John spoke to the Level 42 star and fellow Islander about life before fame and touring.
Back in September 1980, I was summoned to Ryde’s Carousel Club, close to where work had begun on the new Tesco store, to interview a new jazz funk band, who were rehearsing for their debut tour. They were called Level 42 and even performed two warm-up gigs at the nearby La Babalu Club.
There were three Islanders in the band, Mark King, on bass and vocals, Boon Gould played guitar and his brother, Phil Gould, was their drummer. The talented keyboard player Mike Lindup completed their line up. It was an exciting time and their debut single, Love Meeting Love, had just made the pop charts. The rest is history.
Exactly 38 years on, I was at home with Mark King on the eve of their current tours of Great Britain and Holland. How times had changed.
Before your world fame with Level 42 you were playing in Island holiday camp bands. How important was that?
That early grounding was just fantastic. I’m not a huge fan of being a bedroom musician. If you really want to get yourself together and learn how to respond to other musicians, you have to go out and play with them. In those days we were spoilt for choice and there were so many venues to play live music at. Sadly, there are now fewer places here for that kind of thing. I played with a lot of London session guys who came here in summer to play in the holiday camp dance bands.
You gave up your £32 a week Gurnard milk round and headed for London to become a famous drummer. That bold move eventually changed your life. Can you reflect on that?
I bought my old farm van and headed for the big city, with my drum kit in the back. It was not easy. I took a job in a London music shop and they didn’t sell drums. I became their bass expert, having told them I was a good bass player. It was a little white lie and I was lucky, as it was before the days of CVs. I still intended to go back to play drums. When my old Island pals, Boon and Phil Gould, came up to London we enlisted a new friend called Mike Lindup and started to rehearse together at his music college. With Phil being a better drummer than me, I became the bass player.
Eventually you managed to get a recording contract. How did you develop your famous bass-playing style that went on to influence millions of young musicians all around the world?
It was really just transferring the drumming technique, with left and right hands playing equal parts, over on to a bass guitar. That was how I heard music. I wasn’t up to speed on harmony or notes. I also became the singer by accident. No-one wanted to do it but we didn’t want to have anyone else to join the band as a singer.
When I first interviewed you in 1980 you told me that America was also a kind of area that you were interested in. Did the World Machine album help to create that for you?
When Something About You, from that album, was a top ten single in America it really set things up for us and we got to tour with both Madonna and Tina Turner. All of a sudden we were playing large stadiums and festivals. In one, with Madonna, there were 102,000 watching the show. It was amazing. They are both legends and were great to work with. Tina would often pop into the dressing room for a chat.
I know your careers master at Cowes High School tried to guide you away from your dream of becoming a musician. Obviously, it didn’t work. A gig at the Royal Albert Hall must have been beyond your wildest dreams. What was it like to be in a supergroup with Paul McCartney, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Phil Collins, Tina Turner, Paul Young, George Michael, David Bowie and Mick Jagger?
It was at a Prince’s Trust Concert and one of the highlights of my career. Before the show, at the soundcheck, I was fiddling with my amplifier on stage and Paul McCartney came over to me and said ‘Mark King, it’s so lovely to meet you’. That really was a rather grounding moment from the biggest name in music. Everybody knows of the great Sir Paul McCartney. So I said, not now Paul, I’m too busy!! No, I didn’t really. (Both Paul and Elton have gone on record as being Mark King fans.)
Mark, you don’t have to tour with Level 42. It’s not for the money is it?
No it isn’t. I just love playing and performing. It’s such a buzz going on stage and I even like the pre-tour nerves, when you wake up sweating and worrying whether people will turn up to the gigs or things might go wrong on stage.
People still talk about that gig you did at the Ryde Arena. How special was it for you?
It was amazing. The Ryde Arena had opened and we could play to 2,200 people and the tickets sold out in no time at all. It was great to do that and I’m now so sorry that the building has gone into disrepair and been sold off by the various ice rink companies that have had it. I’m also sad that Ryde Theatre has shut. It’s a lovely place but austerity and the fact the council can’t keep paying the money means these are places we lose.
Mark is in my new book, The Wight Connections, which features chapters on 120 Islanders. Other local musicians include Snowy White, Kite, the Cherokees, Bernie Cullen, Dick Taylor, Toni Malo, Paul Armfield and Johnny Vincent.