The Levellers celebrate 30 years on the road with a brandnew acoustic album.
Levellers are an English folk rock band formed in Brighton, England in 1988, consisting of Mark Chadwick (guitar and vocals), Jeremy Cunningham (bass guitar), Charlie Heather (drums), Jon Sevink (violin), Simon Friend (guitar) and Matt Savage (keyboards). The band were once considered the most popular Indie band in Britain, with their popularity culminating in their record breaking headlining act at Glastonbury Festival in 1994. The band released their first EP in 1989 on their own label before signing with French label Musidisc in 1990 who released the debut album, A Weapon Called the Word. In 1991 they signed with China Records who released their second album Levelling the Land. Since 2006 they have appeared on their own On the Fiddle record label. The band continues to record and tour.
The name of the band is drawn from the Levellers, a 17th-century radical democracy movement founded in England during the English Civil War.
The band was formed with Mark Chadwick on guitar and lead vocals, Jeremy Cunningham on bass guitar, and Charlie Heather on drums. Jon Sevink, the brother of Chadwick's girlfriend, was brought in to play the fiddle. Chadwick's flatmate "Bucky" was brought in to play the guitar, but lost interest after a few months.
Chadwick and Cunningham composed their first recordings for the compact cassettes An Agreement of the People and All the Free Commons of England. A group of fans known as the "happy hitchers" would hitch-hike around the country, following the band while they were on tour.
Their first EP, Carry Me, was released in 1989 and contained the songs "Carry Me" and "England My Home", which received Radio 2 airplay. At that time the band recruited Alan Miles to play harmonica, guitar, and mandolin and to perform backing vocals. This lineup produced the EP Outside/Inside and toured throughout 1989 and most of 1990.
After re-releasing two EPs on their own Hag label, in 1989, the Levellers signed a contract with French record label Musidisc. Their first album A Weapon Called the Word was released in 1990 and went platinum. The first single from the album was "World Freak Show".
After an acrimonious split with Musidisc, the Levellers were discovered by Derek Green and signed to China Records.
At this point Miles became disenchanted with touring and left the band. The Levellers recruited Simon Friend who had played some acoustic support slots for the band in the past. Around this time Friend and Chadwick played a number of low-key shows as "The Levellers 2", mostly performing songs that had been in Friend's repertoire as a solo singer-songwriter.
1991 saw the release of the Levellers' second album, Levelling the Land, which entered the charts at number 14. The anthemic single "One Way", despite not reaching the Top 40, became a popular song and live favourite for years to come among the travelling and indie music community. The Levellers began to sound more of a well-rounded folk-rock band with the addition of Friend's multi-instrumental skill and the improvements in musicianship amongst other members of the band. Compared with earlier releases, Levelling the Land had a well-rounded sound including punk-rock tracks "Liberty Song" and "Battle of the Beanfield", folk ballads "The Boatman" and "The Road", and folk-rock crossover tracks like "The Riverflow" and "Another Man's Cause".
The band landed a United States deal with Elektra Records.
Throughout 1992 the band enjoyed a series of successful tours, particularly their debut on one of the main stages of the Glastonbury Festival. Mixing tracks from their first two LPs with a couple of more obscure songs and a cover of Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", the Levellers' performance secured their place on the large Pyramid Stage for the following year. The band also scored a chart hit with the 15 Years EP, a track which was added to later re-pressings of Levelling the Land due to its popularity.
The generally gloomy atmosphere that surrounded the band is reflected in the darker tone of the resulting eponymous album. Despite the band's dislike of the album, it reached No. 2 in the album charts. It included "This Garden", which reached No. 12 on the UK Singles Chart. In June 1993 they released the Belaruse EP which included a live cover of "Subvert", the first single from the anarchist punk band Zounds.
1994 saw the Levellers reach the peak of their popularity with a headlining appearance at Glastonbury Festival and a record breaking set on the main stage when they performed to around 300,000 people, a figure which is still a Glastonbury record to this day. In 1994 the band purchased a derelict factory in Brighton, named the "Metway" after the factory's original owners, and created a self-contained headquarters. The buildings housed their offices, fan club, rehearsal area, a bar and a recording studio that was initially equipped with gear bought from Tom Robinson. The move enabled the band to operate on their own terms as far as possible. The spare space that remained was given over to other Brighton musicians and small craft businesses. Weekly anarchist newspaper SchNEWS also set up their office in the building.
"Hope Street", the lead single from the Zeitgeist album, was the first recording to come out of Metway. The album was released in September 1995 and charted at No. 2 in the week of its release. Buoyed by the initial success, manager Phil Nelson persuaded China Records to advertise the album on television and, unusually, the album reached No. 1 in its second week on the chart. The third single released from this album took the Levellers to their first Top of the Pops appearance, playing the tongue-in-cheek drinking anthem "Just the One" whilst dressed in tuxedos. "Just the One" was specially re-recorded for the single release, with The Clash's frontman and long-time Levellers hero Joe Strummer guesting on honky tonk piano. It reached No. 12 in the UK.
The Levellers embarked on another tour of Europe and the UK towards the end of 1995, culminating in a one-off "Christmas Freakshow" at Sheffield Arena on 18 December. This was recorded by the BBC with eight songs being broadcast at a later date on Radio 1. The 1995 "Total Chaos" Tour came to an end on 7 February 1996 at Blackpool's Empress Ballroom with a show that was filmed for the video release, Headlights, White Lines, Black Tar Rivers (Best Live).
Every show on the 1995 tour was recorded, with a view to releasing a genuine "live" album with no studio overdubs. Sevink tasked himself with listening to every moment recorded on tape, picking over them to choose the best performance of each song they'd played. The resulting album, Headlights, White Lines, Black Tar Rivers was released simultaneously with the video of the same name in August 1996. The album reached No. 13 in the UK album charts, and a less extensive UK tour was undertaken in September/October to support the record's release.
The band returned to the studio through late 1996 and early 1997 when the album Mouth to Mouth was recorded. Their first gigs in several months coincided with the Labour Party's landslide general election victory on 1 May 1997, one being held at Manchester Academy and a second at London's Brixton Academy the following night. These gigs previewed several new songs including "What a Beautiful Day", which became the first single release from Mouth to Mouth and reached No. 13 on the UK chart.
Summer 1997 saw the band play at various festivals in the UK and Europe including a return to Glastonbury Festival, playing an afternoon slot on the Pyramid Stage. The album was finally released in August 1997 and entered the UK album chart at No. 5. The album spawned several more singles, "Celebrate", "Dog Train" and "Too Real", the last of which had an accompanying video directed by cult film director, Alex Cox.
One Way of Life: The Very Best of The Levellers was released in September 1998. The album was a traditional "greatest hits" package of the hit singles, with two new songs, "Shadow on the Sun" and "Bozos". Additionally, "One Way" and "Carry Me" were re-recorded, and a re-mix of "Too Real" was included. A limited edition digipak format was released with an extra five-track CD of "acoustic" versions. A long and successful tour across the UK followed in November and December. However, the last two dates at Brixton Academy and the planned homecoming at Brighton Centre had to be postponed when Jon Sevink fell ill. These dates were re-scheduled for February 1999. The release of the greatest hits album was accompanied by a video collection of promos, also called One Way of Life: The Very Best of The Levellers, and the band's official biography written by George Berger entitled Dance Before the Storm.
The Levellers played only a handful of live dates in 1999. During this time out of the limelight there was a significant change at their record company as China Records was bought by major label Warner Brothers.
Work eventually began on a new studio album, Hello Pig. The band drafted in Mark Wallis, who had worked with Oasis amongst others, to produce the record. This was an obvious change in direction, and the resulting complex production coloured the album. "Happy Birthday Revolution" was released as a single, reaching No. 57 in the charts. Just before the album's release the band promoted their own "OTF Weekender". This was held on the Isle of Wight with two big shows at the Ryde Ice Arena and a "secret" acoustic show held at a much smaller venue.
Hello Pig was released on Monday 4 September 2000, and went to No. 28. It received possibly the best critical acclaim the band had yet received, but was less popular with existing fans. With the relative commercial failure of Hello Pig the band and the record company severed their relationship by mutual agreement.
Despite the downturn in record sales, the Levellers performed a heavy gig schedule through late 2000 and 2001. This included a return to the United States as a stripped down version featuring only Chadwick, Friend and Sevink playing acoustic shows in February 2001, with the same trio returning to play a lengthier tour in June the same year.
In early 2002, their focus returned to making new music with Al Scott returning as producer. After the recording was completed, the band played a short UK tour of smaller venues to preview the new songs, and they were well received by the fans and heralded as a "return to form". Meanwhile, after contemplating releasing the new material on their own Hag label, the band eventually signed a new deal with Eagle Records. The "Come On" single preceded the album and just failed to make the UK Top 40. Green Blade Rising (originally a title of one of the Levellers' earliest songs) was released in September 2002 and also failed to reach the UK Top 40 Albums.
Meanwhile, the band were growing weary of the existing UK festival scene and decided to put on a festival of their own. This would be a return - as far as UK legislation would allow - to the earlier festivals that the young Levellers had enjoyed, such as Elephant Fayre. Green Blade Fayre was the title of the first attempt, and was to be held at Bicton Park, East Devon, England in August 2002. Despite the backing of the necessary authorities, an organised local population managed to persuade the East Devon council to reject the licence application.
Nonetheless, in 2003 the Levellers created their own "Beautiful Days Festival". The festival is now an annual event, taking place each August at Escot Park, near Fairmile in Devon, England.
In February 2004, the Levellers played a special acoustic gig at the Buxton Opera House. Although they had played a couple of shows in a similar format, this particular show saw the full band being joined onstage for collaborations with Maddy Prior, Nick Harper, Nick Burbridge, and Rev Hammer.
The show set the tone for the rest of the year, with the band appearing at many festivals through the summer in the acoustic guise, including the Beverley Folk Festival in June. These festival dates included their first visit to Glastonbury since 1997, where they captured another audience record on the Avalon Stage. The year was rounded off with an acoustic tour of UK theatres.
In May 2005 the Levellers' seventh studio album Truth and Lies was released. Mark Wallis returned as producer, with Dave Ruffy - drummer with UK punk band The Ruts - also contributing at the controls. The album, released on Eagle Records, was generally upbeat - typified by the track "Make You Happy" - and a second single, "Last Man Alive", was also released.
Following the previous year's acoustic live work, 2005 saw the band tour the UK and Europe as a full electric band once again, and this continued into 2006.
Disillusioned with Eagle Records' attempt to market their music, the Levellers decided to set up their own 'On the Fiddle Recordings' label.
The first On the Fiddle release was a live DVD, "Chaos Theory", in October 2006 and includes a live show from Reading Hexagon and the 1993 tour diary/concert "Part Time Punks".
In early 2007, the band went on an electric tour, visiting Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and Ireland. The intensive touring schedule continued with the band playing a number of festivals throughout the summer, including Wychwood, Rhythm, Bestival, Fflam, Solfest and Le Mans 24 Hours.
During this time their Warner albums were remixed and re-issued on the Rhino label in 2007.
The winter touring schedule was comparatively light, with an eleven-show electric tour of Europe in November and a short acoustic tour of the UK in December.
Sessions for a new album were also underway around this time, with Sean Lakeman (brother of Seth) at the helm as producer. February 2008 saw Chadwick, Friend, and Sevink participate in the "Freeborn John" tour, while in March the band played four 20th anniversary gigs in a short tour termed "Beautiful Nights". This trio of gigs began at Wolverhampton Civic Hall on 6 March, continued with a gig at Manchester Apollo on 7 March, and concluded with a show at London Brixton Academy on 8 March.
Appearing once again at a host of festivals throughout the summer of 2008, the Levellers showcased tracks from their upcoming album. Released in August 2008, coinciding with their 'Beautiful Days' festival, Letters from the Underground, their eighth studio album. The album contains the band's first love song, "Before the End".
Letters From The Underground charted at No. 24, the band's first Top 30 album in a decade.
In 2009, On the Fiddle released a recording of their 2008 appearance at the Royal Albert Hall - "Live At The Royal Albert Hall" via iTunes.
At the start of 2010, the band toured the UK, visiting Crewe, Holmfirth, Brecon and Tunbridge Wells. The band performed at the Glastonbury music festival in the summer and then continued on the "grass roots" path with a tour in November to promote the re-release of their debut album, A Weapon Called The Word on their own On the Fiddle label.
The band received the Roots Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2011.
Static On the Airwaves was released in June 2012, via On the Fiddle.
The first single from the album, 'Truth Is' was released for Record Store Day on limited edition red vinyl.
The Levellers released their 'Greatest Hits' album in September 2014. The album showcases four new collaborations with Imelda May, Frank Turner, Bellowhead and Billy Bragg.
A film A Curious Life: The Story of the Levellers (by Dunstan Bruce, formerly of Chumbawamba), was released in June 2015.
In 2016 they embarked on a UK tour of the Levelling The Land album to mark its 25th anniversary, reissuing the album themselves in a special box set along with a live recording of the album.
In 2017, the Levellers began working with producer John Leckie at Abbey Road's legendary Studio 2.
In 2018, the Levellers released We the Collective in which they reworked several of their classic songs with a string section and recorded two entirely new tracks "The Shame" and "Drug Bust McGee" to create a 10 track album.
The "Rolling anarchy" symbol, designed by Jeremy Cunningham, is often used by the band. It is composed of three sickles placed so as to form the letter A, recognizable however the logo is rotated.
The symbol is often featured on Levellers merchandise and at concerts. It is usually surrounded with the text "Whoever puts their hand upon me to govern me is a usurper, a tyrant, and I declare them my enemy." These words, originally by the French anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, had previously been used by the band Zounds who originally released their single "Can't Cheat Karma" featuring this quote on the Crass records label.
The band are self-described as having a left wing view of politics. In a 2018 interview, Mark Chadwick revealed that he had turned down approaches by the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party to stand for election as a local councillor in Brighton, although he stated that he had joined the Labour Party the previous year.
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
Date: June 2018.
Photo Credits: Levellers: (1),(2),(4),(6) unknown/website; (3),(5) by Walkin' Tom.