“It’s simple because it is the people…” So sings Mark Chadwick over strings so rich, their tone so recognisable, that they could only have been recorded in one room: Abbey Road’s Studio Two.
The song is Exodus, Levellers’ 1995 call to arms, re-imagined in the world’s most famous recording studio. With Radiohead and Stone Roses producer John Leckie at the helm, it’s the opening track of We The Collective, an acoustic album of eight old songs and two new ones that will be released to co-incide with the Brighton band’s 30th anniversary.
The names may be familiar — Hope Street, Liberty Song, One Way — but the songs have been re-forged, broken down and built back up again, and given stunning and surprising re-arrangements. The alchemy created by three legendary entities — Abbey Road, Leckie, Levellers — can be heard on every track.
“John learnt to be an engineer in Abbey Road,” Mark explains. “When we said we were recording an acoustic album, he said ‘Why don’t you do it there?’ We rehearsed in our own studio, went in to Studio Two, they got all those amazing microphones out, and we recorded straight to tape. It’s a very special place.”
The songs may be old but the lyrics have never resonated more. England My Home was first recorded in 1988, but its message about a divided nation could have been written in 2018. Likewise Subvert and Liberty Song. Ironically, in looking back, Levellers sound more relevant than ever.
“In a funny way, our time has now come. I’ve never known this country to be such a state of metaphysical fear. Everything that we’ve been banging on about — the environment, social injustice, racism, sexism — have all come to play in the most massive way,” Mark says.
And then there are the new tracks. The Shame is a heart-breaking song about the Syrian refugee crisis, while Drug Bust McGee shines a spotlight on undercover policemen, something the band themselves have experienced.
We The Collective stands as a dazzling testament to one of Britain’s finest and most enduring bands.
From their early gigs in Brighton in the spring of 1988 — in venues such as The Richmond and The Zap — Levellers were a ‘gang band’ that attracted an instant following. Then as now, just like their heroes The Clash, they represented a potent brew of activism and hedonism. Their music appealed to the head, the heart and the feet in equal measure.
The self-styled ghetto kings of downside town, Levellers never looked back. And on and on the river flowed.
Over the years Levellers have worn many masks; most self-made, some imposed upon them. Pastoral folk-punks, posterboys for the underdogs, Top of the Pops-bothering pop stars. But while their status has evolved over the decades, the basic humanity underpinning their music has remained constant. Often political, occasionally angry but always big-hearted, their songs became instant anthems.
But any veneer of homespun charm belied substantial commercial success. In the 1990s, Levellers had more platinum, gold and silver albums in the UK than any other British act. In the decade of Britpop, that’s quite a feat. Over their career as a whole, they’ve had seven Top 40 albums, including a number one with 1995’s Zeitgeist, and 14 Top 40 singles. Their landmark 1991 album, Levelling The Land, spend 38 weeks in the Top 100 album charts over a three year period. It’s the band’s longevity and appeal in microcosm.
Perhaps less easy to come by, however, has been critical acclaim. Often derided by the metropolitan music press for singing about a simpler way of life and their early links with the travelling community and the free festival scene, Levellers were dismissed as a ‘crusty’ band, a tag Mark says was “insulting”. The real story, he adds, is that they never played the music industry game. And what was the game? “Sucking up to them,” he says. When the boys tore into some po-faced music journalists at an industry party thrown in the band’s honour, the writing was on the wall. But they didn’t care. “It was true then and it’s true now. We’re not here seeking fame and fortune. We’re here seeking the truth,” Mark says.
Three decades have brought myriad highs. One that springs to Mark’s mind happened on Worthy Farm in Somerset on a baking hot day in late June 1992. Glastonbury Festival was a something of a tinderbox that year as Michael Eavis had banned the New Age Travellers after trouble in 1990. Thousands came anyway, joining a legion of punters who had just one band in mind. And so it was that The Levellers — replacing James who replaced Morrissey in an early evening slot — delivered the set of the weekend. It was a show that unleashed barely-contained chaos among the faithful: dozens of human pyramids mirrored the mighty Pyramid Stage as the crowd’s talismen delivered ninety minutes of music as blistering as the weather. “It was unbelievable. We got in and everyone was wearing a Levellers T-shirt. We were wandering around going, ‘What’s going on?’,” Mark recalls. “From the stage I could see people climbing on the sound desk, up the scaffolding, up trees. People were so passionate. It was tribalism, I suppose.” Two years later, The Levellers returned as headliners.
A second highlight was the launch of Beautiful Days, the band’s own festival, in 2003. The event is now an annual fixture for thousands. “Beautiful Days is a beautiful thing,” Mark says.
In fact, their career is peppered with highs: the first ever live broadcast for Top of the Pops, with the song 15 Years (and, indeed, appearing on that show a few years later dressed in tuxedos for Just The One); playing the Royal Albert Hall; performing at Brixton Academy an astonishing 15 times.
There have inevitably been lows too. But the band have developed a knack of turning even these into memorable occasions. Mark remembers supporting Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy in the States in the early 1990s. “The entire crowd just fucking booed. They were all jocks in baseball caps, thousands of them. They’d come to see Rage Against The Machine and Public Enemy and we walk on stage with violins and mandolins. Can you imagine? It was shocking. So I basically put my guitar down and spat at them. I stood there saying, ‘Come on, then. Let’s have it.’ Afterwards, Rage and Public Enemy totally supported us. They went, ‘That was hardcore. That was punk rock.’”
The other low points have been more prosaic. “The only other down points are when we’re not doing it,” Mark says.
And with three decades under their belts, there’s plenty more to come. They’ll play well over 100 shows in 2018, including a gig in London’s Roundhouse. August will see the 16th Beautiful Days. And there are two albums’ worth of new material to record.
So what’s behind The Levellers’ enduring success? What keeps that flame burning? Mark is in no doubt whatsoever. “It’s the people. Not just music fans. The people. We can go to any part of the British Isles and people come and see this band. It’s because of that that we endure. They believe in us, they trust us and they trust the songs. They trust what we’re talking about. They know that at no point has this band ever sold out or been corrupted by corporate nonsense. It literally is the people. We belong to them,” he says.
So there it is. Thirty years. Thousands of incendiary shows. Record-breaking releases. Legendary Glastonbury performances. Their own award-winning festival. Abiding loyalty and popularity. An album of songs reimagined in Abbey Road. The reason that these extraordinary feats have been allowed to occur is down to one thing. As the band themselves might say: it’s simple because it is the people.