Chris Woods penned this review.
What a pleasant surprise, a musical biography which I actively enjoyed reading! I’m afraid I’m old enough, and difficult enough nowadays, to find that many biographies of bands and artists contain more irritation content than enjoyment. I read them, but often more out of a sense of duty, because I admire the artist and want the information, than for the simple pleasure of reading an entertaining book. Berger’s work has, for me, a sprinkling of minor irritations, but not enough to prevent it being thoroughly enjoyable, such that as a reader you look forward to the next opportunity to pick it up.The book traces the history of the Levellers from a collection of somewhat aimless and slightly disreputable youngsters hanging around the UK punk music scene in Brighton, to the highly effective and popular band and successful business which they have become today. The book’s strength, in my opinion, is that it is more than just a bland history of facts and figures and activities. The author has created a readable and enjoyable story by writing about the band, not just as a group of musicians, but also from the much wider perspective of UK society and the prevailing political and social climate.
The Levellers are a political band; they have an alternative philosophy and they support numerous causes which could be described as counter-cultural. Unusually, however, for an ‘alternative’ band, they also manage to appeal to a large section of British music fans and traditionalists. Their brand of counter-culture, while being seriously at odds with many aspects of modern life and modern political values (and even the establishment music press), is not so far removed from some old traditional values. Any book about them should include that aspect of their story, but I can imagine many authors would not have done so, and it’s to his credit that George Berger has.
Maybe this means that there wasn’t quite the space to cover everything the band members have done over the years in meticulous detail, but the gains easily outweigh the losses. By having taken this approach, the book is far more interesting, not just for anyone interested in the Levellers as a band, but also as a comment on society in general.
On a personal level, I find it interesting that the author draws parallels between the anarchistic punk ethos, the new age travellers ‘crusty’ movement, and the ’60s ‘flower power’ anti-establishment movements. The Levellers is a band who has, possibly inadvertently, drawn together the ideals of each, and adapted them to cope with the materialistic Thatcher years of UK society. Their philosophy is readable in their song lyrics, which is what attracted me originally, but it’s also led to the creation of a business enterprise around the band which is unlike virtually any other, but which nevertheless works, and works well.
The book’s other main strength is that it does not portray the band through the eyes of a sycophantic fan who puts the subject on a pedestal and believes they can’t and have never done wrong. The author obviously knows the band well and is a fan and admirer, and his general approval is evident, but that hasn’t stopped him reporting some of the less savoury details of the band’s history or behaviour. He provides the background and an explanation of why the band or individuals did what they did at the time, but overall the book feels balanced and honest.
The band members are portrayed as individuals with strong social feelings who attempt to live honestly, staying true to their ideals within their own moral ethic. They mostly succeed, but when they slip, it gets space in the book along with the successes. The result is that the members of the band, and other individuals who are mentioned in the book, are portrayed as real characters.
The book contains, within the main text, brief comments on the more significant recordings and songs over ten years, along with informative comments from the author and the band. There are also plenty of relevant quotes from the band members to back up the details and information contained in the book, some illustrations, and a section of photographs.
It has a good discography section with the usual list of official releases, and there is also a section on ‘rarities and oddities’, which covers limited edition items and demos. In addition there is a section on known bootlegs with brief notes about some of them. It is interesting and refreshing that, given the serious problems the Levellers have experienced with merchandise bootleggers, some instances of which are recounted in the book, they still feel able to acknowledge the recordings in the official biography. The book also contains a listing of all official gigs.
The main irritant for me is that the author appears to relate many things to the lyrics of an anarchistic anti-establishment punk band called Crass. Heard them? No, neither have I, and while I can well accept that they were initially a significant source of ideas to that generation of punks, and to the Levellers, I find it annoying to have references to their lyrics throughout the book. Certainly for me, and, I suspect, for many readers, they don’t provide the same reference points as for the author.
That complaint excepted, however, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Levellers fans, even those who are members of the ‘On the Fiddle’ club, will find plenty of new information and stories about the band in this book, and anyone interested in counter-cultural movements will also find the book worth looking at.
The cover price is £9.99 UK for the paperback, and to my mind it represents excellent value. Very readable, plenty of information, and the refreshingly different (for a band biography) perspective is ideal for the Levellers, who are, after all, a rather different sort of band.
(Virgin Books 1998)