Keith Levene was the pioneering guitarist who played in two of the most influential bands to come out of the punk and new wave scenes of the late 1970s and early 1980s, The Clash and Public Image Limited (PiL).
Levene, who has died at the age of 65, had a unique “metallic” guitar style that, coupled with Jah Wobble’s pounding rhythm bass, defined PiL’s sound. Interviewed in 2001, 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.
Julian Keith Levene was born in Muswell Hill, London in 1957 to Harry Levene, a tailor, and May Levene, a hairdresser. His first musical interests during his adolescence were ska, reggae and progressive rock. At 15 he dropped out of school and became a roadie with the prog rock band Yes.
Levene’s punk transformation occurred during a Sex Pistols concert at the Nashville Rooms in London, as she recalled: “My eyes were looking ahead. There was a Johnny Rotten…he Was leaning on a microphone stand like back then. John let out this almost animal growl. Every fiber of his body went into it. It was primal. I just couldn’t believe it. O him!
At just 19, she met bassist Paul Simonon and guitarist Mick Jones. Kicking Joe Strummer out of the 101ers as their lead vocalist, the quartet formed the first line-up of seminal punk band The Clash, playing their first gig in July 1976 at the Black Swan, Sheffield, supporting the Sex Pistols.
But he soon realized that the Clash’s musical style was not for him, as he later recalled, speaking of the day of his departure: being so bummed about their sound…i don’t like it, so i leave my guitar against the amp, feedback howling like crazy, like white noise, and walk away.
And while Levene didn’t record with the Clash, he would soon create another groundbreaking group, one whose sound would influence many other musicians over the next four decades. Public Image Ltd were formed in 1978 by Levene, John Wardle (aka Jah Wobble) and John Lydon, just months after Lydon’s previous band, the Sex Pistols, had spectacularly imploded.
Their first studio album, Public image: first issue, was released that year on Virgin Records, with a debut single, “Public Image”, which reached number 9 in the UK singles chart. Music critic Stuart Berman notes of this LP: “First editionIndustrial-strength stompers anticipate the scabrous art-punk of The Jesus Lizard and Slint, while Levene’s guitar twirls on “Public Image” are the stuff Daydream Nations are made of.
The group would follow up the success of their debut single with the haunting “Death Disco” (1979) and “Flowers of Romance” (1981), with Levene involved in the writing of both tracks.
“This Is Not A Love Song”, the group’s iconic 1983 hit, was written by Levene, Lydon and Martin Atkins, stayed on the charts for 10 weeks and peaked at number five.
In a particularly memorable rendition of the track “Poptones” on The old gray whistle test in 1980, Levene’s shimmering metallic guitar can be heard at its absolute best, with Wobble’s signature bass driving the beat.
Although Levene left PiL in 1983, he continued to collaborate and write with the band and released several solo albums. He had recently lived in Norfolk, where he died at home of liver cancer.
Levene’s friend, author Adam Hammond, said in tribute: “There is no doubt that Keith was one of the most innovative, daring and influential guitarists of all time. Keith sought to create a new paradigm in music and, with eager collaborators John Lydon and Jah Wobble, he succeeded. His guitar work on the nine-minute “Theme”, the first track on PiL’s first album, defined what alternative music should be… Much of what we hear today owes much to Keith’s work, partly recognized, most of it not.
He is survived by his partner, Kate Ransford, and his son, Kirk, from his previous marriage to musician Lori Montana.
Keith Levene, musician, born July 18, 1957, died November 11, 2022