Photographer: Laura Patterson Words: Ali Lewsley Tonight is all about anniversaries, 25 years since the Groovers first went on Manoeuvres after The Wonder Stuff released their debut EP It’s a wonderful day and 20 years since the Levellers put out Levelling the Land. War famine, pestilence, cuts and coalitions all forgotten about as we wind the clock back to the early 90’s. My God I still had long hair then. Rock City is nice and full for this gig, although judging by the fact that it packed out during the last few songs of The Wonder Stuff set a lot of people didn’t check the earlier than usual start time. On the face of it The Wonder Stuff and the Levellers are an odd mix of bands. The former were loud trashy and strictly a-political pop the latter folksy tub thumping anarchists. Miles Hunt is the only consistent member of The Wonder Stuff, a band who have been through multiple personnel changes and coped with the sad deaths of 2 of its founder members. In the intervening years they’ve added Erica Nockalls a celtic fiddle player with a punk haircut, and their music much more in tune with the Levellers pastoral vibe than their heyday.
The Wonder Stuff pull most of their set from the three albums released between 1986 and 1992, Eight Legged Groove Machine, Hup and Never Loved Elvis. Milles Hunt struts around swigging from a bottle of wine and seems to be back to his bratty arrogant best. The set begins with a strangely diluted version of 'Red Berry Joy Town', the opening track from Groove Machine, and a few songs in the early part of the set seem to be missing something. Miles Hunt seems to have crow-barred violin solos into quite a few places where they don’t quite fit. Where they do fit Erica Nockalls shines, especially on the duet version of 'Welcome to the Cheap Seats', and 'Golden Green'. The last three tracks of the main set build up through The Wonder Stuff’s bona fide hits 'Golden Green', 'Size of a Cow' and 'Don’t Let Me Down'. By the time 'Don’t Let Me Down' is finished everyone in Rock City is dancing. Miles Hunt introduces the first song in the encore with a sly “Meanwhile back in the groove machine”, and the band tear through 'Wishaway', 'Give Me More' and 'Unbearable' off their first album. They turned everything up to 11 and Miles Hunt was clearly revelling in these sarcastic, bitchy little pop tunes. The “Stourbridge Supergroup” may not be completely back, but on tonight’s evidence they’re pretty close to their best again. When the Levellers make it to the stage, following a film piece that I manage to position myself at exactly the wrong angle to see, I feel like I am hermetically sealed in an impenetrable bubble of grumpiness. I should like the Levellers a lot more than I do. I broadly agree with their politics, I am not averse to a bit of folk music, I don’t think their songs are essentially badly played or badly written. When the Levellers boat left the dock I was probably listening to my copy of Thunder and Consolation and looking the other way. On the face of it though I appear to be in a minority of one in Rock City.
Tonight is all about their second album Levelling the Land originally released in 1991. The set begins with the student anthem 'One Way' and works its way through the whole of side one before pulling in the extra tracks from a recent cd re-release of the album then tackling side 2. The crowd reaction is impressive, there are impromptu jigs and reels breaking out all over the place, and the person in the middle of the dance floor who could raise both crutches over their head at the same time deserves a medal. Everyone joins in enthusiastically with the sing along parts of 'One Way', 'Boat Man', 'Beautiful Day' and 'Battle of the Beanfield'. It’s enthusiastic and it’s all about good vibes, and I think that is what disappointed me most about the gig tonight. Nobody seemed angry about anything, especially the band. The Levellers nailed their colours to the anarchists mast very early on, but at a time of massive cuts to our public services when the only thing rising higher than unemployment is the bonuses paid to bankers Simon Chadwick was strangely silent. It's all very well “Circling A’s on the underpass” but a little support for trade unions in the UK and Wisconsin, or student protests against tuition fees might have made their politics seem less like a pose. 'Fifteen Years' is a great sing along song, but it was 15 years out of date when it was released in 1991, and is 25 years out of date today. The set finishes with 'Carry Me' from their first album and 'Hope Street' off Zeitgeist their best seller, 'Cholera Well' and predictably the 1997 single 'Beautiful Day'. 'Beautiful Day' ends up a rousing sing along for the audience. This wasn’t a bad gig, the musicianship was excellent, and the crowd threw themselves whole heartedly into it. It’s a long time since I’ve seen such a consistently positive reaction from the audience. The Levellers have always struggled with the New Model Army light tag, and I am sure Simon Chadwick is sick of unfavourable comparisons to Justin Sullivan, and their entire output being held up to Vagabonds and Green and Grey. I can’t help it I’m off to annoy the man in the flat downstairs with The Ghost Of Cain.