Sunday 22 January 2017

Return of the green dreamers

Nick Kelly

Published 26/02/2011 | 05:00

Dreadlocks! Hugging trees! Drinking Scrumpy Jack in the afternoon in Eyre Square! Leading mangy mutts with pieces of string! The stereotypes come thick and fast when people talk about the rise of the crusties -- that tribe of eco-hippies that sprung up in the late-80s and through the 90s.

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They could usually be found rolling a joint up a tree as they attempted to save another 1,000-year-old forest from extinction by county council chainsaw massacre, or else camped out at Glastonbury, trying to stop a cement road from bisecting the sacred site.

The soundtrack to this grassroots social movement was provided to a large extent by The Levellers, the Brighton-based band who fused the anger of punk rock with the long-standing traditions of English folk music to produce something that really struck a chord with those out of step with Thatcher's Britain, who believed firmly that there was really was such a thing as society, and that it was worth fighting for.

The name the band chose had profound historical resonances -- the original Levellers being a 17th Century political movement during the English Civil Wars which emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance.

They flourished in certain regiments of Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army, and at one point their manifesto had the support of a third of all Londoners, but their movement was brutally crushed by Cromwell in 1649 and their leaders killed.

Today's Levellers have happily managed to escape such a bloody fate -- indeed, they play the Academy, Dublin, on March 3, where they will perform their 1991 album Levelling The Land in its entirety to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

It's a testament to the enduring popularity of the band that they are back on the road after all these years. But their success came in spite of, not because of, an often hostile media.

"It's funny. The mainstream music press pretty much ignored us when we came out," says singer Mark Chadwick. "Or they had a go at us. We were never fashionable enough for them -- we didn't have the right haircuts. But we've proved you can be successful without them. And that really gets their goat.

"We built up our fan base on our own and they stayed with us. There's a bond that has lasted through the years. I'm quite proud of that."

Even though Chadwick and his merry men sidestepped the trends of the NME and Melody Maker, they still saw Levelling The Land breach the Top 20 of the album charts on its release, and in 'One Way' created a rousing anthem for like-minded eco-nomads.

"When we started out in the Nineties, the ecological movement was disparaged as part of the Loony Left in Britain," remembers Chadwick. "The green movement was seen as some sort of hippie cult.

"But look at it now: all the issues that we were raising back then -- global warming, sustainable energy, protecting the ecosystem -- are now part of mainstream political thought. From being out on the margins, now green issues are centre stage. It just became harder and harder to ignore -- all these freak weather conditions. Is there anyone out there who doesn't believe that the climate's changing?"

The Levellers have been based in their native Brighton throughout their career, where they set up their own recording complex, Metway, releasing their records on their own label after splitting with Warners.

"We just got tired of dealing with big record companies who didn't understand us," says Chadwick. "It was easier to just record our music ourselves without any A&R man breathing down our necks telling us he wanted it to be more poppy or have a snappier chorus.

"In the end, we came to the conclusion that it would be better to set up our own label and then we could release the album we were happy with.

"By acquiring our own studio, we were able to live amongst our friends and family; we didn't have to base ourselves in London. I remember Joe Strummer saw our operation and he told us he envied our autonomy."

Chadwick says he's looking forward to returning to Dublin -- he played a solo show in Whelan's some months back. "We're going to play the whole of Levelling The Land -- because it's probably our most popular album," he says. "But we'll also be doing songs from other albums for the encore -- a sort of greatest hits. I've always had a good time in Ireland. Irish audiences have always supported us."

The Levellers play The Academy, Dublin, on March 3 nkelly@independent.ie

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