Folk on the Silver Screen: In 2014, English folk rock band The Levellers made their fans happy with a 2-disc Greatest Hits collection; this year the documentary "A Curious Life" looks at the 25-year struggle for musical self-determination and their understanding of folk music.
My personal recollection of the Levellers starts sometime in the mid 1990's when an acquaintance of mine gave me their debut album "A Weapon Called the Word" as a birthday gift. He was aware of my passion for folk and folk rock music, had seen them live and was quite impressed by the pogoing audience. Since then I had an on-and-off-relationship with the group, first as a fan, then as critic, and at best of times both, a critical devotee. I have seen the Levellers a couple of times, in clubs, at festivals, including an acoustic show in a rural youth club.
The band had been formed way back in 1988 in the seaside resort of Brighton, taken their name from a radical democracy movement in 17th century England. Brighton is kind of a musical hotbed, though the Levellers never wanted to be part of the Brighton music scene (would-be rockstars in leather trousers playing guitar solos). Instead, their inspiration had been Nick Burbridge's thrashy folk outfit McDermott's Two Hours. (They would later cover Burbridge's best known song, "Dirty Davey").
The Levellers created a wall of sound, electric folk music driven by a whimsical fiddle (Jon Sevink), the lyrics being straight and in-your-face, their Œuvre including punk rock anthems, folksy ballads and roots rock crossover.
The Levellers became successful against all odds, spawning seven consecutive gold albums in the 1990s. In periods, when their studio output wasn't too prolific, they were still notorious for their sweaty live shows playing themselves dead.
A new episode in the band's history began in 1994, when they purchased a derelict factory named the "Metway" to establish their own office, fan club, rehearsal area and studio and operate on their own terms. In 2003, they also created their own annual "Beautiful Days Festival" (taking place each August at Escot Park, Devon), and in 2006 set up their own "On The Fiddle Recordings" label.
The A Curious Life documentary by former Chumbawamba's Dunstan Bruce is a very personal and candid documentary about what they call 25 Years of Subsidised Dysfunctionality. The constantly-giggling, whisky- and history-loving, dreadlocked bass player Jeremy Cunningham is the film's host exploring the rise and fame of the Levellers and how they managed to stay together for 25 years, not avoiding his own pharmaceutical peccadilos, multi-instrumentalist Simon Friend's personal strokes of fate, and the general hate-relationship of the band with the British media. It is fun to watch and listen to Jeremy's ma and pa, Sheila and Brian, who in the course of time did become collectors of Levellers memorabilia and devotional objects.
The DVD video also includes miscellaneous bonus features such as interviews, backstage shots, and never-seen-before live clips (e.g. the legendary Glastonbury gig in 1992). A bonus CD features a couple of tracks from an acoustic gig at St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin in January 2015.
25 years on, the Levellers stand their ground, undeviating and indestructable. In their song "Wake The World", the Levellers challenge themselves: Take a look around to see who's still listening... Yes, there are plenty of listeners, and there is no end in sight.
Photo Credits: Levellers: (1)-(12) Album Cover, (13) 'A Curious Life - The Story of the Levellers', (15) 'Greatest Hits' (unknown/website); (14) Folkfestival Tilburg 2003, (16) Tønder Festival 2007 (by Walkin' Tom).