Do I belong to some ancient race? I like to walk in ancient places, these are things that I can understand.1
If you keep your eyes open at a Levellers gig, even one of their small 'unplugged' pub shows, you'll probably find that one of the most striking things is the makeup of the audience. You can spot Dr Marten's clad skinheads, spiky-looking punk rockers, beardy folk fans, and ordinary middle-aged people who could be your dad. But by the time the band launch into one of their early songs, there's no doubt that the crowd will all be moshing together.
The Levellers are, or maybe 'were', the archetypical 'alternative' band. A group of left-wing hippy throwbacks, playing a combination of traditional British folk music and 1970s-style punk. This has always made them pretty much the least fashionable, least stylish band in the known universe, as well as the outfit most mocked by the trendy music press. The thing is, that's why their fans love 'em!
A car bomb they say, the SAS on offence. Shot in the back, it makes no difference.
The band were formed in Brighton in 1988 when, after the break up of The Fence and Sweet Dragon, Mark Chadwick (guitar, banjo, harmonica, vocals), Jeremy Cunningham (bass and occasional bouzouki), Charlie Heather (drums) and Jon Sevink (fiddle) found themselves bandless and socialising in similar circles. All were fans of punk rock music, intoxication and left-wing politics, and decided to combine their talents into one band.
Taking the name the 'Levellers' after both the area of Brighton called 'The Level' and the 17th-Century republican group of the same name, the band kicked off their career with a series of pub gigs around Brighton, playing their self-penned anti-capitalist tirades. With an additional guitarist, about whom the band seem reluctant to talk, the Levellers gigged further afield and released two demo tapes - An Agreement of the People and All the Free Commons of England - both of which contain shabby-sounding recordings of the band's early days. Their sound was comparable to the Sex Pistols with a fiddle player; but the hollering vocals, screechy violin work and militaristic drums didn't mask the flashes of inspiration in the songs, which included early recordings of What You Know and Barrel of a Gun (later to be re-recorded a number of times).
And I learned to fight, with a weapon called the word, And I learned to raise my voice so that I'd be heard
The early success of their gigs and demo sales spurred the Levellers on to record their first EP for Hag Records - the brilliant Carry Me. A rousing hornpipe-esque song with a strong political manifesto, Carry Me is still a fan favourite. The EP was completed by What's in the Way2, Last Days of Winter (possibly the most aggressive folk song ever) and lastly the impassioned England My Home, which almost veers into folk-metal with its more sedate chorus.
A number of radio plays (when the BBC failed to notice the two uses of the F-word in Carry Me) and positive reviews meant that the 1000 copies of the EP sold out like a shot. Further touring and a new second guitarist/harmonica/mandolin-player in the form of Alan Miles lead to more success with the Outside/Inside EP and the chance to record a full-length album for the French label 'Musidisc'. A Weapon Called The Word - the band's first full-length release - was an impressive debut, containing the indie-ish first single World Freak Show, Alan's acoustic ballad Robbie Jones, the gentle No Change and some highly polished re-recordings of songs from their first EPs. This was the first of the Levellers' platinum-selling albums. In fact, Weapon Called the Word managed the rare feat of going gold3 without ever charting, but after Musidisc repeatedly delayed releasing singles from the album, messed up the track listing on the single Together All The Way and even ran out of copies of the single, having printed too few to match sales, the band decided they'd had enough and left the label.
I thought I heard something calling me,
I'd seen the pictures on TV
Late 1990 brought three huge turning points for the Levellers: Simon Friend, China Records and Levelling the Land. After Alan Miles, worn out and bad-tempered from the fatigue of endless touring, handed in his notice4, the band called on multi-instrumentalist, motorcycle fanatic and gifted songwriter Simon Friend to join the band. He wisely accepted. Simon brought with him a few of his own solo-penned songs which were to become firm favourites in their full-band form (such as The Boatman and Battle of the Beanfield) and his skills on the mandolin, banjo, harmonica and guitar to complement Mark Chadwick's. These newer recordings found Mark dropping his throaty, shouted vocals in favour of a trebly but melodic singing voice which, along with Simon's strangely tuneful snarl, was a winning formula, the two proving capable of some rather skilled vocal harmonies.
Signing to China Records, the Levellers cut their biggest selling, most popular and (okay, it's subjective, but hey...) best album to date: Levelling the Land. With producer Al Scott, who would work on all of the band's best material, the Levellers recorded an album from which it was rightly commented that any track could be a single. The opening song, One Way, is possibly the most iconic and well known of their early material. While probably not the best song from the album, the hands-in-the-air chorus of 'There's only one way of life, and that's your own' was ideal for the band's core fan base of festival-goers. The complete lack of any weak songs on an album which combines high-energy, fiddle-driven foot stompers The Riverflow and Sell Out, lilting folksongs The Boatman and Far From Home, along with rock monsters One Way and Battle of the Beanfield, guaranteed a bestseller and another platinum album.
1992 also saw the Levellers perform possibly their biggest achievement to date: playing to the biggest ever stage-front audience at Glastonbury.
All around you slow decay, you want to feel the sun of a new day
The next few years continued the upswing in fortunes. Their eponymous third album, despite - in retrospect - it being apparently the band's least favourite, shot into the charts at number two. Containing some brilliant songs, including powerful rocker 100 Years of Solitude and the mournful Julie, the album is nevertheless marred by poor production with a very muffled sound and vocals too low in the mix. This hasn't stopped it selling over 250,000 copies, despite the rather bland single Belaruse which preceded the album, and MTV favourite This Garden being very atypical of the band's sound.
Another achievement was the purchase of an old clock factory in Brighton for use as rehearsal space. The Metway building soon proved ideal for recording and office space too and the band decided to stick by their principles and offer recording time to local acts and free office space to free-thinking political organisations like the anti criminal justice act group, Justice?, and the activist newspaper SchNEWS.
I rest amongst what still remains of lives that passed before'
With their own recording studio finally set up in the Metway, the band set to work on another album which became a firm fan favourite: Zeitgeist. Combining the best production values yet with a very up-tempo, rocky sound, the record was quick to sail to the top of the charts. The preceding single, Hope Street, which blended a simple acoustic pop melody with heavier guitar interludes and a brain-grippingly catchy chorus, was also a top 20 hit in the singles chart. It was a diverse album, containing the full range of the Levellers' influences, from gentle folk (Maid of the River) to old school punk rock (Fantasy), Celtic sounds (Men-an Tol) and drunken silliness (Just The One). The album was a huge seller and Just the One provided the band with one of their few Top of the Pops appearances in the pre-Christmas period. At a time when the charts were full of dance acts and faux-Manchester Britpop, the sight of the Levellers (complete with battered top hats and Jeremy's impressive head of dreadlocks) playing a silly drinking song was a breath of fresh air to many.
The tour promoting Zeitgeist was also the subject of a live video and Best Live CD. The CD, Headlights, White Lines and Black Tar Rivers, is possibly the one record that can be recommended to anyone wanting to hear the band at their best. The chaps hammer through a collection of their heavier rock songs, with electric guitar tracks and vocal harmonies added to many old favourites. The recordings of Hope Street and England My Home are the best renditions of these songs available, outstripping the album versions for sheer energy and musical complexity.
This is murder, on the dog train
After the success of Zeitgeist, the Levellers had realised that they actually could achieve mainstream popularity despite their image as a marginalised band. Their 1997 album Mouth To Mouth set out to capitalise on the nationwide popularity that Zeitgeist had captured. With their punk sound firmly on the backburner and a complete absence of violin-led songs, Mouth To Mouth was the Levellers taking a step towards the mainstream.
A number of differences from the previous albums jump out at the listener; Mark's vocals were almost invariably given a lot of reverb, resulting in an echoey voice track on most of the songs (perhaps an attempt to capitalise on the resemblance between Mark's singing and John Lennon's). Jon's violin was reduced to a backing instrument on many of the tracks, being placed low in the mix until it resembled the string tracks used by other pop bands of the day such as Oasis and Green Day. Perhaps most regrettably, politics were almost entirely absent from the lyrics. The Levellers had grown up. The sadness and anger of previous albums were replaced by abstract lyrics such as those to Beautiful Day and Dog Train, the first two singles from the album. Nevertheless, the public in general probably prefer rhyming couplets and Beatles soundalikes to politics and sad, unfashionable folk bands, so the Levellers found more acceptance than ever in their new guise as Britpop darlings.
The new influx of money didn't stop the band standing by their principles, however, as they embarked on the world's first carbon-neutral tour. Calculating the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the fuels used on their tour, the band pledged to plant enough trees to counter the emissions. Other bands have since done similar things, and been more widely lauded in the press, but the idea came from the Levellers.
It's no mystery, just a thin line in the sand, never fails to frighten me, what we don't understand'
Sadly, following an artistic and commercial peak, the band saw something of a downswing in fortunes. Their next album, Hello Pig, was a woeful series of poor-quality pop songs preceded by their most shameless attempt at emulating the Beatles; Happy Birthday Revolution was universally hated by their old fans and met with apathy by the public in general. Their 15 minutes of media spotlight had expired and the band had lost their appeal to the hippies, punks and anarchists who used to be their most vociferous supporters. While still a major draw on the live circuit thanks to their energetic performances, musical skill and fantastic back-catalogue of songs, the Levellers were no longer the young rabble-rousers of the music world. After a badly-thought-out tirade of abuse against 'whining' hippies by Mark, a cynical re-release of One Way, and a Greatest Hits compilation lacking most of their best songs, the seemingly boundless goodwill felt by most 'alternative music' fans towards the Levellers was rapidly being exhausted and they soon found themselves split from their old record label.
More recently, things are looking rosier for the band. Their 2003 album Green Blade Rising was much more happily received by the fans and preceding single Come On sounded like the well-produced, political folk-punk of the band circa Zeitgeist. While this album hasn't had the same kind of commercial success as their earlier works, it has restored some of the goodwill lost by the commercial Hello Pig. The Levellers of today have almost come full circle; they are one of the best live acts in the country despite being ignored by the media. They regularly play in a pared-down, acoustic form when their sets tend to resemble a selected list of fan favourites, and their own festival in the south-west, Beautiful Days, has been a big success. It's a little-known fact that the Levellers achieved more gold and platinum albums in the 1990s than any other band and, despite a slight loss of financial revenue (they've had to start charging rent to SchNEWS, for example), remain one of the most idiosyncratic and uncompromising bands ever produced by England.
Who are These Strange People?
Mark Chadwick - Lead vocalist and general purpose cheeky chappy, Mr Chadwick bears more than a passing resemblance to 1970s heart-throb David Essex and is rarely to be seen without cigarette in one hand and pint of guinness in the other. Mr Chadwick's is the voice you can hear on all the singles that got into the charts. Mark is usually ready with a quip for the audience and would advise anyone to take up healthy, nutritious smoking!
Simon Friend - The chamelion-like Mr Friend has been through more appearence-changes than most bands get through in a lifetime. From scary-looking skinhead, hairy bearded Hell's Angel, and mohawked punk to his current look of slightly hip academic. Although a great singer-songwriter in his own right and generally very softly spoken, Mr Friend is recognisable by having a really odd accent which seems to encompass most of the regional accents in the country.
Jeremy Cunningham - Mr Cunningham looks the way that most music journalists imagine the Levellers - including big brightly-coloured dreadlocks and constant slightly spaced-out grin. Always popular with the fans, Jeremy has an amazing capacity for pogo-ing whilst playing the bass and will spend half of any gig in the air.
Jonathan Sevink - Despite looking like he could have the hubcaps off your car in less than a second, Mr Sevink provides possibly the most fundemental aspect of the Levellers sound - the fantastic violin riffs. The very tall, although mildly less skeletal these days, Mr Sevink can also be found hurtling about the stage during many gigs - quite how he manages to jump around and still play the violin without missing a note is currently unknown to science. Jon is quite keen on dabbling in the technical side of music these days, so any drum loops and electronic effects that appear on Levellers records are often his work.
Charlie Heather - The man lucky enough to possess the most appropriate ever name for a member of a folk-influenced band also provides percussion for the band. A self-taught drummer and survivor of a number of punk bands, Charlie has the versitility needed to accompany the reels, marches, jigs, and rock songs performed by the band.
Songs to Listen Out For
'Carry Me' - The first record and still causes extreme moshing at gigs despite being very folky.
'Last Days of Winter' - They rarely play this nowardays which is a shame. Very high speed and angry and contains the fantastic line about learning to fight with a weapon called the word.
'England My Home' - A heart-racing violin riff leads into one of the heaviest Levellers songs. Jeremy's favourite of their songs and one that must be heard live.
'Cardboard Box City' - Usually only gets played at acoustic gigs. Acoustic folk-rock with a social message, this is a truly characteristic Levellers song with a majorly catchy sing-along chorus (all together...'I bet they never walk south of the river...')
'No Change' - A simple but beautiful violin riff leads possibly the gentlest song in their repertoire. Being an early Levs song though, it may sound lilting and relaxing but the lyrics are all about revolution!
'Sell Out' - This one sounds amazing in recorded, full band or acoustic forms. Written by Simon after seeing a film about Steve Biko5. Played live, the thumping bassline and electric violin causes explosive pogo-ing.
'The River Flow' - Spectacular high-speed, up tempo folk-punk at its folkiest and punkiest! Lightning-fast fiddle and mandolin riffs. Written by Jeremy about an old friend of his, this song has even been heard in the occasional heavy metal club6!
'100 Years of Solitude' - Shamelessly steals the title from Gabriel Garcia Marquez without actually being anything to do with his book. This is still a great song though; heavy guitars and bass, distinctive violin line and shouty vocals from Simon. A personal favourite.
'Julie' - You probably know this song even if you don't realise it! A down tempo, sad song7 from the Levellers but, yet again, an insidiously catchy chorus and a great violin riff in the middle.
'The Maid of the River' - Written by a friend of the band, Rev Hammer, this demonstrates that he's actually a good songwriter as long as he sits back and lets the Levellers perform his songs instead of trying to sing them himself. A touching, old-school folk rock song.
'Men-an Tol' - Great lyrics8 and a superb acoustic guitar riff which, in the full band version, leads into a thumping instrumental chorus.
'Elation' - Another very etherial, folky, Simon-led track which speeds up a lot in its live incarnation.
Of course, everyone will have their own favourites and opinions. Some fans really appreciate the new direction of the later albums. Some people love the folk but hate the punk or vice versa. These songs are just suggestions to listen out for to get a representative sound of the Levellers at their best.