Keith Levene: post-punk trailblazer
Keith Levene, 18 July 1957 – 11 November 2022
In the early 1970s, 15-year-old prog fan Keith Levene was blown away after watching Yes play five consecutive shows at his local arena, the Rainbow in Finsbury Park. So much so that he decided not to go home at the end of their stint, instead blagging a job as a roadie. But Levene was to seal his place in rock 'n' roll's history books later that decade, not for polishing Alan White's cymbals, but co-founding not one but two of the most influential bands that emerged during the punk revolution of the later 1970s: The Clash and Public Image Limited.
Before the former had played any gigs, Levene and fellow guitarist Mick Jones were hanging around London venues on the lookout for potential bandmates. Catching pub rockers the 101ers at the Nashville Room in April 1976, supported by fledgling 'punk' band The Sex Pistols, they weren't taken by the band's set of rockabilly-tinged R&B. But they were by the 101ers charismatic frontman, Joe Strummer. Joe himself had been mightily impressed by the support band, recognising a brash new musical style that made his own group sound dated. Later, Keith invited Joe to spearhead his and Mick's new venture. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.
Levene performed at The Clash's inaugural shows and co-wrote 'What's My Name,' eventually included on their first album. Although he recognised their potential, commenting in his autobiography, I WaS a TeeN GuiTariST 4 the CLaSH!, "Everyone knew the Clash would make it," he departed before the groundbreaking long player was released. Two years later, The Sex Pistols had imploded and John Lydon was eager to pursue his next musical project, Public Image Limited. Keith Levene became their first guitarist, his unique style signposting a radical change in direction from punk's raw power chords to something much more dynamic.
As he said, "Once I got good enough to know the rules, I didn’t want to be like any other guitarist. I didn’t go out of my way to be different. I just had an ear for what was wrong. So if I did something that was wrong, i.e. made a mistake or did something that wasn’t in key, I was open-minded enough to listen to it again.”
PiL's stellar debut single, the eponymous 'Public Image,' released in October 1978, was driven by the killer delivery of Levene's arpeggio guitar, John Lydon's sardonic vocals, and Jay Wobble's thundering open E-stringed bassline. The album that followed, Public Image: First Issue, similarly showcased that riveting combination of Levene's chiming fretwork over Wobble's dub-heavy rhythms. The follow-up album, Metal Box consolidated the innovative sound, with Levene exploring even more otherworldly sound effects.
Although he left PiL, he went on to produce music and released several solo albums. When he passed away on 11 November, aged 65, close friend and author Adam Hammond tweeted: "Our thoughts and love go out to his partner Kate, sister Jill, and all of Keith’s family and friends. The world is a darker place without his genius. Mine will be darker without my mate."
I share my birthday, 18 July, with Keith Levene. If I also shared a modicum of his guitar-playing brilliance, I'd be happy.
37 years ago today, I listened to the future (about being mesmerised by Keith Levene during PiL's first live UK television performance).
The Clash: the legendary debut: the 40th anniversary of their first album.