The opening bars of Last Man Alive bewildered just a smidgen. Drums, vocals in the background… and where have I heard that beat? Got it! The B52s‘ Loveshack! It’s gone in a flash, and the song gets going with aggressive guitars and Jon Sevink’s trademark fiddle. Panic over – we know we’re listening to a new Levellers album.
The band’s familiar arrangements cause reflection. I remember first hearing this lot as a sixth former and adoring A Weapon Called The World and Levelling The Land. The Boatman, which would go on to be a festival favourite, and the powerful 15 Years, were just two of many top-notch classic tracks.
And suddenly, Levellers have been around for over 15 years – years in which these campfire politicians, with penchants for singalong statements, have helped several excellent bands along the rocky road to success. The band’s Metway studio in Brighton has played host – for free, with their Metway Sessions – to Electrelane, British Sea Power, Electric Soft Parade and Clearlake to name but four. Their largesse is indicative of a band with a point, of people with conscience, who believe everyone can make a difference. The proof’s out there – they can, and have.
Their public quite like them too, if record sales is anything to go by. Levellers had more platinum, gold and silver disks than any other act in the UK during the 1990s and have backed that brow-raising fact with eight top 20 singles. They have sold millions of records and played thousands of gigs. In 2002 they launched Beautiful Days, their own music festival – becoming the first band to do so since Fairport Convention launched Cropredy in the 1970s. Bands don’t cut it like this without being just a bit special. But is their defining social conscience and angsty passion still discernible on Truth and Lies, their eighth studio record?
Mark Chadwick’s political lyrics and angry vocals are still the perfect foil for the band’s good time folk-rock musical leanings. They get the balance of rip-roaring singalong and social agitation just right with the chorus of lead single Make U Happy: “I would love to make you happy, but I’m busy with my mind / I would love to make your world right / I need your help and you need mine.”
But there are better songs here. Knot Around The World and Wheels are the hollering standouts, while Confess ploughs a more reflective musical furrow with fiddle FX over guitar and suggests a heavy take on The Boatman. Lyrically, Chadwick is happy with his lot: “I’ve lived my life the best / every second to defy / Will nobody that was ever here / Grieve me when I die.”
Elsewhere, Who’s The Daddy, as close to a title track as we get, mixes edgy minor-chord verses with a singalong chorus, ending up almost as two songs stuck together. It’s a political wake-up call to the sleeping masses: “Guess who’s the daddy / Who’s really in control / Who’s got your number / Who owns your soul.” Closing track Sleeping hammers similar thoughts home in no uncertain terms, while For Us All swaggers along as impressively as anything the band have produced.
And what’s this? Piano? Steel Knife gives the impression of wanting to embrace a baggy beat but instead showcases Matt Savage’s handy talent for tinkling the ivories. He contributes an uplifting vocal harmony too before playing off against Sevink’s fiddle.
With everyone from Coldplay to Nicole Kidman getting all activistic these days and overrunning the universe with wristbands, it’s easy to forget that Levellers – along with Billy Bragg – were the ones who started activism, heaving at the gates with their “political” music right back when Mad Maggie sold off Britain. The good news is, Chadwick and co are still here with us, fighting the good fight, and they’re as relevant now as ever. What’s more, they’re just as much fun – Truth and Lies is Levellers’ best album since their Glasto-headlining heyday.