1990 was a formative time for me regarding music and two bands would appear on my radar that would be both important to me as a young and impressionable fan and whose music would provide a longevity that finds me still playing their albums today. If The Manic Street Preachers would rebel against those politically despondent times by creating their own illusionary pseudo-intellectual, glamour punk bubble: eyeliner, androgyny and glitz being the order of the day, it was The Levellers left wing, grass roots, hippie folk messages that resonated with me more.
They had come howling up from the Saxon Shore in the late eighties armed with a firebrand of heavily politicized, frenzied folk music and through a heavy campaign of energetic live shows in almost every venue, back room and toilet in the country, as the nineties set in they were ready to unleash their debut album on the public. It is easy to forget how incongruous it was with the country in the grip of the Madchester scene for a band to immerse themselves in many of the trappings more akin to the original Summer of Love, albeit one that had been informed by an overdose of Clash albums.
Although it would be their second album that would help catapult them on to the big stage, as a statement of intent, A Weapon Called the Word was nothing short of brilliant. Although folk music rarely sets the world on fire, it was their subtle blend of traditional sounds, punked up energy, caring socialist ethos and more than anything, their ability to craft accessible, memorable songs that was their selling point. It was the ability to mix the old – the Celtic stomp out of What You Know, and the new – the rapping on World Freakshow, that gave their music both a familiarity and a freshness.
It is the majestic England, My Home that stands out as the centrepiece of this manifesto, both musically and lyrically. Driven by soaring fiddle and heavy guitars hammering home personal politics that say more about this green and pleasant land than any football chant or party political broadcast ever could. I Have No Answers also has it’s heart in the same place, a straightforward reaction to the state of Thatcher’s Britain, and the album opener, World Freakshow documents the same sentiments on the global stage.
But it’s not all about fist in the air anthems; some of its finest moments come from the simpler songs, simple but never simplistic. Carry Me explores the diverse paths friends can take and The Ballad of Robbie Jones is about as good an anti war song as you can get, both coming on like the busker tunes that lay at the heart of the bands birth.
The Levellers were universally ignored at best, or at worse subjected to outright pillory by the music press, but despite this, or possibly because of it, they rose to become the outdoor band of recent times, clocked up millions of album sales and even set up their own festival. If the reasons behind this belligerence had more to do with fashion and perceived “cool” as dictated by the press of the time, they were missing the point entirely. Their issue may have been with the hippy undertones the band embraced, the traveler contingent that they aligned themselves with, or the simple inability to see past the Caucasian dreadlocks, cider swigging and campfire fraternity, but in doing so they failed to realize that beneath the politics and passion was quite simply an incredible set of songs.
This re-release of the album includes not only some interesting re-mixes and alternative versions of some of the songs, but also comes with a DVD in the form of a tour diary of the times. Basically captured on a hand held camera following the band around, it might be a bit lost on the casual watcher, but if you were going to these gigs at the time probably jogs a few precious memories.
Albums are often good ways of remembering the times and places of your youth, music like smell, seems to be a good catalyst for rousing long buried memories. But more than that, twenty years on this album still resonates with all the thought and energy it did on the day of its release, as such it deserves to be labeled a classic.