The punk-folk-rock band’s lead singer, Mark Chadwick, tells us how the rousing, mid-90s anthem took just three minutes to write
The Levellers formed in Brighton in 1988, with a musical style influenced by punk rock and traditional English folk. Led by guitarist and singer Mark Chadwick, the band quickly built a loyal following and by 1993 their third album Levellers had entered the UK charts at No 2. The follow-up Zeitgeist would become the band’s first and only chart-topping album, but 1997’s Mouth To Mouth provided them with one of their biggest hit singles in What A Beautiful Day.
As we hear from its principal writer Mark, the “disgustingly instant” song almost didn’t see the light of day.
“Basically, it was written where we’d built our own studio: The Metway, in Brighton. I only lived down the road, so rather than sitting at the end of my bed with an acoustic guitar, I was going to the studio.
“I’d never do it with an engineer or anything; I’d just go in there and sit on my own with monitors and stuff, and play quite loudly. I’d plug in the acoustic guitar and have a mic going, to get that live vibe and the volume. I didn’t want anyone near me, but the offices of the studio were upstairs, so it was an illusion – I was playing so loud, everyone in the building could hear me! I was in my bubble.
“I had a notepad next to me and I literally went, [sings the chorus melody] ‘La-da- da-dada-daa-daa-da…’ It was one of those disgusting moments – I hate when I hear other people say it – but it was written in three minutes! And I wrote the lyrics in the next three! I’m really jealous when I hear other writers say that, because it doesn’t happen very often, it really doesn’t.
“Then I played it and recorded it, and thought, ‘That’s a bit fucking trite, to be honest Mark!’ But a guy upstairs, who was working for us, heard me and opened the door to the studio and said, ‘Mark, that’s the hit.’ I was like, ‘That took me three minutes to write, how can that be a hit?’ I like to labour over these things, but he went, ‘No, that’s it man.’ Then he closed the door and walked off. So then I played it to the band and they got it straight away. That’s the nature of songwriting: you’re the last person to decide whether it’s good or not. I thought it was a piece of shit, but it worked and that’s the way it is – you just don’t know.
“The lyrics just made sense to me; it’s just picking out bits of history. November the fifth is a big part of the culture in the south-east of England, so it started with Guy Fawkes and then Che Guevara and every revolutionary, and saying how beautiful it is when things change for the better. That’s the idea of the song and I didn’t change a bloody word of it.
“It was disgustingly instant! But I get a lot of joy out of playing it live, to be honest, because I know people love it – it just chimes with something in them. Actually, the title was going to be [the song’s second line] ‘King Of All Time’ and Jeremy [Cunningham, the bassist] was really keen on that, but the rest of the band and the record company all went, ‘No you idiots, it’s called What A Beautiful Day, that’s what everyone’s going to sing!’”