Levellers: Greatest Hits

Behold, the largest compilation of music by UK heavyweights the Levellers or, Just Let the Band Do the Singing.


Greatest Hits

Label: On the Fiddle
US Release Date: 2014-12-02
UK Release Date: 2014-09-29
Artist website

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.