The Levellers/Beautiful Days

August 23, 2010

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.

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