeccable thumb-slap bass technique. Guitar cinched high up his body and his thumb a blur as he slapped the living daylights out of the strings, King became the symbol of the group and instantly recognizable both visually and aurally. Alongside him though, were Lindup’s keyboard lines and gently affecting falsetto—a key part of their dynamic and sound.
Another integral part of Level 42 (despite not being a fully paid up member of the band) was keyboardist, writer and producer Wally Badarou. Having produced for Marianne Faithful and been a session player on Grace Jones’ iconic Nightclubbing (1981), he brought a wealth of experience to the party. With all that said, Level 42 were not the obvious thing for a 14 year old to listen to in 1989 or thereabouts—certainly when Madchester was in full swing and indie rock ruled the music press. But where there’s the funk, there’s a way (no matter how tenuous that link to funk is).
It is always slightly depressing to write one of these anniversary pieces and be confronted with lyrics that would be as apt now, as the time they were written all those years ago. This is no different this time around with album opener “The Chant Has Begun,” as evidenced in the lines, “Old men with their protocol / Lead us off to war / Sometimes we don't even know / What we're fighting for / Marching to the beat of their drum” accompanied by a pounding tribal drumbeat and the repeated refrain of “The spirit of the people, the rhythm has begun.” It is a stirring and powerful call-to-arms and speaks plainly to the malaise of an establishment unwilling to listen to the people (“Leaders we no longer trust / Told too many lies / The promises they made to us / Were never realised / Hear me now the chant has begun”).
To a febrile teenage mind it read less as a straight socio-political message and more as a rallying call to the tortured psyche of a teenager shorn of confidence. That it never resulted in decisive action is less to do with the song’s power and more do with my weakness.
The same socio-political voice finds its way to the forefront of “Kansas City Milkman,” though I barely knew it back then. A delicate piano line sidles into earshot before a chugging bass takes over to drive a tale filled with eerily prescient critiques of information control (“Too much talking / Information ... in the hands of the few / All the talking / Dis-information ... that we take for the truth”). However depressing it may be to think the same issues are relevant today, it adds a level of poignancy as we battle the capitalistic enslavement and manipulation of our material desires by the bastard forces of information management.
Matters of society give way to more traditional song themes, as “Seven Days” reflects on a short-lived relationship with a gentile arrangement of subtly bubbling bass, clean guitar lines and the twin charms of King and Lindup’s vocals answering each other’s calls. King’s signature bass heaves its hefty way into earshot on “Hot Water.” It's a beast of a bass and is the closet link to their jazz-funk roots with its skittish keyboard lines and exhortation to the groove.
The best example of something a little different lurks on “A Floating Life.” The change in dynamics keeps things constantly entertaining on this tale of fame gone awry, until about 3 minutes and 35 seconds in when it all goes mental. A ridiculously nasty slow-grind bass line, searing guitar solo and pounding drums create a total head-shag of a breakdown that shatters any notions of jazz-funk being soft easy listening and provide a glimpse into the capabilities of a fully operational Level 42.
A cheeky little funk number pops up, yet again displaying the rapture of King’s bass playing, in the form of “True Believers” before things take a turn for the decidedly unusual. Thus far I have been confident in my judgments, safe in the knowledge that anyone unfamiliar with the tracks might share my enthusiasm, should they decide to give them a whirl. What follows next though is far from simple and makes me question whether I love the tracks or if I love the connection to my younger self’s simpler times.
“My Hero” is a walking, nay strolling, funk number that features some wonky, off-kilter keys in an homage to an unidentified musical hero. Maybe it's the fragile echoes of Lindup’s vocals swooshing in the background or perhaps it is those slightly woozy keyboard lines, but something is vaguely unsettling (to these ears, at least).
Hot on its heels comes another piece shot through with thudding tribalistic drums, this time with a slight sound of the orient. “Kouyate” is an ode to a secret love, led by Lindup’s longing-filled vocals but containing a slightly cringeworthy spoken word interlude that is just about banished from memory by a fluid saxophone solo from Gary Barnacle. As secretly loved songs go, this is right near the top of my list—it intrigues me despite its downright strangeness.
To round things off (bar a slightly tweaked remix version of the album opener) is a ballad that is morose in the extreme. In what would become somewhat of a calling card, Level 42 excelled at lovelorn ballads with a hint of bitterness. “Hours By The Window” is a prime exhibit of its kind—sparse, feathered bass and some atmospheric effects combine with suitably downtrodden lyrics to create a “misery loves company” ballad.
Writing about this beloved, oft-heard album has challenged me to accept the love at face value; undoubtedly it transports me to my teenage years, but beyond the warmth of familiarity is a newfound respect for the musicality of the album and an acceptance of my love for it. Too often we feel shame for choices we make, when in reality there is only the truth between the music and the listener. Truth and the funk—what else could you want?