Mark King, English musician, chats with Kevin Cooper about his friendship with Mike Lindup, playing the Royal Albert Hall in October 2018, being mistaken for Ali Campbell and Level 42’s forthcoming appearance at the Newark Riverside Festival.
Mark King is an English musician. He is most famous for being the lead singer and bassist of the band Level 42. In the early 1980s, King popularized the 1970s slap style for playing the bass guitar by incorporating it into pop music.
Having been brought up on the Isle of Wight, he moved to London at the age of 19, and subsequently formed Level 42 in 1979 with Phil Gould, keyboard player Mike Lindup and Phil’s guitarist brother Boon. Although a drummer, King found himself having to learn how to play the bass after landing a job at Macari’s in Charing Cross road, selling bass guitars, making coffee and sweeping up. Following this, King’s natural rhythmic intuition probably contributed to his distinctive bass playing style.
King is a longstanding supporter of The Prince’s Trust. On 20 June 1986, King and Lindup performed alongside a multitude of stars, at The Prince’s Trust All-Star Rock Concert at Wembley Arena to celebrate the first ten years of the Trust. He was also a performer at The Prince’s Trust Rock Gala at the Royal Albert Hall in November 2010 and 2011.
Today King is still the Level 42 front man and plays a number of festival dates with co-founder, band member and keyboard player, Mike Lindup.
Whilst busy preparing for a summer of festivals, he took some time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Mark how are you?
Hi Kevin I’m fine thanks how are you today?
I’m very well thank you and firstly let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
No worries, it’s my pleasure. Haven’t you and I met before?
Yes we have after your show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange four years ago now. You very kindly gave me a nice glass of red wine together with a very large slice of pizza (laughter).
(Laughter) yes that’s us. That’s what happens after the show. It’s boring and predictable but I tell you what, there’s something nice about it. We have just recently played a festival in Barcelona and sure enough, after the show it was a glass of Spanish Rioja and a slice of pepperoni pizza (laughter). It is absolutely fine.
So just how is life treating you?
Life at the moment is treating me very well thank you. We have got a lovely summer of gigs coming up, and I am particularly looking forward to this Grand Slam Tour that we have got coming up with the UB40 lads and The Original Wailers. That is going to be great to do and we will be coming by your neck of the woods to play the Newark Riverside Festival on Saturday 17th June. I really can’t wait; that is going to be such a nice day especially as it is a really good bill. You could call it almost a ‘reggae sandwich’ because you have got the fantastic UB40 and I have to tell you that I have been a fan of those guys since way back in 1979.
However, I have never really had the chance to play with them so far, but I have always enjoyed their company. They really are great fun to be with and of course I just love the music. I personally think that Ali (Campbell) has got one of the greatest singing voices that has come out of the UK for a very long time. Back in the day I aspired to sound like Ali; I really think that he is a great guy.
On the subject of the Newark Riverside Festival, will it be a Level 42 greatest hits set?
Yes I think that is probably what is going to be required of us and that is what I am very happy to do. We have got a sixty minute slot to fill up and we are fortunate enough over the years to have enough hit records that allows us to easily fill sixty minutes.
Does it not give you a headache when you have to choose which songs will actually make it onto the set list?
(Laughter) tell me about it. Yes that’s right, the big question is always going to be which songs we are going to leave out and which ones do we put in. Having said that there are always the keepers on there; Lessons In Love, Running In The Family, Something About You, Heaven In My Hands those are the ones that people are going to want to hear from us. The problem arises when it comes to selecting the ballads. If we are playing a sixty minute set then we will always only ever play one ballad, therefore the question is do we do It’s Over or do we do Leaving Me Now. These are the sort of things that I will be wrestling with for the next month or so and getting them ready (laughter).
Is that decision down to you and you alone or do you allow the rest of the band to have some input?
Generally what happens is that you will get a great set list that works on a tour and then the next time that you go out on tour you try to swap like for like. If you want to get a good balance you have got to come in big. Obviously you then have to take it down because then you want to lift it up as you go out. So you have to try and get some dynamics going. When you have been doing it for a few years you start to realise which of your songs kind of fit the bill. So if you can choose like for like ones, for example on the last tour we started with If You Were Mine which is from the Guaranteed album, and it was good opening with that because it meant that I could then include two or three songs off the Guaranteed album which we hadn’t played much before.
Then that enables you to put them into the set amongst the like for like stuff. If You Were Mine is pretty much up there with Heaven In My Hands; they are both bold and brash with lots of the brass section going on so that was a great number to open the show with last year. So because I want to put Heaven In My Hands into this year’s set list I will start the show with it and take out If You Were Mine and so on you go. That’s how it all works out, hopefully (laughter).
Do you still enjoy touring?
I have to say that for me touring is an absolute utter joy. I have been lucky and if the work stopped I would probably be alright and I touch wood when I say that but fortunately I don’t have to do that because the live work is there and I absolutely love doing it. I think that I would feel far more frustrated if I thought that the only avenue that I have was actually in the studio. Obviously that is a very important part of what I do; I have to make the records which is part of the whole chicken and egg thing. But of the two I much prefer performing live.
Going back to UB40 and in particular Ali. Is it true that the two of you get mistaken for one another?
(Laughter) who the hell has told you that? Yes we do, that’s right. Over the years Ali and I have met a few times. His band is called UB40 and my band is called Level 42 as you know, and occasionally people do get muddled up when they are speaking to you (laughter). Ali recently told me that an American chap on an airplane came up the aisle and said “I just want to say that you are one of the greatest bass players in the world” to which Ali replied “you have got the wrong band mate” (laughter). And it has happened to me too. Level 42 were once playing a live TV show outdoors in an old market square in Italy and when I came off the stage, as is usual in Italian TV, there was this gorgeous young hostess waiting to speak to me.
She made her way over to me, stuck a microphone into my face and said “Mark, you have played so many lovely songs from Level 42 but why didn’t you play your biggest hit Red Red Wine” (laughter). I was buzzing having just played a great show and then it took the wind out of my sails when I was asked why I hadn’t played our biggest hit Red Red Wine (laughter). It’s funny because I know that both Ali and I have suffered this now for many years.
Will you once again be playing the Rewind Festivals?
Yes we are, we are off on the road once again with the Rewind Festivals. After that we have got a couple a big shows over in Holland together with three nice festivals up in Scandinavia so life is good and it just keeps going. And long may it continue to be quite honest.
You never come up here to Nottingham to see us in the Flashback Festivals?
No we haven’t but listen, I will take the band wherever the band is asked to go and play. Just as long as we can join the dots and we are available at that time. I think that now in this age of social media people can get in touch with bands much more easily than they could in the old days. I get a lot of people emailing me asking me when I am going to take the band and play a gig in such and such a town and I have to say that there is a misconception about where bands play and why they don’t play somewhere else. This really is never down to the bands; it is always down to the agents and the management. Level 42 are already looking at dates in October 2018 for us to tour because you have to look that far ahead because is it all about the availability of venues.
In an ideal world you want to be working Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Simply because those are the nights when people want to go out and be entertained. Although we are already speaking about a year ahead, if I was to try and book any of the main venues in your town they have probably already gone on the choice dates. So we will always invariably start off the tour with a London show. We are looking at playing the Royal Albert Hall again in 2018, so we have got a hold on that for October 25th and then that’s where you start working the tour back from there. Then you have to make the route work properly. You can’t make it too close to the town next to you which is why if you were to look at the tour route it looks like someone has stood there with a set of darts and blindly thrown them into a map (laughter).
The reality is that there are always clauses in the contract where for example the promoter will say “if you are playing in Birmingham you cannot be playing in Wolverhampton the next night”’. It is simply too close.
I’m sure that it makes sense to somebody (laughter).
Yes exactly, that’s right it does but unfortunately that somebody just isn’t me (laughter). Believe you me, if you could just play the next town then that would be lovely plus it would make touring a hell of a lot cheaper and a lot more efficient. However, as it stands for example, if we were to play Glasgow then we are simply not allowed to play the next town up the road. They want you out of it so that they will then get the ticket sales. We have got exactly the same situation with the UB40 thing. Level 42 were offered some shows later in the year but they were still too close to when we were playing the UB40 shows. You have to remember that the reason why UB40 have got us on the bill is so that we can help them sell tickets too.
Will you be watching The Wailers from the wings?
Oh yes, for sure, absolutely. I think that it is a really good bill and for Level 42 to be in the position to be on the same bill as The Original Wailers, well who wouldn’t want to be part of somebody who played with Bob Marley. There is a real connection there; this family tree that runs through all of these things and of course the music is just timeless. I personally think that it promises to be a really fantastic tour. A truly great day’s entertainment for everybody. Fingers crossed that we get some good weather but we are Brits; we are used to it so just take an umbrella along with you and if it doesn’t work out, who cares (laughter).
The Aussies take an Esky full of cold larger with them to an outdoor gig whilst us Brits take our wellies and a flask of hot tea with us (laughter).
(Laughter) that’s right, but they have got it a little different. My eldest daughter lives down in Perth and it was quite grim apparently yesterday as it was only forty degrees over there (laughter).
You are shortly off to Japan. Do you enjoy playing over there?
I love it, what’s not to like about it (laughter). We are playing six shows over in Japan and I truly can’t wait.
You and Mike (Lindup) have been together now for thirty-seven years; longer than most marriages. What’s your secret?
(Laughter) thirty seven years is absolutely unbelievable. It is certainly a lot longer than my first marriage lasted. Maybe it was my first marriage and I didn’t realise it (laughter). Mike’s lovely, he’s a joy to play with and he is a fantastic musician. He has got a great voice and he also has a great humour about him. He is always smiling, he never swears and in fact he is everything that I’m not (laughter). I’m miserable and foul mouthed. Perhaps that’s the secret, it could be the old Ying and Yang, chalk and cheese kind of stuff, we just keep going.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
That’s easy, for me it was being part of the Princes Trust Rock Gala Band back in 1986. There was Elton John, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Mark Knopfler, the Status Quo boys, the great Midge Ure, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, George Michael, Paul Young, and others (laughter).
It just reads like a Who’s Who of music legends doesn’t it?
Yes it does and I was the only guy that I had never heard of (laughter).
What was the first record that you bought?
That was I Feel Free by Cream.
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
I was about nine years old and I saw a band called JAY at the Civic Hall in Newport on the Isle Of Wight.
What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?
That was Power Of Love by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It is just so moving.
Mark on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been fantastic and I will see you in Newark.