King For A Year
IT'S EXACTLY 12 MONTHS SINCE LEVEL 42 BASSIST MARK KING SAT IN THE MAKING MUSIC INTERVIEW CHAIR. AND TONY BACON SPOKE TO HIM. AND GRAHAME TUCKER PHOTOGRAPHED HIM. HERE WE ARE AGAIN, HAPPY AS CAN BE... (EXITS LEFT, SINGING).
MARK KING, proud winner of the Best Bassist award in Making Music's recent readers' poll, sits in the music room at the top of his south London house, evidently enjoying his Making Music anniversary interview. He says, "Believe it or not, I don't think I'm the best bass player in the world."
The readers are not going to like this. "Well... I slap well and that's it. All very nice. But for me, it's a question of where I can go now with the bass. I know there's so much more to do with it — but I don't feel I'm banging my head against anything at the moment, you know?"
Well, sort of. Granted, slappers alone can most certainly be boring. But you do have rather a strong melodic ability too. Anyway, where's the bass likely to take you, sore head or not?
"Well, just before Christmas when Level 42 were doing the last Wembley shows I really started getting into double-stopping. I think that's what it's called, anyway — playing a very simple sort of harmony over what you're doing, almost a strumming, six-string style.
"No, that's not double-stopping, is it? I don't know, I mean I'm the most unacademic person ever. I have one O level to my name. I know what double cream is. Anyway, the idea is to have nice tunes in a sort of linear strumming style. Moving chords and shapes around like you would on guitar, but still with that bottom end in there. Quite flamenco-ish. Keeping that melodic content seemed to go down well with the audience — they like the idea of the slap thing, but it seems harder for a lot of the audience to sit and take that now. I think it's much better for them to have a tune to latch on to. So I'm changing a bit more there — there's loads to learn about bass playing. I also think that getting some new gear in for a tour can inspire you."
This form of inspiration for the next tour comes in several shapes, one of which is the new Trace Elliot programmable pre-amp, the MP11. Its essential trick is its ability to store 10 different settings that you make on the graphic EQ and volume control for later recall. So, as Mark explains, when he wants some middle honk for fingerstyle bass, or some cutting top for slapping, he can select it from an out-front floorswitch. "No more having to go up and down like a whore's drawers on my Trace Elliot GPU in the backline."
Anything else? "Jaydee have been threatening to get me a new bass for ages. It'll be another Mark King model in another nice colour like my last pink one, I hope. And nothing is changed on it because it's good — and well worth being in your chart the other month, I noticed. John Diggins is great, he doesn't get shitty about me also liking Status basses like some people would. I mean it's a bit like going out with two girls at once: well, I'll knob you tonight but tomorrow night I'll be knobbing Doris; and then expecting them to go oh, fine by me. They're not going to, usually, are they?"
Oh, no idea mate. But there's certainly no doubting the lift and excitement Mark still gets from playing live. And the most exhilarating gig he's played in the last year wasn't with Level 42 at all. It was the Prince's Trust concert last June, where Mark was honoured to be amongst a line-up that included Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Elton John, Phil Collins and Paul McCartney, and walk-on guests like David Bowie and Mick Jagger. How on earth did he get into that one?
"It was apparently Elton John who asked if I'd do it, he's a fan of my bass playing, which was very nice. When the idea of putting together a band came up he suggested me, and I was suitably touched. I remember that our tour manager asked me about it when we were out in Scandinavia, he said it's in front of Princess Di and Prince Charles, for the Prince's Trust, and Elton John's asked if you'd play bass in the band that he's putting together, with all those people I've just mentioned. And I really felt like getting up and saluting. Ha ha. Elton wants you..."
There were two days of rehearsals, run by 'musical director' Midge Ure, but that still left the band unprepared for some things. Like Bowie and Jagger, for example. "When they got up we were saying where did these blokes come from? What are we gonna do? 'Dancing In The Street'. And although it had recently been number one everywhere, no-one could remember how it went: '...dancing in the-uh street...' and then what? We were all going G, no, C, no, B, what? There were enough musicians to actually have a note each and just keep playing that note. I don't know what key it ended up in, sort of between A and G — I just kept looking at Francis Rossi who was going 'yeah!', and this fucking row was coming out!
"I was really pissed off when I heard one of the mixes that came out. I never saw the show here but I saw it on HBO (Home Box Office cable TV) in America when we were out there. And my bass wasn't in it at all. No bass! It didn't matter a toss to the people of course, but it mattered to me.
"As I watched, John Illsley did his bit, which was all very nice, and then I thought ah ha, here we go, some flash playing, out I come — all the bottom end just went nowhere! Obviously whoever was mixing the sound wasn't prepared for a second bass player to come on. So everyone's now gonna think Mark King, oh yeah, he's the bloke that doesn't play bass in that film, he's the bloke who just stood on stage."
Luckily the soundmixer will have a second chance to get it right this year, because a similar event is being planned for this coming June.
"Anyway... Prince Charles moves down the line, and he says to Eric Clapton 'I'm told we've met before'. And Eric Clapton says, 'Yes, 11 times.'"
But the big question on everyone's lips — did Mark meet the royals after last year's bash? "Yeah... I could've saluted again, you know?"
So Mark's a royalist, is he? "Well you know it's funny, isn't it. I think everybody thinks, oh, bloody toffs is all the same, pheuurr. And then they actually come sweeping up to you, and before you know it you're going, 'Oh sir, guv'nor, gawd bless you me lord, I'll fight for you!' It's like I've never met this bloke before, but yeah, I'll lay down me life for him. Princess Di? Yeah, really nice. Prince Charles has got quite a rough hand, though. Which is probably what Princess Di finds attractive.
"Anyway," Mark continues, his mind safely back at the après-gig gathering, "Prince Charles moves down the line, and he says to Eric Clapton, 'I'm told that we've met before.' And Eric Clapton says, 'Yes, 11 times.' Ha ha. But I'm sure that Clapton understands, cos people must have gone up to him loads of times and said, 'Ah Eric me old mate, you must remember me, back then, you know...' So it was all right."
Well that's a relief. The prospect of God punching out a royal is not a pleasant one to contemplate. And while we're on the subject, did you know that Mark once tried to register his publishing company's name as King Music, and discovered that you can't have a company name with a royal-type title in it?
Anyway, here we are back at the King music room. And look at all that gear. Apparently it was co-writer and co-producer Wally Badarou who suggested that Mark get his Yamaha 'multi-DX' 816/Linn 9000/Apple Mac computer team as it would duplicate Wally's home set up. Now, when Mark and Wally get together for songwriting sessions, Wally will turn up with just a small box of discs — some for DX sounds via the Mac, some for complete song-sequences of drums and keyboards via the 9000. Mark explains that his new-found tools are essential for "a non-keyboard playing musician", and save studio time by ironing out all the arrangement problems in advance.
"The benefit of having all the gear here is great," Mark says, waving an arm around his purpose-built haven. "I can work as it takes me. And I do try and regiment it, I do sort of work a 'day', mid-day to 6 o'clock. I know the other guys in the band seem to find that a bit fuddy-duddyish somehow. But you need to discipline yourself to do it every day, and not do what normal musicians would like to do and go off on another plane entirely, wander about in the park and not get it together because oh god, man, I'm just not in the mood. Which is what musicians are s'posed to do, and would do. But if you say right, it's 12 o'clock, here I go, I've done all the twatting about in the morning, sit down — and it works! Before you know it you've put down loads and loads of ideas that you start cross-referencing, and you're coming up with really nice tunes."
What we're charting here, in fact, is the gradual but certain shift of Mark King toward 'the songwriter' from 'the flash bassist'. He describes this shift, which began before the 1985 "World Machine" LP, as "a definite change" and concludes that it has patently paid off. "Yeah," he grins, "the band is obviously 10 times as successful as it used to be. I'm thrilled about that. There are some things that tend to suffer, of course — for example, instrumentals are very few and far between in terms of Level 42's output. But I'm not a lyricist, everything I do is 'instrumental'. And I can indulge my bass playing when we play live."
Now, what else can we fiddle around with in Mark's playroom while pretending that we're actually 'doing an interview'? Let's see — ooh, the Mac computer has a great flight simulator program. "There's a bit where it will go on autopilot so that you can go out and cut the lawn and by the time you come back it will have flown to the Bahamas for you," Mark recounts.
"I did an interview with Andy Peebles on Radio 1 the other day," Mark natters as I try to land a Cessna at O'Hare airport, "and I'd chosen three old tracks that I really liked and had been influential to me over the years; Jan Hammer's 'One To One'; Herbie Hancock's 'I Thought It Was You'; and Return To Forever's '500 Miles High'. And playing them back to back between our LP, the production quality of these old records — records that I used to hold my hand on my heart and say these are the finest you're ever gonna hear — the recording was bloody awful. I don't think that people quite appreciate how sound quality and reproduction is so staggeringly good now, and how quickly it's improved. It's only when you do an A/B like that between the old and the new that it brings it home."
Now what? Oh look, there's a Juno 60 leaning against the wall that I hadn't noticed. "It's waiting for a MIDI retrofit so I can get some analogue sounds into the system," says Mark. But back to the screen.
"I read an interview with Miles Davis the other day," Mark continues while crashing into the Sears Tower again, "and some arty journalist obviously wanted him to have a go at technology today, to say that drum machines are awful or something, and Miles Davis said he thought the business in that respect had never been in better shape. But, he said, it still requires a musician's abilities and the creativity of an artist to make all this stuff work well.
"Now this is Miles Davis, who always had to channel his work through drummers — brilliant drummers, of course, Billy Cobham, Tony Williams, Al Foster — but now he, who is like the god of everything, can sit down at say a Linn 9000 and play what he wanted to have played in the first place. He doesn't now have to get heavy so that drummers can come up with great quotes like, 'Coo, that Miles Davis is a scary bastard to work with'."
So they say. Now quick, see what I've found here Mark, it's a tape box with "Running In The Family" written on the edge. What can it be? "It's the completely mixed and finished first version that we dumped because we decided the lyrics were shit," he explains, and gets up from the wreckage of the by now clapped-out Cessna.
Give in. "Me, Mark King, I'm known as a bass player," he says, back to serious mode for a sec. "But I'd be stupid to sit there and say look, because I'm a bass player I have to just come up with bass riffs. What, does that mean for me as a musician? I think a musician, in 1987, is a far more encompassing creature than he was four or five years ago, and has to be, by necessity. And the ones who aren't, they aren't having any success. Nor will they have any success."
Interview by Tony Bacon
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!