In theory, Level 42 are a band that should never have worked; just take a look at the sum of their parts: There was a balding front-man with a knack of producing awkward facial expressions as he sang, whilst simultaneously thrashing the strings of his Bass guitar with a thumb wrapped in tape; a guitarist who never smiled and looked permanently bored; a camp keyboard player with some ridiculous falsetto vocals and finally, a skinny, bespectacled drummer who possibly looked the coolest out of the bunch but was resigned to the background. Add to this some truly awful clothes decisions and you have a band that must have been every record company marketing department’s worst nightmare. Thankfully, the guys could actually play their instruments and managed to knock out some half-decent songs amongst their jazz-funk offerings, once savoir faire with the early 80’s Essex Soul-boy scene.
My attention was first diverted to this unlikely bunch in the summer of 1983 when their single ‘The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’ made the UK top 10. With its super-phat Bass line and the overdubbed tom fill in the middle, there was enough in there to make me sit up and listen, but it was a long way from where I was heading musically. Jump to 1984 and the band were back in the UK charts with ‘Hot Water’, featuring a cheeky drum-fill in the middle-8, the likes of which, was pretty much disallowed by producers at the time. Without a doubt, Phil Gould’s impressive drumming was slowly bedding itself into my sub-consciousness.
Toward the end of 1986, my Copeland/Brzezicki obsession was losing ground to the work of Phil Gould on the band’s ‘World Machine’ album and the soon to be released ‘Running in the Family’. Here was a drummer who could nail incredibly tasteful grooves whilst throwing in some really clever bits, without getting in the way of the song. Add to this that the guy was ambidextrous and one of the main songwriters, it was clear I was going to have to lose those Octobans and get me some of that funky stuff going on.
During 1987 I changed my allegiance from Celtic Rock to the pop-funk sound of Level 42, seeing the band twice in concert and lapping up every grace note Phil Gould could throw at my drum-hungry ears. I even managed to end up at a Polydor après-gig party in London, attended by Boon Gould – but that’s another story. Little did I know, standing only feet away from Phil’s sibling, the seeds of partition had already been sown within their ranks.
As far as I was concerned, Level 42 were riding on the crest of a wave and embodied everything that I wanted as a musician and from a band. They had regular chart success, album sales, arena gigs, peak time TV appearances and had finally cleaned up their image by employing fashion guru’s to make them more presentable to the wider public. So it was quite a shock to me when Polydor announced that the Gould brothers had departed due to “nervous exhaustion”. Well, if that sort of success was the cause of “nervous exhaustion”, then I’d gladly have a piece of that. Were these guys mad or what? Being a naïve spectator, I failed to understand that for the Gould’s, especially Phil, the artistic sacrifices made to please a sales-hungry record company were quite a few steps too far outside of his comfort zone. Add to this the extra pressures that mainstream success inflicts on domestic life, something had to give. In this case, it was the brothers Gould. Being completely ignorant of the fact that Phil Gould cared more about musical integrity than cow-towing to A&R guys and was literally prepared to walk away from a situation that confined him artistically, I remained gob smacked at his decision. It was many years later after finding out for myself what a pathetic, transient, vacuous machine the music industry was and still is, that I had an understanding of why he walked away. No doubt the continuous publishing royalties he would receive as a writer made his decision less financially crippling, but it was still a brave move to make in the name of art and integrity.
Following the Gould’s departure, two camps of Level 42 fans emerged; the ones who believed it was all over and the others who embraced the continuation with a new line up. I found myself siding with the former, convinced that the heart had been ripped out of the band and dismissive of replacements. Whilst Level 42 immersed themselves further into the record company compliance pop machine, I joined the ranks of ex-fans, anxiously waiting for the Gould’s to emerge with new projects. We were to wait a very long time and even then; fleeting website activity and a doomed post-wedding reception reunion were the only brief tasters on offer. Throughout these barren years, I kept my hopes up that one day Phil would resurface to continue what he does best. Finally, after over 20 years in hibernation, he seems ready to find his audience again – albeit from a cottage industry operation. But at least he does it on his terms and we get to share where his musical head is today, after far too much time away.