Keith Levene, Public Image Ltd.'s buzz-saw guitarist, dies at 65

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Keith Levene, Public Image Ltd.'s buzz-saw guitarist, dies at 65
Considered a post-punk pioneer, he was also a founding member of the Clash but left before it became one of the biggest bands of its era.

by Alex Williams

NEW YORK, NY.- Keith Levene, a founding member of the seminal British bands the Clash and Public Image Ltd. whose slashing yet melodic fretwork helped define the sound of post-punk guitar, died Nov. 11 at his home in Norfolk, England. He was 65.

His sister Jill Bennett said the cause was liver cancer.

Considered by rock cognoscenti to be a pioneering if often overlooked guitarist, Levene was best known for his six-year stint with Public Image Ltd., the aggressively uncompromising quartet that John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, formed in 1978 after his industry-tilting punk band, the Sex Pistols, imploded.

Public Image Ltd., also known as PiL, did not scandalize polite society in Britain as the Sex Pistols had with their haute-guttersnipe fashion sense, obscenity-laced television tirades and unceasing potshots at the queen. But musically, PiL’s early incarnation was hardly more accommodating to mainstream tastes.

Propelled by Lydon’s braying vocals and Levene’s buzz-saw guitar, the band jumbled genres, including noise rock, disco and reggae, a style that Levene was eager to bring to punk and post-punk music. Critics and audiences hailed the band’s clarion-call debut single, “Public Image.”

The punk-inflected art-rock albums that followed were more challenging, particularly 1979’s “Metal Box”: three 12-inch discs mastered at 45 rpm and packaged in a metal film canister. That album nonetheless reached No. 18 on the British charts, and is now widely regarded as a post-punk masterpiece.

“I always liken PiL in that period to the abstract expressionists of the ’50s,” John Wardle, known professionally as Jah Wobble, who was the group’s original bassist, said in a phone interview. “We were self-centered, mad nihilists self-destructing all over the place, making this crazy music.”

As a youth, Levene had honed his playing skills studying guitar gods like Jimmy Page and Duane Allman. But he tended to downplay his virtuosity in his PiL days, describing his signature sound — made sharper and brasher by his use of guitars with aluminum necks or bodies — in distinctly post-punk terms.

“In a sense, we’re nonmusicians,” he said of the band in a 1981 interview with the music magazine Hot Press. “Until just recently my whole thing with the guitar was, I hated it. I could play it, but I hated it, and that’s why I devised that new way of playing guitar. I just de-learnt guitar.”

Perhaps he was too modest. Musically, “Keith very much had his own intense language,” Wardle said. “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.”

Julian Keith Levene was born in London on July 18, 1957, the youngest of three children of Harry Levene, a tailor who had a business making plastic raincoats, and May (Lovell) Levene, who ran a hairdressing shop. Raised in Muswell Hill, a suburban district in north London that famously produced Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, Levene was swept up by the rock of that era, especially Beatlemania.

He took up guitar when he was about 13. “I got a couple of my sisters’ boyfriends to teach me a few things,” he recalled in a 2001 interview with the music site Perfect Sound Forever. “I learned in one day.”

Coming of age in the early 1970s, Levene became so passionate about the progressive rock band Yes and its virtuosic guitarist, Steve Howe, that he was briefly a Yes roadie.

His preference for progressive rock did not last. By the mid-1970s, Levene, who had left school at 15 and found a factory job, was among the cohort of British teenagers who felt frustrated by a lack of opportunities in a stagnant economy and had started to channel their anger into a stripped-down, do-it-yourself form of rock called punk.

In 1976, when he was 19, Levene met two young art students — Mick Jones, a skilled guitarist, and Paul Simonon, an aspiring bassist — and started a band. They soon recruited John Mellor, better known as Joe Strummer, from a rockabilly-inflected pub rock band, the 101ers, as lead singer and rhythm guitarist.

Strummer “couldn’t sing to save his life,” Levene said in the Perfect Sound Forever interview, “but gave off all this energy and ended in a total sweat.”

Levene would not remain with the Clash long enough to play on the band’s first album, released in April 1977. Amid disputes over the band’s politics and musical direction, he issued an ultimatum: “It’s as simple as this — it’s either my band or Mick’s band.”

The Clash went on to become one of the most acclaimed and influential bands of the era.

Levene’s tenure in PiL was more creatively fulfilling, if tumultuous. He lasted long enough to record the band’s biggest single, “This Is Not a Love Song,” which hit No. 5 on the British singles charts in 1983. But things fell apart with Lydon as the group was preparing its fourth album, “This Is What You Want … This Is What You Get,” and Levene left in 1984.

His struggles with heroin and other drugs may have exacerbated his mercurial personality, said Wardle, who acknowledged that he was also abusing drugs at that time: “Keith could be really charming when he wanted to be, but he could be really spiky and arrogant.”

After leaving PiL, Levene recorded two EPs in 1987 — “2011: Back Too Black” and “Keith Levene’s Violent Opposition” — then largely receded from the public eye for more than a decade, feeling cheated by record labels and by former bandmates.

In 2012, he collaborated with Wardle on the critically acclaimed album “Yin & Yang,” which they promoted with performances before enthusiastic audiences. In recent years, Bennett said, Levene was enthusiastic about new musical projects he was working on, as well as a book on the history of PiL.

In addition to his sister Bennett, Levene is survived by his partner, Kate Ransford, and his son, Kirk, from his first marriage, to Lori Montana, an American musician, which ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to writer Shelly da Cunha. His sister Jacqui Levene died this year.

Although he missed out on a commercial windfall from the bands he helped create, Levene never expressed any regrets about sidestepping rock-star fame.

“He had the sounds in his head and he knew what he wanted,” Bennett said. “That’s why he left bands — because if they were getting too commercial or weren’t moving forward creatively, he would go on and do other things.”

His official legacy with the Clash has largely boiled down to a partial songwriting credit on one song, the searing “What’s My Name” from the band’s first album.

While he did not actually participate in the recording of that album, Levene told Perfect Sound Forever that he felt he deserved more credit for his creative contributions to it. Asked if he could listen to the album objectively, his reply was curt.

“Yes I can,” he said. “It’s a bit lame.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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