The 1980s were pretty weird, weren’t they? When you weren’t squirting gallons of hair spray onto your mullet and making sure your shoulder pads were large enough to land a helicopter on. You may have put down your Rubik’s Cube long enough to turn on the radio. Then things got weirder. In the UK, fighting for airtime between MC Hammer, REO Speedwagon, and Wham! were a band who started as Mahavishnu Orchestra fanboys and ended up as an unlikely pop sensation. That band was Level 42, and they were full of surprises.
The Complete Polydor Years 1985-1989 finishes the job that The Complete Polydor Years 1980-1984 started earlier this year. We get all their releases from the obligatory double live album A Physical Presence to their swansong for Polydor, Staring at the Sun on this ten-CD set. It’s a great big lump of UK jazz-funk, powered by Mark King’s signature slap bass, and it serves as a time capsule of polished ’80s pop as well as a cultural trope. For many people who lived through that bizarre decade, Level 42 were a symbol of opulence and “grown-up” tastefulness. When you got that promotion you’d been working for, along with the high-performance saloon car, the unstructured suit, and a reserved seat in the wine bar of your choice, came a Level 42 CD. Your colleagues listened to Kylie Minogue, but you had aspirational goals, and Level 42 were perfect for you. They may have been pop, but they were smart muso pop.
Digging into all ten CDs in this chunky compilation yields some gems. Bundled in with the four albums they released in the second half of the 1980s are five (count them) CDs of live tracks, remixes, and instrumental versions. It may be an expensive way to pick a copy of the Shep Pettibone remix of “Lessons in Love”, but that’s a discussion for another time. If you’re in a hurry, all the hits are squeezed onto one disc – 7” Singles – which really is all killer, no filler. Ten tracks of pin-sharp pop beautifully played and polished to an incredibly high sheen. This would have sounded great on your in-car CD player on the way to The Club.
The live album A Physical Presence serves as both a greatest-hits-to-date and a rejoinder to those who sneered “sell-out” as a result of their pop success. The band get to flex their musical muscles and trot out hit after hit. Of the remaining three records, World Machine fares the best and bristles with top drawer jazz-funk-pop-rock. “Something About You” seemed to be on the radio constantly at the end of 1985 and helped establish them as a global act. Running in the Family and Staring at the Sun are decent releases, but by the time the calendar rolled into 1 January 1990, the bloom was off the rose. Following circumstances that split the band down the middle, the hits became fewer until their last top 40 appearance in 1994. The band continue to record and tour, so you still have the opportunity to roll up your suit sleeves and see if your 501s still fit you. (Spoiler alert – they won’t).
It’s hard to picture who this expansive collection will appeal to beyond Level 42 completists. It’s too lumpy for an impulse purchase, and yet there are a handful of hits missing from it. Some of the remixes haven’t really stood the test of time either; the Dave ‘O remix of “Running in the Family”, for example, is positively bulging with dated ’80s studio trickery. To make it even less appealing to a 2021 consumer, it’s not available on vinyl – it’s CD only, which is a very ’80s move. But Level 42 were a very ’80s band. Unlike the vast majority of ’80s pop, however, you can still listen to Level 42 without having to suppress your gag reflex.