Mark Of Distinction
Mr Bassman, boom boom, thwack thwack, talks exclusively, dang dang, chacker chacker, to Making Music, thock thock, thwackadang
The man with the flying thumbs talks to Making Music about songwriting, heroes and basses. We caught Mark King at Maison Rouge Studio in the middle of recording "Lessons In Love", Level 42's follow-up single to the highly successful "World Machine" album. But first we had to get there.
Wednesday morning, early March, and we find ourselves in Mark King's music room, a vast hideaway at the very top of his south London house. He's been in the studio, working on a new Level 42 single, for the last eight days, as he will be later today, and tomorrow, and the day after that.
But it's here in Mark's music room that the songs are born, via the DX7 and Juno-60 synths, the Linn 9000 sampling drum machine/sequencer, the Tascam 38 8-track, the new Sony 701 digital 2-track processor, and, naturally, the stack of Jaydee, Status, Zon, Moon and Fender basses.
"The benefits of demoing at home are fantastic," enthuses Mark as he shows Making Music around during an exclusive interview. "You can save so much money - you can actually waste a lot of time in the studio."
"I think the moral for song ideas is that you keep everything," says Mark, sipping from his mug of tea. "Up here, invariably I lay down drums and bass, and then a keyboard line, although it's getting increasingly keyboard oriented; it's easier to sing, or invent a melody line, when you're sustaining a keyboard chord. My keyboard playing is absolutely dire, so I tend to do most things on the black keys and then transpose. That's why most of my songs these days tend to sound quite optimistic."
A particular benefit at the demo stage has come from the Sony digital 2-track, which records audio on to video cassettes in combination with a video recorder, meaning you can get three hours on one tape. "The worst stage of demoing has always been when you go to the ordinary master cassette," Mark complains, "it always sounds crap. It sounds great coming off the 8-track - then you wham it into a cassette and it's all dull and horrible. If you start running cassette copies it gets even worse. This 701 was pricey - about £800, plus the video recorder - but the actual quality you maintain is staggering." He flips in a video cassette and a hugely realistic thwacking drum sequence crashes out of the speakers. Staggering indeed. "As you can hear," grins Mark, "it's also a great way to store samples - that was a drum sample for the 12in of 'Something About You'. I've got a whole library."
'Something About You', the last single, only began to convince the group that it was 45 material when they'd put the vocals on - in other words, quite late in the song's recorded development. When work started on recording this latest single, three songs all seemed equally potential A-sides. The group hoped that once they started work, one song would again scream "me, me, me!" This happened last night - and the song is called 'Lessons In Love'.
'Lessons In Love' actually started life in a strange place: an add-on closing sequence for the live interpretation of 'Physical Presence' from the "World Machine" LP. In fact it got its only airing on The Tube last December. "We hated the way we did it there," Mark remembers, "so it got dumped when we came to do the tour. But that drawn-out sequence at the end stuck in my head, I thought it was a good piece, so I kept chivying away at it. I eventually turned it into the verse for 'Lessons In Love', though you wouldn't really know it if you heard the two side by side."
The verse turned out to be the easy bit, relatively. Mark had a chorus written, and just after Christmas last year he stuck the verse and chorus together on the 701, and put in a bridge. "The best bridges are always an inversion of either the verse or the chorus," Mark affirms in hit-single-writing-crash-course mode. "Something not too strange, but sufficiently different from the routine you've just been through."
But Mark and Wally Badarou, his coproducer and co-writer, knew when they began sorting the taped ideas in January that this existing chorus (referred to secretly as 'the Sergeant Pepper chorus' thanks to its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pandemonium) was weak. A new 'cool' chorus came from Wally messing with the chorus chords, turning them around and thereby suggesting a new vocal line to Mark. "I can't stress enough, after five years in this business, the importance of vocal ideas," says Mark, pointing at a pile of demo tapes in the comer of his music room. "It's the vocal ideas that count, all the way."
Mark drains his tea mug and proclaims it time to go to the studio.
'Wednesday lunchtime and the traffic is terrible as we make our way to Maison Rouge studio in the Range Rover.
"Another advantage of an automatic," says Mark, already demonstrating one by grasping a fresh mug of tea in one hand, "is that you can drive no-hands," and searches with the other in the cassette box between the two front seats.
We'd been chatting about one of Mark's bass-playing heroes, Jack Bruce ("his genius was that he was always able to generate an air of tension, of evil"). Mark was attempting to locate a cassette of the great man's most recent solo album, which apparently went unreleased in Britain. He finds it and shoves it into the cassette player. The first track comes on: and it's got synth bass on it. Sacrilege, surely?
Mark doesn't agree. "You shouldn't be afraid of other instruments playing your lines - you've got to do the best for the song. If at a certain time it needs a sub-sonic bass synth, or a rounder-sounding bass than I can get out of the bass guitar, then I'll use it." And has he ever met Jack Bruce? "I met him at the Frankfurt instrument show a couple of years back, just after I'd done Cream's 'I Feel Free' on my solo album. I could have fallen through the floor - I thought he was there to stick one on me. So I sort of asked him, I said, 'I'm thinking of doing a cover version of "I Feel Free", is that all right?' And he went, 'Yeah.' I said thanks, do you want a copy of it?"
And there's been more recent communication between the two bassists. Just before Christmas, Level 42 were booked to do a live radio broadcast in Germany. "If ever you do a live radio or TV show out there," explains Mark, savouring still more tea, "they always rehearse it for days beforehand. Typical German approach; 'you von't make mistakes, vill you?' Ooh no, no, not us.
"You shouldn't be afraid of other instruments playing your lines - you've got to do the best for the song. If at a certain time it needs a sub-sonic bass synth... then I'll use it."
"So Jack Bruce gave me a call while we were rehearsing for this show, and said that he was doing an album of bass players as composers, would I like to submit a track? Of course, I said I would. He's approached Jaco Pastorius and Stan Clarke, Sting and McCartney, everyone writing a piece for this album. In fact, I have something for him."
We're now outside the studio. "Can I get it in here?" asks Mark metaphorically, and squeezes the vehicle into a space that even a cyclist wouldn't consider. When he gets an idea in his head...
Wednesday afternoon and Boon Gould is moving his guitar effects rack out of the main studio room and into the control room at Maison Rouge. Today is guitar day, and Mark, Wally and the engineer busy themselves lining up the five spare tracks for the guitars and vocals that remain to be added to the multitrack of 'Lessons In Love'.
So far, there are a mere seven bass lines on the tape: three analogue synths, two FM synths, and two electric basses.
"That's right," says Mark in a brief break. "I'm using two basses on the track - there's a thumb line that goes all the way through, where I use my Postman-Pat-red Status. For the finger-style line I use my good old Jay dee - not the original, but number two, which has a great round bottom end, 'organic' as Wally calls it. You can hear the wood in the thing, whereas the graphite in the Status suits the thumb line, it has a sort of cool, calm aggression."
A more recent addition to his bass line-up has been a Zon Legacy, built in New York by Jo Zon. It's a good-looking, small bodied bass with a beautifully thin, fast neck and a Kahler bass wang bar. You can hear it at work on 'Lying Still' from "World Machine", with occasional wobbly bits. "It's a very Alembic sound," reckons Mark, "something about the feel of the neck suggests Alembic to me. Once I'd sorted out a tittle pickup imbalance problem, it's been fine."
Alembic basses, big in the late Seventies for their wide, active range and their connection with Stanley Clarke, had tempted Mark when he first went looking for a bass guitar in 1980 - Polydor had just bunged Level 42 a £5000 advance. But even so, Alembics were still much too expensive - he'd used a borrowed Hayman 'modular' bass for the first single - and Mark went out to the shops in London's Shaftesbury Avenue aiming for a Wal. Unfortunately, Wal was having problems with wood/graphite mismarriages at the time. But Mark happened upon an unusual Jaydee bass, made in Birmingham by John Diggins and not exactly unlike an Alembic. "John saw me using it shortly after on 'Top Of The Pops', got in touch, and we've worked closely ever since," says Mark.
The synth department has grown on 'Lessons In Love', too - at some points there is a Synclavier, a TX816 (the eight-DX7s-in-a-box from Yamaha), a Prophet 600 and a Prophet-5 all working in tandem. Not that it was quite as straightforward as that. To sync them all together, they had originally tried a Dr Click machine. What's that?
"It's a click machine," explains Mark. Get up I feel like a click machine? Perhaps not. "It'll lay down clicks of any kind, or a code, on to tape, then it'll read that back off tape and trigger other machines and synths. Also, if a drummer is playing along reasonably in time, you can get the Dr Click to read, say, a snare drum repeat, and it'll know when the drummer's speeding up or slowing down, it memorises the whole track, with speed changes - then you play it back and it'll speed up and slow down while driving the machines. In theory. But both the Dr Clicks we hired were on the blink. They were both struck off - we ended up manually flying in stuff."
Mark sighs at the machines' inefficiency. "In the end your ears are the best judge - if the machine is telling you something is in time and your ears say no, trust your ears."
However, a thoroughly useful machine in Mark's experience is a radio link between bass and, in his case, Trace Elliot amp rig. In the studio, too. "Really useful, yes. Normally if I want to work in the control room with the rig in the main room, I have to run a 50ft cable out to it. It would be weedy. Bert weedy. But using a radio link I get no signal loss, no quality problems at all - you wouldn't know the difference. At the moment in here I'm using my Yamaha radio, but I've just got a new British one made by a company called Audio Ltd, a better system."
Time comes for Mark to get back to 'Lessons In Love' in the control room. "I want to write good songs," Mark reminds us before he goes. "The strength should be in the songs, as opposed to the virtuosity of the musicianship involved in a weak song. People will come along and do the bass playing thing better than me - so how long's that going to last? That'll be that. But good songs do last. If you can marry the two together - songs and musicianship - well, you're winning.
"It's obvious that what is selling half a million copies of our records to the public at large is not me leaping into very fast thumb bass solos when it's not necessary. What they're really hearing is the bass drum pulse, but mainly the melody line. You've got to do what's best for the song. When you're on tour, playing live, of course, you can whizz about all over the place."
He pauses, considering, and grins. "Thank God for touring!"