It’s often said that you should never meet your heroes; no more was this true for me than in the case of the anarcho folk-punks the Levellers.
I was 13 when I first experienced the Levellers’ live whirlwind in 1995, and from near the back of Manchester Apollo they seemed untouchable. However, the closer I got to them, the more the allure began to break down. I interviewed the band’s frontman Mark Chadwick for my student radio show in 2001 when the band played Warwick Arts Centre. With hindsight he was clearly hungover, bad-tempered and in no mood to be treated like rock royalty, answering questions half-heartedly, brushing off praise with charmless inelegance and even going so far as to insult the fact that I had their fan-club patch sewn on my bag. Later that day I met the band’s other vocalist Simon Friend, who recognised that I was a lifelong devotee and honestly couldn’t have been nicer – however, the experience with Mark really stuck with me. By all accounts, I was gutted, and my impression of the band has never quite recovered since.
With hindsight, the mistake I made was to idolise them and treat what are essentially five ordinary blokes with undue reverence; however, what more could I do? I was a young kid meeting a band who’d had a massive effect on me, and thus unable to separate the actual people from the gods I’d previously only seen onstage.
Let’s cast our minds back a little while to 1994. The Levellers were huge. They headlined the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, scored Top 20 hits and Top 5 albums, sold out venues up and down the country and were the absolute buzz-band du jour for most teenagers. It seems strange for a band whose longevity has outlasted every trend going, but for a brief period in the early-to-mid-90s you were no-one in my school if you didn’t like the Levellers. Along with The Lemonheads and Nirvana, they were the band who changed my life: from the moment I heard their signature tune One Way I was absolutely hooked, buying up every single and piece of merchandise I could find (their 1992 effort Levelling the Land - on which every track is a bona-fide, stone-cold classic – was the first ‘proper’ album I ever bought, and still has a special place in my heart).
But then an odd thing happened: the fad began to die. The kids who’d previously swanned up and down the school corridors blasting out The Road from their Sony Walkmans decided that happy hardcore was the next big thing and promptly stopped caring; all of a sudden, going to see the band live and sporting their latest tour shirt was deemed resolutely “uncool”. This always seemed incomprehensible to me – how could you go from loving something one minute to dismissing it the next? In retrospect, this was probably the first time I encountered the fickle whims of adolescent trendhopping, a tendency which I soon learned had nothing to do with music and quickly grew to despise.
Of course, none of this drivel seemed to dent the Levellers’ popularity on a national scale – the belting Zeitgeist was their first ever #1 album and a couple of years later they scored their biggest hit to date with the evergreen anthem What a Beautiful Day – but things were never quite the same from that point on. Album by album the band gradually started to fade; by the time they released their final LP for China Records at the turn of the century (the sorely under-rated druggie opus Hello Pig), the hits had all but dried up and it seemed like they had become almost an irrelevance. Their two albums since then – Green Blade Rising and Truth & Lies – have contained fleeting moments of brilliance, but both on record and in person one couldn’t quite shake the nagging feeling that the fire simply wasn’t present anymore.
There was a time when I’d go and see them every time they hit the road; however, from their 1998 Greatest Hits tour onwards it felt like with each successive jaunt they became more and more tired, and were simply going through the motions. It seemed impossible to believe that a band once so bursting with anger, passion and energy – a band once so blisteringly relevant – could be reduced to endlessly retreading the likes of Sell Out, whose opening lyric “The year is 1991…” seemed to sum up exactly the point when they’d mattered most. Comparing the apparent crowd indifference in 2003 to the ecstatic response elicited by the likes of Warning and Broken Circles ten years earlier (as documented in their 1993 tour video Part Time Punx, included on this DVD as a bonus feature), it just seemed like the band were out of luck and out of time - much as it pained me to admit it, I eventually had to conclude that the magic simply wasn’t there anymore and decided it was time to stop going to see them.
My friend Mike at Blurb P.R. recently sent me their new live DVD to review, and it’s taken me a while to formulate a response - given the nagging sense of disappointment I experienced on the last few occasions of catching their live set, I must admit to approaching it with a certain amount of trepidation. Before watching the main event on the first disc I perused a rather distressing set of extras in which a group of fans are interviewed in the pub beforehand: mostly fat, unwashed middle-aged blokes apparently just there for the piss-up. All things considered, this didn’t really fill me with much confidence as it simply reaffirmed my impression that this is a band content to simply plough the turf they first cultivated nearly two decades ago.
However, as the interviews wear on it becomes apparent that there’s a message here: to the people who care, this band really matters - and fuck you to anyone who says otherwise. It’s precisely the kind of outsider message the Levellers have always fiercely stood by, no matter how bleak things looked – and an idea which informs their inclusive community ethos: as far as the band and their fans are concerned, you’re either with them or part of the problem. Beaten down by years of record label ineptitude, press hostility and commercial indifference, the sense of disappointment the band seems to feel at having never quite changed the world (an impression I definitely got from meeting Mark Chadwick, and a suspicion evinced by his sour post-gig pronouncement that they’ve never made any real money from the job) here becomes manifest in a storming set which suggests that the band may just have rediscovered their collective mojo.
Despite diminishing creative returns, each of the last few albums has contained several tracks capable of rivalling their best-loved anthems, represented here in the form of a crashing Last Man Alive, doomed torch-song 61 Minutes of Pleading and the regret-tinged poignancy of Confess. Elsewhere, Zeitgeist-standout Forgotten Ground is a rousing stomper, Carry Me as mournfully world-weary as it was back in ’89 and the chugging Belarus still angry as fuck; in fact, just about the only bit which doesn’t quite work is a rushed solo run through Simon’s ponderous personal hymn Elation. With a grab-bag of album tracks and oddities dispatched with, the set builds in pace and fervour as the band romp through crowd-pleasing live favourites such as Dirty Davey and The Game (still their best song after all these years) with a confidence which could only come from years of dogged persistence. By the time they round things up with a blistering rendition of What You Know (which accelerates to almost inhuman speed without so much as missing a beat), you’re reminded once again of the band from 1992’s Great Video Swindle compilation who jigged around on top of the P.A. system having the time of their lives.
Released on the eve of the band’s 20th anniversary, it seems like the whole point of this package is to scream “WE’RE NOT DEAD” loud and clear – indeed, from the looks of things they may even be on the verge of a resurgence, since the audience who were into the band first time around as students are now getting their own kids involved. To this end, perhaps it will become a generational cycle, who knows. However, if one thing can be said for the Levellers, the sentiments conveyed in their music – entreaties of peace, social justice and an overwhelming desire to live and let live – are certainly timeless, and thus transcend barriers of age, race or sociological perspective. Outrage over issues such as the Criminal Justice Act may now be a thing of the past, but its scars are still etched on the band in the furious resentment of Liberty Song; equally, Come On and the affecting anti-war ballad Another Man’s Cause hold as much meaning in the wake of 9/11 and Iraq as they ever did.
The Levellers will probably never experience the kind of mainstream success they once commanded, but then I suppose they never expected to. The fact is, however, that despite dropping off the cultural radar they’ve created an admirable niche for themselves in which they could conceivably exist for another twenty years to come. The message stamped throughout this release is simple: they’re still here, they’re still playing, and with their renewed vigour they can still rock with the best of them. Hell, on this evidence, I might even be tempted to go and see them again. Just don’t ask if I fancy having a pint with them afterwards…
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Addendum: it was perhaps something of an oversight on my part not to realise that the band themselves read all press that's been sanctioned through their PR company. No sooner had I posted the article on here than the link went straight to their individual e-mail accounts. The response was unbelievable. Charlie and Jon both said it was as accurate an account of the band's history as they'd ever read. Their manager printed it out and distributed it at the next band meeting. Apparently it's now regularly passed to new members of their organisation as an indication of what the band's about.
Hilariously, I was invited to meet the Levellers backstage when they played Warwick Arts Centre on their recent tour, and they honestly couldn't have been more down-to-earth and hospitable. An extremely humble (and pissed) Mark even apologised for what he described as completely uncharacteristic behaviour that morning, and admitted that he had a print-out of my article stuck on the wall next to his computer to remind him what a cunt he can sometimes be.
As a result of this piece I later found out that I'd been placed on a shortlist to write one set of liner-notes for their upcoming 20th-anniversary album reissues. Sensing an opportunity, I decided to take a bit of initiative and promptly knocked together an article on what I've always considered their most difficult but rewarding album, 2000's mega-flop Hello Pig. The band absolutely loved it, and the piece recently appeared intact in the album's reissue. You can buy it here.