Keith Levene, the co-founding guitarist of both the Clash and Public Image Ltd, has died, his partner Kate Ransford and author Adam Hammond confirmed. “It is with great sadness I report that my close friend and legendary Public Image Limited guitarist Keith Levene passed away on Friday, 11th November,” tweeted Hammond. “Our thoughts and love go out to his partner Kate, sister Jill, and all of Keith’s family and friends. The world is a darker place without his genius. Mine will be darker without my mate.” Levene was 65 years old.
Born Julian Keith Levene on July 18, 1957 in London, England, he fell in love with music as a kid and gravitated towards ska, prog rock, and the Beatles. He started playing guitar as a preteen and became obsessed with Yes, hailing Steve Howe as “the greatest fucking guitarist in the world.” Levene hung around after attending Yes concerts and gradually started creeping onstage to break down gear, offering to help on tour. When he turned 15, Levene got a roadie job for Yes cleaning Alan White’s cymbals and changing the snare on the Close to the Edge tour. When Levene tried to join the crew for Rick Wakeman’s next solo tour, Wakeman—who noticed Levene constantly played the instruments but was slow to set them up—persuaded him to give up being a roadie and try playing music instead.
When he was 16, Levene visited West London and met Mick Jones for the first time. The two became instant friends and decided to form a band together. Famously, Levene and Bernard Rhodes, the manager of Jones’ band London SS, convinced Joe Strummer to leave his band the 101ers to join the Clash. “[We] talked Joe into coming over to my squat in Sheppard’s Bush,” explained Levene. “I was playing guitar with him and playing some 101ers tunes. He went, ‘Hey man, I just love you and I love the way you play guitar.’ So I said, ‘Will you do it?’ and we got him in the Clash.” After roping together bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Terry Chimes, they officially debuted the Clash in July 1976.
In September 1976, the Clash fired Levene for allegedly no longer being interested in the project. Before they parted ways, Levene co-wrote a few songs with the Clash, one of which (“What’s My Name”) would go on to appear on their debut self-titled album.
In 1978, Levene and John Lydon formed Public Image Ltd, tapping Jah Wobble to play bass and Jim Walker for drums, and released their debut album, Public Image: First Issue. He quickly established his raucous playing style and what would define him as a guitarist. “What happened to me was once I got good enough to know the rules, I didn’t want to be like any other guitarist,” Levene said in an interview. “I didn’t go out of my way to be different. I just had an ear for what was wrong. So if I did something that was wrong, i.e. made a mistake or did something that wasn’t in key, I was open-minded enough to listen to it again.”
Public Image Ltd released Metal Box in 1979 and followed it with 1981’s the Flowers of Romance, the title of which was a reference to Levene’s old band of the same name with Viv Albertine and Sid Vicious. By 1983, Levene decided to leave Public Image Ltd over creative differences about their upcoming fourth album, This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get. He released an early version of that LP under the name Commercial Zone, leading the band to re-record the album after his departure so as to not include any contributions from him or ex-bassist Pete R. Jones.
Throughout his career, Levene would go on to collaborate with other artists. He produced demos for Red Hot Chili Peppers, worked on sampling techniques with Ice T and Tone Loc, and contributed to Pigface’s album Easy Listening…. Levene also released a handful of solo albums, beginning with Violent Opposition in 1989 and on through to Commercial Zone 2014 in 2014.
After hearing of Levene’s death, artists have paid tribute to the late musician online, including members of Ride, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and HEALTH. “A sad time to learn of the passing of guitar giant Keith Levene,” wrote former Public Image Ltd drummer Martin Atkins. “We had our ups and downs that had mellowed over time. My respect for his unique talent never will.”