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The effect that music has on a listener can be informed by many things, such as mood, emotional context, state of mind and ties to a person or place. The funky jazz band you listen to live on an evening out at Ronnie Scott's just doesn't sound the same when reproduced on CD and played in your living room. Similarly, if you'd never kissed your girl for the first time to the sax-imbued strains of "Careless Whisper", chances are the song would not mean as much to you.
And so it was that Level 42's "Running in the Family" provided the soundtrack for an extraordinary experience that is now indelibly etched in my memory and forever linked with the album that accompanied it. In July 1987, still wet behind the ears, I set out with twenty other young Armenian-Americans from New York and New Jersey, on a two week tour of our ancestral homeland of Armenia - then a Soviet republic - taking in the sights of Leningrad (St Petersburg) and Moscow along the way.
"Running in the Family" was an ever-present in my shiny new Sony Walkman (the cassette kind) and often got a run out on my room-mate's brassy boom box. The trip had everything - the emotional awakening and sense of belonging to a place you'd never even been to before, a forging of new and now life-long friendships, and even a desperate, longing, unrequited love. All the while, each song on the album provided lyrical and melodical hooks on which to hang these experiences - so much so that the music and the events are almost inextricably linked.
"Running in the Family" (RIF), Level 42's seventh, and arguably most commercially successful studio album, followed their watershed "World Machine" in 1987. The record spawned five singles, all of which achieved domestic and international chart success: "Lessons in Love (No. 3); "Running in the Family" (No.6); "To Be With You Again" (No.10); "It's Over (No.10); and "Children Say" (No. 22).
The album was something of a swansong for the Gould brothers - two of the four founding members of the band (along with Mark King and Mike Lindup), who decided to leave due to a combination of exhaustion, and the continuing and dramatic departure of the band's music from their original jazz funk roots. It also marked the high point of the band's success, and although Level 42 released a further four albums (including the most recent "Retroglide" in 2006) they never again achieved the same level of success.
The album is available in a number of different versions with subtly different track listings. The 1987 release came in two flavours - the original album and a Platinum Edition (which has five remixes and extended editions). Both are still available on CD and are fairly easy to pick up for a pittance on eBay. The album was also re-issued in 2000 as part of a digitally re-mastered double pack, which included the follow-up album - 1988's "Staring At The Sun".
I would normally select songs that are representative of the album, or are recognisable hits, and although one or two of those that follow are good examples of both, my main criteria in choosing the following tracks was the impact they had on me in the Soviet Armenia of 1987.
> Lessons in Love
It's not hard to understand why this, the album opener, was their biggest ever hit. A well paced and well written song with catchy, sing along lyrics, addictive hook, and a memorable chorus. The guitar and keyboard intro is superbly overlaid with the driving drum and bass, before Mark King's trademark vocals kick in, creating a perfect and meaningful pop classic. This one had all the more impact for me as I was hopelessly in love at the time, and it was easier to pretend the relationship hadn't worked out, than to face the rejection.
"I'm not proud, I was wrong, and the truth is hard to take. I felt sure we had enough, but our love went overboard - lifeboat lies lost at sea. I've been trying to reach your shore, waves of doubt keep drowning me..."
> It's Over
In my view, one of the finest ballads Level 42 have ever written. Musically and lyrically accomplished, this simple, melancholic story is told in the form of a letter from a man who is leaving his lover, knowing their relationship is over, even if she herself does not. His greatest regret is that he is hurting her by doing so, but he also sounds quite selfish in saying "I would never leave if I thought you couldn't stand the pain" - as if he would stick it out if she had somehow made it more difficult for him to go. This song is dedicated from me to anyone who has ever heard that gut-wrenching and infuriating, but ultimately meaningless line "I'm sorry, it's not you, it's me..."
"And as I close the door, I know I'm breaking your heart. I should have loved you more, instead I've torn your world apart."
> Two Solitudes
This song is lead by Mike Lindup on vocals, with Mark King free to concentrate on his bass playing and providing the harmonies. It's not a song that has an immediate impact, but it grows on you steadily, with plenty of instrumentation, key changes and subtlety to keep you interested in repeat listens. Once again, the song is less notable for its quality than its specific personal meaning. "Love is lost I've found, when trust breaks down" - a reference, for me, to a good friend, who went after the girl I was besotted with, knowing full well how I felt.
"There's no common ground when trust breaks down, though everybody's love is in the air.
Always out of bounds when love comes down, too scared to climb the wall of my despair."
> The Sleepwalkers
A slow burner, and a real throwback to Level 42's jazz funk roots, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd landed in an album ten years before this one. From the moment Mark King gets going with his superlative bass, and croons: "I wear my Ray Ban's driving in the dark, even on a cloudy day" you know you are in for a treat.
In retrospect, and to my greatest regret, my friends and I descended on Armenia, and instead of immersing ourselves in her culture, we brought our own with us and surrounded ourselves in a little bubble of Americana - from our aviator sunglasses and OP tee shirts, down to our surf jams and Converse All Stars, we were like little mall rats, constantly on the prowl for booze and a party. In essence, we sleepwalked through our experience and surfaced at various, but peripatetic intervals to mix with the locals - but always on our own terms.
"We are all sleepwalkers, we only see the things we want to see..."
> Freedom Someday
My abiding memory of this song is sitting at the deserted open air roof bar of our hotel in Yerevan at the break of dawn. I had smuggled my friend's boom box out of our room and set it up on a table. As the sun rose and the snow-capped peaks of the twin mountains of Ararat emerged from the gloom, I rebelliously played "Freedom Someday" at (what for me was) a frighteningly loud volume. It was my little, naïve teenage protest at the Soviet regime, and at the Turks for occupying "our land" and "our mountain".
"I'm not chasing miracles, but I don't choose to be this way. Now all I'm hoping for is for someone else to hear me say: Freedom someday, are you ready to make the deal? Freedom someday, freedom to live for real..."
> Other Highlights
Special mention goes to the title track "Running in the Family" for the memorable lyrics: "Dad rang the officer in charge, a man so large he barely fit his circumstances".
Given what this album means to me, it's very difficult to take an objective view of it. It is certainly Level 42 at their most commercially accessible - as evidenced by "Lessons in Love" - which remains their biggest international hit. However, my favourite songs on the album are not what you would call "hit material" and, in my view, the ones I have chosen are much closer in spirit to the Level 42 of the past. The album hangs together as a whole quite well, but, there are one of two duffers, with the execrable "Fashion Fever" the definite nadir of the album.
In a way, I can understand why the Gould brothers decided to call it a day after this album. This doesn't denigrate the work the band produced after they left, but their departure did leave pretty big shoes to fill, and as such, what followed lacks a certain "level 42-ness" if there is such a thing.
RIF, in my view, marks Level 42's commercial zenith, but ironically, while future efforts failed to match its success in the chart stakes, they did mark a return to a less pop influenced sound - a turn of events which most Level 42 fans would agree, was not necessarily a bad thing. The world had been given a taste of "our band" and we rather selfishly enjoyed the prospect of having them back.
Divorced of my emotional ties to RIF - especially the deep impact that the resonant "Freedom Someday" had on me at the time, I would rate this album differently. However, that would be an exercise in artifice, as music is an emotional thing - without context, it may as well be performed in a vacuum.
FULL TRACK LISTING
Lessons in Love (4:05)
Children Say (4:54)
Running in the Family (6:13)
It's Over (6:01)
To Be With You Again (5:19)
Two Solitudes (5:37)
Fashion Fever (4:35)
The Sleepwalkers (6:02)
Freedom Someday (6:19)
© Hishyeness 2009
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Lessons In Love
2 Children Say
3 Running In The Family
4 It's Over
5 To Be With You Again
6 Two Solitudes
7 Fashion Fever
9 Freedom Someday