The Levellers/Beautiful Days

In music there are endless stories.
Here’s a good one.
Band forms twenty years ago, plays loads of free gigs and is a big hit on the free festival circuit. Their passion and their honesty, great songs and a punk rock attitude mixed with tradition an English folk really works. They are political and sing song-stories that make a powerful connection with their audience. They go onto break through and have number ones albums and loads of hits.
You might not know this story but that’s because somehow its been mislaid by the busy media who seem to have been busily ignoring the Levellers for years because they don’t fit into THE AGENDA.
The Levellers, because they are part of a culture, have just continued and are still really popular. No matter how hard people try to shoe horn fashion into music there is still no replacement for a good raw band who deal in the high art of adrenalin and ideas.
In the past ten years the Levellers have also thrown their own festival- a celebration of the band and the culture surrounds them called ‘Beautiful Days’. This is a place where they can explore their love of the English folk heritage and punk rock, a place where eclectic music packs out the stages and freaks can re-enact Morris dancing as the devilish fertility dance that it really is, where Roy Harper is an icon and Joe Strummer smiles down from rock n roll heaven at what would have been his favorite festival.
This is the most English of festivals and I don’t mean the England of X factor, Simon Cowell, greed, selfishness, shitty high streets and celeb culture- this is a deeper and truer Englishness, the green and ghostly land with its own history and its own story. A folk tradition that stretches though the centuries and on through punk rock- the last great English folk music.
I’ve just introduced the Levellers to 15 000 headline slot. The atmosphere is electric and celebratory.
Very special.
The Levellers have been around for two decades and instead of slobbering into middle age they have become fiercer and more focused. The band packs a power that belies their punk rock roots and an Englishness that harks back to the true sound of English folk music.
Their festival reflects this. A maverick and fascinating mixture of bands that sees the Subhumans sharing the stage with bearded men with strange looking instruments playing pastoral music to even the Wurzels who are a riot.
The whole event is a quick course in a lost history of English music and merrie making. For far too long we have felt uncomfortable with our folk tradition, losing our connection with it during the industrial revolution. Whilst we are happy to celebrate folk musics from the rest of the world we seem to be uncomfortable with our own- dismissing it with an ironic, knowing smirk. Beautiful Days festival turns this presumption on its head with folk scene heroes rubbing shoulders with venerable campaigners from the punk rock wars or indie heroes like James whose own early work had that pastoral feel.
This is key to understanding the Levellers and their festival- punk rock was the last great English folk music, the last English civil war of ribald action before everyone slumped onto the settee engrossed by the feeble middle aged spread of X Factor complete with its corporate bullying of hopefuls.
Punk rock was the final splurge of songs for the people by the people, a burst of story telling in a grand old tradition that few of the punks even recognized at the time. It’s natural, unfettered and instinctive, this is what English music was about at it’s heart- ribald, inventive and tied to the land with great darkly funny stories of our lives on these wet islands.
The Levellers themselves combined these two forms into a potent whole. Jon Sevink’s violin is the signature, his fiddle playing really does cut through air and give these songs their flavour, whilst the rest of the band have mashed the sassiness of punk into this potent tradition, Their music is by turn political and celebratory- this the right stuff as potent in its tradition as the Pogues are in there’s. Mark Chadwick is a great frontman in the Joe Strummer tradition; the mob orator regaling tales from the heart of England in is scuffed voice.
I look out at the front rows whilst the band is tearing it up and it’s a glorious site- youthful faces beaming with pleasure, singing every word. It’s very special and I ponder why the mainstream media give the band short shrift. For here is band that put on great live show, brimming with passion and intensity. They are inventive and transcend their cross-cultural mashing with their own sound; they are highly influential and popular and yet are roundly ignored.
There is no way they would be allowed to win a Mercury award or be patted on the back at one of the music biz come addled awards affairs and this is a cultural tragedy of our feeble, dim witted times.
We still produce a lot of these great bands, bands that really connect with their audience but we ignore them. Why?
Also at the festival I’m running an interview stage where I speak to Penny Rimbaud from Crass, Billy Bragg, the Labour MP Kerry Mcarthy, Howard Marks, Don Letts and Mark Chadwick from the The Levellers.
The chats are enlightening and fascinating; they are linked by a common thread of passion for music and for the power of music to create political change. Each interviewee has had their lives radically changed by music and they pass that energy on.
There is a powerful idealism at play in the talks with calls for community and care. This is the best side of music culture, the core of the idea of counter culture and the spirit of which was raised by the hippies and spurred on by punk but is part of a deeper and more caring British liberal tradition. A tradition that is the exact opposite of the Daily Mail and their hate mongering slavering.
Penny Rimbaud is so impassioned and powerful that there are tears in the big audience, Don Letts can’t sit still and is still electrified by the possibilities of music. Later on he plays a killer set of dub and reggae, still one of the best DJs out there. The next day on Billy Bragg powerfully explains his Jail Guitar Doors project – the crux of which is getting guitars to prisoners to help empower them and in some way hopefully prevent the re offending- three of them play on the stage later and sound great.
Kerry Mcarthy breaks the cliche of Mps- she is impassioned and funny and straight talks as she tells of her passion for music, veganism and her life as an MP attempting to find solutions to problems without playing tit for tat politics. We have a laugh at David Cameron’s phoney love of the Jam’s ‘Eton Rifles’ a song written specifically about Cameron and his school mates. Howard Marks attempts to talk music but swerves back to drug culture, which is so much part and parcel of music that you can’t ignore its powerful presence.
This is what is great about Beautiful Days it’s a powerful, impassioned community, it spits back at the modern cliché that no one cares anymore and that there is no politics in music these days. As host band, The Levellers somehow embody this spirit, a spirit that is older than rock n roll and one that we must never lose and perhaps that is why their set is an emotionally charged romp through all that is earth celebrating in rock n roll.

25 Responses to The Levellers/Beautiful Days

  1. Ben says:

    The best festival around, really enjoyed your chat sessions too, its these little extra things that make it what it is, truly inspirational. Glad you enjoyed it as much as we did.

  2. Rob Searl says:

    Great blog. Just back from Beautiful Days and enjoyed the three interviews on Saturday but I only caught Howard Marks on the Sunday. I noticed there was a guy from backstage at the front videoing them. Is there any way I can get hold of a copy of the Don Letts one? He was so into what he does I would like to hear it again.

    Roll on next year.

    • johnrobb77 says:

      We filmed the interviews for my soon to be launched website louderthanwar.com
      Don is amazing…what a talker! His DJ set was great later…
      See you next year!

      • Rob Searl says:

        Can’t wait to see that again then. I did catch a bit of the set later on, he does love his bass! Thanks for an insightful Saturday afternoon.

  3. Robin Brunskill says:

    Thanks for such an excellent blog. Loved the description of the pastoral and the glimpse into an older england. Brilliantly written and very moving.

  4. Michael Eccleshall says:

    great blog john. so true. good to see you on the weekend, and catch you soon, i’m sure.

    M

  5. Jim Donnelly says:

    Inspiring piece. Cheered my working day no end.

  6. Hazel Robinson says:

    I love this festival and loved the interviews I managed to catch. Great blog, thanks

  7. Wast says:

    Of all the Q&A’s I only caught Don Letts due to there being so much else on at BD’s. However, I thought they were a brilliant addition to the festival and gave a rare insight into interesting and influencial characters from the music scene.

    I liked the way you set Don Lett’s off in a general direction and then let him talk with such passion but without interruption…just let the stories flow.

  8. jon buckle says:

    good blog,we like it that much its an anual event for us,you really have summed it up,and yes dons set was fantastic

  9. Great post John, looking forward to those video interviews on louderthanwar. Great blog!

  10. Steve Jenner says:

    Perfect – I’ve been trying to artiulate that for years to people and you hit the nail right on the head. That is EXACTLY what Beautiful Days and The Levellers are all about and why the world needs them now more than ever. I love that to be connected with this band has transgressed from a guilty pleasure a decade ago to a great source of personal privilege and pride today. They are an untouchable shrine to all that is still beautiful and meaningful in this world and despite the sometimes overwhelming prevalance of all that is not, you can’t help but feel positive about the future of humanity when one of their songs comes on. On and on the river flows.

    Steve x
    Virtual Festivals.com

  11. doozer says:

    Top blog dude. I bumped into u at the bimble inn. Bd is a truely great event, I got to play with my mates hobo jones and the junkyard dogs to the biggest crowd I ever have played to, and had an amazing set of my own at the bimble inn.
    Thanks so much to the beautiful people.

    Got back to the real world and just lost my job… Funny old world

    Doozer

  12. Stix says:

    Great blog – very inspirational and conjuring a bright picture of Old England in all its moods. Beautiful Days 2010 was my first and we will definately make it an annual pilgrimage – I was able to wash the filth of the modernity world from my mind and just relax and enjoy every minute! Even the old bill seemed chilled out! All finished off with the Levs at their glorious best in the puring rain – magical!

  13. tom says:

    It was my first beautiful days and it was also the best weekend of my year and a weekend i shan’t forget.

    Billy bragg was so inspiring, i litterally tingled all over, wanted to roar in agreement and cry with relief that i’m not alone, cheer in support and hug the person next to me. I’ve not felt so empowered in a long time, thank you billy, your words re inspired me to carry on the fight x

    The Levellers played out two amazing sets but the closing set was a set i will never forget, dancing topless in the downpour to song after song that i grew up with and are so close to my heart, finishing with a very impressive firework display (and a beautiful woman in my arms) i won’t forget that night for a long long time to come.

    Sat here now i’m excited all over again, thank you to everyone involved and see you next year

    Tx

  14. Swell says:

    Spot on, Nice blog thanks for putting it to words! cant wait for next year!!!

  15. That pretty much sums it up, well said John! Fantastic festival, fantastic vibe and long may it continue. To be honest though the media doesn’t need to notice it or the Levs, who wants their hero to zero type of coverage. Like many giants of music that withstand the test of time, they do it because the fans love what they do not because someone gives them a good review or Cowell tells us they’re good. That’s my rant over, 355 days to next year’s Beautiful Days, see you there next year.

  16. Stu says:

    Will have to get to/get involved in this next year. Sound like a nice chance to actully enjoy music rather than all the bullshit and fleaceing at pay festervels. Not mention all the unacounted for profits from glastonbury.

    Didn’t the Leverlers set up schnews?

  17. Penny Rimbaud’s book is one of the best things I’ve ever read. An awesome evocation of a life committed to trying to oppose mediocrity and conformity. I only discovered it because the Levellers wrote about the Crass in their book. I’ve always thought, though my enjoyment of their music has faded along with my teenage years that the Levellers were battered with a stick by the press, precisely because they didn’t engage with the prevailing trends and used DIY not the NME so to speak.

    I think it speaks highly of them that they have continued to do what they want to do and put on a festival that even the most die hard Leveller-sceptics I know have enjoyed greatly. You can say a lot about them and possibly there is much to question and critique about them but one thing you can never, never never say is they don’t put on a good gig.

  18. “We still produce a lot of these great bands, bands that really connect with their audience but we ignore them. Why?”

    I think because for so many, the electricity of the live moment is replaced by the louche fashionista blandness of ‘looking trendy in your music video’ Who gives a fuck if they electrify a room when simmering in your music video is what matters. We ignore what can’t be packaged neatly.

    I love the Misty’s record ‘fashion parade’ – I think it sums up the scene so well. Misty’s – there is another stunning live band that are woefully ignored. Ok, they ain’t from the same folk/punk thing, but live they are funny, touching, soulful, floor shakingly dancy, inventive. Fucking AWESOME!

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