With the news of influential post-punk guitarist Keith Levene’s passing on 11th November 2022, we thought we’d pay tribute to the man.
He was very innovative, a genius even, co-founding The Clash and Public Image Ltd. (PiL) in the punk/post-punk eras of the late ’70s.
Levene’s guitar work influenced anyone and everyone, notably with U2, and it still sounds incredible to this day.
Public Image, PiL, and Keith Levene’s Fantabulous Guitar Riff
We had our big Sex Pistols faze when we were 16 (around 2000), but then grew up and shifted more towards experimental music.
Public Image Ltd. helped with that shift, throwing in some interesting ideas. Many of them driven by Keith Levene,
The track was from the band’s debut album First Issue (1978), with it released as a single on 13th October 1978. It reached #9 in the UK, a great start for the new group.
John Lydon, Keith Levene, Jah Wobble, and Jim Walker all contributed to the song. Although Lydon has said it’s an attack of The Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren, who Lydon believed exploited him.
It’s a blistering track, featuring an official video to go with it (see above), driven along by bassist Jah Wobble’s rumbling lines, Walker’s sharp drumming, and that fantastic guitar riff from Levene.
John Lydon was obsessed with experimental band Can at the time. Before PiL, he’d even asked to join the band as its singer—they declined.
The result was he formed PiL and went off to do his own thing.
That resulted in moving beyond the limitations of punk (i.e. angry thrashing noise and anarchy etc.) towards experimentation. That peaked with 1979’s Metal Box.
Although largely post-punk lark along the lines of Joy Division, it did throw up more relaxing numbers like Radio 4.
Levene co-founded PiL with Lydon. He played guitar on First Issue (1978), Metal Box (1979), and Flowers of Romance (1981).
He was a multi-talented musician, but primarily was at his best on the guitar. His work was pioneering for a lot of future indie bands.
But Hymie’s Him (off Flowers of Romance) is an example of how experimental PiL were trying to be. On the track, Levene played a “weird bamboo instrument” (as he put it) on the track Richard Branson of Virgin Records had given to him.
Virgin also called PiL the “laziest band in the world” and its chaotic members were even under investigation by the CIA at one point.
Too much alcohol and drugs were involved (kind of cliché, but this was troublesome and excessive from the members).
Many of their interviews were awkward and tense, primarily with Lydon’s standoffish attitude. You can see from the 10 minute mark here in 1979, a very pissed off Lydon walks off during a Check it Out interview, a Tynes Tees show in Newcastle.
Wobble also soon stormed off with a volley of obscenities.
And that was the band’s interview style. Which, as you can imagine, just made the band look difficult to deal with and petulant.
Worse, PiL just couldn’t hang on to a drummer.
The band initially had a fantastic young Canadian drummer. Jim Walker won out at the first audition for the group in May 1978, with Levene telling the others waiting to audition to clear off. They’d found their man.
But the other PiL members promptly wasted the opportunity, disillusioning Walker with their musical direction to the point he quit in February 1979.
Many, many drummers followed in a kind of Spinal Tap real-life demonstration. Wobble even set fire to one of their drummers in rehearsals, prompting the sticksman to quit in a huff (unsurprisingly).
Jah Wobble is a legendary bassist, but he was a real troublemaker when he was younger. Thankfully he’s since grown up, but his drunken tendencies didn’t help the band’s reputation as more trouble than it was really worth.
He’s now 64 and stopped drinking decades ago.
Some gigs ended in riots. There was the notorious incident in 1981 (“Riot at the Ritz”) after the band, continuing to experiment, played behind a screen that had images projected over the top. A drunk and dissatisfied audience thought it was a con and promptly rioted.
Wobble drank to much. Lydon had his own issues. No drummer was around long enough to cement with the group. And all of that wasn’t helped by Levene’s struggle with heroin addiction. Wobble said of this:
“Keith could be really charming when he wanted to be, but he could be really spiky and arrogant.”
Wobble is a genius bass player, but his drunken behaviour was also a problem. We recall reading one story where, drunk, he called Levene late at night from a phone booth and threatened to put an axe in him.
The guitarist left the band soon after in 1984.
As for PiL, the band rumbled on for many more years with increasingly pop and soft rock driven albums. 1986’s Album featured Ginger Baker on drums for several tracks.
That What is Not (1992) was the last one, until 2015 when the band reformed and released What the World Needs Now… And it was pretty well received by the musical press.
Keith Levene Tribute
Keith Levene was born on 18th July 1957 in London. His musical influences were The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Ska and prog rock bands like Yes. He was even a roadie for the latter in 1972.
He’d been playing guitar since the age of 13. When punk broke out he was barely 20 years old. He didn’t waste any time, helping to co-found The Flowers of Romance and The Clash.
For The Clash, Levene was responsible for getting the legendary Joe Strummer (1952-2002) to join the band. And The Clash is now one of the all-time great bands, melding punk into post-punk, new wave, and experimental rock.
As for Levene, his guitar playing was described by The New York Times as like a “buzz-saw”. Jah Wobble said of the playing style:
“Keith very much had his own intense language. At one extreme, it was like shards of bloody glass, or icicles. There was a coldness to it, a bleakness to it. And at the other extreme, there was that really rich sound, where all the notes merge into one another. It was like jazz players finding their own voice.”
Levene later recalled he’d learned the basics of guitar in one day, thanks to his sister’s boyfriend teaching him a few key chords.
After his run with PiL, for which he’s most famous for, he had launched two solo albums in 1987. He also went on to work as a producer for bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
He took a hiatus from music, but remerge in 2002 with new solo work.
That seemed a bit deal at the time. We remember, age 17, emailing his agent to ask about progress with the album. And she sent back an excited update! Although we’re not why it was delayed, that became Murder Global: Killer in the Crowd in 2004.
And he did work with Jah Wobble again on the EP Mississippi in 2012.
Alongside his lively personality, we think the lasting legacy is that guitar work from PiL. Especially in those early days. Public Image still sounds amazing and, really, it’s all down to that driving buzz-saw.