I just happened to catch the Levellers by luck in the summer of 1994. Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD (World of Music Art and Dance) festival was on its second tour of states and us Americans were lured in by acts we were already familiar with like Live, Arrested Development, Midnight Oil and Gabriel himself. We ended up being treated to a host of acts totally new to us like the Levellers. To us, they were five guys in a pretty good band. Back in their homeland of England, they were close to selling out entire stadiums. My brother spent one academic year abroad in Wales and came home with a copy of the “Belaruse” single for me and Back to Nature for himself. This was before file sharing and if you wanted a high quality bootleg, you had to pay for it.
Alas, their sound was just a little too “English” to really catch on in the states. It’s of course, not their fault. They had, and continue to have, so many things going for them. Mark Chadwick’s easy-to-take impersonation of John Lennon suits the music well (just listen to “Happy Birthday Revolution”). Charlie Heather was as good a drummer as any Celtic-driven rock act could hope for. Bassist Jeremy Cunningham’s stage presense was charismatic to say the least. Jonathan Sevink’s use of the violin helped set the Levellers apart from many a band at the time seeing as how he somtimes almost approached his job as a keyboardist. But when Sevink wasn’t taking the textural route, he was guiding the Celtic influence through their sound, elevating them above just being an updated Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Toss in underrated guitarist Simon Friend and some very sticky tunes and you’ve got yourself a great band. I bought a copy of their debut album A Weapon Called the Word from a shop owned by a local journalist, and he told me how baffled he was that the Levellers never caught on in America (he was at the same WOMAD show). I greed, of course. Every song on their second album Levelling the Land was a hit waiting to happen. Anyone could like this stuff, you didn’t have to aspire to be a boatman.
Greatest Hits is not the Levellers’ first compilation but it appears to be the longest, stretching over three discs. For this article I was given the 39-track edition lasting over two hours. Since 1998’s One Way of Life was released on China Records, the band has gone on to release five more studio albums. It has been 24 years since their first album and the well is deeper, to the point where fans can have serious debates about what great songs didn’t make it to a two-CD set. I’m not going to get into any should have/could have particulars, but I will just say one thing about what I find to be an odd choice: the original recording of the hit song and fan favorite “One Way” is a bonus track.
This doesn’t go in chronological order. This sticks in the craw of many musical sticklers, but the leity seems to prefer shuffle anyhow. Greatest Hits does the shuffling for you, and it paints a flattering picture of the band’s skills. They never truly suffered from a “slump”. There was a time when their popularity was at its peak when Zeitgeist managed to become the number one selling album in the UK. And since all that must goes up must come down, their popularity tapered off and their fanbase was whittled down to the faithful (they didn’t even bother selling Mouth to Mouth through an American distributor). But Levellers fans and serious fans of music in general know that you can’t mistaken events like these for a band nodding off artistically. While under the radar, they release Hello Pig, Green Blad Rising, Thruth and Lies,Letters from the Underground and Static on the Airwaves. Greatest Hits gives you just a taste of each, taking larger percentages from earlier releases such as A Weapon Called the Word and Levelling the Land (four songs from each).
Nearly all of it is a treat. “The Cholera Well”, “Last Man Alive”, “Make You Happy”, “Before the End” and too many other tracks to name have snuck by me in the past. Thanks to Greatest Hits, I am reacquainted with them. The compilers wisely included many non-album moments like the single “Bozos”, the 1998 rerecording of “One Way”, a cover of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and the single versions of “Julie” and “Just the One” (the former is missing the sampled jam at the end and the latter is has more verses to it). The Steve Osborne mix of “Too Real” doesn’t mask the single’s intensity, which is good news for everyone. Bonus tracks include “A Life Less Ordinary”, “We Are All Gunmen” (which I really dig), “After the Hurricane” and the 1991 recording of “One Way” that I mentioned earlier. There is a live recording of “Exodus” which, as best as I can tell, is not the same one that’s on the 1996 live album Headlights, White Lines, Black Tar Rivers. Inifial pressings of Levelling the Land didn’t include the sing “Fifteen Years”. After the single did so well on the charts, it was included on subsequent pressings. “Fifteen Years” now kicks off Greatest Hits.
But I have to question why a band as strong as the Levellers chose to celebrate their 25 years together by inviting other guest artists to come into the studio and help record inferior versions of some of their songs. When I hear Imelda May sing “What a Beautiful Day”, I find myself parroting the chorus from the previous track—“the way things were is the way I want to be” indeed. Frank Turner’s take on “Julie” isn’t as terrible, but he did drain “Julie” of her all her mystery. Who was Julie? Why was she so sad all of the time? Why didn’t she make more of an effort to be happy? And why should you care with such pedestrian music? Bellowhead adds nothing to “Just the One” that the Levellers circa 1995 didn’t do better already. Billy Bragg sounds good on “Hope Street” but the band transposed the tune to a new key for him. It’s the most palatable of the four revisits, though it is missing a noticeable amount of vinegar.
Hey, that’s what a skip button is for. And all of the shuffling and skipping in the world can’t diminish the fact that the Levellers were and still are a damn fine band. They were a socially conscious band that realized the dangers and/or futilities of preaching (“All the problems in the world / Won’t be solved by this guitar”). They wrote relentlessly catchy songs and played their ass off onstage. They also never released a dog album. They have stayed true to their vision of blending British folk, Celtic and Britpop to make exciting music for the masses. If only the masses were able to tune in. Wait, can’t a greatest hits package help with that? Sure it can, you just need no filler. Maybe next time.
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