Once called 'the Christian subculture's U2' SPLIT LEVEL describe their music today as 'a mixture of hard rock and alternative'. Tony Cummings tracked down the hard-gigging band.
To chart the history of Split Level is not a task one undertakes lightly. Theirs is a gnarled and twisted family tree which would keep the Pete Frame's of this world happy for many a rock-minutae filled hour. Not that the famed compiler of rock history diagrams is likely to turn his attention to a band which, in its twenty odd years of existence, has managed only four albums (two of them of demo-quality) and today feels it's breaking new ground because It's doing pub gigs before 20 boozy punters. But Split Level's history has more twists and turns than a dog with worms and while in Britain the band play the raw-beginner gigs of low grade pubs and sleezy clubs, in Germany Split Level's record company are reading themselves for a major pitch for secular chart success with the release of a single, an edited version of "Julia" from their 'View Of A World' album. Adrian Thompson sits patiently telling the band's tale. We are in the black-walled humidity of JB's, Dudley, West Midlands, flanked by built-like-a-tank bassman Gary Preston and thin, wirey drummer Rob Craner. In a little over an hour the trio are to gain an ecstatic reception from the rowdy, initially indifferent Midlands audience sweating it out in this sauna of a gig. But now in his lilting Ballymena tones, Adrian, still boyish-faced despite his diplomas from The School Of Hard Knocks, leans back against the black wall and begins The Split Level Chronicles.
The story begins back in the late 1960s County Antrim where a multi-instrumentalist David Dunlop decided there was mileage in forming a music group to to reach the kids with the gospel. "David was really into music" explains Adrian. "He started the whole thing. What happened, there was a folk-style band in the late 60s early 70s called Still Waters-they played just folk stuff. Then they changed by the mid 60s into a band called Monassa, which played supertramp rock. Then in the 80s they decided to change again to a new-wave style and came up with the name Split Level. Split Level did the really early new wave stuff involving ska, lots of synths, all that. They were an eight piece band when they started off. "Before I joined there were two girls then when I joined there was one. Then she left. With two kids she felt she had enough on her plate."
In 1983 David Dunlop wrote a song for Split Level "Easter Rising" which, little did he know, was to become something of a classic and a mainstay of the band's repertoire. "Easter Rising's" on going popularity must have seemed monumentally unlikely back in 1983. For after gigging around in schools, community centres and church halls throughout Northern Ireland, the new wave Split Level split up. Adrian Thompson, the youngest member of the band, was ready to quit the unrewarding grind of rock gospel. But it didn't quite happen like that. "The bass player talked to me and Dave talked to me" remembers Adrian. "They said 'don't just jack it all in, think carefully about what you're doing. So I did I came back to God and said 'look the problem is I don't know anybody at all whose into the same kind of music I'm into. I really felt God was saying "try me" so I started praying about finding band members. I even went as radical as to fast about it, a very rare thing! And God answered my prayers and he brought along new band members really out of the blue."
A big encouragement for Adrian to form a new, guitar-rock Split Level came from a totally unexpected invitation to come and play at the. Spring Harvest Fringe. There was no money on offer but there was something better - a chance to make a record and even (swoon) win a Word album contact! Word and Spring Harvest had agreed a deal whereby Spring Harvest would invite seven of the best 'grassroots' (i.e. semi-pro, ministry orientated) bands and soloists to play at their youth culture multi media/disco event organised by Steve Chalke and Steve Flashman and that year called The Buzz (an appropriate name as the evangelical magazine
was one of the co-founder's and sponsors of the wildly successful Spring Harvest teach-in/celebration). The seven bands invited to play on The Buzz would be recorded and a various artists album released by Word, the mobile studio already being on the Skegness Pontins site to record the live praise celebration. The bait to get the bands to come at their own expense to the Spring Harvest fringe was a scheme calling a voting slip to be included in each album sleeve, and the band who received the most votes from the punters who bought copies of the album, to be called 'The Buzz On The Streets' would be offered a Word album contract. What Spring Harvest, Word and most people outside of County Antrim didn't know was that the Split Level about to be committed to vinyl had played precisely one gig before their live recording!
"The new Split Level who went to Spring Harvest in 1985" remembers Adrian Thompson "consisted of me on vocals and guitar, Stanley Kyle on bass, Barry Kennedy on drums and Shane Jackson on keys. Shane was real young and had only been with us for three weeks before Spring Harvest.
Despite 'The Buzz On The Streets' containing performances by one or two very gifted groups (the black gospel exponents Spirit Of Watts contained a 15-year old Mica Parris!) the Split Level tracks, a U2-flavoured "Shout The Victory" and a lilting mid-tempo "Messenger Of Love", had a freshness that none of the other young hopefuls could match. The votes started trickling in. Four months the band played the Greenbelts Fringe where and a small but vocal contingent of fans shouted for their heroes and waving on Irish flag. The ripple of interest ensured the Greenbelt organisers noted the band as one with potential for bigger things. But back in Ballymena things were turning around. Remembers Adrian: "Stanley left - he was getting really involved in his church and in youth work and he felt it was right to leave. We'd been using this guy who'd been coming round and helping us set up called Del Currie. We decided we could teach him how to play bass cause he could play guitar. So we started. I taught Del where the notes were in the bass - we took it from there. So about two months later he made his debut with us." Adrian was writing new songs for what (they thought) was to be their debut Word album. But their Word album contract prize had run into a technical hitch. Word had spent most of its entire British recording budget on an expensive Adrian Snell album. There was nothing left in the kitty to record a bunch of rock gospel part timers from Ballymena. Their plea to get an album out to tie up with what was to be their biggest gig to date -- a prime spot at Greenbelt's Big Top fell on deaf ears. So Split Level went private got the ferry over to the mainland to Big Feet Studios in Walsall. Big Feet was a 16-track studio in the home of Andy James. Which was building a reputation for recording small, play-now-pay-later custom cassettes for evangelistically minded Christian bands and soloists. The resulting Split Level album proved to be Big Feet's biggest success so far. 'Break The Chains' was decidedly flawed, the snare sound had lost all its beefiness in the bounce-down, and there were a few below par songs. But numbers like "Easter Rising" with a wickedly nagging guitar riff, and re-recordings of "Shout The Victory" and "Messenger Of Love" showed that Adrian was a fast improving vocalist and singer, while Barry Kennedy, a veteran drummer from the Belfast pub rock scene, propelled a devastating rhythm and sang excellently (on one track Tonight", taking lead). The Mickey-Mouse-budget 'Break The Chains' was duly rushed out in time for Greenbelt. Split Level's performance at the Big Top was a milestone concert. The Big Top has seen few better gigs. In a blistering surge of Celtic rock and with Adrian's guitar letting loose stuttering surges of Edge-style guitar he boldly shouted evangelistic lyrics over a stampeding rhythm section. The sardine-packed audience were taken to arm-punching delirium. Afterwards a massive queue gather in the record tent to buy copies of the humble 'Break The Chains'.
Adrian still fondly remembers the 1985 Greenbelt concert. "The place was packed out and the response was in one way phenomenal, to get comments from some of the mainstage artists who just walked in was amazing. We were from the sticks, we didn't really know about the whole music business thing. To get artists who we looked up to come and say "you're really good guys' and media people asking 'can we have some photographs?' was pretty strange for us because we'd never experienced anything like it. Our name started to get up another step of the ladder."
By 1986 the buzz about Split Level had if anything got stronger. Such were the demands on their time, that Split Level made after a great deal of prayer a momentous decision. Decisions one was they would go full time (to become, with Triumph, Britain's only full-time evangelistic rock band). The second decision was to base themselves in the UK (settling in Milton Keynes, a stones throw from Word which, seeing what way the wind was blowing had at last offered a new recording contract. Decision three was to leave Shane Jackson behind in Ballymena.
"Shane was the youngest member of the band. He was only at 'A' level stage and his parents had ideas on him going to University. It was time for him to move onto something else. He is a very accomplished keyboard player and now he's gone on to do a degree in music at University."
The last concert Shane played with the group was an emotional 'Goodbye Ireland' gig at a packed Ballymena Town Hall, the local newspaper reporting breathlessly that the band were going to go to England to "record for the world's biggest gospel record company." In Britain Split Level played engagements with freelance keyboard player Richard Causon (who went on to join The Treasure Park and who is currently with the Ben Okafor Band) and Brian Jones (ex-Tubal Cain). Quickly, the latter joined Split Level as Shane official replacement. The reshuffled Split Level played Spring Harvest '86 taking up a near residency as the Fringe's most credible street-cred entertainment. But synth fills were becoming increasingly irrelevant in Split Level's guitar-dominated sound. Adrian ruefully admitted that their style did owe more than a bit to a certain megastar band. "Some people did try and pigeon-hole us as a more overtly Christian U2 or something like that. I suppose it was true our sound was a bit like U2. But it was never our intention to copy. I'd always wanted to play with a certain guitar sound, involving delay. And the Edge just happened to like playing with delay as well.'
By the summer of '86 the band were recording their first 'proper' album for Word to be released on their new What? label. It should have been a milestone album. In fact it was a millstone one. Just about every decision the band made concerning the recording was a bad one. Homesickness probably had a part in the band plumping for a studio in Northern Ireland which with its newly acquired midi gear was better equipped to record synthetic pop and dance.
And the group chose Andy McCarroll to produce the album. Andy's fondly remembered band Moral Support had become a Greenbelt favourite in the early 80s. But he had little or no production experience. Explains Adrian. "What happened was Andy McCarroll had changed his taste in music from like when we talked to him. He was getting into Grace Jones and the Act Of Noise instead of into the guitar rock bands (U2, Cactus World News) he used to be into. The studio had all this midi gear and all the computers and stuff. Andy just tried to duplicate music he'd heard on CD's."
The punchy Celtic-rock rhythm section of Del Currie and Barry Kennedy were reduced to mere spectators in the high tech recording process. "At the studio Del watched 'Spinal Tap' about twenty times" recalls Adrian. And Barry enjoyed the Jacuzzi. That was it as far as their contribution." Not surprising when the album, The Sons Of Liberty' came out, it didn't sound much like us!"
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