When I was ten years old, I had my fourth, truly life changing, music orientated experience. I remember it as if it were yesterday. My sister, two and a half years my senior, had been given a tape as a present by a friend at school; I’d heard her talking to my parents about it. I’ll clarify here that a lot has changed in the twenty five years between then and now and back then, we used to gather around the record player and listen to my Dad’s old LP’s together as a family. There were still only four channels on the telly and no internet; the shared experience of listening to music, be it recorded or played by one of us on the piano in the living room (I’m very lucky that said piano sits in my music room now and I regularly find my children bashing away at it with the gleeful abandon and creative force that only toddlers can produce) was very much a part of family life for my sister and I growing up and conversation about it was common.
I’ll confess that despite the constant presence of music in the house I was pretty oblivious to anything going on in the charts but I knew what I liked and focused on it intently; as I did with this tape of my sister’s once I got my hands on it. Now, getting my hands on it was not so easy; despite my sister being seemingly indifferent to the musical content of this cassette, she was incredibly unwilling to let me borrow it.
I took my opportunity to snaffle the treasure from under her nose while she was downstairs making conversation with our parents. I niftily snuck into her bedroom, found the box where I knew she kept her tapes and located it amongst her carefully ordered collection of cassettes; Michael Jackson featuring heavily among them (One of my most enduring musical memories is my despair at my sister singing along to these tapes. Not because she was a terrible singer necessarily but more because she generally didn’t have a clue what the lyrics were and would just chuck whatever words she thought would fill the gap into the mix; leading her to create all kinds of utter bollocks that drove me up the wall). I took a quick look at the handwritten message on the cassette cover
“Levellers: A Weapon Called The Word + Other Bits”
Opening the case revealed a track listing which I quickly scanned over and tried to memorise as I wouldn’t have the luxury of referencing it while actually listening to the cassette. In order to prevent (or at least delay) my sister from detecting the theft I swapped the tape within for my copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits, which my Dad had recorded from his CD for me and I had damned near worn out. I adored that album but was willing to go without it for a time in order to sample something new.
With the cassette case back in its place and the box returned to its rightful spot in the cubby hole of my sister’s desk, I slipped the stolen tape in my pocket and carefully and quietly returned to my own room; victorious!
Up to this point there was still the distinct possibility of an anti-climax to my endeavours; I could get caught out before having the chance to play the tape, or worse I could play it and not like it. But you all know, due to the existence of this blog that there was no disappointment in what I found within that tape; no anti -climax, but a truly life altering and life affirming experience.
As the combination of electric guitars and swirling violins that announce the opening to “World Freak Show”, the first track on the album, crashed into my ears, my horizons automatically broadened. Suddenly the scratching and squalling sounds of my sister practising the violin in the room next door made sense to me. They might start as awful, dissonant, amateurish howls but they could be nurtured into something meaningful and beautiful, like those coming out of the speakers during that song (I should stress here that my sister is indeed now a truly exceptional violinist! If you want to sample her work then give the two albums by the band Spokes a listen and you'll see what I mean). The myriad references to weighty social issues of the day may have been completely beyond my understanding but they planted seeds that have since grown (I have always accredited my decision to study politics at university to the music I listened to rather than anything I learned at school).
I listened to that whole album in rapture; my state of wonder reaching its absolute peak upon hearing a live version of “One Hundred Years of Solitude”(from their 1993 self titled effort) recorded onto side 2 of the cassette, the power of that track just about blew my tiny, ten year old brain out of its skull! (this is now easily available on the Levellers Live at Manchester Arena album and I still reckon it stands as one of the finest live tracks on record).
Now I can forgive you for being slightly incredulous to all this, especially if you’re reading this as someone born post Y2K. The mystique I’ve imbibed this tape with, both now in this recounting and in my ten year old brain before I had even listened to it probably seems absolutely ridiculous to anyone growing up today. So let me try and give a bit of context.
As I’ve said earlier I grew up in a time that really wasn’t all that long ago, but which seems inconceivable to huge swathes of the population now. The words “no internet” are enough to strike disbelief and outright fear into most children, let alone teenagers now. Add in “no mobile phones” and “four channels on the telly” and you have the modern day teenagers depiction of pure hell! Now I’m not going all Boomer on you but these things are necessary to put into context how the experience I’ve just recounted could possibly be as life altering as I have professed it to be. Those four channels really mattered back then as they were the average household’s fastest connection to the world beyond their own personal reach and the primary means by which popular culture could be accessed and absorbed. Radio, newspapers and magazines a close second. And that was it. Beyond that, your only means of finding out about things was what you heard from other people by going out into the world and engaging with the people you met. So cultural experiences were more profound by default; because they were less common and harder to access.
Access to music now is something that’s easy to be flippant about; we have streaming services which instantaneously beam music into our ears at the touch of a button, or upon a spoken command to a disembodied voice, sat silently in the corner of our rooms, always listening and harvesting goodness knows what details about our private lives. There’s no need to go out and buy a tape or a CD anymore (admittedly the vinyl revival is a wonderful thing, but it has been born out of a nostalgic fashion trend rather than a necessity); no need to run the gamut of forking out for a whole album based either on rampant, oblivious fandom or the strength of one banging single only to be hideously let down by the convoluted mess within(I have never forgiven Stereophonics for putting me through this with “Just Enough Education To Perform”… but I suppose they have at least had the decency to be consistently woeful since so as anyone buying their records knows they’re buying dross in advance and therefore can’t complain when that’s what they get!).
What really scares me are the endless playlists that streaming services force down our throats every second of the day. Part of the joy of being an obsessive music fan is the feeling of discovery, of happening across something new and feeling, if only for a moment that you’ve happened across something just for you; as I experienced when I listened to this tape for the first time. I can’t help but feel that the Spotify generation is deprived of this thanks to a constant barrage of “you listened to this so now you might like this…” suggestion playlists; click bait that starts a process begun by an algorithm which initially interprets your interests then ends by dominating and dictating them and that makes me very sad.
I mentioned earlier that it was the fourth (of many); I remember the three that preceded it equally as well.
- Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – I can remember hearing this for the first time thanks to my dad playing his vinyl copy as my sister and I listened. She was listening specifically for the track “When I’m Sixty Four” which she was due to perform with the school choir; I, younger and not good enough to be picked for the choir was listening because there was nothing else to do. I would have been about six and the record made an instant connection with me. The strangeness of it; the melancholy matched with an overarching sense of fun was mesmerising to my young ears.
- Queen, Greatest Hits – When I was seven or eight my Mum gave my Dad this album for Christmas. I can’t remember why, but I remember having a preconceived dislike of the band, despite having never heard them before. That notion went right out the window after the closing note of Bohemian Rhapsody finished whispering in my ear, after I had sat through its five or so minutes, absolutely dazzled. Fifteen years or so later it would be the song that played my Dad’s coffin into the furnace and it was never in doubt that it would be the tune to see him off.
- A Design For Life by Manic Street Preachers – The Manics hold equal esteem in my musical loves to the Levellers. I came to both bands in very different ways and the Manics pipped the Levs by a year. For a long time I didn’t have a clue who the song was by and what it was actually called; I just remember hearing it in the car with my Mum while going for the weekly trip to the swimming pool on a Thursday evening after school. It did something indefinable to me and although I wouldn’t rank it as my favourite Manic’s track it will forever have a place in my heart for being my gateway to all their other material. Every time it came on the radio, be it in the car or in the house my Mum and I would sing along to the chorus; oblivious to the profundity of the words it contained; swept along on the wave of those glorious strings…
All of these experiences were profound for me, to the point where I can remember them in what you probably consider to be excruciating detail. So why does number four matter more. For the simple, but important fact that all of the preceding experiences were shared with others; number four was mine; and mine alone.
Since that first listen, the Levellers have been a constant in my life. Like I said before I’m an obsessive fan, so I have tracked down all kinds of oddities and rarities in whatever form I’ve been able to get hold of them. I own DVD’s, CD’s, Vinyl’s, Cassettes, VHS’ and the official biography. I have mined every resource for information, interviews, reviews… the list goes on. I have seen them live more times than I can count or even remember; often travelling stupid distances to see them. Most of the time they’ve been great, sometimes they’ve been hilariously shit; but they’ve always been worth the price of admission. When my now wife and I first met nine years ago, a shared love of the Levellers was one of the common threads between us that drew us together and ended up being one of the things that kept us together. In 2013, on the verge of splitting up (not for a lack of love for each other but due to work committments that meant we just hardly saw each other) we went to the Levellers festival Beautiful Days down in Devon together and came back rejuvenated and newly determined to make things work out.
I may be an obsessive fan but I am not one who blindly declares that everything they’ve ever done is brilliant; they’ve dropped plenty of clangers in their time and several times I have been disappointed by what they’ve put out (I still can’t decide whether I think current album “Peace” ranks as a good album yet and I find 2018’s “We The Collective” pretty much unlistenable). Neither however, am I a purist snob that can’t see any value in their post 90’s output. I’d happily argue 2008’s “Letters From The Underground” album is potentially their finest work. Made 20 years after their formation and packing all the things that make them a great band into a set of songs which perfectly encapsulate the dangerous apathy of the time it was made and which now appear to have been terrifyingly prophetic of the darkness that would unfold over the decade and a bit since its release. Listen to "Heart Of The Country" and tell me it is not the perfect summation of 2020 for huge swathes of the population.
“We’re dying in restricted zones, at the heart of this country, disowned”
A full breakdown of that album’s dark majesty is definitely owed it, but that’s an article for another day. This article; now that you’ve survived the pre-amble, is focused on a record from their 90’s heyday.
The Levellers released the “Zeitgeist” album, their fourth; on 28th August 1995. It had been preceded by its lead single and opening track “Hope Street” a month before, which set the tone for the album nicely. Featuring all the socially conscious lyrics and fiddle driven melody that is the Levellers trademark, whilst boasting a huge sounding production and enormous hard rock riff, Hope Street, in spite of the melancholy edge to its lyrics was a clear signal the sun was shining in the Levellers camp once more.
For those not in the know, the self-titled album which preceded Zeitgeist, released in 1993 was a dark and claustrophobic affair, created by a disparate and fractured band who were exhausted by a relentless touring schedule; constant attacks from the music press and from dealing with the fallout of bassist Jeremy Cunningham’s addiction to heroin. Despite all this the album contains plenty of great songs, many of which stand as fan favourites to this day and feature regularly in live setlists; what hampers it most is the terrible production job done on it, to call it lacking clarity would be generous; muddy, too kind; “a band recorded while playing at the bottom of a peat bog”… accurate, if harsh.
Levellers and Zeitgeist are night and day in terms of how different they are from one another; in mood, in sound, in just about every way possible, (the one exception to this being Zeitgeist’s second track, “The Fear”) but most notably in its cohesion and confidence. The general air of Zeitgeist is of a band in fine fettle (as close to a well oiled machine as the Levs would ever get); who know they’re sitting on a fat pile of banging tunes, knocking them out with ease and loving it.
There are many factors which contributed to the generally much more positive air of Zeitgeist in contrast to its predecessor but the most fundamental being the acquisition of the Metway; a derelict factory, formerly dedicated to the production of watches. Here they built themselves a studio, housed their offices and those of organisations aligned with their anarchist beliefs; as well as a bar where they hosted parties which have become the stuff of legend (or at least local folklore and the subject of the song “Your ‘Ouse” which appears as a track on the “Just The One” EP). The Metway provided the band with what they had, up to this point lacked; a safe base to operate from, working on their own terms away from the prying eyes of the insidious, music industry A&R men; who in the 90’s hunted musicians in the fashion of the Nazgul in search of ring-bearing hobbits. The Metway has become in many ways the heart of the band; the 2003 fan club issued DVD “Fire in The House” provides a lovely glimpse of it as a thriving hub of creativity and the 2013 documentary “A Curious Life” offers a brief showing of the Metway’s underbelly as Jeremy delves into the archive stored there.
In 2014, my then fiancé and I went to Brighton for a long weekend and I organised a Levellers themed pub crawl through the city, visiting the establishments that had been significant in the story of the band. The crawl ended at The Round Georges; a cosy establishment at the Sutherland Road end of Canning Street in Kemptown. At the other end of the street, where it joins Walpole Terrace is The Metway, nestled snugly in the corner. The Georges was only included on the crawl because of its proximity to the Metway; a drink in the studio’s illustrious bar sadly not being an option. Now; trekking far out of the city centre, half cut, in hammering rain whilst not really being too sure of where you’re going and up against the clock for getting a last pint in; all in order to stand at the gates of a building that you can’t enter, where your musical heroes sometimes mill about probably sounds bat shit mental to a lot of you, but to my wife and I it made absolute sense; so much so that it is a feat we repeated a year later when we honeymooned in Brighton and once again, on the last night of our stay made the pilgrimage to those hallowed gates. We stepped up the crazy fan behaviour on that visit by standing, for what was probably an unhealthy amount of time, outside the bassists flat wondering whether we should pluck up the courage to knock on the door and ask for an autograph. We decided against it… and that’s probably a very good thing.
So; why talk about this now?
Well, a couple of weeks ago the Levellers re-released the album, packaged up with all kinds of extra bonus goodies. It’s not the first they’ve re-released it and it might not be the last. It’s also not the first time I have bought it. I have bought Zeitgeist more times than any other record. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve bought any other record more than once. The reasons for my multiple purchases of this particular album are varied and include losing it; gifting it to a friend; loaning it to someone else and then never getting it back… the list goes on; that I have continually re-purchased the record is hopefully testament to what should be obvious by now, I absolutely adore this album! It beautifully encapsulates everything that is great about the Levellers and frames it perfectly within a production that suits the band’s sound better than any they have had since; sorry Sean Lakeman (The exception to this is 2000’s Hello Pig; but that’s a story for another day). It manages to be very much of its time; whilst being timeless. As with all the best of the Levellers works; the lyrical content of pretty much all the songs on Zeitgeist is as relevant, if not more so today, as at the time of its release. Testament to the greatness of the record is that it managed to reach No. 1 in the album charts a week after its release. It’s the highest chart position the Levellers ever achieved and is a serious feat for a band who were hated and ignored by the music press; a press who were dominant back in 1995 in a way that’s probably inconceivable to those born post Y2K.
For all of its towering achievements upon its initial release; perhaps the biggest testament to the greatness of Zeitgeist is the clear influence it still has on the band themselves to this day.
When the band first started teasing the “Peace” album, released last year, it was with an image of a phoenix that seriously concerned me. The Levellers have had a number of logos and symbols associated with them over the years; the most enduring being those of the “Rolling Anarchy” and “Evil Sun”; so it wasn’t surprising to see them chuck a new motif into the mix, but the styling of it filled me with dread. Whereas their other logos are, to anyone with any knowledge of the Levellers artwork, immediately recognisable as what one might term, “The Levellers style”, The phoenix logo looked like a rejected propaganda poster from the Hunger Games films and filled me with dread that the Lev’s had lost the plot and were about to have a go at industrial, electro – folk prog on us and fail miserably. I’ll state again, I am not a purist that demands every Levellers song to sound like “One Way”; I loved the experimentation of the “Hello Pig” album, which was spot on and even applaud their adventurous attempt to meld their folk-rock sound with an electro-tinged production on “Truth And Lies”. (I say “attempt” as the production of that album rendered some quite good songs unlistenable and resulted in what is sadly, a messy pile of shite! Listen to the live version of “Wheels” on the “Brighton Rock” album for a glimpse of what could have been). It is just that the new Phoenix logo gave out all the wrong signals to me; so I was pleasantly surprised when they released the artwork proper for Peace. It depicts the phoenix from the new, hyper-modern logo but rendered in classic Levellers style (when I say Levellers style, what I really mean is Jeremy Cunningham, their bass player’s style as he does all their artwork for them) and bearing far more than a passing resemblance to the cover of Zeitgeist. The similarities don’t stop there either. There are numerous parallels that can be drawn between Zeitgeist and Peace; lyrical, thematic, musical; at times it almost feels like the band were using Zeitgeist as a map of sorts to help guide them through the process of putting Peace together; it feels too much of a coincidence that track two on Zeitgeist is titled “The Fear” and on Peace “Generation Fear”.
It is important to point out here that Peace is without a doubt its own thing and by no means a re-hash of Zeitgeist; I just can’t help but have the feeling that the band were giving some pretty explicit nods to it. Fundamentally, the chief difference between the two is that Zeitgeist remains; for all Peace’s merits, (of which there are plenty) a far superior album. There are no bad songs on Zeitgeist, whereas Peace has some pretty forgettable moments. The delicate balance of being fun and relaxed, whilst tightly cohesive that Zeitgeist effortlessly strikes is not replicated on Peace. Where Zeitgeist flows, Peace lurches…
There is plenty more I could say, but for now, I won’t. Having introduced you in excruciating detail to my love of the Levellers and the Zeitgeist album in particular; I’ll leave you to digest it and if you’re not familiar with the band and the album, go and check them out. Even if you listen to their music and decide it’s not for you, I would highly recommend you watch the documentary film “A Curious Life” which serves as a fascinating insight into a band that have without a doubt defied convention purely by coming into being; and more so by daring to still exist.