Mark King, who is celebrating his 58th birthday today, was a big Jazz-Funk hero. When the self-titled album of his band Level 42 was released in 1981, and tunes like “Love Games” or “43” came through powerful loudspeakers in the community room of a boarding school in southern Germany, everyone was stunned. There he was, the European version of Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson. That “right in the face” kind of Funk, the off-beats the group came up with, and the entire approach, including that record cover, were simply sensational.
It started a lot earlier than that, when Mark, who originally was a drummer, met another drummer by the name of Phil Gould, on the Isle of Wight, in 1974. Both of them were teenagers. And Phil was impressed. “He was so much faster than me.” They would take a long ride into stardom together, two drummers, one of which would pick up the bass soon: Mark King, the multi-instrumentalist. Phil Gould: “He was one of those natural musicians.”
Mark would experiment with synth sounds, and with slapping that bass. In London, he had an excellent teacher: The late Paul “Tubbs” Williams, who was a member of the Jazz-Funk group Light of the World and, since 1979, a co-founder of Incognito, yet another British Jazz-Funk act, which is still very active today. According to Incognito members, “Tubbs” taught Mark a whole lot about handling that bass and slapping “the shit out of it”. Mark did learn.
Decades later, in 2007, Mark King turned down an invitation to talk about Paul “Tubbs” Williams in a documentary. Maybe they had issues in the late 1970-s, or maybe Mark just did not have the time.
Let’s go back to 1981. After the big success with the first album, Level 42 needed a quick follow-up recording. “The Early Tapes” included more killer Jazz-Funk tunes, some of them instrumental. They toured endlessly, pumped out an album per year and they sounded brilliant to Jazz-Funk lovers, but also to clubbers and bass enthusiasts. By many, Mark King was called the best bassist on Earth. But he wanted more. According to interview statements in documentaries, one day he walked up to his manager and told him, he did not want to be the best bass player on Earth, but the richest one. That wish would become reality, at the cost of the brilliant Jazz-Funk.
In 1985, “World Machine” was released. The band had drifted towards Rock and Pop more and more, enlarging its global fan base substantially. But, there was the other side of the coin: The Gould brothers, Phil and Boon, had enough. They had started “playing music I was not interested in at all”, Phil once said. Level 42 was now a Pop band. It still is. And many recorded tunes might be hard to digest for Funkateers. But Mark King was still Mark King. He still is. So, one of his killer slap bass solos, which he just has to deliver live, always justifies driving 100 kilometers and experiencing their gigs.
One original member, the brilliant keyboarder and vocalist Mike Lindup, returned to Level 42 after a long pause, in the mid-2000s. He is still with them today. And they are quite busy.
In 2007, Level 42 came to hit my festival stage in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. It was the first time I met Mark. Definitely a nice and funny guy, who delivered an extremely professional gig at the National Palace of Culture, in front of 2,000 people. He got that big audience because of bad Pop tunes such as “Running in the Family”, rather than sophisticated Jazz-Funk compositions like “Sandstorm”. At the after show party, I asked him whether he wanted to hit the stage. He shouted at me: “What part of “no” don’t you understand?” But 10 minutes later, he sat behind the drum set, delivering yet again, along with Bulgarian masters. What a sensational night!
Mark King is brilliant, as we all know. But from the perspective of a Funk fetishist, he is also the guy who abandoned the Funk – in a way. Well, there are always those classic recordings. And the solos on stage. A happy and funky birthday to Mark King!
By Imanuel Marcus