Keith Levene, who never resembled a pop star, was known for his work as a challenging and pioneering guitarist and for his versatile creative input in Public Image Ltd (PiL), which he formed with John Lydon when the latter split from Sex. Pistols 1978.
Andy Bell, guitarist with Ride, commented that Levene had “a guitar tone like cut diamonds fired at you through a high-pressure hose”. Anyone familiar with Levene’s scalding, coruscating playing on PiL’s debut single Public Image will know exactly what he meant.
Levene, who has died aged 65 after suffering from liver cancer, also played a formative role in the creation of the Clash, where he was an original member for several months in 1976 before quitting. But it was a measure of how Levene plowed his own creative furrow that he never felt defined by terms like punk or new wave. “I respected my influences enough to never imitate them,” he said. – It has always been important to me.
Levene was so immune to the fickle waves of fashion that he would speak proudly of his first immersion in the music industry as a 15-year-old roadie for Yes. Most of the punk crowd would have fainted in shock at the mention of Yes, who were seen as prime exemplars of early 1970s prog rock, probably symbolic of everything punk was trying to sweep away.
However, Levene declared Yes’s Steve Howe to be the world’s greatest guitarist, and excitedly recalled how he was hired to take care of Alan White’s drum kit. It was after the band’s keyboard player, Rick Wakeman, astutely observed that what Levene really wanted to do was play their instrument that he went away and made a determined effort to learn guitar.
Born in Muswell Hill, north London, Keith was the son of Harry Levene, a tailor, and his wife May. He recalled how, as an eight-year-old, he pestered the tailors in Petticoat Lane for odd jobs.
After leaving school at 15, he became a factory worker “in this gloomy dark place that was like a Victorian [building] from a Charles Dickens story”, which fits in roadie work with Yes in his spare time.
He was 19 when he first met guitarist Mick Jones (whom he called “Rock’n’roll Mick”) and together with future bassist Paul Simonon they formed the core of the Clash. It was Levene and the band’s then manager Bernie Rhodes who recruited singer Joe Strummer from another London band, the 101’ers.
But by the spring of 1977, when the Clash’s debut album was released, Levene was long gone, his sensibility perhaps too avant-garde for the more traditionalist Jones and Strummer.
He received a co-writing credit on the song What’s My Name, but complained that “I wrote more than I got credit for on the record. It was me and Mick who wrote those songs. Mick is definitely more responsible for the genesis of most of them than I am, but I was the one who put some bullocks in them.”
Marcus Gray, in his Clash biography Last Gang in Town, described a live recording of Levene’s last performance with the band, at the Roundhouse in September 1976: “Keith’s guitar style is revealed to be inventively harsh and metallic, [creating] the kind of industrial noise that would characterize the experimentation of the period immediately post-punk, including that of Keith’s own subsequent band, Public Image Ltd.”
Levene’s stepping stone to PiL was a band called Flowers of Romance, along with Sid Vicious and future Slits members Palmolive and Viv Albertine. But Vicious’ departure to replace Glen Matlock in the Sex Pistols saw the group paid without releasing any recordings. Levene had been hugely impressed by seeing the Sex Pistols at the Nashville pub in London, and he and Lydon had promised to form a band together.
When the Pistols broke up in 1978, they were true to their word and formed PiL with bassist Jah Wobble and drummer Jim Walker. By the end of the year they had released the epochal single Public Image, which peaked at number 9 in the UK singles chart, and the top 30 debut album Public Image: First Issue.
With Lydon painfully agonizing over Levene’s slash-and-burn guitar and Wobble’s sticky, floor-shaking bass lines, it wasn’t easy listening, but it placed PiL at the forefront of an intensely creative post-punk phase alongside bands like Gang of Four, Magazine and Popgruppen.
PiL’s second album, Metal Box (1979), which reached No. 18 in the UK charts, would be hailed as a post-punk classic and the group’s finest hour. Levene played drums, bass and synthesizer, as well as guitar, on tracks that explored dub, electronica and atonalism. There had been nothing like it before, and its boundary-breaking ripples spread far and wide. Rolling Stone magazine wrote that it inhabited “a fractured space between demented abstraction and wacky freedom”.
The follow-up album, The Flowers of Romance (1981), mostly by Levene and Lydon after Wobble left the band, again tested the critical lexicon to destruction with its overwhelming impact and uncompromising sound processing experiments. Levene felt they had created “the least commercial record ever delivered to a [record] company”. But somehow it reached number 11 in the UK Albums Chart.
In 1983, PiL scored their biggest hit with This Is Not a Love Song, which reached number 5 in the UK Singles Chart. But Levene, who had been in the grip of heroin addiction, clashed with Lydon over their upcoming fourth album. He had put most of it together while Lydon was away filming Copkiller (1983, also known as Order of Death), and delivered it to Virgin Records.
However, Lydon was dissatisfied with Levene’s efforts and decided to re-record the album with a new group of musicians, excluding Levene. It was released as This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get (1984). More or less in parallel, Levene released the original tracks as his own album, entitled Commercial Zone (1984), on a new label, Pil Records Inc, which he had created for the purpose.
Around this time, he moved to Los Angeles with his second wife, writer Shelly da Cunha (they later separated), and did production work for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as rappers Tone Loc and Ice-T, before releasing his first solo album , Violent Opposition, 1989.
Four more solo albums followed, the latest being Commercial Zone 2014 (2014). He also published three limited edition books, I Was a Teenage Guitarist 4 the Clash, Meeting Joe: Joe Strummer, the Clash & Me and The Post Punk Years. At the time of his death, he was working on a history of PiL with writer Adam Hammond.
He is survived by his partner, Kate Ransford, his son, Kirk, from his first marriage, to American musician Lori Montana, which ended in divorce, and his sister, Jill.
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