The Levellers music is hard to define – it rocks, it rolls, it has lyrics, it has meaning, it’s rootsie stuff interlaced with fiddle folk all held together with two fingered punk. It’s unique and very listenable to. No wonder they’ve got a huge following of fans, some whose loyalty dates back over 25 years, plus a whole new fan base of young people who energetically appreciate their live performances. The band’s longevity is a tribute to the oodles of unswervingly strong songs they produce, an impressive stage presence and their friendship.
As bassist Jeremy Cunningham puts it: “We’re old enough to know we need each other; are better together than apart. And we’re all driven – we still think we haven’t written our best song yet. I still want to do our best song.”
This from a band who have produced over 30 albums, including 10 studio, live and re-releases. Their first, A Weapon Called the Word, went gold; their second, Levellers, reached number two in the album charts, quickly followed by the number one gold-selling album, Zeitgeist. If you’ve seen The Levellers play live, you will have spotted Jeremy. He’s hard to miss, jumping around, whipping his red dreadlocks back and forth whilst twanging, plucking and strumming his beloved Gibson Thunderbird. I first met Jeremy 12 years ago when Viva!’s base was Brighton, which is also the home of the band. He struck me as being an unpretentious, intelligent, kind guy who defies all pop star stereotyping. He doesn’t trash hotel rooms, shout rude words into the camera lens or throw up at celeb junkets. In fact, he was so level headed that he gave Mr Spock a run for his money. And nothing has changed. Like Spock, he’s straight to the point – a spade’s a spade kind of thing. But unlike Spock, he laughs a lot, has a huge sense of fun and is instantly likeable. You somehow expect him to be full of hope for the future. Not a bit!
“The whole world now runs on the consumerist system and, realistically, I can’t see a way of changing it because everybody’s locked into it. It would have to be one great big ****ing revolution. I can’t see it happening because people are too apathetic. “My opinions are more pessimistic than the band’s – you have to have some faith in humankind for our music to have meaning! We’re not all about politics, which is why we’re labelled anarchists. We believe it’s just about doing the right thing – being aware and taking responsibility for your own actions and if you don’t like something, you change it, or try to.”
I think there will be a major calamity, that’s the gritty reality, but it’s up to us now to change that course
Not surprisingly, half the band, including Jeremy of course, are vegetarian. He says:
“being vegetarian is a big step you can take to help animals. I first became aware of factory farming when I was about nine and just didn’t want the obscenity of it on my conscience. I used to walk past a smallholding with free chickens on the way home from school and I liked watching them strut around. Then I found out how battery hens were caged. I was upset, angry. I still get angry about the cruelty.
“I think it’s absolutely essential that people wake up to the harm done by eating meat and make some changes because it’s not difficult. People think that there are great sacrifices involved and there’s not, it’s so easy. They have got to take control of their own destiny because, sooner or later, they really are gonna have to!” Why, I ask?
“Because if we continue the way we are, the world will implode and we will end up extinguishing ourselves.” Is that inevitable? “I think there will be a major calamity, that’s the gritty reality, but it’s up to us now to change that course.”
Can being in a band help change the world?
“The Levellers is only a pop group but in our own small way we’ve made people aware of these issues – we’re pretty well informed. There are a lot of nice people out there but they feel disempowered and switch off.
They feel they can’t do anything because the problems seem so big and out of their control; we say we’ve all got to do something, it’s the only way.
“We wrote a song called I Have No Answer… I have no answers for The problems caused by government and law The only solution is to rearrange from the bottom to the top This system must change I tell you it’s dis-disinformation That keeps us ‘ll in our station You tell me that I’m confused I tell you that we’re all used and we don’t proclaim to have the answers. We say find your own answers. Use the web and find others who believe the same as you. Get involved, take action – they can be small steps. Join groups like Viva!. The Arab Spring was pretty radical. Sometimes I think there’ll be global rebellion and other times not. Maybe it will be bloodless, I hope so. I’m all for positive change.
“I used to call myself an anarchist, which requires an inherent belief in the goodness of humankind, that man can look after himself and treat others as he would expect to be treated. Problem is, I don’t really believe that any more. It seems the biggest will always batter the smallest so it doesn’t surprise me that people are cruel to animals because they are ruthless with each other. It’s encouraged, it’s part of the capitalist system where profit is everything, to keep the shareholders happy. The legalised death and destruction spread by the tobacco and meat industries typify it.
“Look at how the badgers have been treated as scapegoats for the dairy industry. It is shocking. F***in’ terrible. Cameron should have a word with himself, stop being such a Tory! “It’s a global, multinational world. It’s here and now and no government’s gonna do anything without the say so of these people. Unfortunately, they control everything.” And of course, when you look at the meat industry, he’s absolutely right. Livestock and the fodder which feeds them has become the main drivers of world trade and it’s why hamburger companies are spreading through the developing world like a rash.
“I always wonder how many cows it must take to supply McDonalds and Burger King. When I look at them, I think there’s something really sinister in the background because they’re so huge – they’re everywhere. “It’s shocking that we have no control over them and I know that one day something will happen – just because it always does. Nuclear accidents, BSE, GMOs. This kind of mass production is wrong on many levels, not least morally.” Jeremy is not only a brilliant musician and song writer but also a superb artist, doing the band’s artwork. Last year he donated artwork for our Christmas card, Turkeys Fight Back.
“I did the card for Viva! because I respect what you do. I thought of that image because every Christmas I sit down with my family and they eat turkey. My mum and dad eat a lot less meat but Christmas Day is the one time my dad still tries to wind me up, even though I’ve been a vegetarian since I was about 15!” If you want to see The Levellers, there’s no better place than their own Beautiful Day Festival in Escot Park, Devon, August 15-17. It is The Levellers’ annual 15,000 capacity, family-friendly weekend festival which is always a sell-out. Jeremy told me:
“It has no corporate sponsorship and pays for itself now. We got fed up of the commercialisation of festivals. We’d be playing on stage and you’d see massive McDonalds and Coca Cola logos for hours on end; and the audience would be shepherded about like cattle. We wanted to do festivals like the ones we went to as kids – where there was good music but also lots of other stuff going in. Festivals should be about meeting people, alternative techno stuff, friendly vibes – we sell out every year because people come back year after year.” As we part, Jeremy tells me he is going to watch a film edit.
“We’ve got a film coming out about the band called A Curious Life. We have been filmed for the last four years, fly on the wall stuff. There’s also footage of very early gigs and backstage shinnanigans at Glastonbury in the 90s right up to a gig last year. The bit I’ve seen was funny.” Can’t wait. A fitting tribute to one of the best and refreshingly outspoken bands of our time.