Monday, November 13, 2006

In The Dock: The Levellers

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: The Levellers

The case for the prosecution (Caskared)

I don’t like The Levellers. No, that is an understatement. I detest The Levellers.

Being a teenager in the 1990s and being of an indie-kid persuasion meant that any given social situation would at some point have The Levellers played at top volume. Many a night would end with a drunken rendition by some of my friends of "There’s only one, waaaaay-hov life, and thatssyrrrown thasssssyrrrrown thatssssssyoooouuuurrrown-ah". Bellowed that song was, sometimes getting caught in a loop, the chorus endlessly orbiting, individuality proclaimed in unison. And at home too, my little sister played them; spilling through the thin walls they drove me to distraction. The fiddles seemed to have a particular frequency that would travel further than the rest of the tune, and a knack of eking their way round the house to find my ears. After leaving home I found myself again clawing at the walls, almost Pavlovian was my reaction to how much I disliked the music when a coursemate played them in our studio. My hackles would raise, my teeth gnaw, my head throb and my mood would sour. And although their ubiquity has waned, The Levellers are still the stock soundtrack to any montage on TV about the travelling community or the mere glimpse of a dreadlock.

But the question is why? It’s more than just overplay and being haunted (in a bad way) by their tunes. It’s a holistic hatred I have, beginning with the violins, the vocals, the graphics, the very name, their melodic choices, and… and…

So, for starters the violin playing. It’s mindless. I enjoy a good céilídh, I listen to 'Late Junction' on Radio 3, I like my quality reel, but The Levellers would reduce it to a droning eternal loop of upbeat jiggery pokery (although it’s better in the later records). And they play those Vanessa May stylee electric ones that look preposterous and have a synthetic grape-like tone. What’s more they don’t complement the singer’s voice. The fiddles have at least a kind of richness to them, the fellow there’s voice is a bit nasal and very flat. He breaks up the words with a breathy glottal stop; "carry me home" becomes "carre-hey mi-hey ho-ohome-eh". It’s mediocre, not bad, but certainly not good. It has no discerning features. He’s no Billy Bragg or Elvis Costello, he’s not a Neil Hannon or softness of Sice. He’s not as bad as a lot of their contemporaries, but he’s nothing special.

Their graphics recount Expressionism, Die Brucke and the harsh imagery from times of Europe being gripped by world war. Naïve folk art too, but ultimately it’s marketing for a band. It’s cynical and pseudo, it’s abrasive and ugly with an anti-aesthetic that doesn’t really achieve anything. They are mass marketing the idea of the hand-made wood block. They also go for the carnival look crossed with Celtic symbols, ultimately watering down everything they source.

And their name, Levellers being those who bring everything down to the lowest common denominator. Well, I guess it’s appropriate as they’re nothing special. Actually, it’s a pretty noble sentiment, but then when they have been asked they say it’s after an area where they grew up, or just from a dictionary. When choosing something so politically loaded this seems a bit inane. And it’s not like the band are a-political, they are full-on committed Lefties. They’re famed for living their politics – each band member receiving a certain amount each day and not being allowed to exceed it – that’s great, refreshing, although this failed a bit when one band member left because he couldn’t get extra money to buy something fancy after he’d already spent his day’s quota on, I don’t know, a dream catcher or something.

I agree with a lot of what they have campaigned for, and I’m pleased that they have used the medium to get their voice across, it’s just the actual music I have issues with. It is the watered-down folk rock of it all – the melodies that do exactly what you expect them to do, the weak linking sections between one bellowy bit to the next, the incoherent structures…they are just not very good as a band yet are totally overrated.

The case for the defence (Damo)

To start on a general point... when you say "I don’t like band X", what are you really saying? Let me put that another way: how do you feel when someone – a journalist, a friend – berates your favourite band? Do you pull out the "all opinions are subjective" argument? (Most of these In The Dock debates are about concepts, ideas, "movements" – anything except bands. The Beatles argument that has already taken place was largely about "Beatles as phenomenon", not "Beatles as band".) Take a look at footage of The Levellers headlining the Glastonbury Festival in 1994 – those tens of thousands of people jumping up and down and enjoying themselves… do you begrudge them their entertainment? Great. Vote for the prosecution and join the people who stand in the kitchen and house parties, glaring at the people in the hallway who are… gasp!… dancing and having fun. The scallywags.

So, if we move on from the fact that everyone’s got their own views, and neatly sidestep the fact that you sang along to 'One Way' when you were younger (you did), we have to look at what else any band does to distinguish itself from another band. What do they do, say, for the wider world?

The Levellers were active against stupid legislation such as elements of the Criminal Justice Act – before, during and after the time it was "fashionable" to take this standpoint. They stood up for the people who got treated like crap for having the temerity to want to hold a little celebration near Stonehenge (if you think I’m not being even-handed, watch the Glastonbury movie that came out earlier this year). And, despite having an album called Zeitgeist, they never changed their sound to suit the incoming trends. When they were no longer trendy (ask anyone who was a student in the early 90s), they didn’t care what you thought, they just carried on. With Oasis, most of Britain seems to have decided that was a virtue. Why not The Levellers?

Oh… and they pointed out what a pile of shite the NME was becoming years before most of us did. More brownie points in my book.

What else? They set up the Metway studio in Brighton, and gave studio time and experience to lots of upcoming bands for little or no cost. That’s a legacy that still stands to this day.

Perhaps you think they have no relevance to now, or that they don’t serve as an influence to any current bands. In which case, you’ve never heard Larrikin Love. Or Gogol Bordello. Like both of them, they were – and are – a great live band. And a deceptively noisy one. By the time they get to playing 'Belarus', earplugs are usually the order of the day. And when they played Glastonbury in 2005, they were still a massive crowd draw… see the first paragraph again. Numbers aren’t everything, but people vote with their feet at festivals.

Ah yes, festivals. Fed up of the fact that Reading makes you drink the worst beer in the world, and treats you like a small kid? Fed up of the ridiculous corporatism (and the increasing chav presence) of the V Festival? They’re supposed to be fun, aren’t they? An escape from the humdrum, a chance to be yourself for the weekend. Well, they’re ahead of you again, because they set up Beautiful Days for these very reasons. People who go there once go back. It sells out quicker every year, as people realise that being treated like a human being, especially when you’ve paid money for the privilege, is a good thing. Even if you don’t like The Levellers, remember this is another thing they’ve left as a legacy for everyone, not just fans of the band. Is this too much hippy crap for you? Ho hum - go and be a goth or something.

And if the prosecution makes one lame "dog on a string" joke, it loses by default.

* * * * *

Thanks to Caskared and Damo. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...


Blogger Ian said...

Being Canadian I had only the very faintest idea of who the Levellers were, which makes this a nice change from some of the other disputes this far. So I came into this relatively biased, and both sides offer a convincing argument, but I have to vote for the defence.

I have to despite the fact that I hate both Larrikin Love and Gogol Bordello, I hate most people I would use the word "hippie" to describe, and I loathe the very idea of "mass marketing the idea of the hand-made wood block" (very nice turn of phrase!).

Because ultimately the non-musical part of Damo's defence convinces me. I imagine based on both accounts I'd find the music of the Levellers excruciating, but that's true of plenty of bands, I won't won't vote against them on only that ground either. It's music - my opinion is valid, but no more than anyone else's.

3:32 am  
Blogger JonnyB said...

Ah, The Levellers. The Darkness of Folk Rock.

Have to go with the defence. Some good (if not greatly interesting in-depth) songs amidst the average stuff. But yes - great when you've been drinking and are 19 and have rebelled by going away in a camper van. So who could begrudge them an acquittal?

10:33 am  
Blogger mike said...

I've never been able to get worked up one way or another about The Levelllers, so I'm voting purely on the strength of the arguments this week - and it's the Defence which has swayed me. But only just.

12:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh the defense definitely.

Having done the festival circuit as a teen, I can safely say that the Levellers we're always a highlight. Just for the sheer energy and fun of the songs if for nothing else.
And having seen them again last year, I can happily report that they even got these old legs dancing like a teenager again!


12:07 pm  
Blogger Pete Ashton said...

Ooh, prosecution gets it this time. They examplified everything that was disconcerting about the otherwise spot-on traveller / road protest / donga thing. New Model Army lite.

1:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I side with the prosecution. I begrudge no-one their fun, but I don't have to like something merely because a load of other folk (excuse the pun) do. If we're taking the line that the actions of their followers can be used as evidence, though, I can't help but react to the time when a bunch of their fans decided to 'invade' the messageboard of another site I'm involved with, in response to a bad review (to be fair, it was a pretty bloody stupid review. I didn't write it.) (Those statements are not directly connected. I'm not saying that every review written by anyone other than me is pretty bloody stupid) (I'm digressing) (I can't remember where I got to) (Ah yes...). One of them, despite his love of this band of socialist hippy communal-living sorts, couldn't stop telling everyone how important his executive job in the music industry was. Another tried to insist it was actually illegal for her to be banned from an internet forum without a reason she saw as being good enough, and then proceeded to send me cretinous emails until I blocked her address.

So yeah, nuts to The Levellers.

I don't honestly recall a single note of their music. I'm sure I must have heard them at some point, but I'm damned if I can think of a song of theirs.

~ Russ L

8:39 pm  
Blogger Martin said...

I admit to not minding some of their stuff, but then anyone up for discussion here's going to have knocked out a couple of good singles in order to be worth discussing. And it's fair to say that everyone's allowed their own tastes.

Having said that, I fucking hate The Levellers. Fucking hate them. They're politico-folk for a large number of people who don't like folk or politics and can't be bothered to find out about either. One way of life? Sounded fair enough until it was used by a generation of 90's lazy-arsed students to decide that doing fuck all was a political stance.

I'm not knocking their involvement with other musicians or the traveling community at all, but have got no time for the student base who picked it up and decided they fancied playing at being hippies. These are some of the people who make Glastonbury a place to avoid.

It's not The Levellers direct fault, but I'm unable to disassociate the two and refuse to be objective in this case. I vote for them to be hanged. And drawn. And quartered, twice. Eighthed, in fact.

I'm off to wash my mouth out, followed by a lie down in a darkened room. Good argument for the defence though, Damo, although I'm not sure that justifying their later output by comparing it to Oasis' similar lack of creativity holds water.

9:43 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

I was saying more that some bands constantly innovate, whereas other bands play to strengths. Oasis aren't my cup of tea but they play to their strengths.

Many of my favourite bands innovate, and many of my other favourites 'do what they do' each time. And some bands, like Super Furry Animals, somehow manage both. There's room in music for all of these, for me.

10:11 pm  
Blogger Betty said...

I know I should weigh everything up in a mature way, offering up a considered, balanced opinion based on fact and reason, but all I can think of is ...


Agree wholeheartedly with what Martin says, by the way.

10:57 am  
Blogger Ben said...

Caskared has this one spot on, as does Martin - as worthy as The Levellers might be in their actions and as positively influential as they might have been (and that's at least questionable), when it comes down to it their music is bloody awful.

If this makes me a miserable killjoy (especially after voting for the prosecution for the Eurovision Song Contest and songs with associated dance moves), then so be it.

Guilty as sin.

11:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like Mike I have to admit to never having really taken the Levellers seriously enough to be bothered by them one way or the other.. which given that they are clearly very interested in being taken seriously might point to a vote for the prosecution. However I am swayed by their admirable efforts to put on those fun-sounding hassle-free festivals, even if they are only doing so to detract attention from what I am prepared to believe are some pretty damn awful records. May they walk free from the dock!

1:56 pm  
Blogger Mark said...


10:32 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

I'm sorry Damo, but I FUCKING HATE THE LEVELLERS. Fair play to them for everything they've achieved, I suppose, but they make me want to tear my ears off and run away screaming.


10:44 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

I enjoyed my 4-0 lead while it lasted...

8:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up with a circle of Quaker friends, and the most insightful thing I've heard about Quakers also applies to The Levellers.

"The best and worst things about Quakers is that they are right, and they know they are."

Yes, I'm with The Levellers ethically, I like what they're saying. It's just a shame that they're let down by the way they say it. Musically it is lazy, and I feel has a tone that assumes you must love us, because we're right. Eventhough I have fond memories of campfires where their music being played , in the cold light of day it was the people and the fire, not the music. I think the music it flawed. And in the pinickety manner I seem to be approaching this feature. If it's flawed, it's prosecuted. Well argued Caskared ...

11:05 pm  
Blogger Martin said...

Damo - just get somebody to say 'dog on a string.' If that happens, then you *do* win.

Um, apart from when I said it just then, obviously. That doesn't count.

11:48 pm  
Blogger Del said...

I think the Levellers were the second band I ever saw live (well... apart from the support band, Pusherman, who were on before them.) And I more or less know all of Levelling The Land off by heart. And I've got a couple of other of the LPs tucked away somewhere. But they are crap.

As posterboys for the leftie crusties movement, they fell into the old hippie trap of spouting happy clappy bollocks rather than taking a genuine political stance.

They were rubbish. The only excuse I had was that I was young. They were old enough to know better. The Levellers deserve to be banished.

Dodgy, however, were great!

1:36 am  
Blogger James MacLaren said...

I feel compelled - largely due to my lack of familiarity with them - to defend The Levellers. Listening to the arguments, I am afraid that the prosecution failed to deliver the final blow. Concluding that they were "just not very good as a band yet are totally overrated", Caskared remains just too lukewarm. Lots of bands are over-rated for a time, do we damn them all? No. We sit back and wait for the adulation to pass, and when it does we relish in the critical re-evaluation. Some, of course, do continue to over-rate certain bands, but every single one of us probably idolise a band that doesn't really warrant it - so what is unusual there? Nothing.

My suspicion is that The Levellers remain nothing special, but that will never be a reason to damn them. If we were to insist upon a world where only 'special' bands existed, we would deny ourselves a great deal of music - how many un-special bands subsequently churn out something special? Enough - for almost every special band or LP, there were earlier incarnations or releases that did not meet the grade.

Further, if we raised the bar, so that only 'special' bands had careers, might we not become complacent with special, and start insisting upon bands that were 'really special'.

Ultimately, what I find frustrating is the leaning towards a musical fascism. I have my elitist tendencies - there are artists that would truly love to be rid of. But if someone else takes pleasure from those artists, do I have the right to rid them of it?

So, no... I must defend the right to exist of The Levellers. They have committed no specific crime that would render them worthy of punishment, other than being 'nothing special'.

And Damo, what's with the line "go and be a goth or something"? I was tempted to side with the prosecution just for that... I am looking forward to my opportunity to the defend 'goth'.

9:08 am  
Blogger Paul said...

Not much time to consider the arguments, but on balance I'll have to come down in support of the Levellers.

I'm not convinced that just because you don't like their music or politics is sufficient justification to uphold the case for the prosecution.

12:06 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

>And Damo, what's with the line "go and be a goth or something"?

That was a bit 'playground', I accept. I sometimes worry that I sound too serious when I try and explain something, but perhaps there's a fine line between flippancy and self-deprecation. One reason I stopped writing my own blog was because that's how I sometimes sounded, and anyone who has met me knows that isn't me at all. That plus I'm generally far too busy (hence not contributing to the A-Z of music after 'G'), and the fact that there are far better music writers out there. Many of them frequent this very blog.

1:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>>>I'm not convinced that just because you don't like their music or politics is sufficient justification to uphold the case for the prosecution. <<<

One cannot help but wonder what would make for sufficient justification. Do band members need to have murdered a member of your family?

7:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James: but to be headlining the pyramid stage at Glastonbury you really should be special.

Del: Dodgy: oh yay although I disliked their third album, bleugh, the first 2 albums were tops and I loved bouncing along in the crowd at the Wolverhampton Wulfrun. Ahhhh.

4:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must side with the defence. I first saw the levellers 2 1/2 years ago and have seen them 8 times since. their music festival is family friendly with plenty for everyone and though some don't agree wih them politicaly, i do. They aren't afraid to make themselves heard even if it means constant bad reviews by the media.
I must say caskared that the fiddle is the core element of the levellers music, making it what it is.
All in all i must say that the levellers are a bamd that MUST be taken notice of because of the fact that they talk a lot mare sense than the vast majority of the bands/artists around today.

10:57 pm  
Blogger Valerie Moss said...

I must side with the defence, I'm afraid. My sis played One Way of Life at full volume 24/7 as well, the music took a while to grow on me because it was so different to anything else that was out at the time. Slogany lyrics maybe but they meant an awful lot to a graduate in the 90s recession doing crummy factory-line jobs. The Levellers got me through a hard time in my life with their positivism and joyous love of Freedom. Unfortunately they DID try to change their Anglo-Celtic punk style with the disastrous Hello Pig, but have got back on track with subsequent albums. And they are the kind of people you could say hello to in a pub - do that with Madonna or Robbie Williams? I don't think so.
Long live da Levs!

8:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heres to another 20 years of Levellers..

9:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

caskared: but to be headlining the pyramid stage at Glastonbury you really should be special.

Lets be honest here, who that has headlines Glastonbury in recent times has been special? Radiohead? Oasis? If they are special, then there really is no weight to this debate.

Popular and special are two seperate things imo.

The Levellers may not be that popular anymore in terms of getting into the charts etc....but they still make excellent music, especially when you consider that a band like Oasis, musically, have been so far off the mark for a decade that the only thing that keeps them going is the support of NME.

I can appreciate anyones comments, but not when Oasis are the benchmark by some.

In all honesty, the Levellers are far from overrated. Definately underrated.

7:27 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Over-rated you say? They're hardly rated in the first place, ignored in fact.

1:34 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You lot are idiots! The levellers are the best band in the whole wide world, i love them and Mark Chadwick is absolutely stunning, and im not a happy! Im a 19 year old normal girl

2:58 pm  

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