Keith Levene wrote his own rules for rock guitar | Public Image Ltd

JThere is no doubt that Keith Levene was a key figure in British punk. He formed The Clash with 16-year-old guitarist Mick Jones and co-wrote What’s My Name?, which later appeared on their debut album. He starred in the semi-mythical Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious and Viv Albertine. He was filmed injecting amphetamine in the Roxy bathroom for DJ and filmmaker Don Letts. Punk Rock Movie and was the subject of the Slits’ Instant Hit, a song about his growing heroin problem.

And yet he was also a very abnormal figure in a world where there were supposed to be strict rules about music, dress and attitude: Levene seemed to have dismissed the memo about what you were and weren’t. supposed to do. He wasn’t just a prog titans fan. Yes, he’d done the road for them on the 1973 Tales From Topographic Oceans tour, one of the hotspots of prog bombast, precisely the kind of thing you were supposed to keep to yourself in scorched punk music. – terrestrial climate. He was a firm believer that “you have to do the work if you want to be good at the guitar”, a line that went against the philosophy of punk, anyone can do it. He wasn’t interested in “putting three chord songs together”, which was very much the point of punk, suggesting instead that what needed to be done was “creating a situation where there would be no musical limits”, citing the Beatles or the Grateful Dead – not artists that punk bands were supposed to aspire to – as examples. He lobbied the band’s manager, Bernard Rhodes, to include a synthesizer in the lineup, like the ones he had seen performing with Rick Wakeman while working for Yes. He got Joe Strummer to join the band – in part by showing Strummer how well he could play Led Zeppelin songs – and then turned down their new frontman’s guitar during rehearsals and gigs, considering him an insufficiently musician. competent. He spoke out against the band’s “safe and predictable” approach to music.

Levene with John Lydon at the offices of Virgin Records in 1980. Photography: David Corio/Redferns

Perhaps inevitably, Levene didn’t last long as a member of The Clash. On a clandestine recording of his last gig with the band in September 1976, you can sometimes hear him trying to merge his expansive and discordant playing style with their songs, but it doesn’t quite work: it’s not a material that requires three guitarists. . By then he had already chosen to leave the band he had created and had already sounded out Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols – another prog fan, although his tastes lay more towards Magma and Van Der Graf Generator – for collaborate. When Rotten left the Pistols after their January 1978 US tour, announcing plans to form an “anti-music of any kind” band, it was Levene – alongside longtime friend John Wardle, who was renamed Jah Wobble – he called .

The great irony of Public Image Limited, the band that together with Manchester’s Magazine sparked the post-punk movement and its outright rejection of rock music traditions, is that they opened their account with a rock anthem. One of the greatest singles of all time, all about Public picture is fantastic: Wobble’s dub-reggae influenced deep bass, Lydon’s furious lyrical excoriation of punk and the perceptions it had engendered of it, the petulant stop he comes to as Lydon dismissively spits the word “goodbye”. But it was Levene’s guitar that really stood out. Somewhere in Dublin, a guitarist who had taken to calling himself The Edge evidently noted his resounding sound and adapted it himself into U2. A song that was meant to signal the end of rock traditionalism inspired one of the key sounds of ’80s stadium rock.

Public Image Limited playing in Atlanta in April 1980.
Public Image Limited playing in Atlanta in April 1980. Photography: Tom Hill/Getty Images

But the sound Levene got on Public Image itself was just the first sign of his dogged commitment to “making the guitar do cool things, use it in different ways.” PiL’s debut album, First Issue, was filled with examples of Levene’s extremely inventive and original approach to the instrument. On Religion and Annalisa, he plays vaguely punk riffs that seem to exist in a constant state of motion, never going where you think they’re going. The woozy chords that open the theme are one of the few precursors to the hugely influential sound created by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine a decade later: Over the song’s nine minutes, the multitude of noises Levene wrings from his guitar is amazing, especially since the whole thing was played live in the studio, without overdubs. Things went even further on 1979’s incomparable Metal Box, an album that also demonstrated just how much PiL had learned from reggae about using the studio mixer as another instrument: listen to the moment candidly amazing halfway through Memories when the whole texture of the song changes, becoming more punchy, harsher and more intense, as if someone had removed a blanket from the speakers. Levene’s playing extended wildly over Swan Lake and Chant, as if treating the entire song as one long solo, utterly devoid of any standard guitar cliches. On Poptones, he played an intricate, cascading guitar line, distorted with effects until it sounded eerily claustrophobic, the perfect complement to Lydon’s lyrics about abduction and rape. Careering’s studio version is largely synthesizer-based – perhaps its atonal buzzing and screeching was what Levene had in mind when he tried to convince Rhodes to buy a Polymoog for the fledgling Clash – but during PiL’s amazing live performance from song on The Old Gray Whistle TestLevene alternates between synthesizer and guitar, using the latter as if it were a purely percussive instrument.

metal box sounded like Levene realizing her dream of “a situation where there would be no musical limits”, but the original incarnation of PiL was never a band likely to enjoy a long career: they seemed to exist in a permanent state of tension, fueled by drugs. paranoia, holed up in the grim surroundings of Lydon’s home in Chelsea, an address its notoriety meant was regularly raided by the police. Wobble left before 1981’s The Flowers of Romance, an album affected by Levene’s growing heroin addiction and an episode of writer’s block. The result bore a striking resemblance to Lydon’s original goal of “anti-music of any kind”: a barrage of punitive percussion and noise, entirely without melody, some of which was generated by Lydon, a “totally incompetent” musician, as Levene said, play the violin and the banjo. There was hardly any guitar. It had its moments, most notably the title track – which might just be the most extreme piece of music to ever earn its creators a spot on Top of the Pops – but it was hard work that didn’t always reward the audience. effort: a hint of will that do the trick? hung around his lesser songs such as Hymie’s Him and Track 8. But it was an attempt to make another, more commercial album that ended up PiL Mark 1. Levene quit while it was being made; Lydon re-recorded the whole thing with session musicians as 1983’s This Is What You Want…This Is What You Get and scored a hit with This Is Not a Love Song; Levene released their own version the following year under the title Commercial Zone. This is probably the top version, though it looks raw and unfinished: somewhere in between is PiL’s great lost fourth album.

Levene moved to the United States, where he worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers: a story replaced him as producer of their third album after he and heroin-addicted guitarist Hillel Slovak requisitioned part of the budget to spend for drugs. Far more fruitful was Levene’s association with British experimental reggae label On-U Sound: he worked with Dub Syndicate, Gary Clail and Creation Rebel, though his guitar playing was rarely on full display. For that, you had to turn to Levene’s 1989 solo album, Violent Opposition, which, while sounding infinitely simpler than PiL, proved that his approach to the guitar was still very distinctive, as evidenced by the solo that he was playing on his cover of If 6 by Jimi Hendrix. Was 9.

Even better are the albums he made after reviving his partnership with Jah Wobble, which also involved the duo revisiting PiL’s catalog live as Metal Box in Dub. Listen to the 2012s yin and yangand on Back to the Block or Jags And Staffs you hear Keith Levene’s guitar sounding as original and quirky as ever, speaking a vibrant language he had more or less invented himself – all because he threw the memo about what you were and weren’t supposed to do.

This article was last modified on November 14, 2022. He previously misidentified a photo of Lu Edmonds as Keith Levene.

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