Britain was a divided country in 1985. Unemployment figures had risen to more than three million, there were riots in Birmingham and Brixton, inflation was high and the pay gap grew wider. The miners’ strike had ended in March, after a rancorous year-long dispute that signalled the beginning of the end for the national coal industry.
Three months later, on June 1, a clash between Wiltshire police and New Age travellers became known as The Battle Of The Beanfield, scene of one of the biggest mass arrests in English history.
Determined to enforce a High Court injunction that banned the Stonehenge Free Festival from taking place, 1,300 police in riot gear outnumbered the travellers by more than two to one. There were dozens of injuries and nearly 540 arrests in a field en route to the site, during which time convoy coaches were smashed and, according to various media reports, the authorities set about men, women and children with truncheons. The Observer’s Nick Davies noted that police were clubbing “anybody they could reach”.
Watching the footage on TV was 18-year-old Simon Friend, fresh from leaving school in Derby and embarking on life as a busker. “The miners’ strike left a lot of bitterness on both sides,” he says. “I think the police who were sent into the beanfield were veterans of that and weren’t interested in discriminating between people. I’d been to Glastonbury in eighty-four and had got a taste of certain cultures, let’s say, so it didn’t surprise me. But the brutality was still shocking, especially the violence towards families. I was angered and saddened by all that. I remember thinking: ‘Why are they doing this? These people are only trying to live peacefully!’ I showed the footage to my dad, and I don’t think he’s ever voted Tory since.”
Friend began formulating a song about it, Battle Of The Beanfield, over the next couple of years. “I suppose I must’ve written it in eighty-six or eighty-seven,” he says. “I’d been doing a lot of busking around Europe, and Battle Of The Beanfield came out of that. It had a pretty simple structure and was a good, shouty busking song. It was one of those songs that needed to be heard. Busking was a good education. You soon learn your own worth when you’re out there playing for change. I used to busk in the old Audley Centre in Derby, next to the back entrance of the Marks & Spencer’s food place, and the old dears who knew my mum would bring me sandwiches or beer. Back then I used to get all sorts of crazy stuff thrown in the hat, from biscuits to sherry.”
The song first cropped up, in recorded form, on 1989’s Hérne An Cara, a cassette of home demos. But it wasn’t until a year later, after Friend had replaced guitarist Alan Miles in The Levellers, that Battle Of The Beanfield fully took shape. A slow, ominous drum beat heralds the retelling of the events of that day in June ’85, before electric guitars and Jonathan Sevink’s antic fiddle fire up a storm of gypsified protest rock. Ambulance sirens zoom by as Friend details the carnage in a burning wave of anger and indignation.
There are lines about crying children, pregnant women lying in their own blood and police tearing apart people’s homes: ‘There’s nothing here that you can call free/They’re getting their kicks laughing at you and me.’ The chorus describes how the sun rose on the beanfield and the law moved in. ‘They came like wolf on the fold,’ sings Friend, becoming ever more impassioned, ‘And they didn’t give a warning, they took their bloody toll.’
“I’d read in the papers that they’d spent twenty-five grand on night-sights, basically so they could spot hippies,” he recalls today. “That was a shocking figure. How was that possible? There are also several more verses on the original version of Battle Of The Beanfield, but we basically felt that it was too long. The rest of the band ultimately made the song what it is. There’s an element that’s added when you bring the other guys in.”
Battle Of The Beanfield was perfect for The Levellers, whose fast-rising reputation was partly due to their alignment with the traveller community and the more free-spirited elements of society. The media’s tendency to largely ignore the band only fostered a tighter bond between them and their fans. Friend’s arrival also brought a slightly folkier factor to The Levellers, giving their anarcho-rock a more traditional platform from which to rail against societal injustice.
“They’d always been into folk, though some more than others,” he says. “When I first joined the band they were all very much into punk rock, whereas my thing had been stuff like Led Zeppelin and Steeleye Span. Mark [Chadwick, singer] was really into The Clash, but I never really saw myself as a punk.”
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Battle Of The Beanfield was the closing track on 1991’s Levelling The Land. A Top 20 success on the UK album chart, it was the start of a sharp upward trajectory for The Levellers that would bring them a fistful of hit singles over the next few years.
“They were interesting times for us,” says Friend. “I never expected to be recording things like Battle Of The Beanfield and The Boatman within a year of joining the band.
“We recorded the album over at Ridge Farm, a very nice studio in the Sussex hills. It’s a beautiful place, very posh, and a huge contrast with busking around Derby a couple of years previously.”
In 1992 The Levellers’ breakthrough status was confirmed with a hugely popular nationwide tour, a US deal with Elektra Records and a prestigious slot on the main stage at Glastonbury.
“I’d played the Theatre Stage at Glastonbury when I was still solo, going on between different acts,” Friend recalls, “and I’d played the Travellers Field with the band. But it was quite a shock to the system seeing so many Levellers fans there in ninety-two. I felt overwhelmed, standing there on stage and looking up towards that hill of people.”
The Levellers celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Levelling The Land with a three-disc reissue in 2016. Battle Of The Beanfield, meanwhile, remains one of the most enduring tunes in their entire catalogue. “It’s still one of the most talked-about songs I’ve written,” says Friend. “And very relevant, given the direction that society seems to be heading in today. I was an angry young man back then. I suppose I’m an angry old man now.”
The 25th-anniversary edition of Levelling The Land is out now via On The Fiddle.
RELEASE DATE: September 1991 (on parent album Levelling The Land)
HIGHEST CHART POSITION: Not released as a single
PERSONNEL: Simon Friend (Lead vocals, guitar, harmonica) Mark Chadwick (Guitar) Jeremy Cunningham (Bass) Jonathan Sevink (Fiddle) Charlie Heather (Drums, percussion)
WRITTEN BY: Simon Friend, Mark Chadwick, Jonathan Sevink, Jeremy Cunningham, Charlie Heather
PRODUCER: Alan Scott
When The Shit Hits The (Non) Fan
The Levellers had an often combative relationship with the music press during the 90s. “We were dismissed as ‘crusties’ straight away,” recalls Simon Friend. “And some of the press just didn’t like us at all, which was more to do with something that Jeremy [Cunningham], did with the NME.” Cunningham, the band’s bassist, had responded to a scathing critique of Levelling The Land by gift-wrapping a fresh turd and posting it to reviewer Andrew Collins. All was forgiven in 2007, however, when Collins wrote sleeve notes for a reissue of the album, now declaring it “one of their great achievements”.