The Levellers are one of the most enduring and, it must be said, likeable bands to have been around for the past twenty-five years.
Their blend of anarchic punk anthems aligned to touching folk sensitivity has been a trademark that has seen them hitting high positions in the album charts as well as taking their place as one of the best live bands around.
A good time then for this set of repackaged and re-mastered re-issues to hit the street and Edsel have made a fabulous job of it too.
The releases cover the first six albums by The Levellers on China Records and thus the band’s first album ‘A Weapon Called The Word’ is not included as it was released on an obscure French label, Musidisc.
All the albums have been re-packaged in fold-out ‘digifile’ format and all include comprehensive booklets with extensive new sleeve notes by Alan Robinson – together with all the lyrics. All albums have a minimum of one bonus disc with live tracks, demos, b-sides and re-mixes.
First up, and without doubt the best thing the band ever committed to wax is Levelling The Land. Chock full of their most durable anthems ‘One Way’, ‘Liberty Song’, ‘The Riverflow’, ‘Sell Out’ and personal favourite ‘Fifteen Years’ are all here.
Also included is a bonus disc with a couple of remixes (which add nothing), four live tracks (which add everything) and a couple of obscure b-sides, the best of which is a great cover of Charlie Daniel’s ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’.
Add to all this a third disc – a DVD of unreleased concert footage from 1992 – and it’s as good an introduction to the world of the Levellers as anyone could wish for. *****
The follow up to all this brilliance was the faintly disappointing, self-titled Levellers which saw a backward step into much more punk-orientated fare. It had its moments – the excellent ‘Julie’ and ‘Belaruse’ together with the exceptional ‘Is This Art’ but too much of it sounded like an agitated rant.
The bonus disc does it no favours either with a number of pointless remixes dominating proceedings – although the band’s take on the traditional ‘The Lowlands Of Holland’ just about rescues it from coaster duty. ***
As if to admit that they had put their proverbial bums in the custard with ‘Levellers’, the next album Zeitgeist was an absolute triumph, both artistically and commercially with the album hitting the number one slot in the album charts in its second week of release. Easy to see why too – classic Levellers anthems such as ‘Hope St.’, ‘P.C. Keen’, ‘Leave This Town’ and ‘Men-An-Tol’ rub shoulders with more user-friendly fare such as ‘Exodus’, ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Just The One’.
There’s some good stuff on the 16 track bonus disc too – the timeless ‘Sara’s Beach’, the comedy of ‘Your ‘Ouse’ and ‘Zippo Man’ all topped off with the tremendous mash-up of Levellers anthems on ‘Al’s Stonking Mix’. ****
Following the success of ‘Zeitgeist’ the band toured the UK and Europe to packed houses and the live album Headlights, White Lines, Black Tar Rivers was recorded on the tour. This album features a 17 track CD of all the band’s best live performances of their finest tracks together with a DVD of the final concert of the tour recorded in Blackpool.
Both discs provide a fabulous live record of a band at the height of their powers and provide an interesting contrast to the Glasgow concert four years earlier (included in ‘Levelling The Land’) which appears almost naive in comparison. ****
Hard to follow ‘Zeitgeist’ with anything approaching parity but the band made a good fist of it with Mouth To Mouth, another commercial success reaching number five in the album charts.
Although the album is excellent, featuring classics such as ‘Dog Train’, ‘Celebrate’, ‘What A Beautiful Day’, ‘Too Real’ and the fabulous ‘Far Away’, the same cannot be said of the two bonus discs, the first of which contains a number of out-takes and covers including the most insipid version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’ you’ve ever heard.
As for the second bonus disc – six of the tracks are re-mixes of ‘Too Real’ which even the most committed of fans would find tiresome, and I’m afraid even the re-recording of ‘One Way’ can’t save it from the clay pigeon trap. ***
And so to the last of the re-issues. Hello Pig saw the band experimenting with new sounds, which just didn’t suit their style. Just as the re-mixes on the other albums add little or nothing to the band’s oeuvre, so experimenting with trancey dancey beats and semi-rapped vocals proves to be a giant step in the wrong direction.
Although largely admired by music critics (what do they know? (!)), fans of the band were severely underwhelmed – and in the track ‘The Weed That Killed Elvis’ the Levellers surely hit a low point. A couple of the tracks on the bonus disc, appropriately titled ‘The Offal’ initially show promise, but really, considering the Lord Mayor’s Procession that’s gone before – this is the shit-cart. **1/2
‘Hello Pig’ could easily have been the end of lesser bands’ careers, but the Lev’s are made of strong stuff and this proved to be a mere blip. Post Pig their albums have been consistently strong with latest offering, ‘Static On The Airwaves’ coming close to the brilliance of those halcyon early days.
For any fan of the band these re-issues, in the absence of a retrospective box-set, are an essential purchase, tying up virtually the whole of their recorded (and filmed) output between 1991 and 2000 into six packages and showing to the world in general just what a fine band they are.
Review by Alan Jones
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