Ahead of the release of The Levellers‘ greatest hits album and UK tour, including a headlining slot at the Ramsbottom Festival next month, Cathy Crabb chatted to frontman Mark Chadwick, as well as Lynn Holt, a passionate fan.
Lynn has been a fan of The Levellers for more than 20 years. She has followed them around the world and been to amazing places otherwise unthinkable if it hadn’t been for them.
“I first heard of the Levs in 1991,” she recalls. “I was fascinated to hear a band that came from my childhood town of Brighton which I was desperately homesick for at the time, and my new partner Bill (now my husband) had seen them on MTV. So we agreed to make our first proper date watching them at Manchester Academy. It was October 19th, 1991. From the first chord of the first song, the whole venue erupted in a frenzy of dancing and singing and bouncing and joy and adrenalin that neither of us had ever encountered anywhere else before or since. It was like ‘coming home’.
“They became our hobby/obsession/escape – we drove all the way to London on his motorbike that December, nearly freezing to death in sub-zero temperatures to watch them. Then we used up our holiday allowance the next Spring to follow them on every night of their tour from one end of the country to the other for two weeks in our VW bus. And no, it doesn’t get boring hearing the same songs over and over – every night was different, every venue, every town, the mood of the band, the atmosphere in the crowd. We saw the same faces night after night and realised we weren’t the only ones doing this. And everyone we met was just lovely, and in the space of two weeks we formed the most intensive friendships with some great people.”
After discovering she was pregnant with her eldest daughter Lucy, Lynn took a big break from following The Levellers. As it does, life took over, but the flame rekindled many years later when she came across fans on Facebook, people she knew from the past, and rather than discovering that the band’s fan base had dwindled, she found that the group of like-minded people had swelled.
“The Levelling community it turned out was thriving on social media. I’ve met some of my best friends in the world through it. It’s something that has been true of the Levs right from the start – for some reason they attract the loveliest, kindest, funniest, friendliest fans of any band – I can honestly say I have never met a Levs fan I don’t like.”
Although I love their music, I’ve never seen the band live. So I’ll be going when they’re on in Ramsbottom. Despite this, their album Levelling the Land has been around my head for a long time. I like the atmosphere, I like all the instruments, the storytelling and the belief in freedom of speech and liberty.
To me, Levelling the Land is all greens and blues and wooden. It smells of campfires, dirt, sun and rain on the skin, whisky and weed. There’s loads of midges about and someone is making a stew on a boat. And as it plays on I too am living a freer life. I too am painting plant pots, I’m smoking roll ups and I’m telling tales with the wisdom of age, and still carrying the fierce beliefs of youth. But then next minute – I AM doing those things, I HAVE chosen a freer life to lead. Alright, it’s not that free, but it’s as free as I can get it. I moved to the country and I’ve been true to what I wanted to do, and I did right by me Dad’s wishes: (please read in scouse) ‘never stop kid, go as far as you can get’. This is what I hear in the song One Way, I hear the words of the kind of man that is ever hopeful that his kids will be happy and healthy, that they can achieve their dreams. Think about your favourite songs, I bet they’ve shaped your life in some way.
So I love the Levellers but Lynn Holt probably loves them more.
“What is it about them? I can’t put my finger on it really. It’s music with a conscience I guess, political and angry and a call to action, to arms, but never too heavy and accusative. It’s got hope and potential and tells you that you might just change the world if you try. And it’s got fiddles and drums. What more could you want?”
And she knows this is a two-way relationship with the band. “It doesn’t matter what mood I’m in when I get to the gig, I can guarantee that within half a song a huge grin will be delivered to my face and I’m bouncing up and down with my arms in the air, all my troubles completely forgotten in a haze and frenzy. And what makes it even better is to look up and see the band laughing and being carried along by the euphoria they’re sensing from the crowd – it’s a completely symbiotic relationship. You know they appreciate and are grateful for us, as much as we are for them. Jon once made a point in a small town in Germany of coming over to give me a hug before they got on the tour bus to say ‘Thank you, we really do appreciate the effort you lot make you know”.
And the icing on the cake was Lynn actually playing with them. Lynn is an accomplished flautist and got to play the flute onstage during a song at Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
“Having lost heart with playing in bands myself and not having played for about eight years, the Levs came to my rescue a couple of years ago when they offered the opportunity for fans to join them on stage for the encore each night of the tour. After an audition that was possibly the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done, I walked out on stage to 2,000 people at Shepherds Bush Empire and remembered exactly why I love playing on stage, and I haven’t looked back since.”
I urge you to watch the YouTube link here. Lynn’s audition is 16.37 minutes in (the red haired flautist) and then you see her later playing later on stage. Knowing what you know now of her love for the band I challenge you not to be moved.
So, here are my phone interviews with both Lynn and Mark. I asked them the same questions, only veering off slightly and they didn’t know each other’s answers until now…
Which band have you seen the most?
Mark Chadwick: Electric Soft Parade. They’re a local band down here in Brighton.
Lynn Holt: (laughs) Well I think we’ve answered that one haven’t we?
How many times have you seen them?
MC: Ten, maybe 12 times.
LH: I think it has to be about 70, it’s got to be 70 odd.
What was the first record you heard as a child that sparked something?
MC: Probably when I heard My Sweet Lord by George Harrison on the radio.
LH: Well my brothers are loads older than me, like ten and 15 years older than me, and my mum used to come into my room and bring the record player that we had and put a nursery rhyme record on, Wally Walton or something, and go back downstairs. And my brothers used to come in and put Abbey Road on after she’d gone and I remember being about two and my big brothers all listening to Abbey Road. And I’ve got it on my iPod now and it still brings back memories, and although I don’t think it’s their best album I still listen to it now because it brings back all that. Listening to Something still makes all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up [Something was the first song written by George Harrison to appear on the A side of a Beatles single].
(Just to Lynn) What is your favourite Levellers song?
LH: If it’s dancing wise it’s Cholera Well. They play it at the end usually when I’m thinking ‘ahh can’t do another OH! Cholera Well!’ Out of the ballady ones it’s Alone in the Darkness which is just this beautiful song on the last album. But the one that I’ve always thought about getting tattooed on me is The Road because it has the line in it ‘the words that you heard when you were young will always stay, the ones that always stay make the world go away’.
John Cooper Clarke said in an interview that Strange Fruit was a brilliant song but you wouldn’t wanna hear it twice. Do you have a song like that? One that is too painful to ever hear again?
MC: I know what he means by that yeah, erm...Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen.
LH: I’ve got loads of songs that make me cry but I listen to them over and over again! I haven’t come across a song yet that would have that effect. I would force myself to listen to a sad song, I like wallowing! You can’t experience the highs without the lows.
You could never listen to that again?
So you would never be able to watch Shrek again?
MC: (laughs) I wish I’d never watched Shrek in the first place!
Because the songs and the fans give a sense of collective worship, do you think gigs are any different when there is a full moon?
MC: Yeah definitely, when you’re doing a gig and it’s a full moon, it’s gonna kick off, every time.
LH: If it is different, I’ve never noticed it, they may have noticed a problem.
I think collective worship brings on the rain. I think that is why it is always raining at festivals. Do you notice any difference in a gig when it rains?
MC: Yeah you won’t get as many walk ups at a gig if it’s raining, I know that much.
LH: Erm, yeah…well only in the fact that when it rains at a gig there’s a miserable trudging Dunkirk spirit and then the sun comes out and it’s like a different place.
Does Carry Me (one of the earliest songs) mean different things now, than it first did? Has the meaning changed over the years?
MC: Yeah it has meant different things over the years, it has that ability to morph into different things.
LH: Well there is a quote I read somewhere that protest singers need to include the word ‘us” in their song. A succesful protest song says ‘we’ can do this’. And I was thinking that’s what all The Levellers’ songs do. They always include the word ‘we’ and that’s why eveyone gets into them and Carry Me is the same. And it has changed in recent years and people have carried me. I’ve been on peoples’ shoulders and been carried to that song. And metaphorically too. And emotionally I think it’s still overwhelming. I tell you something else as well, when it did mean different things a year or so ago Simon’s wife died and he missed a whole tour and we were at…Harrogate I think it was and Mark said ‘This is for a special friend of ours and he’s not with us tonight’. And you know the emotion there on the band’s faces as he was singing ‘I’ll carry you if you carry me’. Because you know they had spent these 25 years together, there definitely wasn’t a dry eye, the band were going as he was singing it. It was an acoustic set as well, it wasn’t a bouncy around one so it was really emotional. And it amazes me, they’ve never changed their politics. They’ve never become cynical.
Has it always meant something good to you? I was talking to your fan about how the person being carried and doing the carrying changes, she said that aspect has changed over the years.
MC: Yeah that can happen. I can understand that, that’s what’s going on in their head, that’s what’s happening to them, that’s how songs work.
We talked about how that must have felt writing that song as a young person and, looking back, you can’t believe perhaps that you were so kind-hearted, as a young person?
MC: You mean that fire in your belly that you have as a young person, the naivety of youth…it still carries on in the songs though.
We talked about how as a young person you only care about yourself most of the time, you have that drive in you.
MC: Yeah but we weren’t like that though you see, we were a bit different.
Yeah we talked about that too. We were talking about that and imagining what was magical about that and we were thinking it was that you were a group of people who really loved each other.
MC: Yeah. And we identified with each other, and we identified with our times that we were living in. And the times we were living in forced that way of thinking really.
Did you ever have any run-ins with the Brew Crew (a legendary band of travellers known for being leathered on special brew and wrecking everything)?
MC: Really? Not really no, no not at our gigs.
LH: God yeah I remember the Brew Crew…Jesus! Not from Levellers gigs. From earlier than that at free festivals and you wake up and go ‘put all the gear away’, they’d drive trucks through free festivals pissed up at eight o’clock in the morning driving over people’s stuff. I remember them from when I was 18 and going to Stonehenge. Yep.
MC: I mean, we came across them, some of them were friends, there were always people like that to be honest.
LH: The travelling community still had the yob element like society has. It is a society within a society so those things happen too.
MC: Yeah I mean they existed on the road. They were ruining it for other people.
My last question is this: did you know from the start you had found something really special and that you were entering into a lifetime commitment with this band?
MC: Yeah, we were very committed to it from day one.
LH: Apart from when you have kids, I don’t think you know anything is a lifetime commitment. We stood at the back at the first gig not knowing what to expect and it was like being carried somewhere else, the whole room just bounced as one movement, like everybody was controlled, and we just both went ‘What the…?’ I knew I’d found something but like anything you have no idea that 23 years later you’ll still be doing it. I think it’s very difficult at that age to look forward further than like, a year. You can’t live that far ahead. This is what amazes me about the Levellers and I’d be interested to know if he did think that. I can’t believe in my experience of being in bands that they’ve made it through 20 years. How have they done that?! How, with arguments and musical differences and all that?
Me and your fan were saying that it is a lovely template for people.
MC: Yeah, it should be.
LH: It’s a miracle that that amount of people have stayed together all that amount of time. I imagine it’s a similar thing to how I feel about the flute. I was 12 when I started playing. As soon as I found that, I knew it was a lifetime commitment. Like now if I’m grumpy or whatever I’ll just go upstairs shut the door and play. I feel the same about going to a Levellers gig. It’s like meditating. The words that you hear make everything else go away.
Main image by Ami Barwell
For more information on The Levellers’ tour dates, click here
The Levellers are headlining at the Ramsbottom Festival. For more information on the festival, click here