LEVEL 42 + THE CHRISTIANS – BRIGHTON DOME 24.10.23
First off, I’m putting a hand up here on the question of ‘declaration of interests’ – because Level 42 were basically our High School band.
OK, when I attended Cowes High School, Mark was already long gone (booted out for wearing jeans it seems). He was 11 years older than me, and by the time I was in the sixth form he was already strutting around the world on stages with Queen and Madonna.
But his younger brother Nathan (now guitarist in the band) was a year below me, and I still natter with him on Facebook from time to time.
The Isle of Wight was a bit of a musical wasteland in terms of live action from what I remember.
But my friends and I were into an eclectic mix of stuff; and the common room stereo would reverberate with anything from John Denver’s ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ (played from the album at 45rpm as a running gag) to the latest offering by The Jam – and anything in between and around the edges.
And when we did venture into local pubs, nervously ordering our first underage pints of bitter and lager, it was always common practice to whack a bit of Level 42 on the jukebox and thumb-slap along on the side of our glasses to those funky bass lines being knocked out by our second-most-famous alumnus.
(Cliff Mitchelmore, for those who don’t recall, was obviously the number one).
Now, fast forward over 35 years, and here I am sitting at the back of Brighton Dome with a (legal) pint in my hand, and my thumb can’t resist the urge to mime along to Mark’s legendary bass style as I luxuriate in the warm memories of teenage years and reflect on the fact that ‘they don’t make them like they used to…’
Of course, by the time Level 42 have hit the stage I’ve already concluded that the old ones are the gold ones, because The Christians’ short opening support set reminds me why their eponymous LP (£5.99 new in Virgin records as a chart release…) still sits close to the front of my playlist crate.
That Island Records gatefold sleeve with all the lyrics in the middle provides four tracks of tonight’s seven-song set. And as Garry Christian chatters almost nervously between songs from beneath the deep shadows of his flat cap I can’t help but think that here is a band whose chart successes back in the late 80s need to be more widely celebrated.
The Christians were an album-band though, with their first two long releases hitting number two and number one in the charts respectively (and even the ‘difficult third’ reaching 18 in the hit parade). Their singles still echo down the years, however, their chart positions were mainly teens, twenties and thirties.
But, to the live set tonight…
‘Born Again’ opens proceedings and comes across as both understated and almost apologetic. But at the same time it’s a tour de force pop standard and feels like a trip-hop sampler before the genre was ever invented.
The sign of a confident band for me is one that’s always happy to drop a few covers into even the briefest of sets – because they know they can make those songs their own.
For The Christians the choices are ‘Inner City Blues’ by Marvin Gaye, and ‘The Isley Brothers’ ‘Harvest For The World’. Both come across as if they were written yesterday and recorded in a single perfect take.
‘Ideal World’ sits in the middle of the set to anchor things as the band’s biggest individual ‘hit’ (peaking at number 14 back in 1987). The song showcases some tip-top harmonies on a track that, if it referenced Christmas and had some bells in the mix, would be in the charts every December.
The more I listen back to it I think it may have been the template for scores of fundraising anthems.
For a little gentle relief it’s ‘Words’ – and this rocky ballad with its refrain of “a fine line between love and hate” pulls insistently at the most stubborn of heartstrings.
Rounding off the original songs of the set it’s ‘Forgotten Town’ (a proper gut-thumping world music Afro-beat banger) and ‘Hooverville’ – that song that feels like Talk Talk, Sade, and Simple Minds wrote it together to settle an argument about who had the best voice.
The Christians finish up with ‘Harvest’ – and it’s a proper Stevie Wonder moment, without a shadow of a doubt.
Garry Christian – lead vocals
Joey Ankrah – lead guitar, vocals
Neil Griffiths – acoustic guitar, vocals
Mike Triggs – keyboards
Bobby Kewley – bass guitar, vocals
Craig Connet – drums, percussion
And so to Level 42.
There’s little point in doing a blow-by-blow description of their songs.
‘Lessons In Love’ has had 113 million Spotify plays alone.
If you are a fan you know every track inside out and back to front.
From the opening bars of the introduction track with its marching drumbeat and sirens you know the funk explosion is rolling over the horizon with a five-four-three-two-one countdown.
Oddly enough here in Brighton I get an echo of The Levellers in this pomp-filled opening salvo…is it a coincidence these two bands sit next to each other in any alphabetically-sorted vinyl collection from the late 80s and early 90s?
There’s as much choreography in a live Level 42 set as there is tight musicianship.
The band are all natural performers, and when you see people on a stage who are not just doing what they do at the top of their game, but who clearly enjoy every moment of the experience, you can’t help but become a part of that moment along with them.
But are Level 42 a guilty pleasure?
Well that’s the big question for some people who are ‘of an age’ but grew up on punk rather than funk.
The clean falsettos and crashing crescendos of Mark King and co were always a universe away from the raw energy of many of their contemporary acts. So those who wear more visceral bands on their sleeves may balk at the idea of bopping in a dad-dance frenzy to songs like ‘Running In The Family’.
However, tonight’s seated and pretty much sold-out gig rapidly degenerates into a stand-up party with an (admittedly aged) audience up on their feet in appreciation of music that, looked at objectively, has to be ranked up there with the best of them.
Even if you didn’t go to school with their guitarist, I think you need to give Level 42 more credit than you do!
Mark King – bass guitar, vocals, percussion (1979–1994, 2001–present)
Mike Lindup – keyboards, synthesizers, piano, vocals (1979–1994, 2006–present)
Nathan King – guitar, backing vocals (2001–present)
Sean “Skip” Freeman – saxophone, backing vocals (2001–present)
Pete Ray Biggin – drums, percussion (2010–present)
Dan Carpenter – trumpet, backing vocals, percussion (2013–present)
Nichol Thomson – trombone, backing vocals, percussion (2013–present)