The Levellers played a pivotal role in my musical upbringing. They soundtracked several cider-drenched school parties. A Weapon Called The Word was one of the first albums I owned on tape. They are (to date) the band I have seen live most often. But, most crucially of all, they formed the basis of that most significant musical step: my first muso argument.
Spring 1994, a Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition in the Black Mountains. We gathered around the campfire to share a crate of French beers of sufficiently low percentage for our teachers to turn a blind eye. As one tape clicked off, I replaced it with the band’s recent eponymous album. The backlash began swiftly.
‘I hate this album. Levelling The Land was so much better.’
‘Too much didge. Way too much didge.’
‘It’s far too commercial, they’ve totally sold out. Ironic, eh!’
Shared chuckling, plus a little exhale of relief from the contributor who seemed to have used the word ‘ironic’ correctly (always a risk in the Morissette era).
I bade my time, waited for the sniggering to subside.
‘I quite like it.’
It was a mistake. The wrong opinion. The new album was, officially, far worse than the earlier ones. ‘This Garden’, the upbeat single, was “awful”; the piped instrumental at the end of ‘Julie’ was “horrendous, and far too fucking long”. Before we’d reached the end of ‘The Likes Of You And I’, someone had dug out their copy of See Nothing, Hear Nothing, Do Something, a compilation of B-sides, live performances and rarities that contained gems such as ‘Dance Before The Storm’ and ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’.
Call myself a fan? I hadn’t even known it existed.
During adolescence, the band had provided an easy way to show how political you were, long before the age of click-and-sign online petitions. You could sing along to ‘Battle Of The Beanfield’ to demonstrate your longstanding commitment to travellers’ rights. Nod sagely to ‘Another Man’s Cause’ to confirm your total opposition to whichever war they were singing about (Was it the Iraq war? Falklands? No one ever knew for certain). It was safer than listening to Chumbawamba, which could easily have you marked out as a communist. Plus Chumbawamba were shit.
But that campfire debate was a turning point. Before, you could listen to and cheer for whatever music you liked. But I felt something shift on that chilly Welsh riverside. People would openly mock my tastes, scorn my opinions – even change their minds about what music they liked. It opened my eyes to the pitfalls that lay ahead.
I was more cautious by the time I left for university. Stuart Maconie rightly claims there is no such thing as a guilty musical pleasure, but I bet he didn’t think that at 18. I kept my love of the Levellers hidden, a secret held close to my chest. Occasionally I would come across another fan whistling the intro to ‘Riverflow’ or humming the tune of ‘Just The One’. We wouldn’t proclaim our affection boldly; shared gestures and knowing glances were used to communicate: “Sure, we can discuss whether Mouth To Mouth is better than Zeitgeist, but not here; not with others around.”
I learnt to keep my affection quiet, a pleasure best enjoyed alone – until I moved to Scotland. And, joy of joys, several of my new colleagues were fans! The usual haters were there, of course, but there were enough of us to band together. I could once more be out and proud. We even took two cars’ worth of devotees on a glorious road trip to the far north of Skye to see the Drunk In Public tour. It remains one of my most memorable gigs.
From Scotland to Brighton; the Levellers’ home would now also be mine. It wasn’t the reason for moving there, but I can’t deny I was pleased by the connection. I even lived near The Level, a scrappy patch of grass which many locals claim is the true source of their name, rather than some 17th century rabble-rousers. (Given the number of people who congregate there each, looking like they’re auditioning to be in the band, that argument has some legs.) A colleague even claimed to be Mark Chadwick’s cousin. Or his friend’s cousin. Or the cousin of his friend. Something like that. The point is, Brighton is rightly proud of its musical sons.
There are also plenty of Levellers fans here in Berlin. There must be, given that I’ve seen them here three times in five years and each has been sold out. Maybe we need to form a society. Not everyone here is a fan, of course; their ability to splice opinion transcends international borders. My wife hates them. But then anarchy was never about keeping everyone happy.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I like best. There is, naturally, a nostalgic element, memories of more carefree days. And if you have a folky leaning, then the music blends that with rock superbly: the violin/fiddle and electric guitar have rarely bonded so perfectly. I can take or leave the didgeridoo, but at least they use it sparingly rather than letting it take over all their work. And, all mockery aside, they write about issues that matter – if not to everyone, then to some – and give them a spotlight. The Levellers were raising my awareness of minority causes long before I even knew what the term meant.
And let no one doubt the band’s lasting influence. One of my fellow fans at school, who was sat around that campfire drinking pissy bottled lager, now lives on a boat. She chose the life she pleased, spending her days on rivers and canals free, the only law the river breeze.
I didn’t go that far in my dedication. But I still love the Levellers.
Top three Levellers tracks (and I had to think very long and hard about this):*
* Other contenders included: Riverflow, Forgotten Ground, The Player, 100 Years Of Solitude, No Change, Saturday To Sunday, Julie …