“We refuse to believe how shit we are, so we just keep going”, says Mark Chadwick in the lead up to this release. It’s a typically self-deprecating statement from their frontman, of a band that has defied critics and some sort of logic to continue to make a good living out of what they do. Lest we forget, they came from the alt-punk/folk/squat scenes in Brighton at the tail end of the 80s, perhaps the least commercially viable music you could think of, when Margaret Thatcher and conservatism was at their political zenith. They instinctively voiced the discontent, the fears, the hopes and dreams and aspirations of countless people: those having to deal with, and concerned with, the consequences of a deepening inequality, rising social tensions, and a zealous commitment to rolling back liberal democracy from powerful forces. Sound familiar?
Fast forward to the here and now and The Levellers continue to operate in a toxic atmosphere of biting austerity, rising inequality, nasty nationalism and racism. They have, in short, stuck to their guns, and not watered down their fundamentally principled and communal-based music and lyricism that continues to fight for our rights, our freedom, our land.
So, this journey is a reminder of the power of music, the power of the word, and the huge respect that The Levellers have earned over the years, even from former critics and naysayers (of which there were many). We The Collective is made up of ten tracks, recorded ‘live’ at Abbey Road, eight of which are re-workings of some of their best known, and most potent songs, plus a couple of excellent new tracks. With John Leckie at the production controls, and with the deployment of an intuitive string section that includes Brightonians Hannah Miller of The Moulettes, and Mike Simmonds of the Alice Russell Band, and The Mountain Firework Company, The Levellers wanted to radically re-imagine their earlier work. Turning them into semi-acoustic songs with an orchestral edge, they’ve taken things a step further from the ’acoustic’ gigs that they occasionally do. And for the greater part, those classic songs haven’t lost their edge through some kind of softening. Indeed, in some instances, they’ve become even more powerful, situated in the here and now of 2018. They’ve switched off the hyper, full folk-punk throttle that informs much of their early work, enabling the songs to breathe a little more, in interesting and vibrant ways.
It’s there on lead track ‘Exodus’, originally released on their number one album, Zeitgeist: “It’s simple because it is the people / Fighting for and claiming what remains / And dreaming, this is not dreaming / This is the exodus from the game / We’re the solution, should be respected,” sings Chadwick, aided by just strings, bass drums and voices, for a radical re-working of this passionate call to fight for justice, rights, and a commitment to the future.
It’s also there on ‘Liberty Song’, originally released back in ’91, a gentle country-folk-tinged acoustic re-working of that big hearted, stomping anthem, with sprinklings of banjo, strings and percussion. On ‘England My Home’, Chadwick still sounds like he really means it: his voice one of passion and urgency as he sings about this country, a reminder that for all the pessimism and cynicism that he sometimes possesses, it cannot ravage his desire to be a positive part of a place steeped in a dense, often violent, but also vibrant history, as weeping and bleeding strings at the end only add to the fighting spirit of the sentiments. Their new version of ’Hope Street’, another of their timeless songs from Zeitgeist, is less strident than the original, but the lyrics continue to shine a light on those struggling to cope. Its social realism may seem dark and unforgiving, but here The Levellers’ lighter musicality provides some kind of optimism, while ‘Dance Before the Storm’ has been slowed down, becoming more foreboding in sound than the original, which had an upbeat, and dare I say it, calm-before-the-storm quality to it.
On some songs, The Levellers don’t change things so much. Such as on Simon Friend’s ‘Elation’, whose brooding and atmospheric droning folk on the original is partially matched here, albeit with a very out-of-character harpsichord providing the foundation, before the strings carry the song for the second half.
Both new tracks, ’The Shame’ and ‘Drug Bust McGee’, are fine additions to The Levellers’ canon; Friend does a good Frank Turner imitation (although of course Turner does a bloody good imitation of the band), while Chadwick’s ‘Drug Bust McGee’ is a no punches pulled amalgamation of experiences – some his own – of the dirty tactics undercover police employ in the ‘service’ of the nation. It is, despite the passing years, a strong indication that succinct social and political commentary are what The Levellers do best, aided by an ear for a melody, unfussy playing, and a super-tight democratic band ethos.
Then we get to closing track ‘One Way’, perhaps their definitive song, a massive anthem that never fails to rally those who attend their highly spirited gigs. It’s, on the surface, uplifting positivity of a remarkable force, despite the gloomy atmosphere that informs part of the song: “There’s only one way of life / And that’s your own… And we choked on our dreams / We wrestled with our fears”. It’s a remarkable tribute to the band that they don’t deal with platitudes, nor superficial positivity. There is a strong streak of realism at work throughout their repertoire, but which is crucially empowered with a desire to fight to the bitter end. What else is there to do? There’s only one way.