“There’s only one way of life and that’s your own, your own, your own”
Those words changed my view of the world in 1991. I was 14, going on 15 and scouring the racks upstairs in the Cornmarket branch of Our Price when the cover of the album Levelling The Land by The Levellers just jumped out at me – bright vibrant colours in what could only be described as punk rock wood cut style. I kne notihing about the band but bought the album on sight alone. Even if the music sucked, it was a record I wanted to own. There’s something that’ll be lost when it all switches to download.
The Levellers are considered very corny now. They were always kind of a joke to a lot of people – they were dog on a string crusties, they lived in trucks and had dreadlocks yet were dominating the indie charts. I had discovered The Clash a year earlier and that was where my head was. But I was staunchly aware that The Clash were of another generation, they weren’t singing about anything that affected me. In fairness, neither were The Levellers – I was a middle class 14 year old in Oxford, they were scabies-riddled grown ups out fighting with the police and being oppressed (although I’m sure underneath it all, they were middle class 14 year olds too) .
I fell in love with them from the first listen of that album, and listened to it obsessively. I still feel the pull to listen to that album for a couple of weeks as spring turns to summer every year. The line I quoted at the outset of this post is the chorus of their anthem One Way. It isn’t supposed to be said, or even, particularly sung, but shouted at the top of your voice as you punch your fist in the air. I found this out to my utter delight the following year when I saw The Levs live for the first of many many times.
A couple of years ago, I read Billy Bragg’s fantastic autobiography/polemic The Progressive Patriot in which he talked about how attending the Rock Against Racism gig, at which he first saw The Clash and Tom Robinson play, politicized him. It was these bands, their songs and their lyrics which opened his eyes to the world around him. The Levellers did that for me. I was a member of their fan club – On The Fiddle – and a few times a year, they’d send you a magazine created mainly by guys in the band full of radical lefty politics. I loved it. My mum was worried my name would be on some government list. I secretly yearned that to be true. I became kind of right-on. I went on some marches and put some posters up around school. Became very scruffy. One Way was my anthem, constantly in my head. Their gigs were evangelical to me, a whole crowd moving and stinking as one. You could spot the real fans, we knew when to punch the air and shout ‘Hooray!’ duirng The Riverflow (after ‘we’re going to change the world!” -HOORAY! and ‘you’re still with us today ‘ – HOORAY!).
The height of The Levellers fame came when the Tory government passed the Criminal Justice Act in ’93. As I recall, it made everything ‘good’ – squatting, illegal raves, etc very illegal. It also extended the police’s right to stop and search and generally gave them more powers. It was draconian and evil. Although far far far less so than the patriot act a decade later. Charlie and Mark of The Levellers were on the cover of the NME burning it! Rebels!
I went on the marches, put up the posters, voiced my outrage and one day got hold of a copy of the bill and read it with vigour. To my utter shock, I found out that I rather agreed with it. I thought about it long and hard and realised that – yes – squatters must be a nightmare. Imagine saving all your life to buy a property, then before you get to do anything with it, these filthy little bastards are in there and have rights!!!! Sod that! And those poor farmers who come to till their land only to find it covered in glowsticks, faeces and one naked man from Cornwall proclaiming his wide-eyed love for everything.
As for the police. Well… I’d been raised to respect them and they always seemed to be doing a rather good job. The only time they seemed to be these facist beasts was when hordes of smelly people were throwing bricks at them.
The Levellers spoke out against following perceived wisdom – to think about things and find your own One Way, I realised that mine was a bit different to theirs. But that’s ok. It was mine. Even if I rejected the black and white anger of their politics, it was them who had given me the impetus to really think about who was running things and how they were doing that. They instilled in me a healthy cynicism of authority and the need to question the motives of those who try to control my future.
Fast forward nearly 20 years.
The way I see it, in modern terms, it started with Woody Guthrie, passed through Bob Dylan, into The Clash, down through Billy Bragg, into The Levellers and then stopped. That’s how I see it. I know there were many others. But from the early 90s to today, I’ve not seen it anywhere. The protest song is dead. The charts – always full of pop – have become full of crap. The pop is manufactured, the ‘indie’ is empty (Keane, Coldplay, Snow Patrol, where did you bastards come from?), Folk hasn’t bothered the charts since The Pogues lost Macgowan in the early 90s, Rock has become the mainstream and in doing so has cut it’s hair, had a shower and embraced the philosophy of the corporations. Mainstream music is just a noxious swill of derivative crap, corporate enterprise and commercial rebellion. The kids today don’t even realise that they are NOT the unaffected loners and outsiders of society, they are the mainstream and have been sold their disaffection as if it were a can of cola.
A couple of years ago, my friends in the band Dive Dive started mentioning this guy Frank Turner. He’d been the lead singer in a UK Hardcore band I’d heard of called Million Dead, who were quite well known. I was always divided about Hardcore punk. I loved the ethos, loved the anger, loved the attitude but it just gave me a headache. Too shouty and gutteral and aggresive to be fun. I like to see the words Henry Rollins, but I like to seem the qualified with ‘Spoken Word’.
Anyway, they were helpin Frank record his first solo stuff and they thought I’d like it, since I still rattled on about the Levellers and the Pogues from time to time – this was folk punk. Or as Frank’s own little genre came to be known – Campfire Punkrock. The first time I saw him play live, I knew he was something special, he had the ferocity of hardcore, the political righteousness of punk, but he played on an acoustic guitar, sang with his own voice and was a fine and catchy songwriter.
His song Thatcher Fucked The Kids was stunning. It filled in the blanks as to what had happened since protest songs were last sung and today.
You’ve got a generation raised on the welfare state,
Enjoyed all its benefits and did just great,
But as soon as they were settled as the richest of the rich,
They kicked away the ladder, told the rest of us that life’s a bitch.
And it’s no surprise that all the fuck-ups
Didn’t show up until the kids had grown up.
But when no one ever smiles or ever helps a stranger,
Is it any fucking wonder our society’s in danger of collapse?
It’s catchy, angry, rowdy, funny, it’s really a great song. Over the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Frank go from strength to strength. I honestly thought that there was no real niche for him in the modern world. He had a few Million Dead fans still following him but really it was back to square one for him.
His first album – Sleep is For The Weak was great and quickly became one of my favourites. Whenever I played the album in the shop, people would dig it and come and ask what it was. I noticed that he had genuine cross-appeal. Middle-aged folk were impressed by his craft and old-school anger, the kids liked the rockingness and attitude.
I still never for a second believed that Frank would make it past a small but devoted following. But had incredible respect for the way he conducted himself. I’ve known many musicians over the year and believe me, they are lazy cunts. In all the time I’ve known him, Frank has never sat still. He continuously has travelled the world with his guitar playing any house party, record shop, coffee house or gig that would have him. After each show, he jumps off the stage and – in the old days – chatted with anyone who wanted to approach him and – these days – happily signs autographs and poses for photos with anyone who asks. He treats them with respect and friendliness.
I wasn’t going to go on about his second album Love, Ire and Song, which is also ace, but realised it might be my only excuse to post the above video which was directed by ME.
Anyway, Frank’s star has actually risen. His second album got some notice, some respect, some airplay. His audiences started to swell and sell out as a matter of course. I’m convinced this is due not only to his talent but because once you see him live, it’s amazingly hard not to become evangelical about him. By making real time for each of his fans, he has won them for life and they will happily get his name out there. I can’t even imagine The Levellers jumping into the crowd and actually talking to everyone. Like most musicians, after a hard show, I’m sure they just want to get back into their vans and get drunk, laid and rested.
Over the last year, I’ve noticed the dynamic of Frank’s shows change. He is still fantastic but I find myself enjoying them less and less. His legion of fans annoy the living shit out of me. I’ve given up trying to film him live anymore in fear of getting crushed by over-zealous young boys and girls, desperate to feel part of a ‘happening’. After shows, it’s harder to say hi as the mob of people waiting for autographs, photos, hugs and handshakes is essentially the whole crowd and, gawd bless him, he’ll talk to them all. They idolise him, sing along with every lyric, hang on his every word, whoop, holler and punch the air.
I’m an old bastard now and he is this generation’s Levellers. He actually toured with them last year, had he had his band with him and not just been acoustic, he’d have blown them off their own stage. He definitely outclassed them.
I realised that as much as I hate his audience, they are exactly what I was, wide-eyed innocents becoming politicized and having their minds broadened. Seduced at first by the coolness of feeling angry and political but, hopefully, going on to actually think for themselves. Culture is supposed to inform and educate as well as entertain and, for my money, Frank is the only political singer out there with a chance of really speaking to this generation of British kids. And he is the right guy to do it, his views are intelligent and not extreme (like the old Levs), he acknowledges reality and apathy and his songs are not so much a call to arms as a call to minds. He is what the kids should be listening to.
So, why am I rambling on about him? Well, his third album is released today. It is called Poetry of The Deed. This song is on it….
Last week, the album was made Radio 1’s album of the week. The week before, he played to 15,000 people at the Reading festival. He’s getting there. And he’s still signed to an independent label. Frank cracking the mainstream would be, I truly believe, one of the best things that could happen to British music in a long time. This is what our charts should be full of. People with a message, talent and proper respect for those who support him.
If so, click this link…..
and buy his cd… or download it from itunes. Because if enough people buy it this week, it could chart high and who knows what kind of precedent that might set for decent music. Worth a shot, and even if it doesn’t work out, you’ve just found your next favourite album.