There’s no doubt that Keith Levene was a key figure in British punk. He formed the Clash with guitarist Mick Jones aged 16 and co-wrote What’s My Name?, which subsequently appeared on their debut album. He played in the semi-mythical Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious and Viv Albertine. He was filmed injecting amphetamine in the toilets of the Roxy for DJ and film-maker Don Letts’s Punk Rock Movie and was the subject of the Slits’ Instant Hit, a song about his increasing heroin problem.
And yet he was also a very anomalous figure in a world where there were supposed to be strict rules about music, dress and attitude: Levene seemed to have discarded the memo about what you were and weren’t supposed to do. He hadn’t just been a fan of prog titans Yes, he had roadied for them on 1973’s Tales From Topographic Oceans tour, one of the high watermarks of prog grandiloquence, precisely the kind of thing you were supposed to keep to yourself in punk’s scorched-earth climate. He was steadfast in the belief that “you have to do the work if you want to be good at guitar”, a line that ran contrary to punk’s anyone-can-do-it ethos. He was not interested in “putting together three chord songs”, which was very much the point of punk, suggesting instead that what you needed to do was “put together 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 synthesiser in the lineup, like the ones he’d seen Rick Wakeman playing while working for Yes. He got Joe Strummer to join the band – in part by demonstrating to Strummer how well he could play Led Zeppelin songs – then turned their new frontman’s guitar down at rehearsals and gigs, believing him to an insufficiently competent musician. He railed against the band’s “safe and predictable” approach to music.
Perhaps inevitably, Levene didn’t last long as a member of the Clash. On a bootleg recording of his final gig with the band in September 1976, you can occasionally hear him attempting to meld his expansive, discordant playing style with their songs, but it doesn’t quite work: this isn’t material that requires three guitarists. By then he had already elected to leave the band he had started, and already sounded out the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten – another prog fan, although his tastes ran more to Magma and Van Der Graf Generator – about collaborating. When Rotten quit the Pistols after their January 1978 US tour, announcing his intention to form a band that was “anti-music of any kind”, it was Levene – alongside his longstanding friend John Wardle, who been renamed Jah Wobble – that he called.
The great irony of Public Image Limited, the band that, along with Manchester’s Magazine, sparked the post-punk movement and its wholesale rejection of rock music’s traditions, is that they opened their account with a rock anthem. One of the greatest debut singles of all time, everything about Public Image is fantastic: Wobble’s deep, dub-reggae influenced bass, Lydon’s furious lyrical excoriation of punk and the perceptions of him it had engendered, the petulant dead halt it comes to as Lydon’s dismissively spits the word “goodbye”. But it was Levene’s guitar that really stood out. Somewhere in Dublin, a guitarist who’d taken to calling himself The Edge evidently noted its ringing, echoing tone and adapted it himself in U2. A song that was supposed to signify an end to rock traditionalism inspired one of 80s stadium rock’s key sounds.
But the sound Levene achieved on Public Image itself was just the first sign of his dogged commitment to “make the guitar do cool things, use it in different ways”. PiL’s debut album First Issue was filled with examples of Levene’s hugely inventive and original approach to the instrument. On Religion and Annalisa, he plays vaguely punk-y riffs that seem to exist in a state of constant motion, never going where you think they’re heading to. The woozy chords that open Theme are one of the few precursors for the hugely influential sound minted by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields a decade later: over the course of the song’s nine minutes, the sheer array of noises Levene wrings from his guitar is astonishing, particularly given that the whole thing was played live in the studio, without overdubs. Things got even further out on 1979’s peerless Metal Box, an album that also demonstrated how much PiL had learned from reggae about using the studio mixing desk as another instrument: listen to the frankly astonishing moment midway through Memories when the entire texture of the song suddenly changes, becoming punchier, harder and more intense, as if someone’s whipped a blanket off the speakers. Levene’s playing sprawled extravagantly across Swan Lake and Chant, as if he was treating the whole song as one long solo, utterly devoid of any standard guitar cliches. On Poptones, he played a complex, cascading guitar line, warped with effects until it sounded strangely claustrophobic, the perfect complement to Lydon’s lyric about abduction and rape. The studio version of Careering is largely synthesiser based – perhaps its atonal hums and screams were what Levene had in mind when he tried to get Rhodes to buy a Polymoog for the nascent Clash – but during PiL’s incredible live performance of the song on The Old Grey Whistle Test, Levene alternates between synthesiser and guitar, using the latter as if it’s a purely percussive instrument.
Metal Box sounded like Levene realising his dream of “a situation where there would be no musical limits”, but the original incarnation of PiL were never a band likely to enjoy a lengthy career: they seemed to exist in a permanent state of twitchy, drug-fuelled paranoia, holed up in the grim environs of Lydon’s Chelsea home, an address his notoriety meant was regularly raided by police. Wobble left before 1981’s The Flowers of Romance, an album affected by Levene’s increasing heroin addiction and a bout of writer’s block. The result sounded remarkably like Lydon’s original aim of “anti-music of any kind”: a punishing, entirely tune-free barrage of percussion and noise, some of it generated by Lydon, a “totally inept” musician, as Levene put it, playing violin and banjo. There was barely any guitar. It had its moments, not least the title track – which may well be the single most extreme piece of music ever to earn its makers a slot of Top of the Pops – but it was hard work that didn’t always reward the effort: a hint of will this do? hung around its lesser songs such as Hymie’s Him and Track 8. But it was an attempt to make another, more commercial album that finished PiL Mark 1. Levene quit during its making; 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 his own version the following year under the title Commercial Zone. His is probably the superior release, although it sounds rough and unfinished: somewhere between the two lurks the great lost fourth PiL album.
Levene relocated to the US, where he worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers: one story has him being replaced as producer of their third album after he and heroin-addicted guitarist Hillel Slovak commandeered a chunk of the budget to spend on drugs. Far more fruitful was Levene’s association with experimental British reggae label On-U Sound: he worked with Dub Syndicate, Gary Clail and Creation Rebel, although his guitar-playing was seldom much in evidence. For that you had to turn to Levene’s 1989 solo album Violent Opposition, which, if it sounded infinitely more straightforward than PiL, proved his approach to the guitar remained very distinctive, as evidenced by the solo he played on its cover of Jimi Hendrix’s If 6 Was 9.
Better still were the albums he made after reanimating his partnership with Jah Wobble, which also involved the pair revisiting PiL’s back catalogue live as Metal Box in Dub. Listen to 2012’s Yin & Yang, and on Back to the Block or Jags And Staffs, you hear Keith Levene’s guitar sounding as out-there and original as ever, speaking a vibrant language that he’d more or less invented himself – all because he’d discarded the memo about what you were and weren’t supposed to do.
• This article was amended on 14 November 2022. It previously misidentified a photo of Lu Edmonds as Keith Levene.