Keith Levene, the pioneering guitarist who was a co-founder of the Clash and a deeply influential original member of Public Image Ltd., has died in Norfolk, U.K. His death was announced by former bandmates Martin Atkins and Jah Wobble on social media; the Guardian reported that he died of liver cancer. He was 65.
While his career was sidetracked by substance abuse beginning in the early 1980s, Levene’s work with Public Image — the band Sex Pistols singer John Lydon formed after that group broke up early in 1978 — cast a long shadow on the musical landscape of the post-punk era. Both melodic and discordant, sonorous and violent, his jagged, lurching chords and chiming arpeggios set a template that echoed across countless bands over the years, far beyond PiL’s postpunk milieu. This writer can recall hearing the Red Hot Chili Peppers spontaneously break into the riff from PiL’s classic 1979 song “Poptones” during a 1991 concert, and his sound can be heard in the decades-later work of everyone from Franz Ferdinand to LCD Soundsystem.
Born and raised in London, Levene was a true O.G. of the British punk-rock movement, although he was a fan of progressive rock bands in his teens and was even such a dedicated Yes follower that he briefly roadied for the group in the early 1970s. While he admired the virtuosity of guitarists like Yes’ Steve Howe, as he told Furious.com in 2001, “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.”
He met fellow 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 after co-writing the song “What’s My Name” from the group’s galvanizing 1977 debut album. He briefly formed a band with Sid Vicious (who left to join the Sex Pistols) before uniting with Lydon, drummer Jim Walker and bassist Jah Wobble (a.k.a. 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 blast of punky energy — they proved to be a much more challenging prospect. Deeply influenced by the experimental early ‘70s “Kraut-rock” of groups like Can and Neu, the group’s sound combined Levene’s brittle guitar work with Wobble’s booming, reggae-influenced bass while Lydon ranted over the top.
Although their 1978 debut album, “First Issue,” was a deliberately provocative missive — the opening track, “Theme,” was a nine-minute dirge that evokes Black Sabbath as much as punk — the 1979 follow-up “Metal Box” (titled “Second Edition” in the U.S.) was a sprawling tour de force of challenging sounds and styles. Packaged in the U.K. in a metal tin box resembling a film canister, the album was pressed onto three 12” singles, making for such a loud bass sound that it could causes turntable styluses to jump from the vibrations. With songs like “Poptones,” “Careering,” “The Suit” and “Graveyard” (a song that, in characteristically contrarian fashion, the group included as an instrumental on the album while releasing the version with Lydon’s vocals as a B-side titled “Another”), the album set a new standard for where post-punk could go.
Although the group’s sound could not be pigeonholed as punk, their attitude most certainly was: Their concerts were famously confrontational, as captured on the 1980 live album “Paris au Printempts,” and the group didn’t even pretend to mime on a surreal performance on the U.S. pop-music TV show “American Bandstand,” with Lydon leading the bewildered audience onto the floor with the group, where they danced awkwardly while the bandmembers lurched around the stage.
However, the story largely ended there. The band’s lineup was always fluid and Wobble had 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 just one song. The band’s confrontational live appearances continued with a notorious 1981 concert in New York where the bandmembers performed behind a screen, which led the enraged audience to riot and the show to be cut short.
The group 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,” features many songs co-written by him but none of his playing, although a quasi-legal album of early recordings of the songs that do feature him called “Commercial Zone” has long been available. Lydon has continued PiL as a fairly straightforward rock act over the years, but the innovation had already been done.
Levene kept a low profile in the following period, largely due to a battle with heroin, but relocated to Los Angeles and fell in with the music community there. He re-emerged in 1987 with the “Violent Opposition” EP — featuring members of the Chili Peppers and other young L.A. bands like 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 Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, 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 during the 2010s. He issued an autobiography called “I Was a Teen Guitarist for the Clash” in 2015 that was apparently also a documentary film; the Guardian reported that he in recent years he had been working on a history of Public Image Ltd. with writer Adam Hammond.
“He’s gone and I can’t stop crying. Now I’m a widow,” said his wife Shelly Da Cunha.