In the late 80's, folk-punk was about as fashionable as a pair of your dad's old Y-fronts. As far as most people are concerned - and especially those working at the music weeklies folk-punk was finished, spent, completely zonked out. It was deader then Monty Python's parrot.
Only it wasn't. Like many forms of roots music re-popularised in the 80's - like reggae and country - folk, in its new punk inspired form, was not about to lay down and die when interest shifted elsewhere. And the reason was simple: ordinary people liked it too much. It is essentially rebel music. Not rebellious in the sense that it directly challenged governments or shocked and outraged the moral majority, but because it provided a warm and welcome refuge for young, disaffected revellers, who liked its vague anti-establishment stance and its emphasis on friendship and fun.
As a result, hippie-ish, punky raggle taggle had unwittingly become the focus for a groundswell of political and moral frustration. However, when the Pogues - the central axis of the movement, though never champions of its more hippie elements - began their slow decline with 1989's "Peace and Love" album, folk - punk lost its leaders. Sensing the end of an era, but not, strangely, the beginning of another one, journalists put the lid on the whole phenomenon, and began looking northwards to the indie/dance sounds emanating from Manchester. Which is why, sadly, they missed out on the Levellers' early years, and the whole subculture and a loyal live following that has since grown up around them.
Make no mistake the Levellers are massive. They score Top 10 albums and singles, they play huge sell-out concerts across Europe and, whether they like it or not, they're the figurehead for the "crusties" and travellers, the anarcho punks and hippies, the festival lovers and bean-burger eaters, the young and disenfranchised, and the just plain bonkers. Students love 'em. In the summer of 1992, at the Glastonbury Festival, they played to the biggest stage-front audience the event had ever seen, and only then did the music papers start to wonder what the hell they were missing out on. And only then did the band decide that they didn't need the publicity the music weeklies were now willing to afford them. Touché!
For the leaders of a vast underground movement, the Levellers have fairly prosaic origins. They began life in early 1988, when bassist Jeremy Cunningham and drummer Charlie Heather teamed up with fiddler Jon Sevink and guitarist / singer Mark Chadwick, two regulars at their Brighton local, the Eagle. Charlie and ex-art student Jeremy were veterans of local indie band the Fence (though they don't like to boast about the fact), who'd achieved some recognition with a 7", "Frozen Water" / "Exit", issued on the Brighton based Hag label the previous year (HAG 1, 5/87, 500 only, £30). Following that group's demise a few months earlier, the pair were thinking of giving up music altogether, as indeed was Mark, who was feeling equally rejected after his split with another gang of local wannabees, Sweet Dragon.
But following a short period of musical inactivity, the foursome's interest in performing was rekindled by, among other inspirations, the raucous folk-punk of local Brighton act, McDermott's Two Hours, whose gigs were attracting a wide cross-section of music fans, hell-bent on drinking copious amounts of alcohol and generally having a good time. Not averse to the odd pint and a good ol' hoe-down themselves, the lads decided to start their own folk-inspired group, though they were keen to use it positively, as a vehicle to address contemporary social issues. Echoing New Model Army's choice of name, they christened themselves the Levellers, after a radical section of Oliver Cromwell's Civil War followers, who advocated republican politics and the freedom of worship.
Within a short time, the group had penned a fresh set of folky originals and, with the help of a second guitarist, the mysterious "Bucky", embarked on a series of local gigs. Their ability to marry rousing melodies to a robust weave of clattering drums and punchy guitars immediately won them a following, and before long, they were playing to larger crowds than their erstwhile influences. Although, like the proverb - Murphy's, McDermott's Two Hours couldn't have been too bitter-especially as the Levellers covered their sprightly "Dirty Davey" on their eponymous third album.
From the outset, the Levellers had enjoyed the support of Hag Records' boss Phil Nelson, an MA student at Sussex University who'd started the label with the money from his British Academy grant. Now acting as their manager, he began helping the band to get gigs across the South, where the group promoted themselves with a brace of demo tapes. The first, titled, "All The Free Commons Of England", featured a handful of studio tracks, while the second, "An Agreement Of The People", coupled a further five demos with several songs recorded at a one-off gig in Amsterdam. Unsurprisingly, these are feathers in the cap of any self - respecting Levellers fan, and today tend to change hands for around £20 apiece.
By early 1989, the Levellers, who by this time were gigging with a vengeance, had sold around 500 copies of each tape, and were keen to immortalise their talents on vinyl. Nelson's Hag records was still up and running, so, with their managers help, the group splashed out on a session at the Old Barn in Croydon, with a view to putting out a 12" EP in the spring. With producer Phil Vinall at the controls, the Levellers taped what would become a lasting jewel in their crown. "The Last Days Of Winter", a frantic, jumpy call to arms, on which Mark spits out his manifesto of positive, pacifist action against a back-drop of furious, rattling drums and wheeling guitars and violin. Strangely, the group thought "Last Days" was inappropriate as a lead track and returned to Brighton to record the equally striking "Carry Me", together with two more songs, "What's In The Way" and the chilling "England My Home", with producer Mark Waterman.
On its release in May 1989, the "Carry Me" EP caught the attention of Cathi Unsworth at "Sounds", who gave it a glowing review. "It even got a couple of plays on Radio 1", recalls Phil Nelson, "despite the fact that it contained the line, "Too fucked to fight". I don't think anyone noticed that". Within a few weeks, all, 1,000 copies of the single had sold out.
Around this time, the Levellers hitched up with Charlie Myatt, then a booking agent for Prestige, which proved to be an important step forward in the group's bid to develop a wider fan base. "He'd only been an agent for a short time when we met him, but he came down to Sussex to see us and was immediately bowled over with what we were doing,", explains Nelson. "He became a very close ally, especially over the next couple of years when record company interest was nil, and folk-punk was regarded as the least popular music around. We got ignored, and Charlie and I were the two people battling away against this tide of indifference."
With Charlie quickly securing dates on the prestigious UK college circuit and, further afield, in Scotland, Ireland and Holland, the lads decided that a fifth member was required to flesh out their sounds - "Bucky" having disappeared several months earlier, after only a few weeks with the band. The job was offered to Alan Miles, a skilled mandolin player and guitarist, whose presence added further texture and warmth to ever - developing songs like " I Have No Answers" and "Barrel Of A Gun".
Come the late Summer, and the Levellers were itching to record again. Following the success of the first EP, Phil Vinall was recalled to the mixing desk, and the group laid three tracks appearing on the "Outside Inside" EP, issued in October 1989. This 12" captured the Lev's in a belligerent mood, with the stomping, Motown folk-punk of the title track doing nothing to suggest a musical mellowing. Even so, the band still nurtured a quieter side, which surfaced most clearly on "Hard Fight", an acoustic lament that underlined the growing strength and maturity of Mark's vocals, and confirmed the Levellers' growing anti-establishment stance.
With "Outside Inside" repeating the success of "Carry Me", the band were beginning to attract the interest of several independents, though none could offer the level of financial support the Levellers required. Then a friend suggested that they approach the French label, Musidisc, which had just set up offices in London. To their surprise, Musidisc were eager to sign them and, what's more, appeared to have a genuine liking for their music.
"We had to take their offer seriously", explains Nelson, "because we just didn't have the money to record an album. We thought we knew enough between us to make a relationship work, so we signed to them for what was to be a three-album deal. In the event, the agreement resulted in only one.
In the early months of 1990, the band entered Loco Studios in Wales with Waterboys producer Phil Tennant, to tape the songs which would later appear on their long-playing debut, "A Weapon Called The Word". The sessions were a success, spawning fresh versions of tracks like "Carry Me", "Outside / Inside" and "I Have No Answers", as well as a batch of newies including "No Change" and " Blind Faith".
While Tennant's production added a gentle sheen to the vintage material, Mark's forthright vocal delivery and the band's death-rattle exuberance lent the recordings an air of urgency and honesty, reflecting their live energy and punkiness. Issued in May, the album split critical opinion, though those who liked it revered its brash, earthy music and message. "And the band are still pleased with it", adds Nelson. For a faster single, Musidisc lifted the opening track, the barnstorming, back-to-basic's rocker "World Freak Show", but due to administrative problems, it didn't appear until June. The group were understandably peeved, especially as the label still used two (already available) album tracks for the extra B-sides, but could do little except watch the 45 sink without a trace. To make matters worse, Alan Miles had quit the group a few weeks earlier, ground down by their relentless live schedule, leaving them with the task of finding an accomplished folk instrumentalist to fill the gap.
Fortunately, a replacement appeared in the guise of Simon Friend, an established musician on the acoustic / folk circuit, who brought to the band several of his own compositions, which were quickly incorporated into their set. With Simon in tow, the group headed out on a European tour with New Model Army (whose singer, Justin "Slade The Leveller" Sullivan, had previously worked with Friend), which almost ended in disaster when bassist Jeremy lost the use of one arm. However, by drawing on Simon's talents as a multi-instrumentalist, the band were able to honour their commitments as the all - acoustic Levellers 2, who were revived for a handful of British gigs later that Summer, and occasionally still get called upon in times of power cuts and P.A. failures.
In October 1990, a second Musidisc single appeared, coupling the anthemic "Together All The Way" with a claustrophobic, hypnotic version of "Three Friends", judiciously smothered in an intense cacophony of violin, electric mandolin and pumping dance rhythms, which occasionally surrenders to brief, careering rock passages.
"We got a guy called Luke Cresswell to remix it", says Nelson. "He was Brighton-based and had a band called the Yes No People (and later played in Beats International). It wasn't a "dance remix", but he added bodhran and all sorts of different instruments". In some quarters it was hailed as the first acid-folk record - scary or what ?!
Sadly, many fans desperate to hear "Together All The Way" were denied the pleasure, as Musidisc temporarily ran out of copies after only a week. One cock-up was forgivable, but two in a row was not, so the band took steps to free themselves from their deal. "In our opinion, they hadn't fulfilled the conditions of the contract", explains Nelson. "And, in the end, it was settled out of court." Once again, the band had to stand by as a great single ended its days in the bargain bins. While the Lev's legal department struggled to reach a settlement, the group began demoing material for a new album, with several members taking time out to guest on an album by Rev Hammer.
Issued on Hag, "Industrial Sound And Magic" has since been reissued by Cooking Vinyl on cassette and CD. In the meantime, the Levellers headed out in the spring for a brief, five-date UK tour, topped with a sell-out show at the London Astoria. In the early summer, it was announced that the group had signed with China Records, who had in fact, been involved in the eventual settlement with Musidisc. With a renewed sense of purpose, the band booked themselves into Ridge Farm Studios, where they began work on their second album, "Levelling The Land".
Issued in September 1991, the LP witnessed the advent of a more solid, consummate sound, rich in instrumentation and loaded with lush, earthy folk-rock numbers. Simon's influence was immediately clear, with both "The Boatman" and "Another Man's Cause" embracing a rootsy, more acoustic sound, underpinned by the snap of muted drums and the flitter of melancholy violins and bells. You could almost see the flicker of late-night festival camp fires, ringed with swirling dancers, gradually losing themselves in the rising and falling wail of the fiddle. But "Levelling......" rocked too, with "One Way", "Liberty Song" and "Far >From Home" mixing the band's vintage punk-troubadour anthems with dancey drum rhythms and chunky, aggressive bass lines.
The Album was nothing short of triumphant, and crashed into the charts at No. 14, "One Way", issued as a single the same month, mirrored its success, topping the indie charts, and providing the ever-growing army of Levellers fans with the war cry. "There's only one way of life and that's your own!". On paper it looks awfully tired, I know, but chanted to the song's rousing melody in an arena full of sweaty fragglers, well..... "We thought it would get into the national charts because of our live following, but it only got to No. 51", recalls Nelson. "But it certainly got us to a new level where people were actually aware of us."
With part-time Leveller Stephen helping out on didgeridoo, the band played to packed houses at the Town & Country Club and National Ballroom, before rounding off the year by signing to Elektra in America, where they've since sold over 100,000 records. 1991 had been the year the Levellers had come of age; 1992 would be even better. To end 1991, the band returned to the studio to re-record the catchy "Levelling The Land" track "Far From Home", for release as a single in February. "We did it with Craig Leon", remembers Nelson. Derek Green at China was convinced that "Far >From Home", was going to be our big hit.
Structurally the new version ended up being more commercial, but I don't think there's anything between them. It had four live songs on the CD and 12", but, surprise, surprise, it only made No. 67. It did get B-listed by Radio 1. though. Following tours of France, Germany, and Scandinavia, and UK tour finishing with a sell-out show at Brixton Academy, the Levellers retired to their rehearsal rooms to pen two new songs for a fresh 45". The results were "15 Years" and "Dance Before The Storm", which subtly helped to re-shape the band into the complex, more electric unit they are today. Sketching the loneliness of a penitent alcoholic and wife - beater returning from the "midnight lock-in", "15 Years" took a fast, driving back-beat and fused it to a classic, major/minor chord sequence climaxing in a stirring sing along chorus.
Passionate, dance-able and an undoubted classic, the song perfectly complimented "Dance....", which, rather like the more recent "This Garden", spliced spoken-word verses by Simon to rumbustious, melodies Chadwick choruses. Appearing in May 1992, the "15 years" EP- which also featured a live version of "Riverflow" and a cover of Paul King's "Plastic Jesus" - stormed into the charts at no. 11. following another sell-out UK tour, an appearance at the prestigious U.S. New Music Seminar and a let's- be- friends - again interview with the "N.M.E" (Jeremy had sent them one of his turds in the post a couple of years earlier, effectively making the paper their deadly foes), the Lev's played Glastonbury Festival uniting the disparate tribes with a moving performance that was witnessed by over 70,000 fans.
As heroes of the "new age movement and with a bona fida traveller among their ranks (Jeremy), the group were pronounced "experts" on the festival phenomenon, and were duly asked by the "Melody Maker" to name their favourite and least favourite - events. The band then toured Canada and the States before returning to their native shores in December to perform three "Freakshow" featuring support from a colourful troupe of new age acrobats, mime-artists and jugglers.
Though these events were a rip-roaring success, the word "Freakshow" still left a nasty taste in the Lev's mouths, chiefly because Musidisc had, at the start of 1992, done the unthinkable and issued a new, cash-in remix "World Freak Show" without the band's permission.
According to Phil, however, it could have been a lot worse. Their remix originally had an alternative vocal track, but Musidisc obviously don't listen to their own records, because, in line five of the song, Mark forgets the words and sings "la la la", luckily I was able to get a copy of it before it came out and made strong representation to them. In the end they did another remix, using the original vocals, but it was horrendous. We were relieved when it only reached 50-something.
In the early months of 1993, the group set out on a tour of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland, to promote "See Nothing, Hear Nothing, Do Something", an LP mopping up the contents of the first three China singles for the European market. On their return, the group started their third album in Monnow Valley in Wales and Jacob's in Surrey, before completing the bulk of the work at Real World, Peter Gabriel's studio near Bath. The LP produced by Marcus Dravs and eventually surfacing in August, was preceded by a single, "Belaruse", a pounding melee of electric and acoustic instruments, punctuated by a rousing chorus, echoing the unselfconscious sentimentality of "15 years", the B- side was equally spirited - a messy cover of Zounds "Subvert", belted out by Simon.
The album itself provided a similar feast of the fresh and familiar, and the adventurous and the tried-an-tested, with gusty rocker like "100 Years Of Solitude" sitting comfortable next to more folky fare like "The Like Of You And I" and "Is This Art?". Most striking of all , though, was the excellent "This Garden", lifted as a single in November borrowing it's structure from "Dance Before The Storm", it was a hit throughout Europe, helped along by heavy rotation on MTV.
This was the first Levellers song to be backed by a rhythm programmed track (put together by the ever present Alan Scott) and showed even more than before the bands stunning versatility. This track reached number 12, was A listed at Radio One, and was Matthew Bannister, controller of Radio One's favourite track of the year!!.
The final single release from the album was the "Julie EP". Julie was lifted from the album and re-recorded by Gil Norton who the band had never worked with before. Once they were inventive with their B-Sides, which included their own renditions of The Clash's English Civil War and Steeleye Span's (traditional) Lowlands of Holland. Never had a trio of such different singles coexisted together on one album.
Late '93 was a heavy touring period, and probably most successful set of dates ever. Attempting to do things differently, the band played two shows at most of the venues rather than playing their enormodomes they knew they would one day have to play. To keep punters who brought tickets to BOTH shows happy, the band put on two different shows - the first with up and coming rappers - Credit To The Nation and Chumbawamba, who were appearing on the same single 'Enough is Enough' at the time. The other bill consisted of agit-rockers Papa Brittle, and the most bizarre and adventurous act to appear before 2000 + fans, The Fish Brothers. They consisted of friends of the Levellers from Brighton who for some time had been touring pubs singing their bizarre version of old English drinking songs, (with fans encouraged to join in the choruses) their own songs, cabaret, and ER, beer. Some audiences were dumbfounded. Most Loved it!.
In Europe the band were beginning their own network of fan-club contacts, a Europe-Wide "On The Fiddle".
This began in Germany with the appointment of Ulf and Kerstin from Wilhelmshaven. Since then this has been augmented by Agents from France, Holland, Sweden, Czech Republic, USA and Australia! In this way they felt they were able to look after fans on mainland Europe as well as their UK counterparts.
In late '93 the tour continued throughout Europe finishing in a sold out show at La Luna in Brussels, Belgium. By then the band played to over 100,000 people on this tour.
1994 began with a new resolution, to buy a rehearsal space in Brighton that the band could call their own. The first 6 months search proved fruitless. Eventually they returned to Mammoth 10,000 sq. ft building they had seen previously - The Metway. Having managed to secure a knock-down price the band discovered they had their very own HQ. They moved in September.
All members of the band , office and crew lent their hands in different ways to making it a home from home. By Xmas they had their own studio and rehearsal room, offices, merchandise and mail-order operations, pool room and bar!. They also offered free space to Justice! a Brighton based organisation fighting the Criminal Justice Act and producing their own BI-monthly 'Schnews' newspaper.
The band themselves and their office staff had been personally involved in fighting the draconian legislation throughout the previous year, taking part in marches, organising fly postering campaigns and adverts in the mass media, setting up fund to which many bands contributed, and raising the awareness from a couple of paras in National press, to a National consciousness-changing issue. As new album loomed it seemed only right to support an organisation who could devote all their time and considerable skills to this cause.
1994 had it's fair share of gigs too. Most notably a triumphant return to Glastonbury as Headline act, playing to Glastonbury's biggest ever crowd. Channel Four, filming the event for the first time, decided that the Levellers were the only act to warrant two TV slots, and started a partnership with Gavin Taylor; original creator of the Tube, which would cumulate in him directing the Levellers "Live in Blackpool" long-form video in 1996.
The festival theme continued in July when the Levellers were invited by Peter Gabriel's WOMAD organisation to join their US festival tour alongside Gabriel himself, Midnight Oil (who became firm friends of the Levellers), Arrested Development and others. This was the bands third stateside tour; and by far their most enjoyable. Having found like minded musicians and fans.
Autumn arrived and with a completed studio space and recording studio already. The band begun the process of writing their next album. This was to prove to be more enjoyable than the last, with less time restrictions, the ability to go home at night and lead a relatively normal life!.
'Zeitgeist' was written and recorded between October 1994 and April 1995 and is an album which the band are particularly happy with. As it became their first number one album and spawned their biggest ever single 'Just The One' (175,000 sales - two Top of The Pops appearances) they should be justly proud. With 'Hope Street' kicking off the project in July 95, the album following in August and 'Fantasy' & 'Just The One' keeping them on the airwaves, you could hardly miss the Levellers. The by-now traditional Autumn tour was booked with Prophets Of Da City, Cecil, Compulsion, the Pogues and Dreadzone in various supports, but this time the tour ended with the bands first ever headline Arena show in Sheffield 11,000 fans went apeshit!.
The dawn of 1996 was to see the Levellers release a live album and accompanying video, more festivals and hectic touring and the embryonic stages of their 1997 studio album Mouth to Mouth - which has been acclaimed as their most accomplished album to date. The Levellers once more successfully dumbfounded critics and even enjoyed the support and acclaim of those who once lambasted them - all achieved through the continued believe in their abilities as songwriters and the support of their loyal and ever metamorphosing fan-base. 1998 led to the release of "One Way Of Life – Best Of The Levellers", a move which allowed the band to have control of design and content, which if left to a later date would, as a result of contractual terms, have been denied them. The supporting tour was to the usual high standards that Levellers fans have come to expect, only blighted by the untimely collapse of Jon moments before doors opened at the Brighton gig. This resulted in Brixton also being rescheduled for February 1999, wh
ere combined with dates at Plymouth and Leeds, allowing those fortunate to attend, the best remedy for the post Christmas blues!
There is no rest for the Levellers.