director's cut, The Wire, issue 226, December 2002
by Simon Reynolds
Getting to interview Keith Levene is challenging. It took half a dozen attempts before we finally connected. One scheduled meeting is scuppered because sudden money troubles have left Keith a bag of jangling nerves. Another gets cancelled at literally the last minute, just as I’m setting off into the Tube-less wilderness of Hackney, East London. The vibe isn’t right, Levene explains via mobile phone, he just doesn’t feel up to reopening the multiple wounds still festering from his half-decade stint as Public Image Ltd’s aesthetic helmsman.
Finally, I’m speaking with the legendary post-punk guitarist in the flesh, chez Levene--a studio flat in a nondescript building that looks like it was once designed for light industry. It’s literally a studio flat, because along with bed and kitchen area the large single room contains a recording studio: a compact mixing desk, several computers and keyboards, massive Marshall speakers, and an array of guitars neatly ranged across the floor in upright position. Levene’s home doubles as HQ for MurderGlobal, the rubric under which he’s releasing his first recordings for 13 years.
Looking a bit like a cross between Fagin and a Nirvana roadie, Levene is gaunt-faced and bony of frame, and dressed in a loose-fitting green-checked flannel shirt and baggy slacks of indeterminate brown; a toe pokes through a well-worn sock. The place, though, is immaculately kempt. Indeed Levene and his American wife Shelley seem to be obsessively tidy, springing up to empty the ashtray every time a cigarette is stubbed out.
The interview proceeds in disjointed and meandering fashion. There’s a major interruption when Levene gets tipped off about someone on Ebay who’s selling bootleg CDs of Commercial Zone (itself a bootleg released by Levene, the original version of the PiL album re-recorded and officially released as This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get in 1984). Impatient to fire off a threatening email to the perpetrator, Levene struggles for 45 minutes with Ebay’s registration protocols. Finally, he calls a friend, asking him to pretend to be his manager and put the frightners on the miscreant. “I’m sick of being ripped off,” he says to me, apologetically. “I’ve been been ripped off by labels like you wouldn’t believe!”
The mistreatment of Keith Levene is a running theme, or sore, throughout our conversation. He has
numerous still-rankling grievances, with John Lydon, with other former PiL colleagues like Martin Atkins and Jeanette Lee, with Virgin Records. What comes across keenly from our five hour conversation is the sense of Keith Levene as a basically trusting and somewhat fragile soul, who perhaps lacked the hard heart and thick skin to really hack it in the soul-mincing machine that is the record industry. In some ways, it is surprising that he lasted so long in the belly of the beast. As PiL’s de facto musical director for its first five years of existence, Levene created (with help from Jah Wobble and a Spinal Tap-like succession of drummers) three of the most out-there albums of the post-punk era: Public Image, Metal Box, and Flowers of Romance. The lyrics and the attitude stemmed from John Lydon, sure, but when it comes to sonics PiL essentially was the Keith Levene Experience.
A post-punk Hendrix is exactly how Levene was regarded at the 1980 peak of PiL’s prestige, immediately after Metal Box’s release at the end of ’79: the most innovative guitarist of his generation. The Jimi analogy isn’t so far off, because unlike most of his peers, Levene had serious chops. Before punk, he did what guitarists were supposed to do in those days of virtuoso musicianship: practice, practice, practice. As a teenager growing up in North London, he would spend eight hours jamming at a friend’s house most days of the week. “Because he was older than me, a Jerry Garcia fiend, and an egomaniac, he always played lead. But it didn’t bother me ‘cos I liked playing the rhythm.”
In those days, Levene’s favorite band was Yes. “I actually worked for them as a roadie when I was fifteen. This was at the time when music paper readers were voting them the best band in the world.” Levene was awestruck to be in the presence of his hero, Yes guitarist Steve Howe, but the gig didn’t last long because he irritated the band by taking every opportunity to mess around on their instruments.
Prog-rock’s pomposity and obsession with technique was punk’s antithesis. But a surprising number of post-punk musicians have prog skeletons in the cupboard, from Zappa fans like David Thomas, Mark Perry and Human League, to the Soft Machine devotees in This Heat and Scritti Politti. Here’s a shocker for the Metal Box fans: Levene reckons “Poptones” is seriously indebted to Yes. “I was playing ‘Starship Trooper’ the other day, and I thought ‘fuck me, that is exactly what I’m doing in ‘Poptones’. It’s not a straight lift, but it is very Howe influenced.”
Levene and his jam buddies were into a dizzyingly eclectic range of music, from reggae to Steely Dan, Mingus to American West Coast rock. Punk’s Year Zero edicts meant you had to hide your Crimson and Mahavishnu elpees in the closet, though. “There’s a lot of people in punk who could play guitar much, much better than they made out,” says Levene. “But I never pretended I couldn’t play lead.”
Keith Levene has the singular distinction of having been a prime mover in both the most traditional band and the most radical band to emerge from UK punk: The Clash and PiL. After manager Bernie Rhodes introduced him to Mick Jones in early 1976, the two guitarists co-founded The Clash. Levene claims that he was the driving force behind the decision to recruit Joe Strummer, then frontman of the pub-rock outfit The 101-ers. By the end of that year, though, Levene was pushed out of the band. The classic “musical differences” were part of the reason: Jones’s tastes lay in a more traditional rock’n’roll direction, whereas Levene wanted a harsher guitar sound and less conventional verse-chorus-verse structures. Levene also claims that Jones was envious of his superior guitar skills and green-eyed about his youthfulness (“Mick was 21 and I was only 18---that really freaked him out”). Then there was the fact that both of them were competing for the affections of Viv Albertine, Levene’s squatmate and future guitarist of The Slits. “Mick got all weird when I started teaching her to play guitar.”
Punk lore, however, maintains that the primary reason for Levene’s departure was his drug use---specifically, that the drastic mood-swings caused by amphetamine made him hard to work with. Levene denies this, though. When the band confronted him about why he was always so negative about the group, and blamed it on amphetamine, “I was like, ‘this is not about a speed comedown’. ‘Cos everyone was doing speed then. I told them it was a general overall feeling about the band’s music. Even the name The Clash I’d always thought was uncool. And finally I said, ‘it’s either got to be Mick’s band or my band’. “
After being voted out, Levene drifted through various unsatisfactory groups. With Viv Albertine, Sid Vicious, and Steve Walsh (later of Manicured Noise), he formed Flowers of Romance. During this period he helped Albertine develop her Slits guitar sound, “like a buzz-saw crossed with a wasp” as she later described it. Flowers of Romance split up in February 1977 when Vicious joined the Sex Pistols. After that Levene did the live sound for The Slits during their early days, and played in The Quick Spurts, the first incarnation of Ken Lockie’s group Cowboys International.
One day in early 1978, Levene and Lockie were walking past Great Portland tube station when they ran into an acquaintance of Keith’s who was friends with John Lydon. The friend said that Lydon, who’d just become an Ex Pistol, was desperately looking for Levene. “He gave me John’s number. And I looked at Ken and he was like, ‘Fuckin’ hell, Keith, if you can get in a band with Johnny Rotten, do it!’”
Levene and Lydon had first connected 18 months earlier, in the aftermath of a shared Clash/Pistols pub gig in Sheffield, July 1976. Noticing that they were both sitting apart from their respective groups and looking miserable as sin, Levene struck up a conversation, during which he suggested they work together if their groups ever fell apart. During this brief encounter, the seed of PiL was sown. “The bond was based on a similar hate, and a sense of humour, and a certain sort of unspoken respect,” says Levene. “When I met John we liked each other for unexploded reasons – like unexploded bombs.”
PiL was shaped by Levene’s and Lydon’s disgust with what happened to their previous bands: the relapse into American hard rock tradition. (London Calling was anointed the Best Rock Album of the Eighties by Rolling Stone; Never Mind The Bollocks is now a heavy metal classic, its songs covered by everyone from Motley Crue to Motorhead). “To me the Sex Pistols were the last rock’n’roll band, they weren’t the beginning of anything,” says Levene. “Whereas PiL really felt like the beginning of something.”
PiL’s chemistry came from the merger of Lydon’s muezzin-meets-Celtic approach to expressionistic singing, the usurpation by Jah Wobble’s bass of the primary melodic role, and Levene’s harmolodic-in-all-but-name guitarwork. Indeed, in homage to that famous exponent of Ornette Coleman’s theories, Levene calls his signature technique, “the James 'Blood' Ulmer Effect.” Basically, this involves the deliberate incorporation of mistakes. When Levene would hit a wrong note, he’d immediately repeat the error to see if the wrongness could become a new kind of rightness. “The idea was to break through conditioning, takes yourself out of one channel, and into another space.”
Amazingly, many PiL songs were recorded in first takes, and some were written on the spot. For instance, Metal Box’s “Albatross” is basically a document of a song being composed in real-time. Levene mostly eschewed overdubs, and generated what often sounds like multitracked guitars using a single instrument.
Although PiL didn’t go in for tidying stuff up after the event, post-production and mixing became increasingly integral to the process. Dub was the crucial point of intersection for the three core members. “The whole reason PiL worked was that Wobble, me and John were just total dub fanatics. We used to go to blues parties all the time.” But dub informed the music in a deeper, subtler way than plastering on the reverb and phaser FX. “It was like using dub before you’ve even recorded – ‘cos dub is the art of subtraction”. Mostly you heard the reggae influence in the prominence of Wobble’s bass, in the attention to texturizing drum sounds, and an overall vibe of dread and sufferation suffusing the music.
PiL’s anti-rock approach extended beyond the music, to encompass image (the group dressed in suits, made by a designer friend of Lydon’s) and rhetoric. PiL talked of being not a band but a “communications company”, with plans to diversify into “video albums”, movies, even designing music technology. The not-a-band included two non-musician members, video-maker Jeannette Lee and accountant Dave Crowe, who was as close as PiL got to having a manager. Lee was Levene’s girlfriend, and before that had been going out with Don Letts of punk documentary fame. “Wobble was really against her joining PiL. But Jeanette was telling me how she’d had a lot to do with the editing of Don Letts’s punk rock movie, and with the script for his next movie, Dread At The Controls, which was never actually made. And she basically talked me into her joining. I was really into the idea of not doing straightforward normal videos.”
Thanks to the peculiar interregnum feel of 1978 (punk in its death throes, the future wide open) PiL were in a position of bizarre strength. John Lydon was patently the most charismatic and significant British frontman to emerge since Bowie, and Virgin Records were prepared to indulge his artistic whims in the belief that he was going to be the superstar of the 1980s. Virgin’s co-founder and main music man Simon Draper also paid more than mere lipservice to ideas about experimentation and exploration. Only a few years earlier Virgin had been one of the key “progressive" labels, home to Henry Cow, Wigwam, Faust, Can, Tangerine Dream, Robert Wyatt. By 1978 Virgin had trimmed its roster, shifted focus from albums to singles, and repositioned itself as a leading major label for New Wave and “modern music”: XTC, Devo, Magazine, Human League. Although Lydon would publically diss Branson, Draper & Co as a bunch of “Hampstead hippies”, Virgin deserves some kudos for financing the creation, in top-of-the-range studios, of three of the most extreme albums ever released via the mainstream music biz.
“They weren’t such a big label in those days, still living off the luck of Mike Oldfield,” recalls Levene. “Branson was like a superhippy---a hippy with no qualms about making money. He didn’t mind trying a few crazy things. The fact that we were given these big advances was great, but I was totally aware that we were working in bloody expensive Virgin-owned studios like the Manor and the Townhouse. Sixty quid an hour, a thousand a day—a fucking lot of money back then.”
PiL’s first release, the single “Public Image” was a searing, soaring statement of intent, the glorious minimalism of Wobble’s chiming bassline and Levene’s ringing chords mirroring Lydon’s surge for purity, his attempt to leave behind not just the Rotten persona (“I will not be treated as property”) but rock’n’roll itself. The sound of “Public Image” is a blueprint for a cleansed, reborn rock of the 1980s (you can hear U2’s The Edge in there). “I call it the cold shower club,” says Levene. “It’s so clean, so tingly. It could be really thin glass penetrating you but you don’t know until you start bleeding internally.” When he picks up an acoustic guitar to show me how he wrote the tune, it sounds almost like Sixties folk-rock, pretty and plangent, a post-punk cousin to The Byrds “Turn! Turn! Turn!”.
“Public Image” the single received rave reviews and reached #9 on the UK hit parade in the winter of 1978. But Public Image the album got a mixed reception. For many punk believers, John Lydon had completely lost it, abandoning the responsibilities inherent in his punk rock Messiah-hood and wallowing in arty self-indulgence. The opening dirge “Theme” was a borderline-unlistenable cacophany of despair, while “Religion” offered crude anti-clerical doggerel. Things perked up, though, with the Beefheartian thrashfunk of “Annalisa” and Side Two’s thrilling “Low Life” and “Attack” make you imagine a Never Mind The Bollocks where Lydon’s dub-and-Krautrock sensibility prevailed.
What’s striking about the debut is that, for such a vociferously anti-rock group, a surprisingly large proportion of Public Image rocks real hard. “The first album is the one time when we were a band,” says Levene, scratching at a rash on his hand. “And I remember worrying at the time, ‘does this do too much what we publically say we’re not going to do’, i.e. be rock. But I think what we were doing really was showing everybody that we knew intimately exactly what we intended to break down. And we started that dismantling process with the last track on the album, “Fodderstompf”.”
As is often the case with bands committed to artistic progression, the most extreme track on the preceding album is the springboard for the next one. On one level, “Fodderstompf” was a throwaway: an extended disco spoof with Monty Python-esque silly voices, whose underlying raison d’etre was to achieve the bare minimum album length as stipulated by their contract. (In a pointed fuck-you to Virgin, and arguably to the listener too, Wobble actually warbles at one point: “'we are now trying to finish the album with a minimum amount of effort which we are now doing very suc-cess-ful-ly”. ) But with its treated hi-hats and walking bassline “Fodderstompf” was also the first hint of the disco-influenced studio-as-instrument methodologies that pervaded Metal Box.
Out of an album of stunning tracks–-the thug-funk stampede of “Chant”, the dread-full “Swan Lake’ (a remix of the summer 1979 single “Death Disco”, possibly the most avant-garde record to ever penetrate the Top Twenty), the Prophet 5 synth-laced terror-ride of “Careering”, the Satiesque Muzak-of-the-spheres that is “Radio 4”, to name just four—Levene considers PiL’s absolute pinnacle to be “No Birds Do Sing”. Lydon delivers one of his most scalpel-sharp lyrics (dissecting suburbia’s “layered mass of subtle props”, the serene narcosis of its “bland, planned idle luxury”), while Wobble and then-drummer Richard Dudanski set up a foundation-shaking groove, and Levene’s “insect stick guitar” generates a modal swarm of simultaneously entrancing and insidious noise. “All that is, is me playing the guitar part and then duplicating it, but feeding the second one through this effect I’d set up on the harmoniser. Meanwhile John is lying underneath the piano and singing that weird feedback voice, while tinkling the keys at the same time, just to be annoying. You can hear the piano on the record.”
Metal Box’s packaging was as striking as its sonic contents: the album came as three twelve inch 45 rpm discs housed in a matt-gray film canister. “We were celebrating the idea of 12 inch singles, reggae preleases, slates. With that format you got better sound quality, more bass. It cost us a fortune, though. Virgin called us out for a meeting on their boat, and said, ‘look, if you want to do it in a tin, it’s going to cost 66 thousand pounds extra. We can only do this if you give us a third of your advance back.”
Released shortly before Christmas 1979, Metal Box totally turned around PiL’s initially shaky standing in the post-punk universe. The record was universally garlanded with praise. One measure of its epoch-defining reputation is the fact that NME made John Lydon its November 24 cover star, with no interview, just a full-page album review. The album even did relatively well commercially, selling out the 50 thousand limited edition film-canister format by February 1980 and going into repress as a conventional double album, Second Edition.
1979 and early 1980 was the golden age for PiL. For Levene, t’was bliss to be alive in that post-rock dawn: working with friends, making totally fulfilling music that was both groundbreaking and successful, and all on Virgin’s payroll. Apart from Wobble, the group even lived together as one happy family. With some of his Sex Pistols earnings, Lydon had shrewdly bought a house in the scuzzy end of Chelsea, a snip for 12 thousand pounds. “It was on the corner of Gunter Grove, which was horrible, and Edith Grove, which was much nicer,” recalls Levene. “John had the top part of the house, I had the bottom, and Dave Crowe lived in this bit you had to walk through to get upstairs.” With the fridge well-stocked with lager, various other substances floating around, and John’s massive speakers pounding out reggae in the communal upstairs living room, Gunter Grove was a major hang-out for post-punk luminaries, from Don Letts to The Slits.
Golden ages never last though. Basking in their godlike prestige, PiL rapidly became idle idols. A short traipse across America in mid-1980 turned them permanently off the idea of touring (never a PiL passion: "I’d rather send out a video of us than do a 30 date tour,” Levene once declared). But nor were the group making music or making good on any of the big talk about diversification they still reeled out in interviews (Levene’s pipe dreams of designing a drum synthesizer and a portable recording studio that would fit into a briefcase).
In August 1980 the first major crack in PiL’s façade appeared, when Wobble left the group in a cloud of acrimony. The official dispute was over his versioning of PiL riddims on his solo album The Legend Lives On. But Wobble was also frustrated by the band’s dearth of live performances (he was the one member who enjoyed connecting with the audience), embarrassed by the company’s failure to diversify into an umbrella organisation, and pissed off with the irregularity and paucity of his PiLCorp pay packets. Levene says Wobble was also “getting frustrated ‘cos he wasn’t getting enough time on the mixing desk. PiL records were done under a lot of pressure, in a rush, and when it came to technical stuff. I just had more a knack for it than the others”.
At the end of 1980, PiL rushed out that most rockist of stop-gap measures, the live album (Paris Au Printemps). By now rumours abounded of trouble at Gunter Grove: creative constipation, a Hitler’s Bunker-like vibe of drug-addled paranoia. In his last months as a PiL member, Wobble told Sounds, “I think sometimes we border on psychosis. I’m not using that word lightly. I really mean psychosis. In other words we lose touch with reality.” Years later, he attributed PiL’s downfall to the group being three different guys on three different drugs.
It’s not clear what Wobble and Lydon’s personal poisons were, but Levene’s heroin use is well documented. In a 1983 NME interview Levene admitted that his addiction had made recording the third album difficult: “When you have to do something creative, it’s very hard. When we did Flowers, I tried to make the session coincide with the part of the day where I really had the least amount in my system. I always felt bad for it; I always felt better when I hadn’ t done anything, you know? But… when you do heroin, it’s a maintenance thing, you have to have it to get normal.” Levene also said that he “used to run PiL when I was on junk. I used to make all the music, get the money out of Virgin, make sure the record was promoted, find out if we were on Top of the Pops that week…. When I analyzed the situation it was because basically I was very lonely, and very scared, and under a lot of pressure.”
Today, Levene is extremely cagey about the subject of heroin. He insists that it was never a factor in the agonisingly slow birth of PiL’s third album. Even without the drugs, it’s true that surpassing Metal Box was always going to be a challenge. With Wobble gone, the old alchemy between the bassist’s untrained, intuitive approach and Levene’s twisted virtuosity disappeared. “It would have been better if Wobble had stuck around,” says Levene. “But I never thought of replacing him, for some reason.”
Making a virtue of Wobble’s absence, and his own mounting disinclination to play guitar, Keith decided to orient the new album around drum sounds. The breakthrough came three days into a session at Virgin’s Manor studios. ” For three days, we hadn’t done anything, apart from played videogames and watched a lot of videos. There was a lot of avoiding the studio going on! I’d set up all the equipment, lots of funny little synth toys, and I’d be twiddling, getting sounds, but not necessarily making a record.” Then Levene had a brainstorm, instructed the engineer to keep the tape rolling no matter what he did, and starting to knock out percussion patterns on a strange bamboo instrument that Richard Branson had brought back from Bali. The resulting track, “Hymie’s Him”, is one of the weakest moments on Flowers of Romance, but it served its purpose, breaking the deadlock and giving the group a direction for the third album: a percussive, tribal feel that Levene described to ZigZag as “very acoustic, human… but very fuckin’ heavy”.
Moving to another costly Virgin studio in West London, the Townhouse, PiL procured a host of second-hand acoustic instruments--- ukelele, saxophone, banjo, violin—and used them to generate raw sonic material for sculpting on the mixing board. Ironically, Flowers is the PiL album where Lydon the non-musician contributes most musically, actually playing instruments like the three-stringed banjo on “Phenagen”. In interviews, Levene talked later about deliberating using “John’s total ineptitude to an artistic advantage”, and of deliberately putting himself in the position of child-like novice grappling with unfamiliar instruments. “It was like two kids let loose in the studio, all restrictions lifted”.
Essentially reprising the more outre Dada/bricolage antics of Europe’s pre-punk vanguard—Faust, Cluster, White Noise, even Pink Floyd (from the wackier bits of Ummagumma to their abandoned project of recording an album using household objects), Flowers was alternately self-indulgent and underdone. In retrospect, it sounds a braver mess than it did upon its release in May 1981. In truth, a combination of indolence, negativity ("All it amounts to is that we don't like any music at the moment," Levene told Rolling Stone) and see-what-we-can-get-away-with gall played as much a part as aesthetic fearlessness.
Still, the title track was astounding. Released as a single in April 1981, “Flowers of Romance” made #24 and resulted in one of the most deranged Top of the Pops performances ever: Levene pounding the drums in a lab technician’s white coat, Jeanette Lee dwarfed by her double bass, and Lydon, dressed as a white-collared vicar, sawing dementedly on a fiddle. Like “Flowers”, the album’s other stand-out, “Under The House” was built around voodoo-scary percussion and eldritch string sounds swooping across the mixscape like bats-on-fire. Lydon’s ectoplasmic vocals allude to some kind of paranormal entity—some accounts say it’s about a real-life ghost that haunted Manor Studio, but Levene claims it’s about a more abstract sense of evil that Lydon was unusually sensitive to.
Virgin hated the album, pressing up a measly twenty thousand copies, but such was PiL’s eminence that Flowers of Romance was automatically hailed as a groundbreaking masterpiece by the music press. If Metal Box, absorbing the rhythms and studio approaches of disco and dub, had pushed rock’s envelope to its fullest extent, Flowers burst through into a totally post-rock space. (Levene’s guitar appeared only on “Go Back” and, psychedelically reversed, on “Phenagen”). Yet where the record ultimately fails is in its emotions, which are the opposite of expansive. Lydon’s palette of derision and disgust was curdling into self-parody, and the leave-me-alone paranoia of “Banging The Door” recalls Mick Jagger’s reclusive, burnt-out rock star in Performance.
PiL’s negativity reached a dismal climax with the infamous show at New York’s Ritz club on May 15th, 1981. Intended as a sort of performance art/video spectacle, the show was hastily pulled together, Levene’s genuine excitement dragging along the less enthused Lydon and Lee. Unfortunately the Ritz was not an artspace like downtown Manhattan’s The Kitchen; it drew a rock’n’roll crowd, who were certainly not up for seeing the band in “live video” form, skulking behind a gigantic video-screen and making an amorphous cacaphony. Lydon’s taunts of “are you getting your money’s worth?” eventually goaded the audience into a full-scale riot.
During the year of silence that followed Flowers of Romance, PiL actually relocated to New York. “Flowers was still a PiL time, “ says Levene, but in New York the group began to devolve into the John Lydon Show. Often spending the day in bed watching TV, Lydon got fat on lager and torpor. He was surrounded by sycophantic hangers-on, yes-men who would eagerly troop out to get him beer. “What was good about PiL when it worked was that he had a few no-men around! Me and Wobble.” Levene had cleaned up, but his relationship with Lydon was deteriorating. “John was moodier, but not really saying anything about it. I was moodier, but not really saying anything about it. ‘Cos we weren’t really sure what to do next.”
The untrammelled avant-gardism of Flowers was clearly not going to keep PiL Corp solvent. A strategic shift towards accessibility seemed the best course, signposted by the working title of the fourth album, You Are Now Entering A Commercial Zone, and the oddly radio-friendly sound of its first side (sort of “death disco” with most of the death removed).
What was unique about the PiL set-up --a world-famous rock star working with an avant-garde virtuoso, in a well-funded context of do-what-the-fuck-you-like—was slowly disintegrating. The balance was offkilter: Lydon, the non-musician, resentfully dependent on Levene to provide the music, and Levene, resentfully dependent on the Lydon brand name, chafing because all the media attention was on the Ex Pistol. Early in PiL’s career, Lydon had made strenuous and sincere attempts to present the group as a genuine collective, not just Johnny Rotten’s new backing band. But by 1982, says Levene, “it was like he’d decided to take that line in our first single literally—“Public Image belongs to me”. Around this period, says Levene, a weird thing started to happen: “John Lydon sort of became Johnny Rotten again”. It was if Lydon realized that the Sex Pistols adventure was where his rockmyth bread was buttered (it’s striking that in his autobiography No Blacks No Dogs No Irish, the entire PiL story barely gets a couple of pages).
Tensions reached a head in mid-1983 over the single “This Is Not A Love Song”. When Levene went into the studio in order to salvage what he considered a disastrous mix, he found himself under close surveillance from Lydon’s new right-hand man, drummer Martin Atkins. After a fraught all-night studio session, Lydon phoned from Los Angeles and told Levene to “get out of my fucking studio”. Shortly afterwards, Levene handed in his notice, leaving PiL in the lurch on the eve of a Japanese tour. When PiL re-recorded the album using session musicians and released it as This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get, Levene retaliated by putting out Commercial Zone, a record some PiL diehards believe is the real fourth PiL album, and a record that could have restored both their aesthetic credibility and their fortunes.
The immediate post-PiL years were tough for Keith Levene. “At the time I quit, I thought I still had a deal with Virgin. Legally, I did. But they were like, ‘we’re supporting John’. I was like, ‘no problem, but how about I just carry on with my artistic experiment, put out a solo record?’ And they just put me on a shelf for a good four years. And they were scaring other record companies from signing. There was this period when getting a response from Virgin was like I was calling from Addis Abbabba.”
By 1985, Levene was resident in Los Angeles. He worked on the soundtrack for a Penelope Spheeris movie called Hollywood Vice. “It was a total nightmare, the movie was awful.” Some of the music he made during this period resurfaced on 1987’s '2011- Back to Black' EP, and on 1989’s Great Spirits Have Always Encountered Violent Opposition From Mediocre Minds. The latter record, credited to Keith Levene’s Violent Opposition, drew on the services of his new LA rock buddies like Hillel Slovak and Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers. “Flea actually tried out for PiL, he auditioned, but when he found out I wasn’t in the band anymore, he just said ‘no’. I was quite pleased by that!”
During the LA period, Levene earned a living working in computers and desktop publishing. For a short time in the early Nineties, he moved back to London and worked with another Ex Pistol, Glen Matlock, in an ill-starred group called The Mavericks. Then he returned to Los Angeles. And then…. silence.
* * * * *.
“PiL went so fast,” says Levene, with a soft, disbelieving shake of his head. “What happened between 1978 and the middle of 1980 – I’ve done less in ten years!”
The last few years, though, have witnessed what passes, in Levene land, for a frenzied burst of activity. Having returned to the UK in 1997, Levene set up a website/label, originally called Missing Channel, then renamed Murderglobal. And this autumn he’s made available his first new solo recordings in 13 years, a five track EP entitled Killer in the Crowd.
It’s a mixed bag, ranging from surprisingly orthodox hard rock (“Object B”, for instance, sounds like PiL if they’d been Free fans and played the American arena circuit--Levene says it’s actually him trying to do something on a par with Led Zep’s “Kashmir”) to the intriguing if frustratingly brief instrumentals “Aztec Legend” and “Aztec Dub”. As their titles suggest, these two slivers of soundtrack-for-imaginary-movie evoke the eerie ceremonial majesty of an alien civilisation, sacrificial rites in mist-shrouded temples in the jungles of Central America. “That’s what I thought it sounded like,” Levene nods. “The titles came afterwards, but when you start out using a didgeridoo, you know you’re not going to end up with the next Ozzy Osbourne record!”. Some of the weird bombastic sounds on these tracks come from brass, or from “this fucking big tympani that I flanged out of existence”.
Better than anything on the EP is “The Camera Dodgers”, a long instrumental track from his as-yet uncompleted album. A group improvisation recorded in a single, first take, “Dodgers” is a lustrous haze of harmonic distortion and cymbal spray, at different points in its aleatory drift recalling Neu!, A.R. Kane, Talk Talk, Dead C, and Eno’s Another Green World. Inspired by CCTV, it’s the soundtrack, says Levene, for a yet-to-made “cartoon or a small 20 minute digital video movie”.
The Killer EP is less a real release, though, than a calling card to the music biz. Despite the massive upheavals in the industry, with prestige artists being downsized left, right and centre, Levene is angling for a major label deal. He says that EMI funded his home-studio set up, as part of a development deal giving them first options on his material. But when he relates some of the perplexed reactions of A&R folk at that company and elsewhere, it’s obvious that Levene’s dreams about finding a niche in the mainstream music business are hopelessly out-of-touch with today’s market realities.
When I gently suggest that he would actually fare better if he developed his most esoteric and uncommercial impulses (as glimpsed in “Camera Dodgers” ) and became a cult artist in the independent sector, Levene is unconvinced, though. He’s had terrible experiences with indie labels, he says, and feels that ““if I go the independent route, I might as well do it totally independently and put the record out myself.”
It’s poignant because clearly Levene imagines somehow returning to the situation he enjoyed with PiL: total artistic licence, with a corporation picking up the tab. “We were lucky we were on Virgin,” says Keith wistfully. “Of course, it was John who got me that freedom”. It was a unique historical moment: the record industry thrown off-balance by punk and prepared to take risks for fear of missing out on the future. That was then, this is now: if Levene could just shed his “useless memories” of corporate-subsidised avant-garde mayhem, find the right support and the right accomplices, he could still make amazing music.