Levellers are a glorious anachronism. They exist in a golden bubble of time between about 1989 and 1994, a crusty pocket of resistance to a brand of Thatcherite British politics that until recent months was a distant bad memory.
The agit-prop folk-rockers evoke images of travellers, the poll tax riots, dogs on strings, free parties, dreadlocks, dungarees, dope and acid. Idealistic lyrics about sticking it to the man and “circled As on the underpass” appealed to lower-middle class white teenagers looking to rebel against our drab suburban existence.
Their fanbase has grown old with them and the average age of the Birmingham O2 Academy crowd on a Thursday night is nudging late 30s. We’ve grown out our undercuts, shorn our dreads and (hopefully) burned the tie-dye t-shirts. I spot more than a few fifty-somethings dotted around too.
I’m always vulnerable to nostalgia when I go back to the town where I grew up and little visited since leaving long ago. It’s to be a night that’s increasingly backward looking.
The feeling of having stepped back in time starts with The Wonder Stuff defying the years with a high energy set leaning heavily on debut album Eight Legged Groove Machine (their best). I missed the first half of their set due to transport woes but songs like Give, Give, Give, Me More More More and A Wish Away are full of piss and vinegar and a blast to hear again.
The nostalgic vibe intensifies with the video projections that introduce Levellers. Maggie Thatcher? The miners’ strike? What year is this again?
It’s 1992. Like so many 90s acts at the moment, Levellers are touring their best-loved album, in this case Levelling The Land.
I’m grateful. I’ve not seen them live since 1994 and not bothered with any albums since that year’s reasonable eponymous follow-up to this night’s entertainment. I’ve probably listened to their classic first two albums a handful of times at most in 17 years.
And yet – like everyone else in the room – I still know all the words. It’s a joyful experience. From the first notes of One Way to Battle of the Beanfield in the encore, we belt out these anthems like our lives depend on it. With big goofy grins, we shed the weight of years and feel like fresh-faced teenagers again.
Levellers may be older and fatter but they haven’t lost an ounce of live power. Sometimes slight on record, they are a force of nature on stage. Throbbing, heavy bass, hyperactive fiddle and fiery folk guitars combine to keep everyone alternately jigging and moshing, despite our creaky bones.
For a gig like this, so entwined with nostalgia, the highlights are bound to be personal. Another Man’s Cause, Liberty Song and 15 Years were teenage favourites and it was wonderful to hear them again, undiminished by time.
[Sorry it’s not the whole song but it’s got good sound and gives an impression of the band’s live energy, even if Mark’s singing is a bit off.]
Since the show I have been on a bit of a Levellers binge and it’s amazing how well their first two albums have aged. Listen to the mournful violin and shimmering mandolin of The Road – especially in the final bars – and the moving refrain of “the words that you heard when you were young will always stay / the ones that always stay make the world go away”. It was fantastic then and it’s fantastic now.
Have a listen to Levelling The Land and 1990’s A Weapon Called The Word. Outside of fleeting fashions and shifting notions of cool, these two records are stuffed to the gills with timeless blood-stirring stompers, gentle ballads and fist-pumping anthems that shouldn’t ever be forgotten. You’ll either love them or loathe them, I guarantee it. Unless you are dead inside of course. Then I can’t help you.