Crust Never Sleeps

“We didn’t realize how big America is,” says Levellers bassist Jeremy Cunningham, revealing a charming Brit-centric lack of global awareness. “I think we played every single state.” The last time the Levellers performed in L.A. was for a benefit at the Roxy in 1992, when they were coming off their best-selling and most hit-filled album, Levelling the Land. They were riding high, playing to gigantic crowds at festivals around the U.K. Shows were highlighted by their anthem “One Way,” with its chorus of “There’s only one wa-a-a-y of life, and that’s your own, your own, your own,” which is far less ludicrous when chanted by throngs of bopping fans than when read on the page.

The Levellers’ tale hasn’t exactly been the U2 story, however. They had their beginnings in the seaside town of Brighton, where all the members still live and have their headquarters/recording studio called the Metway. In 1988, while everybody and his dealer was following Melody Maker’s decree to worship all those Manchester bands, the Levellers — who took their name from 17th-century English radicals — were starting their own folk-punk movement, which came to be labeled by the Brit press as “crusty” to describe the dirty feet, hemp jewelry and nomadic lifestyles of the band and its followers. The music weeklies ridiculed the Levellers. One particularly nasty NME review prompted Cunningham to mail off an envelope filled with his own poop to the writer by way of rebuttal.

Talking on the phone from his Brighton home, Cunningham still laughs about the incident. “It’s not something I do these days. It was a review of Levelling the Land, and the critic didn’t actually mention any of the songs. It was just someone having a go at us.” Since then there have been plenty of good reviews in the British papers, but, he adds, “We never get treated fairly by the press. People have a preconception about what we are. It doesn’t really bother me as long as the fans like it and we’re crossing over to new people.”

Besides being the bass player, Cunningham designs the band’s album covers and other artwork. Compared to his regular-lad bandmates, he’s the Rick Nielsen of the group, the goofy guy with ropey dreadlocks that fly like whips while he dashes around the stage. He’s also the last Leveller to give up living in his truck and move into a flat. His Masterpiece Theater accent adds to the image of talking to a hyperkinetic version of The Simpsons Sideshow Bob.

Lead singer and songwriter Mark Chadwick (guitarist Simon Friend is the other singer) is the closest thing the Levellers have to a heartthrob. Prone to blousey Guatemalan shirts, beaded chokers and bare feet, with his brown curls he looks like the little boy from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. His voice is at once careworn, lordly and distinctly British against the band’s layers of mountainous drumming, sprightly fiddle and the occasional didgeridoo. It’s easy to see how the Levellers inspire such devotion from fans, who follow them from festival to festival. The songs tend to be protest calls for action and peace, like the lovely “Wake the World” and the rousing “Come On” from the latest album, Green Blade Rising, or odes to victims and the disenfranchised, such as “15 Years,” their danceable hit about an alcoholic wife-beater.

You can’t write about the Levellers without describing their fervent fans. Early in the band’s career, Cunningham remembers a producer saying, “I know you’ve got big support, but those people don’t buy records, they steal them.” NME once speculated that Levelheads “work in banks all week and then re-enact English Civil War battles on Sundays.” As with any good cult band’s following, seeing the Levellers onstage means gathering hours earlier in the local pub, imbibing the appropriate drugs and drink, filing into the club in a timely manner, and not leaving your spot in front of the stage until the last band member has toweled off. If you hang around long enough, a Leveller may come back onstage to make a polite request for hash from anybody willing to share, and the party continues.

Spaceland may not be Glastonbury, where their shows are legendary, but the Levellers have that magical knack, not to mention the superb musicianship, to win over even the most crust-free hippie-hater. As long as they don’t get lost here, which happened last time. “We ended up going down to Venice Beach in the van,” remembers Cunningham. “On the way back to Hollywood, we got lost in South-Central. It was just after the riots, so we started seeing all these burnt-out buildings, and at stoplights people were looking at us as if we were mad. But I knew all the street names — it was like listening to Ice-T and N.W.A. That was interesting.”

The Levellers play Spaceland on Wednesday, May 21.


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