Keith Levene, guitarist for Public Image Ltd., co-founder of Clash, dies at 65
Keith Levene, the pioneering guitarist who was co-founder of The Clash and deeply influential original member of Public Image Ltd., has died in Norfolk, UK. His death was announced by former bandmates Martin Atkins and Jah Wobble on social networks. The Guardian reported that he died of liver cancer; he was 65 years old.
“He’s gone and I can’t stop crying. Now I am a widow,” said his wife Shelly Da Cunha, who told Variety he died peacefully.
While her career was sidelined by drug addiction from the early 1980s, Levene’s work with Public Image – the band Sex Pistols which lead singer John Lydon formed after that band broke up in early 1978 – threw a shadow on the post-punk musical landscape. era: both melodic and jarring, sonorous and violent, its jagged, flickering chords and chiming arpeggios established a pattern that echoed in countless bands over the years, far beyond PiL’s postpunk milieu; this writer remembers hearing the Red Hot Chili Peppers spontaneously enter the riff of PiL’s classic 1979 song “Poptones” at a gig in 1991, and its sound can be heard in the work decades later of all the world, from Franz Ferdinand to LCD Soundsystem.
Born and raised in London, Levene was a true OG of the British punk-rock movement, although he was a fan of progressive rock bands in his teens and was even such a devoted follower of Yes that he briefly hit the road for the band in the early 1970s. While he admired the virtuosity of guitarists like Steve Howe of Yes, as he told Furious.com in 2001, “Once I was good enough to know the rules, I didn’t want to be like no more. any other guitarist. I didn’t do everything possible to be different. I just had an ear for what was wrong. So if I did something wrong, i.e. made a mistake or did something that wasn’t in the key, I was open-minded enough to listen again.
He met his Clash co-founder Mick Jones in the mid-1970s and formed an early version of that band; he and manager Bernard Rhodes were actually the ones who convinced singer Joe Strummer to join. But Levene was unimpressed with the then embryonic band’s musical skills and left, having co-written the song “What’s My Name”, from the band’s galvanizing 1977 debut album. He briefly formed a band with Sid Vicious (who left to join the Sex Pistols) before reuniting with Lydon, drummer Jim Walker and bassist Jah Wobble (aka John Wardle) in Public Image when the Pistols imploded.
While many may have expected PiL to be a Pistols Mark II – and their debut single, also called “Public Image”, is an exhilarating burst of punky energy – they have proven to be a much tougher prospect. . Deeply influenced by the early ’70s experimental “Kraut-rock” of bands like Can and Neu, the band’s sound combined Levene’s cracking guitar work with Wobble’s booming reggae-influenced bass as Lydon declaimed above. While their 1978 self-titled album was a deliberately provocative missive, the 1979 follow-up “Metal Box” (titled “Second Edition” in the US) was a sprawling tour de force of thought-provoking sounds and styles. Packaged in the UK in a metal box resembling a film canister, the album was pressed across three 12-inch singles, resulting in a bass sound so loud it could blast styli off turntables vibration vinyls. With songs like “Poptones”, “Careering”, “The Suit” and “Graveyard” (a song which, characteristically against the grain, the band included as an instrumental on the album while releasing the version with the Lydon’s vocals on the B-side. titled “Another”), the album set a new standard for where post-punk could go.
Although the band’s sound couldn’t be pigeonholed as punk, their confrontational attitude most certainly was: their gigs were notoriously shambolic, as evidenced by the 1980 live album “Paris au Printempts”, and the band didn’t not even pretend to mime on a surreal scene. performance on the American pop music television show “American Bandstand”, with Lydon leading the bewildered audience onto the floor with the band, where they danced awkwardly as the band members staggered around the stage.
However, the story largely ended there. The band’s lineup was still fluid, and Wobble was gone by the time the band released their third album, the even more difficult “Flowers of Romance”, which largely consisted of vocals with percussion, synthesizers and exotic instruments; Levene played guitar on only one song. The band rallied to record a fourth album but Levene left during the sessions; the resulting album, 1983’s “This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get”, contains many songs co-written by him, but none of his renditions, despite being an album quasi-legal early recordings of songs that feature it called The “Commercial Zone” have long been available. Lydon continued PiL as a fairly straightforward rock act over the years, but the innovation had already been made.
Levene kept a low profile in the following period, largely due to a battle with heroin, but moved to Los Angeles and bonded with the musical community there. He reappeared in 1987 with the EP “Violent Opposition” – featuring members of the Chili Peppers and other young LA bands like Fishbone and Thelonious Monster – and produced demos for the Chili Peppers’ second album, “The Uplift Mofo Party Plan” (ironically, this band’s debut album was produced by Andy Gill of Gang of Four, who played in a style very similar to Levene’s).
Levene continued to work and release a series of solo albums over the following years, including a reunion with Wobble in the 2010s. He released an autobiography titled “I Was a Teen Guitarist for the Clash” in 2015 which was apparently also a documentary film; the Guardian reported that he had worked in recent years on a story for Public Image Ltd. with writer Adam Hammond.