LEVELLERS – Greatest Hits

LevellersIn the 1970s greatest hits collections were a quick way for record companies to bundle together previously released material under the pretence that it was a celebration of a band’s career up to a particular point.  These were not usually so much a celebration as a way to make a quick buck, but whatever the justification, such releases rarely troubled the more serious record buyer.  In the late 80s, the game changed when record companies began to pad such collections out with two or three unreleased tracks, not only ensuring the collection of singles would sell to a more casual listener, but also hoping it would tempt the long term fan into that extra purchase.  Such practice became common.

Not all greatest hits styled packages are cynical products without merit, of course.  Once in a while, a band anthology will come along that’s a valid artistic statement and not merely a money-making tool.  For example, Mark Lanegan’s 2014 compilation ‘Has God Seen My Shadow’ couples a retrospective disc with twelve previously unreleased songs.  In other cases – as per stuff from the Rhino label – compilations are put together with such love and care that even in the event of there not being many unreleased nuggets, the packaging and booklet essays make them valid artistic statements.  In this scenario, anthologies like Tim Buckley’s ‘Morning Glory’ or Sweetwater’s ‘Cycles’ are a cut above the bog-standard “best of” release,  preferable to those whacked out by a major label in the hope of striking gold.  …And what exactly is a “best of” anyway?  The compiler’s choices are often unlikely to meet your own expectations.

Thankfully, the Levellers ‘Greatest Hits’ collection – issued to mark two and a half decades of work from Brighton’s favourite sons – is no cheap, cynical cash in.  It’s not quickly thrown together in the hope of making easy money; every care has been taken to ensure this release marks such an occasion in a manner most appropriate.  For the first time, each of the singles to date are available in one place and, what’s more, four specially commissioned recordings are included – but these are no mere leftovers dragged up to add extra interest for the die-hards, but collaborations with musical fans and like-minded souls (more of whom later).  If, to some of you, that sounds just a little too much like the old model of adding a little new interest to gain extra sales, hang fire before getting too cynical.  For the long time fans and followers, there’s a huge jewel in this particular collection’s crown: the inclusion of an almost full set of promo clips, most of which haven’t seen release on DVD previously.    Twenty-four videos in all, filmed between 1989-2014 – including clips for each of each the four specially recorded tracks presented on shiny silver disc –  that alone makes this anthology worth investigating.

Albeit presented in a non-chronological order (presumably to allow tunes from the more overlooked era a fairer chance of re-evaluation), hearing all of the singles in this way acts as a useful reminder of how many great Levellers singles there have actually been, even some of those recorded after their commercial peak.  Ignoring the fact that there are still many gems tucked away on studio albums, so many of their tunes extracted for radio play set an incredibly high standard.  Varied in mood, too:  there’s a musical gulf between the oft heard, pop-tinged ‘What a Beautiful Day’, the lesser-known angry jig ‘Cholera Well’ and ‘Belarus’ – one of the band’s few dalliances with metal riffs.  At first it appears slightly unsettling hearing those well worn tracks like ‘One Way’(presented here in its 1998 incarnation) and ‘World Freakshow’ nestled alongside more obscure tracks such as ‘Bozos’ and the none-too-subtle ‘Burn America Burn’, but all come together in fine form indeed.

What is interesting – especially hearing these numbers from different eras together – is that Mark Chadwick’s voice has barely changed over the years.  Sure, there are times with the Levellers – as is the case with all bands with such a long lifespan – where the heart doesn’t appear as full, perhaps the music not as passionate, but his voice is always unmistakable. On the best material, his delivery is a rallying cry, whether inviting everyone to join the jig or to identify with socio-political statements.   For the yet-to-be-fans and more casual listeners, no stone is left unturned with regard to what has been presented here single-wise – and, in particular, it’s a joy to hear the single version of ‘Just The One’ in all its debauched glory.  The ‘Zeitgeist’ album track seems little more than a jug band drunken interlude; the single release by comparison is more structured.  An extra verse, more piano and a kazoo solo all there for your enjoyment and adding greatly to an already memorable hook.  The other ‘Zeitgeist’ singles sound just as fresh: ‘Fantasy’ providing one of the ultimate indie-pop singalongs with Simon Friend’s electric guitar throwing out huge melodic chords, while the darkness of ‘Hope Street’ calls with a reverence and a relevance you’d hope had long passed.   Equally captivating almost a quarter of a century, the three singles from the ‘A Weapon Called The Word’ album hit as hard as they ever did, each one showing a different slant – each equally important in the band’s development. The fiddle-driven folk-rock stomp matches the feelings of entrapment within ‘Outside/Inside’ perfectly – a tune showing the fledgling Levellers at their most direct – while ‘Carry Me’s folk-rock lilt and the social commentary of ‘World Freakshow’ prove, even at an early stage, that the Levellers possessed (and continue to possess) an almost equal gift for a melody and lyric.  If you’ve still never heard this debut album, or its more commercially successful follow-up ‘Levelling The Land’, do so at the earliest opportunity – you won’t regret it.

Years after the release of the much-ignored ‘Green Blade Rising’, ‘Wild As Angels’ shines very brightly indeed, its pop sensibilities so ready-made for extensive airplay…and yet so, so overlooked in the pantheon of Levellers singles.  Better than ‘Beautiful Day’, as joyous as ‘Fantasy’ and ‘This Garden’, it barely cracked the UK top forty upon release, destined to be forgotten by most.   Hearing it as part of this collection it so deserves re-evaluation…especially given that it appears to have a strong influence over some of Frank Turner’s more pop-oriented work.   Likewise, the seventies pop/John Lennon-infused ‘Happy Birthday Revolution’ (a flop upon release in 2000) shows a different side to the band not often heard by the more casual listener.  It’s hazy tones and almost psychedelic drowse may not have represented what some fans wanted at the time, but time and distance has helped it mature into a sophisticated pop affair that works on its own terms, albeit very much out on a limb from the rest of the band’s singles.  At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, ‘The Recruiting Sergeant’ is a brick-subtle Pogues-esque number highlighting military madness – a tale of how army conditioning and tackling other nations with forces and firearms will never bring peace.  This number is an acquired taste to say the least, but adds further to the broadness of the band’s musical palate.

Joining festival favourites ‘One Way’, ‘Fifteen Years’, ‘Dog Train’ et al, this collection’s four new recordings celebrate the band’s anniversary with some famous musical chums – with mixed results.  Best of all, folk-punk troubadour Frank Turner steps in for a guest vocal on a new recording of ‘Julie’.  Musically, its not too different from the Levellers’ 1993 track, staying with a simple acoustic folk arrangement – and like the original single, losing the lengthy bagpipe coda – but in order for Turner to shine, the collaboration required no real embellishment.  His English tones pull emotion from every line during this particular tale of sadness, the mood of which could have easily fit his own ‘England Keep My Bones’.  Turner’s army of fans will love this…and if it helps them realise how good the Levellers are, then all the better.

When the band wrote ‘Hope St.’ in the mid 90s, Britain was in a sad shape.  Battered and bruised after years of Tory government, so many people lived on the metaphorical hope street, looking towards brighter days and prosperous futures.  Twenty-ish years on, at the time of this collection’s release in 2014, we’ve seen those better days come and go…and life’s cyclical nature finds Britain almost back in the same place.  After four years of being generally fucked over by a government only too keen to widen the divide between the haves and have nots, the song’s sentiment is still relevant.  Who better to help deliver the message, but Billy Bragg?   Musically it appears much softer than its mid-nineties counterpart – making it also feel deceptively slower in places – but it works excellently, with the band working through a melancholic arrangement, peppered by subtle use of banjo. Bragg settles on a voice that represents quasi-melodic singing (as per his own ‘Mr. Love & Justice’ and ‘Tank Park Salute’), occasionally lapsing into the more rough edged delivery that informed his earliest work.  It’s very much suited to the music in tow, but a little jarring at first if you’re so used to the Levellers original recording.  It’s great to hear these two musical forces working together on a studio recording, but as always with anything featuring the brilliant Mr. Bragg, the end result mightn’t be to everyone’s taste; love it or hate it, the overriding mood is very much dominated by Bill’s input, but then if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t have been too much point.

Imelda May steps up for a reworking of the 1997 hit ‘What a Beautiful Day’, her voice well placed against a new arrangement where a twangy bass and harder rhythm pushes forth a rockabilly element.  This sharper arrangement improves on the original in many ways; with more bounce to the ounce, the number jostles along brilliantly, sounding more urgent.  May, meanwhile, puts in a reasonable enough performance, although her vocal range isn’t especially broad…and for all the positive praise she receives for her style, her voice isn’t as strong as it perhaps should be – listen carefully, and you’ll spot her constantly holding back whenever any huge, belting notes loom.  Whatever your opinion of Imelda, there’s a strong sense of fun shining through this track.

Least impressive (by far), a reworking of ‘Just The One’ with folk collective Bellowhead tries too hard all round.  After a slow vocal filled intro, the two bands launch into a tune that’s instantly recognisable as that of the 1995 hit, but a touch folkier.  Gang vocals big up the raucous elements and accordions are on hand to reproduce the pub piano and kazoos from the longer version of the original track. The vocals, however, are an acquired taste.  Not so much in the use of slightly rugged folksy tones (as you’d expect), but more in the way the lead vocal sounds horribly inauthentic – Bellowhead sound like a bunch of privileged lads having a laugh at folk’s expense, with no attempts made to hide what sounds like public school accents.  Making things worse – and adding to fears that they’re not taking this seriously – during the middle section, the names of various drinks are read out in list form.  A touch heavy handed perhaps and it probably seemed like a good idea at the time…but none of this is particularly funny (or indeed fun, for that matter) and ultimately spoils this collaboration.   It’s a minor quibble given the amount of superb material scattered across the two discs, though…and as they say, nothing’s perfect.

With regard to the videos, they’re great to have on DVD.  At last, a perfect reason to dump that ‘One Way of Life’ VHS you’ve long worn out, but as with most visual collections, the results are somewhat of a mixed bag.  The earliest clips are performance based, with ‘One Way’ combining images of the miming band with a man running through city streets in a prosthetic head.  The swirling camera work adds much to the energy of the whole piece, so for a very simple idea, this video can be viewed as successful.  ‘Far From Home’, meanwhile, depicts the band dancing around a campfire – fitting for the folky elements of the track in question – but everything comes across as slightly twee.  Even Mr. Chadwick looks slightly uncomfortable with the set up in a couple of places… Let’s file this one under “it seemed like a better idea on paper”. ‘Fifteen Years’ – the least interesting of the ‘Levelling the Land’ clips, intercuts images of the then young band on stage with footage of younger fans entering the gig.  For those fans, the fact they’ve been immortalised on a digital release forever gives them something to treasure/be embarrassed by [delete as appropriate] for the rest of their lives.

Although only a couple of years on, the three clips from 1992’s self-titled album fare much better all round. Seeing the band miming in front of a colour-separation overlay backdrop of technicolor fields and flowers during ‘This Garden’ takes the song’s hook at its most literal, while seeing the clip again is bound to stoke up feelings of nostalgia for MTV’s 120 Minutes for those of a certain age.  The angry ‘Belarus’ uses the same CSO techniques and contrasts colourful images of the band with stark black and white footage of nuclear power plants, factory and field workers in Eastern Europe.  Like ‘This Garden’, with its more indie-rock sound and use of colour, it just sums up the era so well.  The least seen of the three clips, ‘Julie’ is very understated, consisting of Mark miming on a stool for three minutes while arty backdrops fill spaces behind.  Given the bare nature of the song and the simple visuals, he appears very comfortable here – certainly more so than during his jigging around during ‘Far From Home’.

Also nostalgic, the three ‘Zeitgeist’ clips have strong potential to whisk the viewer back to their youthful student years, the best of which, ‘Just The One’ combines grainy performance footage with equally grainy home movie tour footage showing the lads sightseeing in Russia.  A surprising “us vs them” bent acts as the most memorable moment from the otherwise optimistic ‘Fantasy’ with an angry authoritarian figure smashing his head into a TV monitor,  while ‘Hope St.’ finds Mark, Jeremy and company acting out the song’s message on a grubby street with pub, betting shop (amusingly titled ‘Lad’s Broke’), fighting and straw.  Great scenes when spliced together, all helping set the lyrics to something memorable.

Of the later – and often lesser seen – videos, there are many highlights and it’s worth noting that although the performance based approach is still favoured, the band seem far more confident in their use of concept.   1998’s ‘Too Real’, in particular, works excellently, setting its big beats against cityscapes, pubs, chocolate eating judges, while an amusing intro from film critic and director Alex Cox, whom with tongue firmly in cheek describes this unfavourably.  The ever-joyous ‘Wild As Angels’ is accompanied by the making of a Levellers crop circle and ‘Burn America Burn’ gets sent off with some stark, less than subtle animation.  To go into further detail for some of these later clips would only lessen the enjoyment of the potential viewer.

Each of the four collaborations are treated to new promo clips too, with great, naturalistic results.  For each, the artistic decision has been made to present each as an in the studio performance.  ‘Hope Street’ with Billy Bragg has sepia-toned visuals, leading to a much more sombre effort than its mid-nineties counterpart with pubs, Tory politicians, betting and fighting.  As such, this more sedate approach suits Bragg’s softer vocal and this 2014 video makes no attempt to upstage the brilliant song – as always, its the lyric that’s of utmost importance here.  In keeping with the more positive vibes, ‘Beautiful Day’ with Imelda May, is bigger and brighter overall.  While the camera largely focuses upon the studio guest, longer shots involving the Levellers convey a sense of enjoyment, the camaraderie heightened further by an intro clip showing Imelda and Mark laughing while deciding which key this recording should be in.   ‘Julie’, with Frank Turner, is the most uninspired of the new clips, little more than a split screen in studio run-through (nice to have, all the same), while the Bellowhead video offers something slightly more adventurous, with the studio footage intercut with street scenes and pubs.  A fitting artistic decision:  its fly-on-the-wall style strongly harks back to the original ‘Just The One’ promo clip from 1995, while the visuals make Bellowhead’s musical input far more tolerable!

There’s a lot of great stuff here –musically and sometimes visually too – ensuring the Levellers’ ‘Greatest Hits’ achieves that rare accolade of managing to please (almost) everyone.   It’s an absolutely essential audio primer for the unfamiliar and merely curious, while the DVD – arguably improving in quality with the some of the later clips –  brings sometimes heavily nostalgic entertainment for the more devoted.   Although it contains a couple of wobbly tracks, this anthology stands proudly as a fantastic document of a band with a fantastic musical legacy.

July/August 2014