Levellers and their strong connection to Brighton
- Credit: Archant
As they celebrate more than 30 years together, Brighton’s Levellers are still closely connected to their home town
A former clock factory and carpet warehouse in a residential area of east Brighton is arguably as important to the culture of the city as the Royal Pavilion. Since 1994, the Metway has been the main base of the Levellers, the folk-punk band that catapulted themselves to fame in the early 1990s. The first Levellers album recorded at the Metway was chart-topper Zeitgeist in 1995. At that time the place was renowned for parties that, in the words of bass player Jeremy Cunningham, "seemed to go on for days rather than hours". Now the band may have quietened down a little - earlier this year Jeremy said he and frontman Mark Chadwick had actually stopped drinking altogether - but in terms of music, they remain as passionate as ever.
Jeremy moved to Brighton in 1984 to study at art college and found the place very much to his liking. "Where I was living before, people were wanting to pick fights with me just because of how I looked," recalls the dreadlocked musician. "I had a funny hair-do. But in Brighton lots of people had funny hair-dos."
Four years later, Jeremy was trying to sell his bass guitar in the Eagle pub in Gloucester Road when he met Mark Chadwick. Although Mark later claimed Jeremy was trying to chat up his girlfriend, the two struck a chord and the band was set up on the spot. Drummer Charlie Heather and fiddle player Jon Sevink came on board and the group named themselves after the radical democracy movement active during the English Civil War. Their songs would become a siren call for social justice and the need to question things to try to make a difference.
The Eagle pub became a favourite band haunt, as did The Quadrant by the Clock Tower. And Mark and Jeremy spent a lot of time wandering round The Level near where they all lived. "Mark and Charlie lived in a house in Agnes Street," says Jeremy. "And Jon and I lived in Newport Street. It was not long after the Great Storm [Jeremy admits to sleeping right through it] and a lot of the trees had been flattened. I was looking around and making plans for different bits of fallen wood, thinking one could be used for a sculpture or another might make a didgeridoo. But all those plans came to nothing!"
Musically their plans did come to something. "The music was folk music but the attitude was very much punk rock," says Jeremy. A huge influence on the band were fellow Brighton outfit McDermott's Two Hours. "They played Irish folk music - well, music from all over - and whenever they played, they filled the place." The Levellers firmly rejected a mainstream, which Jeremy says was "all about trying to become a rock star and wearing leather trousers.
"We knew what we didn't want to sound like. Musically all our peer bands in the underground movement - McDermott's, RDF and Culture Shock - were different but lyrically we were all talking about the same thing: disenfranchisement from everyday society."
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The Levellers' first gig was in March 1988 at the Basement at Brighton Art College. Now defunct it had sticky floors, sweaty walls and a low ceiling but hosted shows by the likes of U2, New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen.
"The gig was sold out," says Jeremy of their debut. "We only went to be the support act but the other band asked us to do the main slot. We only had seven songs and I think we ended up playing the set twice. For our next gig, all those people came again. We had a ready-made crowd."
In 1990, their first album, A Weapon Called the Word, was released. Although it never made the charts, it went on to sell half-a-million copies. The following year, joined by singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Simon Friend, the band made the classic Levelling the Land. Now their track record stands at 11 Top 40 albums, more than a dozen Top 40 singles and countless 'unofficial' releases for their fan base.
A defining performance on the main stage at Glastonbury in 1992 took them to a new level. Two years later they headlined and attracted the largest stage-front crowd ever seen there. The band had always been identified with the New Age Traveller movement and the crossover with the festival spirit was easy to see. Jeremy himself lived as a traveller. "When the band got big, it became difficult. I'd come back from a tour and our van would usually have been moved on!"
The festival scene began to change and not to the band's liking. "We did this big commercial festival and had a terrible time. Security were pushing people around. It was like Top of the Pops outdoors."
Mark's solution was to organise their own festival. "I thought it would be a millstone around our necks," Jeremy admits. "But Mark didn't let go of the idea and we all went along with it. That's the thing about this band - if someone has the vision, then the rest get behind it." Beautiful Days was born. "We had to put the Metway and pretty much everything else under remortgage but it was really good and people wanted to come back so we decided to carry on. It's a nightmare to organise but it always ends up worth it."
The perfect festival is the art of controlled chaos. "It's a celebration and a different cultural experience with people you wouldn't normally meet - anarchy in a safe environment."
Jeremy and Charlie still live in Brighton, with Mark and Matt just outside. Jon is in Devon, home to Beautiful Days and the band's fan club set-up. Simon recently moved to the Scottish Highlands.
The band maintains a good relationship with their home town. They support local bands, this year holding a competition for free studio time at the Metway, and they recently donated £5,000 to Sussex Homeless Support. Members have helped out on the charity's night shelter bus and at its Sunday Street Kitchen. They have also been involved in the Cascade Coffee Shop, which helps people with drink or drug ailments. "Brighton embraced the Levellers right from the beginning," says Jeremy.
"We were in the right place at the right time, saying the right thing. Brighton has a special vibe. It's nice and laid back with a liberal atmosphere - it's what we all like."
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