Keith Levene, Pioneering Guitarist and Clash Co-Founder of Public Image Ltd., Dies at 65


Keith Levene, the pioneering guitarist who co-founded The Clash and the highly influential original member of Public Image Ltd., has passed away in Norfolk, UK. His death was announced by former bandmates Martin Atkins and yah wobble on social media. The Guardian reported that he died of liver cancer; he was 65.

While his career was sidetracked by drug abuse that began in the early 1980s, Levene’s work with Public Image — the band Sex Pistols singer John Lydon formed after that group split up in early 1978 — cast a long shadow. the musical landscape of the post-punk era: melodic and dissonant, sonorous and violent, its whimsical, swinging chords and resounding arpeggios set a template that reverberated over the years in countless bands, far beyond PiL’s post-punk milieu; this writer can recall hearing the Red Hot Chili Peppers spontaneously break into the riff of PiL’s 1979 classic song “Poptones” at a 1991 concert, and his sound can be heard in the decades later work of everyone, from Franz Ferdinand to LCD Sound System.

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Born and raised in London, Levene was a true OG of the British punk rock movement, although in his teens he was a fan of progressive rock bands and was such a devoted Yes supporter that he was a short roadie in the early 1970s. made for the group. While he admired the virtuosity of guitarists like Yes’ Steve Howe, in 2001 he told, “Once I was good enough to know the rules, I didn’t want to be like any other guitarist. I did my very best 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 right, I was open-minded enough to listen to it again.”

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He met 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 prowess and left, having co-wrote the song “What’s My Name” from the group’s exciting 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 might have expected PiL to be a Pistols Mark II – and their debut single, dubbed “Public Image” is an electrifying blast of punky energy – they proved to be a much more challenging prospect. Deeply influenced by the experimental “Kraut-rock” of the early ’70s from groups like Can and Neu, the group’s sound combined Levene’s brittle guitar work with Wobble’s thumping reggae-influenced bass, while Lydon roared over the top. While their 1978 self-titled album was an intentionally provocative message, 1979’s follow-up “Metal Box” (titled “Second Edition” in the US) was a sprawling tour de force of provocative sounds and styles. Packed in the UK in a metal tin box resembling a film canister, the album was pressed onto three 12-inch singles, delivering bass so loud that the styluses could jump off the turntable from the vibrations. With songs like ‘Poptones’, ‘Careering’, ‘The Suit’ and ‘Graveyard’ (a song that the group, in a characteristically contrarian manner, included as an instrumental on the album and released the version with Lydon’s vocals as the B-side ) entitled “Another”), the album set a new standard for where post-punk could go.

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While the group’s sound couldn’t be pigeonholed as punk, their confrontational attitude certainly was: their concerts were famously chaotic, as captured on the 1980 live album ‘Paris au Printempts’, and the group didn’t even as if she was mimicking in a surreal way. performing on the American pop music TV show ‘American Bandstand’, with Lydon leading the stunned audience with the group to the floor, where they danced uncomfortably as the band members swung across the stage.

That’s where the story largely ended. The band’s lineup was always fluid and Wobble had already left by the time the group released its third LP, the even more challenging “Flowers of Romance”, which consisted largely of vocals with percussion, synthesizers and exotic instruments; Levene played guitar on only one song. The group gathered to record a fourth album, but Levene left during the sessions; the resulting album, “This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get”, from 1983, features many songs written by him, but none of his playing, although a quasi-legal album of early recordings of the songs in which he does occur, “Commercial Zone” has been available for a long time. Lydon has continued PiL over the years as a fairly straightforward rock act, but the innovation was already done.

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Levene kept a low profile for the next period, largely due to a battle with heroin, but moved to Los Angeles and fell into the music community there. He resurfaced in 1987 with the “Violent Opposition” EP – featuring members of the Chili Peppers and other young LA bands such as Fishbone and Thelonious Monster – and produced demos for the Chili Peppers’ second album, “The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.” (ironically, that group’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 released a string of solo albums in the following years, including a reunion with Wobble in the 2010s. He released an autobiography in 2015 called “I Was a Teen Guitarist for the Clash,” which apparently also featured a documentary. used to be; the Guardian reported that in recent years he has been collaborating with writer Adam Hammond on a history of Public Image Ltd. had worked.

“He’s gone and I can’t stop crying. Now I am a widow,” said his wife Shelly Da Cunha.

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