Okay, so as has previously been well documented, I’m a GnR child - ‘Lies’ and ‘Appetite…’ being my personal ground zeroes. That’s a matter of both public record and historical fact. No way to change it and no sense in denying it.
I was not a Levellers kid....
But I knew Levellers kids. I went to school with them. In the fullness of time, I even dated one. I can recall, seemingly overnight, how one particular subset of the rocker tribe went from leather or jean jackets and long hair to flannel or hoodies and dreadlocks. Suddenly, instead of my beloved Guns N’ Roses crest, there were those damn stupid x eye’d yellow smileys everywhere, and everywhere they weren't were even more outlandish logos featuring words like ‘The Wonder Stuff’ and ‘Carter USM’ (Unstoppable Sex Machine - clearly taking the piss). All at once, if you wanted to pick a fight at the AC/DC fan club meeting at school you’d have to punch yourself in the face. Kids, man. No loyalty at all. Freaks.
Is there a more culturally reactionary creature in the world than the secondary school music nerd, I find myself wondering now?
Anyway. In amongst all the cardigans, and noserings, and muddy boots (but never Dr. Martins, unless they were, like, purple and painted with glittery swirls, FFS), the other logo I saw with increasing regularity was the one that read
And even back then, there was an ill-defined impression that they were is some sense the old guard, or the vanguard, of all those other bands. I don’t know how much they were cited as an influence, or if they appeared in the same magazines, because I was subscribed to Raw, not NME, so it was all a shitty indie mystery to me, but they were definitely part of that subculture - a big part.
Which is odd, because when I finally did get around to listening to them, they really didn’t sound anything like any of that other stuff. They sounded, in point of fact, like a punk band with a sense of musicianship. And a fiddle. And decent singing voices.
So, not very punk at all.
Except, no, it fucking was. There was an anger, a vital motivating fury, that drove everything, suffusing the songs with vitality, energy, urgency. Their music was fusing folk traditionalism with punk spirit (and in a final analysis, what is more punk than saying ‘fuck you’ to trends and playing what you feel? I mean, when has folk ever been cool?).
And ground zero is Levelling The Land.
(Sidenote - purists, including my sister, would say their debut ‘Weapon Called The Word’ is their definitive album. The case is a compelling one in a lot of ways - there's a rawness to it, for sure, a fury, more swearing, and it’s utterly uncompromised in terms of production values and songwriting - totally folk and totally punk, in other words. And it’s probably true that the songwriting highs are higher than they managed since. However, it comes down to this: Levelling the Land is just better. The songs are better, the lyrics are better, the production is WAY better, and unlike WCTW, there isn’t anything resembling a weak song - one of my requirements for an utterly classic album. So, I mean, they’re both good. But Levelling The Land is the kind of masterpiece most bands will never manage, and almost none manage more than once in a career).
We open with ‘One Way’, the chorus beginning as a lone vocal before the acoustic comes in underneath, the drums bringing the rest of the band under the final line. It’s a superb opening - an anthemic hymn to non-conformity, a statement of intent. The playing is superb, too, with the band dropping down to bass guitar after the first verse/chorus pattern, guitar joining in, then dropping back once more for the second verse - The Levellers have an instinctive grasp of dynamics, and the song is perfect marrying of form and function, the dropouts matching the wistful lyrics, then the increased energy and desperation reflected in more energetic drums and guitars. It’s probably the song most associated with the band, and deservedly so.
‘The Game’ opens with an urgent fiddle, before a driving drum and guitar kicks in. It’s a classic ‘global politics as game’ story song, a folk staple particularly apt for the cold war period, but a) some themes are classics for a reason and b) when it’s done this well, there’s always room for one more. The chorus is another Levellers stroke of brilliance, too - plaintive, heartfelt, and always angry. The song also contains that classic Levellers approach of simple songwriting elevated by playing with both deep competence and occasional flashes of brilliance, especially in the fiddle playing.
‘Fifteen Years’ is another folk staple - The Man Who Drank Too Much - but again, the playing and writing lifts it. There’s an urgency to the playing, the bass rhythm that underpins the verses, and the chorus just soars, the fiddle lifting the vocal, before the last line dropout allows the lyric to punch through full force. Sure, there’s about a million songs out there about addiction, but there’s few that marry the specificity with the general as well as this one does - so cleverly and brilliantly that you don’t even notice.
We go full folk next, with ‘The Boatman’. There are songs that exist that I have to remind myself weren't, in fact, handed down on stone tablets from a mountain, but were actually written by flesh and blood human beings. ‘All Along The Watchtower’ is one of those songs. ‘Paint It Black’ is another.
So is ‘The Boatman’.
It’s elemental, that’s all - as pure an expression of desire for a freedom and way of life under threat, vanishing, perhaps already gone, perhaps never really in existence beyond our own fond imaginations. There’s melancholy, as you’d expect, but also a bruised optimism, even defiance, especially in that last verse - ‘others rule my destiny, but my will’s never broken’. The final lines roll out like an atheist's prayer, a statement of faith in a future as yet unseen. Romantic, yearning, yet grounded. A perfect song.
‘Liberty Song’ is the most punk outing yet - the vocal is sung with a sneer, and the guitar snarls out of the amp. The military snare roll through the intro, as the fiddle swirls, before breaking out into the stomping verse pattern, it’s all in service of the mood of anger, alienation. The chorus is an absolute belter too - the sentiment might seem naive, if not, frankly, counter historical, but this is a classic example of an emotional truth - a sentiment that cuts through intellectual construction and speaks to the yearning heart of A Better Way. And the whole tune is a stonker, bouncing along with gleeful rage.
‘Far From Home’ closes out Side One. Another slice of near-pure folk, in a lot of ways it’s a flipside to ‘Liberty Song’ - a love song to a way of life lived, a romantic embracing of the nomad musician life, with all it’s twists and turns. There’s still a fire under the surface (‘burning the bridges’) and a wistfulness too (‘you said you wouldn’t leave, not ever’) but it’s ultimately a celebration - a rare happy Levellers tune - complete with the classic folk tempo increase throughout the closing round, and much whooping and laughter. Joyous.
‘Sell Out’ kicks off Side 2, a song I’ve covered with my own band. Again, the band give good intro, with bass and drums setting the tone, before the guitar adds meat and the fiddle soars over the top, nailing the melody to your skull, before dropping back down for the vocal. It’s a fucking brilliant lyric too, an object lesson in how to write a protest ballad. Songwriting forces you to boil down ideas to their single simplest form in order to get your point across - you have somewhere between 80 - 120 words to get it done, basically - and Sell Out is an exemplar of form, including another anthemic soaring chorus.
‘Another Man’s Cause’ is The War Ballad, and it pretty much devastates me every time. Again, it’s just The Story - this is how it happens, how the military career can be handed down from parent to child, the sense of loss. Sung with empathy for the soldier, it doesn’t preach, and it’s all the more powerful for that - in a final analysis, it’s an angry lementation of the sheer bloody waste and loss. I cry when I hear it live. It’s unanswerable. The playing is also magnificent, a simple tune explored with brilliant dynamics, the fiddle fully weeping by the end of the tune.
‘The Road’ is almost ‘Far From Home’ redux, slightly bluesier in the verses, but still ultimately an uplifting hymn to the life of the road tripping musician, to the power of music to sustain life and feed the soul. The exile buskers are happy with their choice. Beautiful.
We’re rounding the final turn now, and we’re doing it with ‘The Riverflow’ which is a fucking barnstormer. This tune just blasts along with a double kick drum beat, driving fiddle, and machine gun vocal line. A love song to someone who chose the path more well trodden, it manages to speak to both bitterness and loss but also celebration and affection. It’s in many ways the distilled essence of the whole album in one glorious explosion of sound, and it’s played hell for leather, especially the fiddle in the extended musical section before the final verse is yelled out over the double kick drums. The love and the fury in perfect alignment. On any normal record, this would be a the perfect closer.
But this isn’t a normal record. This is a stone classic.
So we get ‘Battle Of The Beanfield’.
Telling the true story of a brutal police action against travelers who had gone to Stonehenge to celebrate the Summer Solstice, ‘Beanfield’ is an anthem every bit as furious and heartfelt as ‘Killing In The Name’. Again, the dynamics are superb, the band knowing when to take it down, let the vocals speak out on their own, before building magnificently to another definitive shout along chorus.
There’s nothing here that you can call free. They’re getting their kicks, they’re laughing at you and me.
The bass drums and sirens close out. The final double beat echoes into silence, and you’re left with yourself.
It’s a fucking spectacular record. It did that thing that a true classic can do during those formative years - it opened a whole genre of music to me that I wasn’t previously aware of, deepened my political understanding (I put ‘Levelling The Land’ alongside ‘Rage Against The Machine’ as the two most influential records of that kind for teenage me, and it’s interesting to note they came out in the same year, given how politically sympathetic and musically disparate they are), and created a tribal loyalty that exists to this day - this December, I made the trip to Brixton Academy to hear The Levellers play the album in it’s entirety. And it, and they, were glorious.
I wasn’t a Levellers kid. ‘Levelling The Land’ was not my road-to-Damascus record, and I can’t pretend it was. But I know for a mortal certainty that is was for many people.
And honestly? There’s a part of me that wishes it had been. I think it speaks to a lot of the same rage and alienation that I was feeling back then, but without a lot of the ugly misogyny and nihilism that made those other records feel so dangerous and transgressive at the time, and so troubling (if still brilliant) now.
Well, maybe I’ve asked and answered my own question, there. Maybe that darkness was a key component of what spoke to me then, for good and ill. And maybe, for all it’s brilliance, Levelling The Land wouldn’t quite have spoken to that part of me in the same way.
Whatever. You can never go back. And fuck knows, I wouldn’t want to even if I could. I may not have gotten in on the ground floor, but Levelling The Land became a treasured and beloved part of my life, and this month at Brixton I got to the barrier and sang my heart out with the rest of the faithful. It was a magic show from a brilliant band.
They’ve still got it. And 25 years on, so does Levelling The Land.