Keith Levene’s Post Punk Prog

Keith Levene founded punk bands Flowers of Romance and The Clash, ultimately forming Public Image Ltd. (PiL) with John Lydon .

by Marshall Bowden

Punk rock was the entry point for so many creative people who just needed the chance to play an instrument and get into a recording studio, and so it was with British guitarist Keith Levene. Though he founded punk bands Flowers of Romance and The Clash, he stayed with neither band, ultimately forming Public Image Ltd. (PiL) with John Lydon when The Sex Pistols broke up. And that is where he asserted himself as one of post punk’s new breed of guitarists. 

16 track playlist summarizing guitarist Keith Levene’s career.

Levene is already unmoored from conventional rock guitar structure on First Issue, PiL’s debut released in 1978. On the opening track, “Theme,” he plays with the idea of noise and of pure sound as other guitarists and experimentalists have done. On other songs, ones where Lydon has lyrics that impose some semblance of song structure, he plays punk rock guitar but with a new awareness of rhythm. The kind of energy heard on “Annalisa” is the idea that Robert Fripp tried getting at via his avant guitar/organ with dance rhythm section group League of Gentlemen. 

Levene wasn’t the only one experimenting with these ideas. The rejection of guitar as an instrument of strummed chord progressions in favor of more rhythm and of single note lines that provided counterpoint to the lyrics or other melodic instruments, if any, was pursued in some manner by Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, Gareth Sager of Rip, Rig, and Panic, and U2s The Edge, Bernard Albrecht (Sumner) of Joy Division, and a handful of other guitarists. The sound spread, probably in part due to the fact that it was easier to create a novel sound for people who had never been trained as musicians on the instrument, but the best of these guitarists and bands forged styles that were innovative in terms of rock music as well as being evocative of the uncertain times in which they were created.

Keith Levene’s playing and sound design really blossomed on PiL’s next release, Metal Box (reissued in the U.S. as Second Edition). In an interview Levene said “Metal Box was really more what we wanted to do.  That’s when we were getting more freedom in the studio and I did my first solo piece totally on my own with synthetic strings.  That was a big new experience to me.  We just thought ‘we should put this all of the second album’ and we did.”

Levene was experimenting with electronics, using synthesizers to make discordant noise in a manner every bit as innovative as Bowie’s Low or Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing. Synths were used to great effect on tracks like “Careering,” “No Birds,” and “Radio 4,” the piece Levene was referring to in that interview. This was the direction Levene was interested in pursuing. 

I’ve always really liked the live album Paris Au Printemps released as Image Publique S.A. John Lydon has said that the record was released to help cover the group’s expenses from the production of Metal Box in its original incarnation:

“We had to do that to finance the making of Metal Box. Because money was very, very tight. I did explain that in every interview I ever did. Don’t buy this live record, because it’s not very good.”

But there are some good performances, and the band, driven by Martin Atkins for the first time, delivers a more martial, industrial beat. Levene’s guitar is front and center of every track since the Metal Box mix overemphasizing Jah Wobble’s bass wasn’t possible with the merely adequate recording of the live shows that existed. On “Careering” he dispenses with the atmospheric possibilities of the synths and instead goes for a full on noise blowout. 

Levene’s interests in synths and other atmospherics increased on Flowers of Romance, PiL’s first record without Jah Wobble on bass. Levene and Atkins shaped the record’s sound completely, resulting in a more minimalistic landscape. After being fired by Lydon, who erased Levene’s contributions to a fourth PiL record, Levene released the original record (Commercial Zone) as a semi-bootleg. And while it wasn’t as original or groundbreaking as their first three records, it was far superior to the record that Lydon and Atkins put out with a backing band of faceless hacks. 

Levene produced demos for the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Uplift Mofo Party Plan as well as working with DJ Matt Dike before releasing his first solo album, Violent Opposition. The record featured members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, and Thelonious Monster, and it runs the gamut of styles from industrial and punk to dub and ska, and an fairly average cover of Hendrix’s ‘If 6 Was 9.’

The next ten years were taken up with guest appearances and with writing, producing, composing, and otherwise not appearing on recordings by influential friends despite having contributed mightily. His history is of leaving the band before they have a chance to record, The Clash being the most famous—he wrote the song ‘What’s My Name’ that appears on their first album, but was gone by then. There is also his work with Glen Matlock’s band, The Philistines, where he co-wrote three songs but doesn’t appear on the album. He’s there on Cowboy Internationals’ Original Sin, on the track ‘Wish,’ but that’s it, and Ken Lockie describes his work with the band as guesting. 

In 2002 he released the EP Killer In the Crowd under the rubric Murder Global. Levene played all the instruments on the release, so it is truly a solo recording. Overall it is less dub and reggae influenced and more industrial with forays into hard rock, but Levene still throws in the more reflective track, harkening back toward ‘Radio 4’ on ‘Aztek Legend.’

While Killer In the Crowd is not a major piece of work, it still demonstrates Keith Levene’s journey as an improvisational musician and recording artist, and it was well liked by listeners who appreciated the particular skill set that he brought to the table.

Levene was back with Search For Absolute Zero in 2013. To me this seems like the best Keith Levene solo (or as leader) record, but honestly I find it incredible that all of his albums and EPs are not readily available. Listening to the second track, ‘Original Flow,’ I am reminded of progressive fusion bands like Brand X. The music on Absolute Zero just seems very free and openly created without concern over what genre or what audience might embrace it. And that  seems to fit with what Levene was saying in interviews around the time of this record’s release:

It’s improvisational, it’s jazzy, but at the same time it’s one take. That’s all we needed; one take and it worked. If it didn’t work, I would say fuck it. I remember assessing that as I was going along, and essentially, this is what I did with Metal Box. I wasn’t endeavoring to do it, but this is how I found out how I do things. This is kind of how I approach my life as well. This seems to be the way to go, I mean everyone seems pretty into it.”

The following year found Levene in Prague, recording a followup to the original Commercial Zone release as it celebrated its 30th anniversary. Commercial Zone 2014 was part followup, part review, but the music is mostly new here, and mostly instrumental. While Keith talked about the 2014 version being about completing the true vision of the PiL Commercial Zone album, what it ‘could have been,’ it is, in fact, a new Keith Levene solo project, one that is wholly in line with the records he had been releasing all along. Listening to it, it becomes clear that PiL could have been a very different band, one that might have remained outside the boundaries of rock, pop, etc. for good. 

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