Never remotely resembling a pop star, Keith Levene was renowned for his work as a challenging and groundbreaking guitarist, and for his all-round creative input into Public Image Ltd (PiL), which he formed with John Lydon when the latter split from the Sex Pistols in 1978.
Andy Bell, guitarist with Ride, commented that Levene had “a guitar tone like ground-up diamonds fired at you through a high pressure hose”. Anyone familiar with Levene’s scalding, coruscating playing on PiL’s debut single Public Image will know exactly what he meant.
Levene, who has died aged 65, having suffered from liver cancer, also played a formative role in the creation of the Clash, of which he was an original member for several months in 1976 before quitting. But it was some measure of the way that Levene ploughed his own creative furrow that he never felt defined by terms such as punk or new wave. “I respected my influences enough to never imitate them,” he said. “That was always important to me.”
So immune was Levene to the fickle tides of fashion that he would speak proudly of his first immersion in the music industry as a 15-year-old roadie for Yes. Most of the punk herd would have fainted with shock at the mention of Yes, who were seen as prime exemplars of early-1970s prog-rock, supposedly symbolic of everything punk was trying to sweep away.
Levene, however, declared Yes’s Steve Howe to be the world’s greatest guitarist, and excitedly recalled how he was hired to look after Alan White’s drumkit. It was after the band’s keyboards player, Rick Wakeman, shrewdly observed that what Levene really wanted to do was play their instruments that he went away and made a determined effort to learn guitar.
Born in Muswell Hill, north London, Keith was the son of Harry Levene, a tailor, and his wife, May. He recalled how, as an eight-year-old, he would pester the tailors in Petticoat Lane for odd jobs.
After leaving school at 15 he became a factory worker “in this bleak dark place which was like some Victorian [building] from a Charles Dickens story”, fitting in roadie work with Yes during his spare time.
He was 19 when he first met the guitarist Mick Jones (whom he referred to as “Rock’n’roll Mick”), and together with the aspiring bass player Paul Simonon they formed the core of the Clash. It was Levene and the band’s then-manager Bernie Rhodes who recruited the vocalist Joe Strummer from another London band, the 101’ers.
But by the spring of 1977, when the Clash’s debut album was released, Levene was long gone, his sensibilities perhaps too avant garde for the more traditionalist Jones and Strummer.
He was given a co-writing credit on the song What’s My Name, but complained that “I wrote more than I got credited for on the record. It was me and Mick that wrote those tunes. Mick is definitely more responsible for the inception of most of them than I am, but it was me who put any bollocks there were into them.”
Marcus Gray, in his Clash biography Last Gang in Town, described a live recording of Levene’s last performance with the band, at the Roundhouse in September 1976: “Keith’s guitar style is revealed to be inventively harsh and metallic, [creating] the kind of industrial noise that was to typify the experimentation of the period immediately post-punk, including that of Keith’s own subsequent band, Public Image Ltd.”
Levene’s stepping stone towards PiL was a band called the Flowers of Romance, alongside Sid Vicious and future Slits members Palmolive and Viv Albertine. However, Vicious’s departure to replace Glen Matlock in the Sex Pistols put paid to the group without it having released any recordings. Levene had been hugely impressed by seeing the Sex Pistols at the Nashville pub in London, and he and Lydon had pledged to form a band together.
When the Pistols broke up in 1978 they were true to their word, and assembled PiL with the bassist Jah Wobble and the drummer Jim Walker. By the end of the year they had released the epochal Public Image single, which got to No 9 in the UK singles chart, and the Top 30 debut album Public Image: First Issue.
With Lydon yowling painfully over Levene’s slash-and-burn guitar and Wobble’s glutinous, floor-shaking bass lines, it was not easy listening, but it placed PiL in the vanguard of an intensely creative post-punk phase alongside bands such as Gang of Four, Magazine and the Pop Group.
PiL’s second album, Metal Box (1979), which got to No 18 in the UK charts, would be acclaimed as a post-punk classic and the group’s finest hour. Levene played drums, bass and synthesiser, as well as guitar, on tracks that explored dub, electronica and atonalism. There had been nothing quite like it before, and its boundary-breaking ripples spread far and wide. Rolling Stone magazine wrote that it inhabited “a fractured space between demented abstraction and cranky freedom”.
The follow-up album, The Flowers of Romance (1981), mostly the handiwork of Levene and Lydon after Wobble had left the band, again tested the critical lexicon to destruction with its overwhelming percussiveness and uncompromising sound processing experiments. Levene considered they had created “the least commercial record ever delivered to a [record] company”. Yet somehow it reached No 11 on the UK album chart.
In 1983 PiL scored their biggest hit with This Is Not a Love Song, which reached No 5 on the UK singles chart. However, Levene, who had been in the grip of heroin addiction, fell out with Lydon over their upcoming fourth album. He had assembled most of it while Lydon was away filming Copkiller (1983, also known as Order of Death), and delivered it to Virgin Records.
But Lydon was unhappy with Levene’s efforts and decided to re-record the album with a new group of musicians, excluding Levene. It was released as This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get (1984). More or less in parallel, Levene released the original tracks as his own album, titled Commercial Zone (1984), on a new label, Pil Records Inc, which he had created for the purpose.
Around this time he moved to Los Angeles with his second wife, the writer Shelly da Cunha (they subsequently separated), and did production work for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as for the rappers Tone Loc and Ice-T, before releasing his first solo album, Violent Opposition, in 1989.
A further four solo albums followed, the most recent being Commercial Zone 2014 (2014). He also published three limited-edition books, I WaS a Teenage Guitarist 4 the ClasH, Meeting Joe: Joe Strummer, the Clash & Me, and The Post Punk Years. At the time of his death he was working on a history of PiL with the writer Adam Hammond.
He is survived by his partner, Kate Ransford, his son, Kirk, from his first marriage, to the American musician Lori Montana, which ended in divorce, and his sister Jill.
• Julian Keith Levene, musician and songwriter, born 18 July 1957; died 11 November 2022