I don’t know that much about Keith Levene. He is most famous, of course, for being a founding member of first The Clash, and then Public Image Ltd., the group that rose from the crash and burn of The Sex Pistols. Public Image Ltd., or P.i.L., at least in terms of a genre / label, defined the term “post-punk”. Their second album, Metal Box, recorded just as internal tensions tore them apart, is a landmark in deconstructed rock.* Something that will always stand alone, towering timeless.
However, two of Keith’s band mates, John Lydon and John “Jah Wobble” Wardle, have proved more vocal, larger than life, and hogged pretty much all of the subsequent limelight. Told (their side of) all the stories. I do know, from listening to Keith’s records, and watching the online clips of him perform, that he was an amazing, innovative and original, guitarist. Tons of people have cited him as a major influence. U2’s The Edge, for example. I also know that he struggled with addiction, and interviews with former friends and associates, suggest that this had a predictably negative impact on his behaviour. Wobble gives Keith a right coating in his autobiography, Memoirs Of A Geezer, but then, in the book, Wobble gives almost everyone a right coating.
Public Image Ltd. was born out of the comings and goings at Lydon’s top floor flat, at 45 Gunter Grove, in the then arse-end of Chelsea. Anyone who was anyone in late `70s London, popped in for a puff and a can of Red Stripe. Listened to dub and krautrock on Lydon’s high-end, Japanese, stereo. Keith described John’s place as, “the best club in London”, and then he moved in. Wobble said that Keith and Lydon were like Withnail & I, except that both of them were Withnail. Gunter Grove was a melting pot of journalists, musicians, grifters, and scene-shakers, that included Don “Rebel Dread” Letts and Professor Vivien Goldman. Keith played on brilliant records fronted by both of these pop culture legends.**
Another regular visitor to Gunter Grove was On-U Sound’s Adrian Sherwood, and it’s Keith’s collaborations with Adrian that I am most familiar with. Trying to confirm who played what in On-U’s back catalogue is difficult to definitively determine, the studio having been more than kinda cloudy, I guess, but Keith was involved in sessions for Barmy Army, Gary Clail, Creation Rebel, Singers & Players, Dub Syndicate’s Tunes From The Missing Channel, Strike The Balance, and Stoned Immaculate.*** Doubtless, many more. On some of these, seemingly bored with the guitar, Keith is credited as bass, keys, and sampler. Wikipedia will tell you that, once decamped to Los Angeles, where he was working on film scores, Keith also pushed buttons for IceT and Tone Loc.
It’s important to point out that in later years Keith appeared to have patched up, and made peace, with a lot of the folks he had fallen out with. In more recent times, he worked, and toured, again with Wobble, on projects such as Ying & Yang, Metal Box In Dub, and the Brexit-bashing A Very British Coup.
*I don’t remember exactly when I bought my copy of Metal Box, but it must have been in the early `90s, because I wouldn’t have been able to afford it until then. Beano’s, the famous second-hand store in Croydon, had a pricey copy up on their wall for ages, years. When I asked to have a look at it, I was assisted by two members of staff. They both apologized for the state of the tin, which was, is, all rusted. I said, It was alright. I didn’t care. I was only interested in the music, not the condition the admittedly iconic packaging was in.
**The Haile Unlikely 12 went on my “wants” list after I heard Andrew Weatherall play it. Vivien Goldman’s Launderette / Private Armies has, thankfully, been reissued by Bureau B.
***A lot of my On-U records were bought on Berwick Street. Either brand new from Sister Ray, or “pre-loved” from Daddy Kool and Reckless. However, at the turn of the millennium I was working in Oxford, while living in Finsbury Park. I`d commute every day (my son was a newborn, and my partner trying to write her PhD thesis) on a Stagecoach bus. On a Friday night I`d get off at Notting Hill Gate, instead of Marble Arch, and empty Record & Tape Exchange of anything and everything On-U-related.
Keith Levene, thank you for the music. Rest In Peace Perfect Peace.