Levellers on life after lockdown

Lockdown hit The Levellers hard. We caught up with Lewes-based frontman Mark Chadwick to find out why.

Monday, 6th December 2021, 7:37 pm
Updated Tuesday, 7th December 2021, 7:36 am
Mark Chadwick

Lockdown hit The Levellers hard.

The band were looking ahead to a 30th anniversary tour in celebration of their classic Levelling The Land album when the live music scene - and the world at large - came to a juddering halt.

Frontman and long-time Lewes resident Mark Chadwick admits it was a tough period for a band who had been on the road almost constantly since they formed in Brighton back in 1988.

"It was really hard, and there were times when it was difficult to see when it might come to an end,' he said.

"I think the low point was just before Christmas - it had looked like things were improving and then it all came back again. It looked like we'd all have to go begging Ed Sheeran for money..."

If you're going to be locked down though, there are worse places to be than Lewes.

He said: "Lewes? I love it, it's a market town like no other. It's got heart. It's got mystery. There's loads going on to, it's great for gigs - not just the Con Clubs, there are so many other venues."

Mark Chadwick

He moved to Lewes more than 20 years ago and although, pre-Covid, touring kept him away for many months of each year, the town always feels like home and has been a perfect base to raise his family.

True to form, the band stayed busy throughout - and the result is The Lockdown Sesions album, recorded live in the band's Metway studios and due for release on November 26.

It's an album partly born out of frustration.

The Levellers 12th studio album, Peace, had been released in August 2020 as lockdown restrictions began to ease - before promptly being re-imposed. For the first time, the band had an album they couldn't take on the road.

Eschewing the idea of a full band concert over Zoom, the band instead convened in the Metway recording songs from Peace and a selection of greatest hits live - it's effectively a memento of the tour that never was.

"It was hard. We had the album, we released it, people liked it and it went top ten which was great but we couldn't tour it - and that's what we do."

The full band would not make their live return until their own Beautiful Days festival in Devon in August.

"It was probably fortunate that Beautiful Days with our own fans was the first show back. It wasn't hard for me as I'd done a few solo shows in advance.

Beautiful Days also saw The Levellers grappling with the new Covid safety requirements for any large-scale events.

"I was really clear on it," Mark says. "It was important that it felt normal, there couldn't be any social distancing inside or anything like that. Yes we had to ask people if they were double jabbed, but it couldn't feel weird inside. People appreciated it, the feedback was great."'

Google The Levellers and the headline will always be their 1994 performance on Glastonbury's Pyramid stage, which attracted the festival's biggest-ever crowd, with security breaches swelling the numbers on Worthy Farm to 300,000.

But in fact the band's lasting legacy is more likely to be how they laid the groundwork for a DIY model of self-sufficiency and direct relationship with their fan base that other bands, through necessity, are now following.

:"That link with all the fans has always been so important, it cuts out the press - you can never trust them to tell the truth anyway. We've always done that, we used to do a monthly magazine for the fans, now we've got an app.

"The Metway is still really important to us - it's really busy, it employs a lot of people. The music business hated us for it, but that's the model that everyone has to follow these days."

Even taking the DIY approach, it's hard to imagine bands now sustaining a career like the Levellers when they have to feed off scraps from streaming services like Spotify while the Adeles and Sheerans hoover up the vast majority of the revenue.

""It's hard, the economics for bands now are so hard - Brexit too makes it impossible, not just the touring but sending merchandise abroad. Checks at both borders to make sure you aren't importing your own goods...for a band like us it's just about manageable, but if you are just starting out..."

Mention of the media takes the conversation back to The Levellers fractious relationship with the then-influential music press back in the 1990s when weeklies like NME, Melody Maker and Sounds could make or break bands' careers. The latter two have long since folded, while NME is now a digital-only publication unrecognisable from its print heyday.

Despite the hostility his band often faced though, Mark takes no pleasure from their demise.

"Is it better now? No, it's worse - it's much worse. We all live in an echo chamber now. People put out music, people say it's great but there's no real criticism. People just write about what they like.

"We hated them (the music press) but they served a purpose, I think it's important to critique things."

With live music back - for now at least - The Levellers are set to finally begin their twice-postponed Levelling The Land tour, including a sold-out date at Dreamland in Margate on December 8. It's a tour that extends into the Autumn of 2022, including a headline set at the Lake Garden Music Festival in Brightling, just over the East Sussex border, on September 10.

I recount a Twitter thread I've been following in which users post their best gigs and the band they have seen most often. The Levellers cropped up more than any other band. With a band as well honed as the Levellers can there still be, I ask, such a thing as a bad gig?

"The audience is so important though, if it's a bit flat that can affect the gig. The first proper indoor gig we played since all this nonsense was in Newcastle and it was brilliant, but there are other times when you can sense people are still feeling a bit wary of being together again.

"But as a band we're prety solid."