When a box hit Mark King at the end of a Level 42 concert in Germany, he knew it contained a gift from a fan, but what?
“We had a track on the album called I Want Eyes,” Mark, 64, tells me. “And the box was in a bag which had a note inside saying, ‘Mark, for you I will give my eyes’.
“I opened the box and they were two real eyeballs in there. I didn’t know whether they were human, sheep’s or goat’s eyes, but they freaked me out.”
Opening for The Police at a German sports hall two years earlier in 1981, the crowd’s ‘gifts’ seemed deadlier. Bassist-and-singer Mark heard a bang and felt something hit his arm.
“I thought I’d been shot but it was a banger,” he recalls. “Then Boone” – guitarist Rowland Gould – “reeled back and said ‘I’m bleeding’.
“He wasn’t. Someone had thrown a melting choc ice at him and under the stage lights it looked like blood. After that, we started to move around on stage a lot more because a moving target is a lot harder to hit.”
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Actual hits came easy for Level 42. They had six Top Tens in the 80s, including Lessons In Love and Something About You – their first US smash.
King’s fast, fluid slap-bass technique – played with his ‘thunder thumb’– was as much a component of their unique jazz-funk infused pop as his velveteen vocals.
In 1987 Polydor Records insured Mark’s right thumb for £3million, inspiring the headline, ‘The man with the golden thumb’.
“I did a lot of DIY,” he grins. “One slip of the saw…”
Father-of-four Mark still does DIY at the Isle Of Wight home he shares with second wife Ria and daughter Marlee.
At the height of his success, he spent like a Lotto winner – Aston Martins, a Ferrari Testarossa, 18-carat Cartier watches – but, he says, “Material things never seemed important. Yes, I had the Aston Martin but I got no pleasure from the car. I get more buzz from the Tesla I drive now trying not to destroy the planet.
“All that ever mattered to me was being a better player.
“I found 80s stockbrokers walking around with great wedges of cash repugnant. I was much happier relating to my mum and dad and the struggles they had, and my grandfather and grandmother selling vegetables to get by. Grandad was a binman, that’s where I come from.”
Cowes-born Mark, 65 in October, has vivid memories of his tough early life. “My dad trained as a boat builder and a carpenter but when he finished his apprenticeship the shipyard shut down.
“He had three young kids so he joined the prison service, doing a job he absolutely hated, slopping out the cells…the ‘King nose’ didn’t help – we’ve all got it.
“We lived on a prison officers’ estate, a converted army barracks. We had one brass tap, an outside toilet, and a zinc bath in the kitchen which I had to share with two slightly older sisters.
“If the neighbour came knocking for a cup of sugar, mum put the lid on it and started chatting.”
Growing up, Mark was “nuts about music” and had a natural inclination to play the drums. Hearing there was a kit for sale in Newport, he walked five miles to see it – aged nine.
“It didn’t occur to me that mum and dad didn’t know where I’d gone. I walked home and mum was freaking out, but Dad drove me back and spent ten quid on this beaten-up kit.
“He was on £17 a week then, so it was a big outlay.
“My mum was the one we were terrified of. She coined the phrase ‘Wait till your dad’s gone out! No ‘Wait till your father comes home for us’,” he laughs.
King joined his first band Pseudo Foot at 11 after jumping on stage and drumming with them at a holiday camp in Forness Bay.
“Two weeks later they contacted my parents to recruit me, which meant mum had to do all the roadie-ing.
“I got £5 a gig, which meant I was on £15 a week at 11, nearly as much as Dad. The band were adults, in their mid-20s, husband Martin on guitar, wife Anne singing.”
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The trio played on the Ryde Queen – an old paddle steamer turned into nightclub – and the local pub, frequented by his teachers.
They covered pop hits of the day, “and kids’ songs like Rocking Robin and Long-haired Lover From Liverpool which I had to sing. Anne held the mic to my mouth.
“I used to put £5 in the pot every week, my sisters had part-time jobs too, and the rest I’d spend on vinyl and fritter away.”
His first purchase was Cream’s Wheels On Fire double album. “I couldn’t get enough of it! I used to crank it up and drum along at the top of the stairs. It must have been a nightmare for the neighbours.
“Cream were a huge influence. I used to make cardboard cut outs of them on lolly sticks – there was no YouTube back then and only two or three TV channels.
“We had Top Of The Pops and In Concert where I saw Jimi Hendrix and had a massive love affair with his music. I was much more attracted to players than pop stars.”
Largely jazz and fusion musicians like the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Billy Cobham and Lenny White of Return To Forever whose bassist Stanley Clarke would have a huge influence on Mark’s playing style.
Kicked out of school for wearing denims, King worked on the Ronson’s cigarette lighter factory-line before becoming a milkman.
In 1975, aged 16, he wrote a letter to Lenny White. “A year later I got a letter back, which I’ve still got it hanging on the wall. I took it as some kind of message and got the money together to get a Freddie Laker flight to New York. I had drive in spades back then.”
Lenny was in LA when Mark showed up at his house in Queens. But his wife took Mark’s number and White invited him back to his home.
He played the 5ft 8 blonde whippersnapper his new album and then asked why he’d come. Mark hadn’t really thought his pilgrimage through, he just wanted wisdom.
Lenny said simply, ‘New York, London, London, New York…wherever you are, you’ve got to make it happen’.”
And that’s what King did.
He moved to London at 19 and, after a brief spell in new wave band Re-Flex, he formed Level 22.
They played their first gig at the Guildford School of Music, where keyboardist Mike Lindup was studying.
Mark had known drummer Phil Gould since he was 14. Phil’s younger brother Boon completed the classic line-up. They took their name from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Universe’s meaning of life – 42.
King worked at Macari’s guitar shop in London, where he tried to emulate Stanley Clarke’s bass-playing and watched closely when US musicians dropped in and played.
“I soaked it up and took that knowledge and a borrowed bass to rehearsals” – paid for by generous pal Robin Scott (of M and Pop Music fame).
Andy Sojka, of Elite Records, caught them and offered to release one of their instrumentals if they added lyrics.
Cue their first single, 1980’s Sandstorm.
“I was crashing in Walthamstow in a rundown flat living close to the bone at the time. Andy stuck it out as a white label just as the British funk movement was emerging. Radio Caroline made us a powerplay. To hear our music played on radio was so exhilarating.”
Polydor signed them in 1981 and they made Top Of The Pops with Love Games. Seven minor hits later they went Top Ten in ’83 with The Sun Goes Down.
“The music we played was 180 degrees away from punk but I admired the energy and the fire of punk, that was inspiring, not the music.
“For us it was slow and steady, always gigging –
work, work, work. You’ve got to graft.
“We were never trendy but that’s a good thing because after the pendulum swings one way, it swings away again.”
In 1985 they cracked the US Top Ten with Something About You, followed all solid hits around the world until 1994.
In 1987 they toured the US for four months supporting Madonna.
When did you feel rich? “When I was able to get the first mortgage, my girlfriend” – his Dutch first wife Pia – “was pregnant and our landlord was selling.”
A £5,000 advance for a solo album did the trick.
They divorced after ten years and three children. In the 90s, King bought a pub in Ryde, now sold, and named it Joe Daflo’s – a contraction of their names, Jolie, D’Arcy and Florrie.
“Financial success is a blessing but that’s not the whole thing for me. I’ve got lovely kids, we’re one big love fest. I’m very happy my children are proud of what I’ve done. I know that because they tell me.”
Level 42 split in 94 but reformed in 2001. The current line-up has Mark’s younger brother Nathan on guitar plus Mike Lindup (keys), former fan Pete Ray Biggin (drums), and a three-piece brass section.
Pete, whose been in the band since 2010, was eleven when he first saw them tour.
“We got off the bus and Pete was standing there with an armful of vinyl and told us he played drums. At the soundcheck our drummer Gary Husband let him play on his kit.
“We asked what songs of ours he knew, and he said ‘All of them!’. 30 years later he’s playing drums for us.”
The Kings enjoy simple pleasures. “My wife Ria is a wonderful gardener, she grows veg and tomatoes, I adore cooking and the creativeness of cooking. During lockdown I bought a pizza oven for the back garden that goes to 400° – never turn your back on it because it’s fast!”
He adds, “In lockdown I had depression. I’ve always had a purpose suddenly all the certainties were turned off. We had two years with no gigs, so I’ve stopped taking anything for granted because anything can change like that. Enjoy every moment.
“What I like best is getting on stage and making people happy; that’s 100% joy.”
The band’s UK tour starts in October. Why is their music so resilient?
“It takes us back to happier times,” he says. “The world seems a much harder place these days.”
- Level 42’s UK tour runs from 8th October to 4th November. Dates & tickets at aegpresents.co.uk
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