As they prepare for their headline Wychwood Festival set, Mark Chadwick of Levellers tells Tim Hughes why their music is as relevant as ever

Levellers burst onto the early 90s music scene in a riot of swirling fiddles, rock guitars, dreadlocks and punchy firebrand lyrics.

The sight of a fiddle in a rock band barely raises an eyebrow these days, but back then it was new, thrilling, and, in the hands of this anarchist collective from Brighton – dangerous.

Forming in 1988, but releasing their debut album A Weapon Called the Word in 1990, and the acclaimed Levelling the Land, a year later, they were inspired by the burgeoning environmental movement and the free festival scene.

They were unapologetically political. They espoused anarchist ideas and took their name from the 17th century rebel movement which believed in equality and universal suffrage, which was brutally crushed by Cromwell during the English Civil War – and which is still commemorated each year in Burford.

Few industry insiders at the time would have put much money on them making a mark, let alone continuing for 30 years. Yet they have – with 16 albums and collections and even their own annual music festival: Beautiful Days, in Dorset.

And not only are they still touring, they show no sign of mellowing.

“Our music is very lyrical, melodic and energetic and everyone has a good dance to it,” says guitarist and singer Mark Chadwick (being an anarchist, he’d hate the word frontman).

“It’s folk-punk, which was very uncool at the time,” he goes on. “We were inspired by bands like Fairport Convention and didn’t want a lead guitar, so we put a violin at the front. It’s not indie, rock, folk or punk, it’s all those things.”

This weekend Mark and bandmates Jeremy Cunningham, Charlie Heather, Jonathan Sevink, Simon Friend and Matt Savage, pile in the van and head to Wychwood Festival, for a headline set on Sunday night.

The show promises to be a highlight of the event, which also features sets by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Buzzcocks and Billy Bragg.

“Wychwood is a nice little festival,” says Mark. “It’s got a nice family-oriented vibe.”

I suggest the band must be most at home at a festival, being inspired by such legendary gatherings as the Stonehenge Free Festival and the early Glastonbury festivals. “We are and we aren’t,” he says. “The band are multi-faceted and good at entertaining people wherever we are. Festivals are our thing though, and good for getting people engaged and involved.

“No one remembers every band they see at a festival though. People watch 10 bands and get ‘banded out’. We know you’ve got to be good to be remembered.”

And, he said, even after decades of thrashing out their hits in fields, it was important not to be complacent – tailoring their show to their audience,

“We show up at a lot of festivals where no one has heard of us,” he says. “So if there are lots of metal fans, we keep it punk, and if it’s folk, we’ll keep it folky. People have paid to be entertained.”

With a huge back catalogue to draw on, Mark acknowledges it is the big hitters people want to hear while standing in a field. They include anthem, and mission statement One Way, Liberty Song, Battle of the Beanfield, and the rousing What a Beautiful Day.

The lyrics still pack a punch, exposing injustice and rallying supporters to action. But are they still relevant?

“The tunes are still relevant, if not more so than before,” says Mark. “It’s a very political world and Levellers are a political band.

“We are not going to dictate to people, though. It’s not ‘left’ or ‘right’ but ‘think’! We are saying analyse politics. Don’t be spoon-fed. Look at the situation and empathise; that’s our politics.”

The band’s standpoint is perhaps summed up by their logo of a rolling ‘A’ – the international symbol of the anarchist movement – rapped in a Celtic-style triskele. This is sometimes accompanied by a quotation by French anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: “Whoever puts their hand upon me to govern me is a usurper, a tyrant, and I declare them my enemy.”

“We come from the 80s and there was much more politics back then and the music was political,” Mark says. “Then the 90s happened and music lost politics. Then the noughties happened and it disappeared. But there has definitely been a resurgence.

“Nothing has dramatically changed to make a band like The Levellers irrelevant. In fact what we have to say is truer than ever – which is a shame and disappointment.

“We are saying, have compassion and look around you and fight against what’s detrimental to the community, country and the planet.”

Did he ever think of moving into politics to spread his message? “Yes, I did in the early 90s,” he says. “But it’s such a dirty business, and having to hang my hat on one peg is not what I want.

“Musicians don’t make good politicians. We are entertainers; that’s what we do.”

So why did the band take the name of an anti-authoritarian political movement which had their heyday in the middle of the 1600s? “We are a band that like our history,” he says. “ And we wanted a name that referenced who we are.

“And we thought it sounds good!

“You are not going to forget it and it has an extra depth that a lot of bands don’t.. But it has become a double-edged sword. Some people just dismiss us a radicals – where as Levellers were sidelined by the revolution for being better and more honest.”

And, he says, that’s one of the reasons the band have never broken up, while so many of their contemporaries have fallen by the wayside.

“Anarchism is all about discussion, fair treatment and respect, and that’s how we treat each other,” he says. “No one gets preferential treatment. We love each other and each other’s company, and that helps. If someone’s in trouble, we support them. It’s that and the music. If people didn’t like the music they wouldn’t come and see you. But our performances ring true, and we even run our own festival. We are not some faceless corporation.”

And he admits they have had a lot of fun on the way. “There’s nothing I could tell you that you could print,” he laughs. “Despite everything, Levellers are a rock & roll band. Don’t forget that.”

  • Levellers play Wychwood Festival on Sunday.
  • The festival runs from Friday-Sunday. Tickets from

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