Keith Levene and Paul Simonon – The Clash 1976 – Pic: Cindy Stern
London born (1957) Keith Levene was co-founder of The Clash in the mid-seventies. He formed The Slits and he was one of the musical maestro’s, next to Jah Wobble and John Lydon, of Public Image Ltd, the experimental band formed in 1978 in the aftermath of the British punk movement. Quite some quality credits there. After all these years Levene issued a book recently about his short Clash period titled ‘I WaS a TeeNaGe GuitariST 4 The ClaSH!’. And finally, after 30 years and after a ‘the right way for the right record’ treatment ‘Commercial Zone 2014‘, his final album with PIL will see the light of day. With so many things happening and as a great fan of PIL‘s first three albums (the ones with Levene) I thought this was the right moment to interview the right person in order to get some things right. Skype connected me with Prague where Levene has been living for some time now. It was a thrilling experience as I expected it should be anyway. He talked as if it was his last interview. An adrenaline fueled chatterbox with at times heavy mixed emotions. From anger and frustration to enthusiasm and euphoria. And it’s all about the music. He breathes music. Levene’s
whole being IS music.
You worked as a teenage roadie for prog rockers YES back in 1974?
Did you actually like their music, Keith ?
“Steve Howe of Yes was my favorite guitarist. Steve was an immense inspiration to me. Rock and roll was really crap and boring at the time. It was refreshing to hear him play. I loved his color. I liked especially the way he played acoustic guitar.”
From ‘Yes’ fan to forming ‘The Clash’ was quite a radical move. What really did happen?
”There were so many fucking bands playing complex music at the time. We were listening to prog rock, to jazz rock, to bands like King Crimson, Santana, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And suddenly kids reacted like “fuck this, this music is too complicated. I need a diploma from the Royal Academy of Music to be in a band“. Kids wanted something simple with energy. Things were changing in America too. It was more leaning towards rock and roll again. Patti Smith over there and Eddie and The Hot Rods in the UK. Many bands were formed and one day people started to call that new sort of music ‘punk’. I loved it and I got
into that punk scene. I loved the Sex Pistols and the early immense intentions of The Clash.”
Didn’t you hate the fact that The Clash’s early sound wasn’t adventurous enough?
”I didn’t hate them nor the sound. I had some really intense times with them, you know. After all I was the teenage guitarist who made that band in the early days, who put life into that band and who made that band more interesting. I made that band right. But as time went by I hated the situation we where getting into. We kept rehearsing and rehearsing all the time without getting any better. My heart wasn’t in it anymore. I was in a stinking mood about it all and I knew I was gonna make it very difficult for them because of it. I hated myself for that so I decided it was better to fuck off. Also at the same time so much shit was happening so
quickly in my life…”
If you really had been in charge of The Clash how would they have sounded?
“Like a highly sped up PIL. Like the reworked version I recently did of ‘What’s My Name’, the only Clash song I co-wrote. An instrumental version. I didn’t give a fuck about vocals back then but The Clash needed a vocalist. So I asked Joe (Strummer) to leave the 101’ers and join my band. It didn’t occur to me at the time that he couldn’t sing but he had the heart and the feel and it was refreshing to hear him after YES and all the other fucking shit. He was a great frontman.”
The Clash introduced me to dub reggae. They were more than just a punk rock band.
“That is like saying The Specials invented ska. We were already listening to dub reggae for fucking years. I was sick of it. But yes The Clash was one of the first bands who introduced dub reggae to a wider audience. I don’t know whose idea that was. I already had left the band by then.”
You were also involved with the experimental punk band The Slits. In my opinion joining them would have been musically more natural for you than starting up The Clash.
”I formed The Slits. I put them together. I knew Viv Albertine from the ‘Yes’ days when we
were teenagers. She wanted me to teach her how to play the guitar, which I did. Later on, I encouraged her and the other girls to start a band. It just never came up to me to play in it myself. I wasn’t even there when The Slits actually started.”
Why the book ’I WaS a TeeNaGe GuitariST 4 The ClaSH!’? Why after all these years?
“Over the years so many people asked me “when are you doing an autobiography?” Everyone is doing one. That is so boring and it’s just a ploy to make money. But then it all came about through doing interviews for my ‘Diary of a Non-Punk Rocker’. I spent a lot of time with journalist Kathy DiTondo talking about those days and all the people back then. I didn’t really realize she was writing down all of it and when she told it back to me afterwards I heard some really interesting things. So we got pretty much together and we ended up with this fucking big book. It’s not an autobiography it’s just a true story of a teenage guitarist for The Clash, it’s a true story about me, about an intense period in my life…”
Next week Lydon’s new biography ‘Anger is an Energy’ will be out. Will you read it?
“No, I will not read his book, I’m not interested. I don’t read anyone’s book except for Luke Rhinehart’s book ‘The Dice Man’.”
Damon Albarn (Blur / Gorillaz) confessed a few weeks ago that he used heroin and that the drug was incredibly creative for him. What did heroin do for you?
(furious): ”Heroin is one of the most destructive things in life. I saw all my friends in the punk rock scene and almost myself and the whole scene itself getting destroyed by a plague of fucking junkies that came over from New York and told us to be little English punk junkies. I haven’t seen anything creative coming out of taking anything not from even smoking a joint.”
So The Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ album an innovating album because of the creative drugs they used?
“No, I don’t believe that. They already made great music before they even smoked their first fucking joint with Bob Dylan. That tells a lot. Keep drugs away when you’re recording in the studio or you’ll just lose the right context.”
Is that fabulous metallic guitar sound purely Keith Levene? Or were you influenced by someone else?
“It’s definitely on me. Although I found out more and more after the facts that the guitar sound on many old tunes influenced me. I always liked the way The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn played guitar. So when we did the first PIL single one of the best compliments I got was that somebody said I sounded like McGuinn and The Byrds. He’s a fabulous guitarist. Even the other day I played, only just for some seconds, a version of The Byrds’ cover of Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ on YouTube and I heard McGuinn’s guitar playing immediately. And I said to myself “fuck, every time I hear McGuinn I hear the perfect refined Keith Levene style.” So yes, I can see now that all of those tunes influenced me one way or another. I always liked the brightness of the guitar. I like the way it’s electric, the way you can communicate with it, the way you can be intense with it. On the other hand I will not allow myself to play exactly like anyone else and I like the idea that anyone plays like me. And here’s another key thing. I’m not anti-blues but you don’t need to know the blues to play the guitar. So many bands in the early days thought otherwise including The Beatles.”
Then suddenly when we were talking about The Edge (U2) being influenced by Keith‘s guitar style and about the difficulty of writing ‘simple’ number one hits Keith stood up, picked his guitar and started playing this simple, sparkling and melodic tune he was working on recently. A moment of magic!
Did John Lydon actually played an instrument on PIL records?
“He used to play a bit around with the violins and saxophones I gave him but no, he wasn’t really an instrumentalist. Although he did play a sax solo on the ’Flowers of Romance‘ track. When we were recording John was locked up mostly in a little room with his toys and then he used to play a bit of sax. I didn’t want him to be in the main room cause he could be annoying and sometimes you need to be the guy on your own to develop the ideas me, John and Wobble had contributed. But that doesn’t mean it was all about me, me, me. We spend a lot of time in the studio all together.”
The Holy PIL Sound Trinity: Levene, Wobble and Lydon… looking for inspiration…
Did you hear the latest PIL album ‘This is PIL’?
“No I didn’t. When I left PIL I wasn’t interested anymore in their music. The only thing I ever heard afterwards was ‘Rise’. That was a listenable tune but it is not PIL. And it is not because I’m not in the band anymore but only if John was still John he could still carry PIL. But instead, he chose to use the Johnny Rotten character. And it’s not right.
There’s a lot of pics on the internet of you wearing a Beatles t-shirt. Do you also own a Stones t-shirt, Keith?
”No, but I loved both The Beatles and The Stones. But I would never wear a Stones t-shirt. I hate the whole rock and roll thing about them. It’s all about the money and about business. I think Keith Richards is disgusting. Going to France and spending ages to make a record. I don’t want to waste my time on The Rolling Stones. I can’t afford their fucking tickets anyway and you couldn’t pay me to go and see them. But I must admit I saw them in 1989. I was with some friends in Hollywood and The Stones were to play the Coliseum in LA. It was actually via a friend of mine who got tickets from Keith Richards himself that I got into the gig. All I could see there was yellow t-shirts, not black ones but fucking stupid yellow ones. It was the first time I really saw a truly corporate gig. And then this guy said to me SIT DOWN. I had to fucking sit down at a Rolling Stones gig. No, thanks.”
A Beatles fan – pic by Fabio Lugaro…
Tell us about the ‘Commercial Zone 2014’ project?
“I wanted to pick up exactly where I left off in PIL. We were a colorful, experimental band but things started to fall apart after the third album ‘Flowers Of Romance’ and the move of the band to New York. So back in 1983 due to endless complications the fourth PIL album became splintered resulting in two diluted releases: PIL’s official fourth album ’This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get’ and my ‘Commercial Zone: This Is Not A Bootleg’. That first edition of ’Commercial Zone’ was just unfinished and I wanted to carry on with that very good idea of back then. I wanted to do the right thing for the right record. And I did it here in Prague. Here I finally could finish unfinished business. Prague is the commercial zone for me as it is in my dream although Prague wasn’t planned. It just happened after I worked on a project here last year in Faust Records Studios in the center of the city. I didn’t choose Prague, Prague choose me. I’ve lived here now for some time. I assure you the music will be so much better now. It will contain the best of the original tracks, plus remixes, plus unreleased original material and has the benefit of 30 years of my work, The release date is set for November 23th although I still haven’t a cover for the album yet.”
At this point of the interview we started freewheeling about music, music and… music. Keith picked up his guitar again and played bits of the only Clash song he co-wrote ‘What’s My Name’.
Followed by fragments of the 60s beat band The Dave Clark Five. Then it all turned into a kind of acoustic blues session and Keith seemed to become quite melancholic. I was a bit confused and I had and still have the strong feeling that revisiting these impressive periods in his life with this interview had opened up some unhealed scars on his soul. I also felt there was no point at all in questioning him about it. It was a personal thing. Anyway Keith Levene is a fascinating personality who made fascinating music and will do so until his last breath on this fucking planet.
Thank you very much for the interview and the live session, Keith!
(c) JL for 50thirdand3rd – October 15, 2014