It is easy to forget just how much commercial success Levellers have had; in the 1990s they had more platinum, gold and silver albums in the UK than any other British act. Testament to the appeal they have at a grassroots level rather than flowing from critical acclaim, Levellers have never been – or wanted to be – media darlings. So it is easy to imagine that an album trumpeted as a ‘celebration of their 30th anniversary’ which is composed of re-recordings of old material could have an accusation of ‘no new ideas here’ levelled (if you forgive me) at it.
But wait – ‘We The Collective’ is much more than a re-hash of old songs and deserves more than a fair hearing. Surely no one would expect a simple re-packaging of a ‘best of’ to mark the bands three decades of protest, activism and downright good music? And anyway, we are promised new music in due course. No, ‘We The Collective’ is a venture which just reminds us that Levellers are not going to conform, and in doing it their way, they will damn well keep us entertained. Recorded at Abbey Road, the album contains ten songs – eight ones any Levellers fan will recognise, plus two new compositions.
Each of the old songs has been re-worked and re-arranged with acoustic instruments overlain by strings. Sure, Levellers have always used acoustic guitars and fiddles and here we see continuity and change, acoustic guitars have more prominence, the fiddles more likely to be part of a richer string arrangement. The tempo is often slowed and gritty guitars missing, but the passion remains, there is no mistaking the message. The two new songs ‘The Shame’ and ‘Drug Bust McGee’ dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis and undercover police respectively fit easily into the listening experience and, certainly on the former remind us that Levellers remain politically relevant and important.
It is a great thrill to hear old favourites like ‘Exodus, Liberty’ and ‘Hope Street’ re-imagined this way. If the mark of a great song is for it to work in a variety of arrangements then these, for sure, are great tunes – they swing in a head nodding, toe-tapping way and succeed because they are different to the originals. The only slight disappointment is ‘One Way’. It is the last track, no doubt because it is perhaps the best known. Curiously, or maybe because it is so anthemic, it is the only one that slightly misses the mark. It is a minor criticism – this is good stuff.
Despite being the 30-yearr marker it is not an obvious place to start if you are unfamiliar with Levellers. You do need the ‘best of’ for that, but ‘We The Collective’ shouldn’t be too far behind on your playlist.
A treat for Levellers enthusiasts but not the place to begin your journey