Posts Tagged ‘Level 42’

This week I fired my wife. And my dog. I voted three times to do things I didn’t want to do and that my neighbors begged me not to do in the first place. I took away people’s rights. Why are people always whining about their rights? I’m white, I’m male, I’m straight, and I’m good. What else did I do? Oh right. I harvested enough secondhand CDs to build a wall around Mexico. Mexico will pay for it!

As we move deeper into the Digitazoic Era, people are abandoning physical forms of music like Republicans abandoning Trump in 2018. Over the next few weeks I’ll present some of my findings from a recent selection of Portland yard sales. I’ll also testify about my meeting with those nice Russians I met at my chess club.

When an entire neighborhood puts on a sale, I am there
Even if you love the music of the 1980s – even if you know so much about synth pop that people turn the hose on you when you show up at their parties – you may be forgiven for not knowing the British band Level 42.

I only know them because of one song, and I didn’t hear that one until the ’90s. I liked it a lot, so when I found two of their CDs, World Machine (1985) and Level Best (1989), at a yard sale in the middle of a heat wave, where I had several competitive shoppers and a rapidly wilting wife to consider, I grabbed ’em (the CDs).

The gentlemen in Level 42 started out in life playing smooth jazz. They dropped the jazz, kept their synthesizers, and added ordinary singing, melodies less memorable than Spandau Ballet’s, and a glaze of funk, as in Stevie-Wonder-WomaninRed, Chaka-Khan-is-sleeping-in-this-morning funk.

Level 42’s commercial breaththrough was World Machine, which included their only U.S. Top 10 hit, “Something About You.” It’s a pop diamond, the only time all of Level 42’s strengths came together: their excellent playing skills (I particularly admire the drummer), their ability to follow a musical theme without wandering into a cul de sac, their generally upbeat approach to life even when love goes awry, and the way their songs all seem to tell a story. “Something About You” is far and away their best hook, too.

World Machine has some sweet moments, and you can find a few more on their greatest hits, Level Best. I really want to love Level 42. Sadly, though they aspired to be Tears For Fears, they were instead an underpowered Steely Dan.

Hard-core CD buyers are like the defensive line in a hockey game
At the same sale, and despite having been illegally cross-checked and fouled twice, I spotted P.M. Dawn’s Of the Heart, of the Soul, and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience (1991). The only thing I knew about P.M. Dawn is that they contributed the most fun track to the Jimi Hendrix tribute album Stone Free (1993). Given how cheap these things were on that scorching early-summer day, that one data point was sufficient to close the deal.

As I eased my way into traffic Monday morning I fired up the first track, which was a minute of electronic doodling with a few thoughts directed at God. I decided that if the next song was more of the same, I’d hit Eject.

But the next song was one I remembered, and it was awesome: “Reality Used to Be a Friend of Mine,” one of the greatest titles in the history of everything. It’s a meditation on discovering that we humans could blow up the world at any moment. Or maybe it’s about a break-up with a girl named Sandy. Springsteen had problems with her, too. “Reality and life are not the same,” P.M. Dawn informs us, and if there are seven words that explain the presidency of Donald Trump, those are them.

I was expecting a rap album and I got one, but not the one I expected. This is a rap, rock, dance, and R&B album WITH SYNTHESIZERS, as you can hear on the album’s No. 1 hit, “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” a song that samples “True” by…Spandau Ballet! And you were wondering how I was going to tie all this together.

Princess Internet tells me that P.M. Dawn was two brothers from New Jersey. The Utopian Experience contains plenty of teenage philosophizing (our heroes were about 20 in 1991), and song titles such as “To Serenade a Rainbow” belong in the My Little Pony musical, but guess what you won’t find here: gangsters, pimps, whores, guns, body counts, or any song that proceeds from the theory that women are subhuman breeding stock.

There’s scratching, but only on one track. They name-check themselves three times, ask Prince what he’s up to, and quote The Beatles twice. The rhyme scheme follows the standard rap aabb, but they can work cleverly within this restriction: “The breeze, the wind…/It fluctuates my adrenaline.”

Prince could do just about anything, but he couldn’t rap. He would’ve been proud to have recorded The Utopian Experience. He would’ve kicked the guitars up a notch, too.

Next yard sale: Classic rock!

 

One disqualification this evening:

Napoleon XIV
“They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” was funny when I was 11. The only sounds beyond the vocal, if you can call it a vocal, are from a tambourine, a drum, ambulance sirens, and someone slapping a thigh (presumably his own thigh, but who knows). All of the non-vocal sounds are on a loop. The vocal is speeded up in places to emphasize the narrator’s dementia. The words are not at all clever and in fact reveal the narrator to be a passive-aggressive SOB and a master at inducing guilt. The B side of this surprise hit, which outstrips “Transfusion,” “The Purple People Eater,” and anything involving chipmunks for sheer weirdness and/or plain dumbness, is, of course, “!Aaah-ah, Yawa Em Ekat ot Gnimoc Er’yeht”

There was a record company called Gennett. During the Great Depression, when money was short, they fixed leaks in the roof of their building by nailing their surplus records over the holes. I can’t think of a better use for copies of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”

All right then. Let’s go 12!

12 Rounds
Basically two people, Atticus Ross and Claudia Sarne. Has the name Atticus become fashionable again? I like Apollonia better. Their 1996 debut, Jitter Juice, won them an advocate in Trent Reznor, who signed them to his own label. I want my own label and as soon as this blog starts making money I’m going to go out and get me one. Ross has worked with Reznor on various Nine Inch Nails albums and film scores. I can see why they get along so well as they’re both big navel gazers, though Reznor rocks so very hard and Ross so not so much.

16 Horsepower
As soon as I read “alt-country” I threw down my guns and walked away, but the little bastards shot me in the ass. 16 Horsepower is one of the happiest surprises in this project. The first song I heard in their YouTube mix was “Black Soul Choir,” and I was sold in under a minute. By the second song, “Haw,” which evokes the Old West and Pink Floyd, I was chair dancing, using my co-workers’ chairs. Then came “Heel on the Shovel,” and how great a title is that? Pretty good song, too.

David Eugene Edwards is the man behind this music. He looks like a young George Thorogood with worse hair. His voice is nothing special and yet it wails with all the emotion we thought we left behind in the Depression. The man is from Denver, but from Denver in what era?

I haven’t heard all of their music yet, and I’m not crazy about their ballads, but what I can say so far is that if you don’t like Springsteen’s Nebraska, you might if it had a beat. That’s how I’m hearing 16 Horsepower.

East 17
The boy bands keep on rolling, this one suggested by Loyal Reader Bill Seabrook, who had to put up with them back when he was just a kid and all he wanted was to find 17 other guys in the British Isles to play baseball with. East 17’s name comes from a London postal code. That trick never works – just ask 3OH!3.

The boys (the youngest turns 40 next year) danced, sang, and rapped their way through the 1990s, or at least until people got tired of them. “It’s Alright” is typical of their ouevre; it’s strongly reminiscent of Madonna. Oops! Britney could have done it again.

They had a hit in 1992 with “House of Love,” which sticks in your head whether you want it to or not. It would sound strong in a club where you could dance to it. Sitting here with my headphones on, I keep thinking they’re playing Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” at twice the speed. It just ended, and with an explosion, too, just like Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Cool. You have to like pretty white boys pretending to be gangstas and singing/rapping about people needing more love. I wonder if they ever considered touring with House of Pain (another gaggle of white rappers) or covering Van Halen’s “House of Pain”? Probably not.

Heaven 17
Their name is from A Clockwork Orange, which makes me want to reread it. Heaven 17 was a branch of the British Electric Foundation, which was started by computer wizards who turned to the synthesizer to make dance music. This was a radical idea in the 1970s when Roxy Music and David Bowie were playing around with keyboards. It became the industry standard in the ’80s. Gary Numan, an artist I like very much, at least in the beginning of his career, took the synthesizer and went to the dark side of the moon. Depeche Mode found a somewhat sunnier space between Numan’s vision and sea foam like Heaven 17.

Heaven 17 (and their sibling The Human League, another branch of the BEF) are among my guilty pleasures. I’m not claiming that “Let Me Go,” “Penthouse and Pavement,” and my favorite, “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” are songs that will live forever, because they aren’t and they won’t. But they do make me pump up the volume. The Andre Norton Effect is undoubtedly at work here, since these tunes are all from the larval stage of my adult development.

If I had to place Heaven 17 in the hierarchy of ’80s synthesizer dance pop outfits, I’d rank them below Simple Minds, The The, Talk Talk, and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, on a par with Howard Jones, but above flash-in-the-pans like The Spoons (“Nova Heart”) and Information Society (“Pure Energy,” which you may remember as the song that sampled Spock saying “pure energy”). They are way above A Flock of Haircuts. The undisputed kings of this kind of music were Duran Duran (and, for about 15 minutes, Thomas Dolby). All of these acts appeared in the immediate wake of MTV. They were all made for each other.

Matchbox Twenty
Their debut, Yourself or Someone Like You (1996), is probably the biggest-selling rock album of the decade…probably because it sounds like everything else. This is the guitar sound that all post-grunge bands tried to achieve. It makes me think of mainstream acts like Dave Matthews and Blues Traveler as well as ’70s arena-rock heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd and even Black Oak Arkansas. Matchbox Twenty’s sound may not be original but it’s entertaining and the perfect party soundtrack. Nobody wants to hear from a critic at a party. Nobody wants to hear from a critic most of the rest of the day, either, which is why Special D channeled my energies into this blog.

Matchbox Twenty’s first hit was “Push,” which is so mellow that I can’t understand why it ever got anywhere. But almost everything from their first album turned to gold, especially “Long Day,” “Real World,” and “3am.” Their singer and songwriter, Rob Thomas, could be the voice of the ’90s. You couldn’t escape him on alt-rock radio or even on the headbanger stations.

Thomas is the kind of guy who can do just about anything he wants to do, even though I have never understood how he does it. In 1999 he co-wrote and co-sang “Smooth” for Carlos Santana’s comeback album, Supernatural. Like everything having to do with Thomas, I thought this was adequate, but it soon became the most popular tune on the planet, proving once again that any idiot can write about music….Early on in this blog, I praised the man for his voice, which I still do.

In 2005, Thomas released a solo album called Something to Be. I thought “Lonely No More” was an OK song. Of course, it was a smash.

Rob Thomas supports animal rights, gay rights, and the rights of the homeless. He once wrote, “Each of us has a short ride on this earth and as long as we stay in our lane, and don’t affect someone else’s ride, we should be allowed to drive as we see fit.” That’s a hit with me.

UB40
The guys in UB40 met in a line at an unemployment office and decided to form a reggae band. Must’ve been a slow line. The money to buy their first instruments came from a compensation payment following a bar fight. Not all of them knew how to play these instruments. One of them called himself Astro and gave himself the title of Toaster. One of their first songs was a condemnation of Margaret Thatcher over Britain’s high unemployment rate. How can you not love them?

Their first successful album was Labour of Love (1983). It was made up of covers and included Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine,” which I still think is beautiful. Same goes for their cover of Al Green’s “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” from Labour of Love II (1989).

Although UB40 have filled most of their 18 studio albums with other people’s hits, their best stuff in my opinion is on Rat in the Kitchen (1986), which was all theirs.

Level 42
The only album I know by Level 42 is World Machine (1985). I know the dance hits “Something About You” (which I like) and “Lessons in Love” (which I like a little less). I’ve read that they started out fusing jazz and funk and then tried fusing soul and R&B and eventually resorted to making one of their members sing, but I haven’t worked up the motivation to check this out. I have heard “The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)” from 1984. It’s funky for sure but it’s never going to make anyone forget Earth, Wind & Fire.

We’re down to the last 18 bands. Over the next couple of days we’ll travel from 47 to…infinity (but not beyond)!