The Levellers rock up to a sold-out Brixton Academy to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their seminal masterpiece Levelling The Land. But has it stood the test of time? VF founder Steve Jenner investigates...
It seems you were no-one in the nineties if you’re not now trotting out some kind of nostalgia tour celebrating your seminal album (make that three in one go if you’re Suede) or, if you were more of a singles act like Shed Seven, just a good old greatest hits reunion. Terrorvision did it a couple of weeks back. Primal Scream are bringing theirs to Brixton via Screamadelica this week. But it’s a dangerous game to play. Once you’ve cashed-in those chips and sold more tickets than your last five tours combined, your career is only going in one direction thereafter. Us thirty and forty-somethings do love to rekindle the good old days… but seldom more than once or twice.
And so it seemed The Levellers were consigning themselves to the same track, when they announced their Levelling The Land tour in honour of the 1991 album that propelled them into mass consciousness. Sure enough, it became their hottest ticket for decades, selling out fast across the UK to make them the most successful British touring act of 2011 so far. And that’s where the parallels end.
Let’s rewind briefly to the early nineties. In the dirgey wake of American grunge, The Levellers put the heart and colour back into protest rock, echoing everything that was magnificent and timeless about the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and The Clash back in their heydays, but rebooted to fit the present time. They proved such a breath of fresh air that the nation rapidly elevated them from a cult indie act (sharing cider with the likes of Carter USM and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin) to the biggest rock band in the UK. They really did hold this title for a brief time in 1994 and they will probably always hold the record for playing to the largest ever crowd at Glastonbury during their headline set in June of that year (estimated to be as high as 500,000). Sadly it was to be a short-lived love affair. The band wanted to rally against the Criminal Justice Bill at a time when the populace just wanted a frivolous Britpop party instead. Both sides stuck to their guns; the masses quickly disowned them and the band went back to Brighton and resumed cult status for the next 17 years, popping up at theatre-level venues and independent festivals, their flame kept alive throughout by a loyal following of those they touched the deepest back in the day.
Back then they would open their live shows with a rousing video montage depicting the various strands of contemporary civil unrest – poll tax riots, the first Gulf War, the police coming down brutally on rave culture and new age travellers – showing us some of the reasons why we needed them at the time.
Fast forward twenty years: To thunderous initial applause, the same format is resurrected to launch tonight’s show, augmenting footage from the original video with updates from the last two decades. As scenes of Thatcher merging into Blair, 9/11, 7/7, Iraq, Afganistan and now Libya unfolds, the crowd noise fades into the sound of a few thousand pennies dropping. If we needed The Levellers that much 20 years ago, how much more do we need them now?
Then an almighty roar heralds the arrival of the band on-stage, the four stately figures of Jon, Simon, Mark and Jeremy lining up along the front of the stage with drummer Charlie and keyboardist Matt (the only one who didn’t play on the album) positioned behind.
With no prior greeting, Mark suddenly yells “There’s only one…” and the band’s most celebrated anthem launches the set into the stratosphere. The high-octane start continues with The Game and 15 Years (during which the crowd’s singing frequently drowns out the band).
For a bunch of old folk-punks, although they can be as shambolic as the best of them at times, these boys do scrub up well and rise to an occasion. Dropping the tempo gracefully for a serene Boatman, there’s a majestic quality to the band; they project a dignified grandeur in the face of a world that has repaid their long dedication to saving it with little more than decades of frosty indifference.
A storming Liberty and evocative Far From Home complete the first side of the album and then it’s time for four b-sides, starting with Hard Fight and concluding with, as Mark introduces it, “our ill-advised comedy cover version” – an absolutely stunning The Devil Went Down To Georgia.
Other than that, there’s no banter between numbers; they let the songs themselves do all the talking, and how those songs can talk, more loudly now than ever. Simon’s backing shouts of “Fight and die!” in the crescendo of Another Man’s Cause are jarring in their topical poignancy. Sell Out has lost none of its resonance over the years and Battle Of The Beanfield sounds as fresh now as it ever did, reminding us that nothing has changed for the better since the sorry episode it recounts.
For all that they reveal is wrong with the world, what makes The Levellers so fiercely endearing is the way they balance this with such a powerful and uplifting sense of hope, which takes the roof off during The Road and Riverflow. For all their righteousness, there’s no bigger hooley than a Levellers concert – more fool the idiots who ditched them for the likes of Cast, Catatonia, Space and Ocean Colour Scene back in the day.
As the band leave the stage, and before they return to see the night out with a selection of gems from their other albums, we are left to reflect briefly on the sheer brilliance of that record, one that has not only survived the test of time but, like the band themselves, has matured into a more vital and potent force now than it ever was. Tonight was no re-run; it was round two.
Click here to see our interview with the band before they went on-stage.
The Levelling The Land 20th Anniversary Tour rolls on with dates at Leicester O2 Academy (12 May), Sheffield O2 Academy (13 May) and a return to London’s Brixton Academy (14 May).
Click here to buy tickets.
The Levellers will also headline Beautiful Days 2011 alongside Carter USM, Big Audio Dynamite and Gogol Bordello at Escot Park, Devon from 19-21 August.
Click here to buy Beautiful Days tickets.
The full set-list was:
Boatman + Didgeridoo appendix
Far From Home
Dance Before The Storm
Last Days of Winter
Devil Went Down to Georgia
Another Man’s Cause
Battle Of The Beanfield