Levitation blazed a trail through the 90s with some incredible live gigs and a run of peerless albums and EPs before things came to a premature and messy end, leaving their Meanwhile Gardens album unreleased for almost 20 years. Louder Than War caught up with the band to look at the making of the album and the how the band broke up.
There can be few crueler words in the modern music lexicon than the phrase ‘lost album’. It tells of hours of toil in the studio, countless hours spent writing and honing a set of songs only for the end result to be abandoned for some reason or other.
We need only think of legendary lost albums such as The Beach Boys Smile, Prince’s Black Album or Jimi Hendrix’s Black Gold to appreciate the extent and the potential of the music an artist’s fan base have been denied access to.
Some of these lost albums have since made it to the release schedules, many years down the line, allowing fans to finally hear the glory they contain.
We can add another album to this list, Levitation’s long-shelved second album, Meanwhile Gardens.
Levitation coalesced around the mercurial talent of guitarist Terry Bickers after he left House of Love due to the band prioritisng their commercial aims over their musical ambitions.
Levitation found acclaim pretty quickly, with both their debut, the Coppelia EP and the subsequent After Ever EP, making Single of the Week in Melody Maker. Their incendiary live shows saw Levitation doing what they did best, improvising their way through some of the best songs of the 90s, ranging from huge sprawling rock epics to short, sharp 3 minute blasts.
Their reputation grew and their debut album, Need for Not again gathered critical acclaim and raised the band’s stock further. Levitation headlined the second stage at the 1992 Reading Festival, playing what is still one of the greatest gigs I have ever seen.
With their star very much in the ascendant, Levitation headed back into the studio to record their 2nd album, having signed to Chrysalis records. Great plans were made for their first major label release, with two ‘Summer’ and ‘Winter’ versions of the album being recorded.
Unfortunately, depression and insecurity led to Bicker’s sudden exit from the band, announcing from the stage at the Tuffnell Park Dome “Levitation certainly are a lost cause as far as I can tell. We’ve completely lost it, haven’t we? Haven’t we?”
The next step was something of a surprise, as the band brought in a replacement for the departed Terry Bickers, Steve Ludwin from the little know London band Some Have Fins.
Bickers’ vocals were re-recorded by Ludwin, but the magic had gone. For some reason, the new version of Meanwhile Gardens was released only in Australia and shortly after, in October 1994, Levitation announced that they were over. The original Meanwhile Gardens was dropped and confined to legend.
The ex-members of Levitation were scattered, pursuing various projects. Terry and founder members Guy Chadwick and Pete Evans reformed HOL in 2003, Levitation’s nucleus of guitarist Bic Heyes, drummer David Francolini and bassist Laurence O’Keefe formed the brilliant Dark Star, who also split up leaving an unreleased album in their wake, while keyboard player Robert White continues to make music as The Milk and Honey band.
All was quiet for far too long, when unexpectedly, it was announced that Meanwhile Gardens was to finally be released. The holy grail for Levitation fans was finally made available in 2015 and proved itself to be worth the waiting and the anticipation. It is an album that sounds like a band at the top of their game, despite the turmoil and tension that accompanied its recording.
The release was quite low key, with little or no fanfare accompanying its arrival. This is a huge shame and fans of all kinds of progressive music are urged to check it out at their earliest convenience.
With Meanwhile Gardens being the kind of album that gets better with each listen, Louder Than War felt managed to speak to Terry Bickers, Bic Heyes and Robert White, to find out their perspective on this lost classic and the circumstances that surrounded it.
The answers we got are illuminating and cast light on to the personalities, aims and band dynamics involved in the album’s making.
The recording of Meanwhile Gardens must have been an eventful time. What are your memories of recording the album?
Bic Heyes: “Smoking. Lots of smoking.
We were recording in a studio in West London on Scrubs Lane, near the Prison. It had a really small control room. At the beginning of every day Tim Smith (who was producing) would bring in 40 Marlboro reds. So would Dave. They’d chain smoke all day and have to pop out for another 40 by the evening. I think the others were on rollups. I was the only non smoker.
The room stank and was always thick with bluish smoke. I had to take up smoking just to get through it.”
Terry Bickers: “I wasn’t in the most positive frame of mind during the Meanwhile Gardens recording sessions. I had been struggling to finish lyrics in the weeks leading up to the sessions and I also didn’t feel like I had contributed as much to the songwriting/ demoing/ arranging process as I would have liked.
Due to these factors I felt slightly unprepared when recording started and sometimes disconnected from proceedings.”
Robert White: “It was recorded at quite a difficult time for the group as I remember – we weren’t quite all pulling in the same direction and there was a fair bit of tension but there were moments where all of that seemed to evaporate and the music just carried us.
There was still a lot of expectation around the band – and within it – that we had yet to reach our potential somehow. I think we were always a bit weighed down by that, it was a serious business”
To my mind, Meanwhile Gardens should have been the album that took Levitation to the mainstream. Is that how you feel about it? is there a feeling of a missed opportunity?
Terry Bickers: “I’m not sure it was an ambition of mine for Levitation to be a mainstream act. It was a path that you felt you had to follow in order to fund what you did. I suppose I was also a little wary of the unreality of that world after my experiences in The House Of Love.
With hindsight it does seem like a missed opportunity.”
Robert White: “I’m not sure we were ever really a mainstream proposition – that said, who would have guessed Radiohead were!
There’s always a sense of what could have been after the fact, but I think the seeds of our destruction were sown from quite an early stage, we were never a terribly stable unit. But I also think that’s why we were such an incendiary live band.”
Bic Heyes: “I suppose that was the hope of our management and record companies. We never thought in those terms though. We were just interested in playing and recording music. That was all. We weren’t concerned about the future.
We never talked about strategies for ‘making it’. It just wasn’t on our minds. We were in our twenties, we just lived music – our music – ate drank and dreamt it day in, day out. It was our life blood. Until reality arrived. Unannounced.
We weren’t mainstream material in my opinion. We wouldn’t have put up with it or survived it.”
The album had quite a history before it was eventually released in 2015, with bootleg copies circulating online and an Australia only release of the version with Steve Ludwin on vocals. Was it good to finally have the album out there and available to fans?
Terry Bickers: “Yes it was good that it finally came out, getting the mastering and artwork that it deserved. It documents the creativity and energy of the band well.”
Bic Heyes: “It was also great that after all that time (nearly 23 years), we found a consensus and followed it through. That was a kind of miracle in itself.”
Robert White: “It’s always good when something comes to fruition, regardless of how long it takes to get there.
The version with Steve singing was a completely different record – quite a few of the songs were new but also the entire feel of the record changed having him on there – we were just trying to find a way to keep going forward and defy the odds.”
What do you think of Meanwhile Gardens when you listen to it again?
Terry Bickers: “I think “come off it Bickers!” Haha!”
“There are songs on the album that I am very proud of such as Evergreen and Gardens Overflowing. There were also other songs recorded in the session which were used as B-Sides and bonus material, one of these being Greymouth, which in my opinion is one of the best songs recorded during the album session but not making it onto the final cut.”
I feel that certain songs may have benefitted from some editing.”
Bic Heyes: “I haven’t listened since it came out but I’m very proud of everything we did. I think Meanwhile Gardens has some of our best material on it. It was such a free, open and ultra-creative time. Our musical chemistry was magical and anything seemed possible. I can hear that energy, passion and blissful abandon coming through in those recordings. It’s gold really.”
Is there any unreleased material lurking in the archives?
Bic Heyes: “There’s stacks. We wrote and recorded about three albums worth of material for Meanwhile Gardens and ran out of money to complete it. The album we released was compiled out of what was mixed. There are a load more tracks on two inch tape that were left unmixed or unfinished.
We wanted to release two albums in 1993, one for the spring and one for the autumn, or summer/winter – I can’t remember now. The record company were nervous about the idea, it didn’t fit into their release schedules and our management was gauping at the cost. We were trying to negotiate more funds to complete the project when it all came crashing down.”
Looking back, do you think that you could have somehow held the band together rather than splitting up?
Terry Bickers: “Possibly”
Bic Heyes: “We did attempt to hold the band together but the spell was broken. We’d lost the magic. The flow had gone and we became bogged down in trying to survive rather than flourish.”
Robert White: “It was exactly as long as it should have been – not a moment longer or shorter”
How did you react to the end of Levitation?
Terry Bickers: “With a certain amount of relief but also with regret.”
Bic Heyes: “Badly. Then things got a lot worse for me personally… I had a teetering few years. Then around 1996/97 I went with Dave and Laurence to see Sonic Youth at the Astoria. We left inspired to form a new band, just the three of us, which became Dark Star.”
It seems that the business side of things has not been kind to you over the years. Do you think it would be different in Levitation formed in the age of the Internet or were you more of a major label, gigging kind of band?
Terry Bickers: “I feel that I could have made more of the opportunities that came my way during the early part of my career. The way things worked out is down to the choices I made and the actions I took. It was good being on a major label to have a budget for things such as renting our own rehearsal space.”
Robert White: “I don’t think it would have made any difference at all – we had our shot.”
Bic Heyes: “I was never interested in the business side of things. I was 27 when Levitation got signed. I didn’t know what a record deal was. I’d been in underground bands, gigging recording and surviving since I was 18. It’s difficult to convey how different the world was back then and to describe how living was if you didn’t want a career path.
Back then you could survive as what was called a Ghost. Living outside the ‘real world’ in the gaps between things. Getting by was cheap and you had the dole to subsidise your art. We ran cottage industries putting out cassette albums, played free festivals and the squat scene in south London.
We put on our own gigs in the numerous London pubs with like-minded groups and toured the UK supporting bands a little further up the food chain. I remember thinking in about 1985 if we could get to the stage of selling out places like the Half Moon in Herne Hill we’d be able to support ourselves and come off the dole. That was ambition back then. Independence was the thing.
I stumbled into the music business when I met Terry. I was ambivalent about it. But here was an opportunity, take it, learn, I thought. I don’t think it was unkind to me. On the contrary I got a crash course in what it was all about and money to live on. Twice. That was the dumb thing. Going round the wheel a second time before figuring out I was wasting my time.
I couldn’t say how different it would be if we’d have done it in a different age, it’s an imponderable.”
Bic, you formed Dark Star after Levitation, and again recorded one killer album and an abandoned second. Did this sour your love for making music?
Bic Heyes: “It was a great disappointment but no. It took the wind out of my sails though and I dropped my own music for a while. I toured with the Pet Shop Boys as a guitarist for a few years, got involved in some interesting recording projects with others but didn’t play live, in my own band again for about 10 years.”
Your Mikrokosmos albums have all been incredible. Are these Levitation/Dark Star songs or did you write them after the splits?
Bic Heyes: “I began Mikrokosmos when I was in Levitation. Almost all the tracks from all three albums were written and recorded between 1993-1995. They’re all my songs. The only one that could be said to not be is Everything Folds which was developed from a loop of a Dark Star jam.”
What are you up to these days?
Terry Bickers: “These days I write music and pre-covid 19, still performed live. I also teach music. I practice a non-competitive martial art called Shintaido (New Body Way), which for 20 years has been a good community to be part of and an important source of learning for me “
Bic Heyes: “ZOFFF is a sprawling psychedelic band I play in with members of the wonderful Brighton alt music scene. Terry has joined us on stage a couple of times. Laurence has played bass with us and Bob appeared on the first album back in 2014.
Last year I put together PANIXPHERE a three piece band with two ex-members of Cardiacs; Jon Poole and Bob Leith. PANIXPHERE was my first band, formed in 1983. We’re currently recording a studio album and mixing a live album recorded in December 2019.
Coming soon: M U M M Y with an album currently being mastered for release in the late Autumn. I’m also involved in a current ongoing recording project called The Confinement Tapes.”
Robert White: “I put out a solo album on rough trade in 1994 as the Milk And Honey Band – I have continued to do that on various labels since then, including 3 albums on Andy Partridge’s APE label and now, after a 12 year gap, there is a new album coming out in October called Songs From Truleigh Hill on Onomatopoeia.”
Nothing is likely to equal the stunning experience that was Levitation live, a band of disparate souls who came together to make some of the best music not just of the 90s, but of all time. Few bands soared so close to the sun, but as we know, there is a risk in climbing so high and Levitation felt it more than most.
They were a band committed to seeing how far they could go in terms of the music they made and the boundaries they rubbed up against, a band where commercial considerations were not important and where their art was what drove and defined them. We shall never see their like again.
But maybe, after all this, now is a good time to be a Levitation fan, with the band’s ex-members still producing music and Meanwhile Gardens long having a place in the most discerning collections.
Personally, I would very much like some of their unreleased music to see the light of day in the same way Meanwhile Gardens finally did. There is still mileage left in their music and it would be a huge shame for this to languish in the vaults somewhere.
But for now, play Meanwhile Gardens, play Bic’s Mikrokosmos albums and revel in the fact that they exist at all.
This is the thing about art – once it is made available, it is out there forever. It can bloom and flower, evergreen.
Meanwhile Gardens by Levitation can be bought on Bandcamp here
Mikrokosmos can be found on Bandcamp here
The Milk and Honey Band can be found on Bandcamp here
More work by Banjo is available on his profile here