Keith Levene, co-founding guitarist of the Clash and later Public Image Ltd, died on Nov. 11 at the age of 65, a close friend confirmed.
Author Adam Hammond didn’t reveal a cause of death, although reports said the musician had been suffering from liver cancer. Hammond wrote in a social media post: “There is no doubt that Keith was one of the most innovative, audacious and influential guitarists of all time. Keith sought to create a new paradigm in music and with willing collaborators John Lydon and Jah Wobble succeeded in doing just that. His guitar work over the nine minutes of ‘Theme,’ the first track on the first PiL album, defined what alternative music should be.”
Hammond continued: “As well as helping to make PiL the most important band of the age, Keith also founded the Clash with Mick Jones and had a major influence on their early sound. So much of what we listen to today owes much to Keith’s work, some of it acknowledged, most of it not.”
Hear Public Image Ltd Perform ‘Theme’
When Levene released his debut solo album, Violent Opposition, in 1989, it featured members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He’d previously co-produced the band’s early demos. He later reunited with Wobble on a number of PiL-related projects.
In a 2001 interview, Levene recalled how he’d been a huge fan of Yes in his younger years, and managed to become a roadie for the band in the ‘70s, until Rick Wakeman advised him to stop wasting his time and pursue his own musical ambitions. “One day, I just remember that I went out to West London,” he said. “We met this guy named Mick Jones, known as ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Mick’ at the time. We really became instant fast friends. He said, ‘Keith, what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘All I know is I want to form a band.’”
Despite never having been in a proper band before, he enjoyed the experience of forming the Clash in 1976, but became disillusioned with their music, which he said was “just not good enough” at the time. Meanwhile, he though the Sex Pistols were “the best fucking thing I’d seen in years” but he didn’t want to join them. He helped form PiL in 1983.
“For the Pistols, the only guitarist is Steve Jones and the only bass player is Sid [Vicious] or Glen [Matlock],” he said. “That’s why I didn’t want to join… I wanted to do Public Image Limited.” He described frontman Lydon as “the bee’s knees, absolute killer fucking most deadly vocalist there was,” but added: “I found out afterwards that this guy was just a whining git. Some of the things he did were really good… But overall… He was just so fucking useless! He’s got that Irish way with words. I didn’t realize that he was taking it all seriously with the press and all. I don’t know what the fuck happened either.”
In a personal tribute, former PiL and Killing Joke drummer Martin Atkins wrote: “We had our ups and downs that had mellowed over time. My respect for his unique talent never will.” Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea responded: “The way you four played together, will never happen again, so powerful and hypnotic. Poetic and dissonant, cerebral and animal.” Bassist Wobble simply wrote: “RIP Keith Levene” to which Matlock replied: “What?! Aargh.”
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