INTERVIEW: Mark Chadwick talks about the story of the Levellers
In hindsight, I feel lucky to have been born in 1984, because it meant that I grew up in the 90s. It seems like it was all a dream now, but believe it or not, before the mass homogenisation of popular music, there was room in the singles charts for not only the likes of East 17 and Whigfield, but also for a gang of crust-punks from Brighton who played folk music. Things like this just wouldn’t be allowed to happen in 2014. In the case of the Levellers, this was the last remnants of a counterculture having one last go at changing the world through the social power of music. The writer of this article was only 11 years old when he first witnessed the Levellers playing ‘Just The One’ on Top Of The Pops in late 1995. I put that single on my Christmas list immediately afterwards and have been guided through life by the band’s music ever since. 19 years later I’m here talking to none other than frontman Mark Chadwick about the new Greatest Hits compilation that’s being released to mark the group’s 25th anniversary. “Getting our music out to as many people as possible, from the very beginning that’s what we aimed to do, but we didn’t think we’d last 25 years, I thought we’d last about three or four. But yeah, there you go” says Mark, “it’s gone by in the blink of an eye”.
Perhaps their music has stood the test of time because many of the issues addressed in the lyrics are more relevant today than ever. Not just complaining about the problems, but detailing the causes, figuring out solutions and outlining action. Throughout these troubled times, the Levellers have inspired people to question authority, to make a difference, and not to be kept in their place. Yet the perception that they are an angry band is very untrue, since a lot of their music is designed to rouse and uplift as well as incite. Nor are they necessarily a “political” group, in fact the band consider themselves to be “anti-political”, and believe in people power more than any form of ruling government.
In 1988, vocalist Mark met bassist Jeremy Cunningham in Brighton pub The Eagle, and bonded over mutual views on left wing politics as well as a shared love of drinking. After forming a new band with drummer Charlie Heather, they felt the need to make their sound stand out from the rest. It was the hugely underrated Brighton folk outfit McDermott’s 2 Hours that inspired the band to recruit a violinist to add a more melodic element to their abrasive punk style, and in stepped Jon Sevink, who was the brother of Mark’s girlfriend. It’s still not entirely clear whether they named themselves the Levellers after the democratic faction of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, or in reference to ‘The Level’, which was an area near to where the band members lived. Their first two demo tapes were sold at gigs throughout 1988 and 1989, as the band’s reputation quickly grew, along with its expanding army of dedicated followers. They signed to their future manager Phil Nelson‘s small label Hag Records to release the ‘Carry Me’ EP, with its brilliant lead track going on to be re-recorded a number of times over the years, the definitive, fuller bodied version from 1998 being the one deservedly picked for inclusion on the Greatest Hits. A fine example of the spirit that has kept them together for so long, it’s a most addictive singalong that stands as the perfect embodiment of comradeship. The fury of the vigorous ‘Outside/Inside’ identifies with those trapped by society and the boundaries it puts in place, but no walls could contain the power of the Levellers, whose fanbase was beginning to spread far and wide. ‘Outside/Inside’ was the lead track on their second EP, which has become one of my favourite 12″ inches of all time, containing three equally superb tracks that they couldn’t find room for on this 2 CD collection. The 1989 version of ‘Barrel Of A Gun’ is especially brilliant, a raging anti-war anthem where Chadwick’s vocals cut through like razorwire.
Alan Miles was initially recruited on guitar, and the band recorded their debut full length ‘A Weapon Called The Word’, which was released via the French label Musidisc. As an album, it’s more black and white in its musical approach compared to the records that followed, where the folk had a greater Celtic flavour, the indie vibes were stronger, and the punk rock had a slightly rougher edge, although ‘Carry Me’ and the equally fantastic ‘Together All The Way’ both provide scene-setters for much of their subsequent work. Like ‘Carry Me’, the beautifully uplifting ‘Together All The Way’ also highlights that sense of sticking together, and years later sounds like a wonderful snapshot taken at an early stage of a long and eventful journey. Topped with a blissful harmonica solo, it’s a masterfully written song, as is the bustling ‘World Freak Show’, which was the first single to be plucked from the LP. Released in 1990, ‘A Weapon Called The World’ has over the years become one of the very few albums to achieve platinum status without ever making the charts.
As an outfit who understood the potency of music as a social power, they walked it like they talked it and have always stayed true to their ideals. But having grown from a grass roots scene, certain people took exception to the band’s growing popularity. Somewhat inevitably, the more well known you are, the more detractors you’ll encounter. I wondered if the band themselves felt any conflicts of ideals when they eventually gatecrashed the mainstream. “No, not really,” says Mark, “not as far as we were concerned. We were accused of “selling out” when we made our first independent single, you know what I mean? It was like that back then. And we’ve been accused of selling out constantly throughout our career but we never have… It just depends on your point of view.” Indeed one of the most contradictive things about the punk scene is that while a lot of the music is about changing the world and making a difference, people don’t like it when a band finds a wider audience… “Exactly. The messages we sang were from the band, so that was the point. You need to reach as many people as possible, otherwise you ghettoise yourselves if you worry about things like that, and we were determined never to do that. And we lost a few people on the way because they thought differently. But we’ve always been smarter than them anyway…” One such person was Alan Miles, who quit the band after the first album due to their communist approach to earnings. It was a blessing in disguise, since it soon saw the arrival of singer-songwriter Simon Friend, a roadie for New Model Army and a musician well known on the same circuit, who turned down the offer of becoming NMA’s guitarist in favour of joining the Levellers. The line-up has stayed together ever since. As well as the change in personnel, the early 90s also saw the group part with Musidisc and sign to China Records.
With new life injected into the group, they set about recording their second album. The truly essential ‘Levelling The Land’ was released in 1991, and offered a highly accomplished set of politically charged folk-rock classics, each one as strong as the last. It was more multi-Faceted than the debut LP, and has certainly stood the test of time in the years since its release, regarded as the band’s masterpiece by most fans. Despite not making the Top 40, the ultimate statement of freedom and identity that is ‘One Way’ became an eternal anthem among students, travellers and within the indie community. As with ‘Carry Me’, the version included on this compilation is a 1998 re-recording that is again the one that has the most impact. Despite the press release saying that this new Greatest Hits had been compiled by the band themselves, it is in fact history that has dictated the track selections, since it is a complete collection of all the singles released to date. But was it always the band who chose what songs would be singles, or was that decision sometimes made by the record label? “The band” answers Mark. “It was part of the deal that were able to do that. They didn’t really make us do anything we didn’t want to do”.
Although ‘Levelling The Land’ contains many more classic tracks, it’s represented well by the four songs that appear on the Greatest Hits. Out of all the album tracks, are there any in particular that Mark wishes the band had put out as singles? “Singles are weird, it’s strange because sometimes a song could be overtly commercial… and some of those I wish we hadn’t released really. But I’m glad with a lot of the ones we did release. There’s a feeling with a single when you’ve done it: ‘that’s the single, that’s it’. Obvious for everybody.”
Keeping the protest song alive into the 90s is the blazing ‘Liberty Song’, a defiant anarcho-punk stomp with an instantly addictive riff, while the pastoral, jaunty country-folk spirit of ‘Far From Home’ is backed by a relentless hunger. The mighty ‘Fifteen Years’ impeccably portrays the broken, self-destructive drinker who “sits on a stool that bears his name” to an urgent, powerful backdrop and entered the singles chart at number 11 in 1992. It wasn’t originally included on the LP, but was added to later pressings following the song’s success. But despite ‘Levelling The Land’ adding to the growing army of devotees, the music press were having none of it. “They are ugly, soiled and pimply. They dress in bizarre tribal uniforms, drink themselves stupid as often as possible, and they stink” declared one member of the press. Another review reckoned that they were “art-hippy poshos” who used “river metaphors and bad grammar.”
“Nobody cares” said one critic. “Not even the music and style press, who ought to at least register their existence, can find a good word for them. Although they could try ‘failure’.” Ironic then, that the band would go on to score more gold, silver and platinum discs that any other UK act in the 90s, and a few years later, would play to the largest stagefront crowd that Glastonbury had ever seen. And unlike many bands of the era, the Levellers kept on going through the good times and the bad, and are still standing strong as ever now. A band who succeeded on their own terms, the Levellers managed it without an ounce of support from the media. They didn’t need anyone’s approval or permission to make their mark. ‘Levelling The Land’ went to number 14 in the charts and is regarded as a seminal record, and one of the most defining works of the early 90s. 1992 was shaping up to be a good year for the band: a hit single, packed out tours, an American deal with Elektra Records, and a much talked-about set at Glastonbury, which would secure their place on the Pyramid Stage two years later. But success is never an easy ride, as the group would soon find out…
Realising the need to keep the ball rolling, they set about recording their third album, a record which coincided with a dark period for the band. Feeling overworked from excessive touring and certainly not at their most inspired, the third record was never going to be plain sailing. Especially when your bass player is addicted to heroin. Believing the travelling lifestyle he was part of was becoming less and less of a freedom, Jeremy began taking the drug as an alternative to his excessive alcohol consumption, and to “blank everything out”, but soon became dependent on it. He has since described it as “a strange, intense time”. The five friends were beginning to drift apart, and creativity was at a low, since the band were suffering from writer’s block. The result was the inconsistent but powerfully dark self-titled album, which reflected the gloomy atmosphere that surrounded them. Despite one or two under-par tracks, the LP is a piece of work that is overlooked too often, even by the group themselves.
Although we don’t get to hear ‘100 Years Of Solitude’, ‘The Likes Of You And I’ or ‘Dirty Davey’ on the Greatest Hits, the album’s three singles still sound fantastic over 21 years later. The crushing hard rock riffs, piercing fiddle and furious chorus of the excellent ‘Belaruse’ create a sound that’s the closest the Levellers get to metal, while the jungle noises, didgeridoo and spoken word that characterise ‘This Garden’ made it proudly stand out like a sore thumb next to all the other stuff that was in the charts back in 1993. Coming from a completely different place is the devastatingly poignant ‘Julie’, which paints a heartbreaking picture of a helpless heroin addict, and remains one of their most affecting moments. The album continued the band’s ascent, shooting to number 2 in the UK charts on its release in 1993, with all three singles from it going Top 20.
1994 would be a key year for the band, in which they became too big for the music press to carry on ignoring. Since they had made it without the help of the NME and the other music publications, the critics were now trying as hard as possible to convince their readership that this band just SHOULDN’T be popular. But the more shots that were aimed at them, the more fire they had in their bellies. That summer would see a record-setting crowd of around 300,000 festival goers gather to watch the group play a legendary Glastonbury set that is permanently etched into the festival’s history. After a hellish year in 1993, the following summer must have seemed like a well-deserved triumph. As the band’s popularity increased further, they were always determined to have as much freedom as is possible in the music business, and began taking their steps towards true independence. They could never have managed it without the purchase of The Metway, a derelict factory in Brighton, which became their own self-contained headquarters. It played home to their offices, fan club, and contained a rehearsal area, a bar as well as the recording studio where they would record their next album. Around the time of this next record’s release, Charlie told an interviewer: “This building (the Metway) has really brought the band together and has brought us back to what we set out to do in the first place.” Jeremy added: “There is loads more emotional involvement, again we played quite a lot of it live because we work best that way. This building has given us the opportunity to do that, there’s a lot more commitment – we wanted to make something that we really could be proud of.” And indeed they should be proud of the resulting record, 1995’s hugely underrated ‘Zeitgeist’. It climbed to the top of the charts, giving the band their first number 1 album, as their fanbase now extended into the hugely popular British guitar scene of the time.
I quite literally cannot describe the power I feel whenever listening to ‘Zeitgeist’, from the astonishing ‘Forgotten Ground’ and the sublimely beautiful of ‘Maid Of The River’, to the roaring ‘4am’ and the urgent, anthemic ‘Leave This Town’. It’s an incredible piece of work from start to finish, and although none of the aforementioned gems are present on this new collection, we are gifted with the four equally superb singles that took the Brighton five piece to a new level. While the surging ‘Hope Street’ paints a picture of broken lives in neglected neighbourhoods, we also get the hugely inspiring ‘Fantasy’, a euphoric blast of punk rock and an ultimate reminder that anyone has the power within them to do something special. A terrific live version of the mighty ‘Exodus’ is included here, and taken from the 1996 live LP ‘Headlights, White Lines And Black Tar Rivers’, one of the greatest live records you could possibly set ears on.
‘Zeitgeist’ is a classic album, but just imagine how good it would have been if it featured the single version of wild debauchery anthem ‘Just The One’? While the album version was comparatively half-arsed and a bit monotonous, the single version realises the song’s full potential, swinging into a raucous middle section featuring kazoos and a crazed piano solo from Clash legend Joe Strummer. After the single went to number 12 in the charts, the band dressed in matching tuxedos when they appeared on Top Of The Pops in late 1995. Even the miming, as well as the odious presence of the show’s guest host Gary Glitter couldn’t taint my memories of that wild performance. This was my Top Of The Pops moment. Everyone had one: not seeing a band or artist on TV that you already liked and knew about, but that time when the show introduced you to something that truly blew your mind and then soundtracked your life for years to come. And this is just one of the reasons why I can’t imagine what life would have been like without the Levellers.
So how did the Brighton gang follow a number 1 record packed full of classic songs? By carrying on and hoping for the best. Aware that it was time to broaden their musical horizons and knowing that they were in a great position to build on their success, 1997’s comparatively inconsistent ‘Mouth To Mouth’ was a departure from the group’s earlier folk-punk sound, stepping into the world of melodic indie rock, making their presence known within at least three different musical scenes. On the surface it sounded like their most upbeat effort yet, and the melodic hooks were as memorable as ever, yet there is a lurking undercurrent of darkness running through much of the album. This is with the exception of the radiantly cheerful ‘Celebrate’, which still sounds way too cosy for its own good. Although its inclusion on the Greatest Hits brings back wonderful memories, it lacks the punch of the thrillingly infectious ‘Dog Train’, a brass-embellished singalong with a terrific sense of danger and self destruction, as well as lyrics which suggest both the rollercoaster excitement of the rock n roll lifestyle and the strain of life in the music business were beginning to take their toll. It’s almost like they were well aware that it would only be a matter of time before that train would go off the rails… Venturing into indie trip-hop territory, ‘Too Real’ is a real departure from the Levellers usual sound, not unlike some sort of surprising Massive Attack/Oasis hybrid. Years later, it’s the album tracks like ‘Far Away’, ‘Survivors’ and Simon Friend’s haunting folk ballad ‘Elation’ that have stood the test of time better than both ‘Celebrate’ and ‘Too Real’. But it was the album’s first single ‘What A Beautiful Day’ that became the band’s most universally recognisable moment, an immaculate piece of songwriting that works on so many levels. Blessed with a bright singalong chorus bursting with irresistible melodic appeal, many people are oblivious to the song’s dark undercurrent. It’s incredibly rousing, yet deeply thought provoking. But what does it all mean? Mark: “It’s basically about… hoping and wishing for a better world, really. And having the confidence in your own ability to change the world. Very political song. A journalist said at the time that it was the most subversive song that had been in the charts for at least the previous ten years.”
‘What A Beautiful Day’ was one of those songs that I remember playing a lot during that summer of 97 after I purchased the CD single from Woolworths the week it was released. I was more than aware that I was buying a future classic, and by then was in no doubt that this band were well and truly special. The album went to number 5 in the UK charts and spawned another three Top 40 singles, with ‘Too Real’ reaching number 46. However, the group’s mainstream success had peaked, and by 1998 they found themselves at a crossroads. A press release detailing the 2014 Levellers movie ‘A Curious Life’ refers to the band disappearing “in a train wreck of drink, drugs and creative drought” at this point, yet to the outside world things seemed to be so positive at the time.
But maybe this explains why the band were relatively quiet during 1998 and 1999. China Records wanted them to release a Best Of album in order to keep the momentum going, so they grudgingly agreed. Two new songs were recorded for the package, one of them being the superb ‘Shadow On The Sun’, another darkly infectious folk-rock treasure that bizarrely never got a release as a single. Instead, a re-recorded version of ‘One Way’ was issued, as well as the odd and divisive ‘Bozos’, which reached number 44 on its release in 1998. Clearly not at feeling at their most productive, the Levs opted to cover an obscure 1988 track by Flik Spatula, another band who were signed to Hag! Records around the same period. I can recall seeing adverts in the music press for the single, and bought it from HMV in Bath without even hearing the song once in advance due a complete lack of radio support. A hectic blast of punk rock peppered with drum n bass beats, the band’s new change in direction didn’t please hardcore fans, and ‘Bozos’ went unheard by the mainstream pubic. Although I love it, it does stick out like a sore thumb on the Greatest Hits.
It would be two years before the next record would arrive, and this one was to be the band’s most surprising work to date. Although 1999’s fanclub CD ‘Subway Songs’ was packed full of acoustic versions of impressive new songs that they could have featured on the next LP, what followed instead was a complete departure for the group. Maybe they realised that they had reached their commercial peak, and that it was impossible for them to become any bigger without compromising their values. Scoring another massive hit was no longer a reality at this point, nor was it the highest thing on the agenda when it came to getting back to making music. Feeling that their formula was wearing thin, it was time to try something different to (in Jeremy’s words) “becoming the indie Status Quo.” I can recall a few days that I spent in Yorkshire for the Leeds festival that year, where I was most surprised to walk into the Barnsley branch of Our Price and find a brand new Levellers single on the shelf of that week’s releases. I had heard no prior news about ‘Happy Birthday Revolution’, unsurprising since it again received no airplay or promotion. It’s easy to see why it didn’t fit in anywhere within 2000’s nu-metal obsessed musical landscape, where a Lennon-flavoured Communist ballad was deemed to have no place. Stalling at number 57, it was to be the only single to be released from the hugely divisive ‘Hello Pig’, which was ironically greeted with the most optimistic reception from the music press yet, yet an extremely mixed reaction from the fans. ‘Happy Birthday Revolution’ was written by the band’s close friend, the brilliant Rev Hammer, who Mark has a lot of praise for: “We go back years and years, right back to the beginning really. He was a good friend of Simon’s before Simon joined the band, when he was a singer-songwriter on his own. He was on the same circuit as Rev, and Rev became a close friend of the whole band. And he’s a great songwriter, a fantastic songwriter. Still is to this day.”
Because only the one single was lifted from the record, among the things that weren’t given a chance to end up on this Greatest Hits include the Eastern-tinged blues of ‘Invisible’, the trippy exploration of psychedelic dub-folk ‘The Weed That Killed Elvis’, the striking loneliness of ‘Edge Of The World’, the sublime ‘Gold And Silver’ as well as the brutal, bloody horror and overwhelming despair of ’51 Minutes Of Pleading’. Depending on which way you thought about it, ‘Hello Pig’ was either a confused set of ideas that lacked any overall direction, or a bravely diverse step into unknown waters. “The critics loved it” remembers Mark. “I love it, I think it’s a great record.” Being a big fan of the album myself, I asked Mark what they were aiming for when they recorded it. “To make something a bit ‘out there’, and more like headphones music. At the time, iPods and stuff were just coming out at that point. We really wanted to make an iPod album. Proper earphone music, a lot of effects, a lot of tricks. A bit of a journey really, that’s what we wanted to do with that. To stray a bit from our folk roots. I tell you what, we really enjoyed making that record too… Really enjoyed making it.”
During the recording of ‘Hello Pig’, there were changes behind the scenes at China Records, as the label was taken over by Warner Brothers. In hindsight, ‘Hello Pig”s brave direction and lack of commercial appeal could be seen as a deliberate attempt to push their luck and eventually escape from their contract. The LP reached number 28 on the UK chart, and with the record failing to sell as well as its predecessors, the band parted company with the label by mutual agreement. A little while later, the group became a six piece, with the arrival of keyboardist Matt Savage, who (believe it or not) used to play one of the sons in ‘Birds Of A Feather’ when he was in his teens. Around the same time, a deal was signed with the independent Eagle Records for the release of their next album in 2002
The first half of ‘Green Blade Rising’ consisted of some absolutely superb songs, that I fondly remember soundtracking the cold Autumn evenings of 2002 nicely. Disposing of any sonic innovation for a more organic approach, aside from the odd New Age disco sound of the catchy ‘Falling From The Tree’, it was a return to folk rock territory, and indeed a welcome return on the battle-worn energy of the opening ‘Four Winds’, the strident ‘Pretty Target’ and the graceful melancholia of ‘Pour’. Best of all was the back-to-basics lead single ‘Come On’, a raging call to arms that warned of the environmental disaster that this planet is hearing towards. Due to a lack of support from the media, the single didn’t make the Top 40, and ‘Green Blade Rising’ only managed number 77 in the album charts. Bizarrely, they also chose to release one of the record’s weakest tracks as a single, the gratingly jaunty ‘Wild As Angels’, which comes across like some sort of Wonder Stuff/Dexys crossover gone badly wrong. It tries to repeat ‘What A Beautiful Day”s jolly tune-poignant lyric trick, and fails massively. Yet it’s still present on this Greatest Hits. Bearing in mind that he told me how it was the band who picked the singles, I asked Mark if there were any that they regretted releasing. “There’s a couple there… ‘Wild As Angels’ and ‘Make U Happy’. Dreadful songs”. I’m glad he agrees with me.
‘Make You Happy’ was the first single from the restrained-sounding eighth album ‘Truth And Lies’, which appeared in 2005. Over the two previous years, the band had seen the UK festival scene become increasingly corporate, and a far cry from the grass roots events that the Levellers used to attend. Inspired by their memories of such days, the group invested their hard earned money into starting a festival of their own. Unfortunately, a licensing application was turned down, and the first Green Blade Fayre planned for 2002 didn’t go ahead. The next year, it eventually went ahead and was appropriately renamed Beautiful Days. Ever since, it has continued to host diverse and consistently strong line ups, with tickets often selling out quickly every year.
Meanwhile, I had fallen out of love with the alternative music scene, which had become stale thanks to most of the key bands splitting up or going off the boil, and an influx of new groups that were undeniably crap. The excitement of the punk rock scene had been tempting me on a number of occasions, and by 2003 I had exited indie world and become a punk. I never forgot about the Levellers though, since they were also part of the punk scene. They were like the familiar friends who were part of this new territory. When I heard that they were releasing a new album, I was excited. Especially when I found out that it was being co-produced by a former member of The Ruts. However, ‘Truth And Lies’ was a disappointment.
Overall, it pales in comparison to the other Levellers albums, hampered by weak production that strips away the band’s edge, and makes the weaker tracks even more unconvincing. I’d never describe the Levellers as ever sounding complacent, but there are times when they come pretty close to it here. Maybe it was an attempt to return to ‘Mouth To Mouth’s alternative guitar pop territory, but the songs often fell way short of the mark. ‘For Us All’, ‘Said And Done’ are just too lightweight to make any kind of an impact, and the same could be said for the lackluster ‘Make U Happy’, which occupies a place on this Greatest Hits. Like all the group’s records, the 2005 LP still had its moments, and one of them was the album’s other single ‘Last Man Alive’, featuring a massive chorus and a heaving folk-rock sound that revisited the sheer force of ‘Zeitgeist’ from 10 years earlier. Despite its cluttered production, ‘Wheels’ is a magnificent standout, while ‘Confess’ resonates with another mixture of the downbeat and the uplifting, yet neither of the two feature here since they weren’t picked as singles. I doubt many of the group’s fans would say that the record is up there with their best work, and the songs didn’t stay on the band’s setlist for long either. I asked Mark whether he also agreed that ‘Truth And Lies’ was a low point for the group. “Erm, I dunno. Yeah, probably… Our least favourite album? ‘Truth And Lies’, I dunno, I like it. I like them all in their own way. Probably ‘Green Blade Rising’.”
Although the album was a let-down, its stronger moments sounded incredible live, as the band headed out on another UK tour to support the album. It didn’t do much good in that sense: ‘Truth And Lies’ crept into the UK charts at number 102. So it was a good job that this failure also coincided with the group stepping up another gear when it came to performing live. Blasting through every classic with more hunger and passion than ever before, their sheer strength as a live act was captured brilliantly on the astounding 2006 ‘Chaos Theory’ DVD. This was the first release on the band’s very own On The Fiddle Recordings, a label that they had set up after becoming disillusioned with Eagle Records and their failure to properly promote the two previous albums. Now the band were even more independent than ever, and seemed to thrive from it. Meanwhile, their Beautiful Days festival was going from strength to strength, becoming one of the most popular and talked about events on the UK summer scene, winning in multiple categories at the UK Festival Awards. As well as embarking on lots of UK and Europe in 2007, the band played at over 30 festivals that summer.
Three years after their creative low point, it was great to see them return to form in 2008 with their strongest record in years, the brilliantly reinvigorated ‘Letters From The Underground’. The regained sense of purpose is evident for all to hear on the awesome ‘The Cholera Well’, which burns with vitality as a rousing sense of unrest rages from within. Shining with a completely different quality is the LP’s other single, the wonderful ‘Before The End’, hailed by the band as their very first love song. Along with the furious ‘Burn America Burn’, they find places on this new collection, but it’s missing the nostalgic yet forward-looking energy of ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, which shared a double A side status with ‘The Cholera Well’ when both tracks were released as a digital single.
‘Letters From The Underground’ is well worth seeking out, and it contains plenty of other inspirational, energising moments. While ‘Eyes Wide’ bounces along with a dark sense of conflict, with an undercurrent of sad poignancy, ‘Death Loves Youth’ highlights the wild and beautiful sensation of Jon’s fiddle, which can also evoke urgency, joy and fury. This was the sound of a recharged unit realising what their strengths were, not just returning to what they were best at, but bolstering their signature sound with ideas and musical techniques that could have only come with experience. It well and truly reaffirmed their position, and landed at number 24 in the UK charts, their highest position for years. What a way to mark their 20th anniversary. As well as the boost given to them by the success of Beautiful Days and now releasing music on their own label, was there anything else that fired up the Levellers for such an astonishing comeback?
Mark: “Sean Lakeman. He helped us to refocus on what we were good at. He came along and kicked us up the arse, really. He knew more about the Levellers than we did. He’s been a real tonic for the band. And we needed someone who understood us, understood the chemistry of the band, and understood the songs. And Sean fitted that bill brilliantly, he’s a workaholic and a slave driver. He got us working really hard.”
A massive gig at the Royal Albert Hall marked another milestone in the band’s career, as the live shows continued to wow fans and win new converts. The longevity of their appeal becomes apparent when you’re in the audience along with gig-goers ranging from young kids and students to seasoned punks and grey haired hippies. 2010 saw the release of Mark’s first solo record ‘All The Pieces’, an autobiographical work that stepped outside usual Levellers territory for a more personal approach.
Two years later the band continued their storming revival with their tenth album ‘Static On The Airwaves’. The 2012 LP was hailed in many quarters as one of the strongest and most accomplished Levellers records to date. Showing equal measures of maturity and energy, it’s an album that grows with multiple listens and reveals its qualities in more subtle ways than previously known. Again, it’s experience and growth as musicians that has allowed them to do this and pull it off so well. After being knocked out by it’s debut on BBC Radio 6Music, I queued outside Raves From The Grave in Frome to make the fantastic ‘Truth Is’ one of my Record Store Day purchases on red 7″ vinyl. So I’m glad that this addictive burst of folk-punk brilliance is present on the Greatest Hits, the song warning those at the top not to shit on those at the bottom. Also included is the rousing yet poignant anti-war singalong ‘The Recruiting Sergeant’, which I described in an album review as “a traditional war song arranged, updated and delivered in a superbly rousing fashion reminiscent of classic Pogues material. Another brilliantly characteristic vocal from Friend tells the story of a lowly thief who after a court appearance, is approached by a recruitment officer and signs up for life in the army.” The rest of that review can be read HERE, where I also highlight the brilliance of ‘Alone In The Darkness’, ‘Raft Of The Medusa’ and the terrific ‘We Are All Gunmen’.
In a difficult musical climate for independent artists, ‘Static On The Airwaves’ did well by entering the charts at number 36, quite a feat for a band who had been written off as dead and buried many years before.
In 2013, the band celebrated their 25th year together, with work beginning on the Levellers documentary film ‘A Curious Life’, where the story of the band is told with an emphasis on the film’s main star, bassist Jeremy. Directed by former Chumbawamba member Dunstan Bruce, this candid look into the life of the group is being screened across the UK this year.
2014 saw the release of Mark’s excellent solo record ‘Moment’, which he worked on with Tom and Alex White from the Electric Soft Parade. Again it’s another very personal record, and one that addresses Mark’s relationship with alcohol. “It’s a great record, I’m really pleased with it. I love it actually, it’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. I had this really good bunch of musicians. I didn’t play them the songs beforehand, I just got them in the studio. I didn’t have to show them a single chord, I just went “play along to this”, I’d play them the song once, we’d all play it through on the second time and then we’d record on the third time, and that was it.”
As well as playing a number of solo dates, Mark has been as busy as ever with the Levellers, as the release of the Greatest Hits brings their story up to date. Far from just being a cash-in, it improves on 1998’s incomplete ‘One Way Of Life’ and adds four special collaborations that demonstrate the influence the band have had on a growing number of musicians. While the Bellowhead version of ‘Just The One’ stays relatively faithful to the original, Billy Bragg‘s ‘Hope Street’ brings out the more sleepy, melancholic side of the song, while Imelda May‘s take on ‘What A Beautiful Day’ retains the classic track’s lively energy. Best of all though is Frank Turner‘s stunning rendition of ‘Julie’, which electrifies the song without losing its emotional power. So how did these collaborations come about? “We just phoned them up. And they said “yeah, we’d love to”. They were all big fans of the band, they just came along to our studio for the day to reinterpret our music, and we’d end up sort of being their backing band really. Changing the key, or whatever was required… Really enjoyed it. Great days, and all four of them are really easy to work with. Us and Frank go back a few years, same with Billy Bragg, Bellowhead and Imelda May too.”
As well as the 2 CDs and accompanying DVD featuring all of the promo videos for the singles, there is a digital box set available on iTunes, which contains 149 tracks and costs just £29.99. As well as live versions, remixes and rarities, it features almost every single B side that the band have released. The 90s were of course the peak of the CD single and the multi format era, where bands would have to fill up space on two or three different versions of their singles. Such an demand for material led to some superb hidden treasures that were sometimes just as strong as any of the big hits or much-loved album tracks. ‘Searchlights’, ‘A Promise’, and ‘Drinking For England’ are just three that immediately spring to mind. But Mark remembers it was tough work. “It was pain in the arse to be honest. It really was. Here’s the B side. We don’t need three or four more, please!” He pauses. “Actually, as it turns out, we got a few gems that way. A few good little numbers came out of that. There’s some good stuff, really good, interesting stuff that we wouldn’t normally put on an album, that’s what I like about the b sides. More unusual songs. There’s one or two that are really good actually that I play occasionally when I do solo shows. Can’t remember the titles of them now! (Laughs)”
So what does the future hold for one of the UK’s most enduring bands? First up is a list of European dates over the next few weeks, before the band return to the UK for what promises to be a very special tour. Supporting them will be ska legends The Selector. “We’re big fans of theirs, they played at our festival and we thought they’d be perfect for this tour, they’re a high energy band, they’ve got a good message, and Pauline is brilliant” says Mark. They will also be joined by Bristol-based multi instrumentalist and RW/FF favourite She Makes War, who has so far released two highly impressive albums and is currently working on her third. But what do our heroic headliners have planned for these gigs? A run through of the singles? “Something lightly different than that, I think” replies Mark. “It’s going to be a well-tailored set, and we’ve been doing a lot of work on the production at the moment. There are going to be things that we did over the years that we forgot we did, and we’re going to bring those back into the set. We’ve just got to make it spectacular, a proper rock ‘n roll spectacle show.”
And what about about beyond the tour? Will the Levellers be returning to the studio soon? “We’ve got some new material, but for the moment these collaborations have worked out really well, so we’re carrying on with those. We’re gonna do one with Steve Earle, he’s up for doing one. We’re gonna do one with Pauline Black from The Selector as well, I think Newton Faulkner‘s going to do something with us too. So yeah, we’re steaming ahead and we’re gonna make a whole album of those.”
Personally, I have a lot to thank them for. It was reading ignorant, lazy and ill-informed reviews of the band’s records from clueless critics that inspired me to work towards becoming a music journalist in the hope of one day being able to tell the world just how incredible this mad gang of drinkers and dreamers actually are. Here’s to a phenomenal past, a glowing future and six musicians who will continue to have a lasting impact on the lives of many people for years to come. Myself included. So cheers Mark. And cheers Jeremy, Simon, Jon, Charlie and Matt. Life really wouldn’t be the same without you.
God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.