Keith Levene, guitarist who sounded like no one else and found fame alongside John Lydon in Public Image Ltd – obituary

Keith Levene in 1982 - Peter Noble/Redferns
Keith Levene in 1982 - Peter Noble/Redferns

Keith Levene, who has died after suffering from liver cancer aged 65, was a guitarist, songwriter and producer who co-founded the Clash before joining John Lydon, the former Johnny Rotten, in Public Image Ltd; he produced and played on their first three albums, which were marked out by his utterly distinctive and hugely influential guitar style.

PiL, as they were known, were unlike any band before or since. “The truth of it is I didn’t know how much I loathed rock’n’roll, how much I deeply resented it,” Levene once said. “That was part of the motivation behind PiL – that deep resentment, and a longing for new forms.”

Julian Keith Levene was born in Muswell Hill, north London, on July 18 1957; his Jewish father Harry was a tailor. When he was three his mother, May, took him to the doctor because he would spend hours watching his parents’ records going round on the player as he listened. The doctor reassured his mother and told the boy: “I think you’ll be a great conductor of an orchestra one day.”

That prediction did not turn out quite as the doctor envisaged, but the young Keith had precocious musical tastes, beginning with the Beatles (whose “White Album” became a particular favourite). “When I was eight, I was into ska, rock-steady and skinheads,” he recalled, and he moved on to the likes of Led Zeppelin and then the progressive rock bands who were getting into their stride as he entered his teens.

The prog-rock giants Yes became what he called his “godhead”, particularly Steve Howe’s guitar work and Rick Wakeman’s keyboards, and after Levene – who claimed to have rarely attended school – had seen them five nights in a row at the Rainbow in London on their Tales from Topographic Ocean tour he managed to inveigle himself into the band’s set-up and was taken on as a roadie, cleaning the cymbals and replacing the snare drum.

He might have continued along that career path had Wakeman not advised him to go away and pursue his own musical visions. So Levene upgraded his guitar to a Gibson and began practising eight hours a day. “Once I got good enough to know the rules, I didn’t want to be like any other guitarist,” he said.

Levene onstage with PiL in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1980 - Tom Hill/Getty Images
Levene onstage with PiL in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1980 - Tom Hill/Getty Images

He met and befriended a fellow guitarist, Mick Jones, over in west London, who introduced him to a budding bassist, Paul Simonon, and the three began jamming. One night Levene attended a gig by a band called the 101ers and persuaded their lead singer, Joe Strummer, to join his outfit.

So was born the Clash; but before the release of their self-titled 1977 debut album (which he claimed to have co-written much of, and was given a credit for the song What’s My Name), Levene had been ejected – essentially, he admitted, for being “miserable”. Asked by his colleagues why he was sulking so badly, he told them: “It’s as simple as this – this band is either Mick’s band or my band. You either do it my way or Mick’s way. I think I’ve got to leave this band ’cause you’re already doing it Mick’s way.” He was later highly dismissive of much of the Clash’s output.

Levene formed the extremely shortlived Flowers of Romance, with bandmates including Palmolive and Viv Albertine, who would soon go on to start the Slits (Instant Hit, the opener on their debut album Cut, was about Levene’s burgeoning heroin habit), and John Ritchie, who would change his name to Sid Vicious and join the Sex Pistols.

When the Pistols fell apart, Johnny Rotten – reverting to John Lydon – called on one of his old schoolfriends, John Wardle, a nascent bass guitarist who soon became known as Jah Wobble, and Levene. Along with the Canadian drummer Jim Walker, they made up Public Image Ltd, whose debut single, the epic Public Image, penetrated the Top Ten. With its rumbling bassline, Lydon’s bitter vocal and Levene’s soaring, plangent guitar, it was unlike anything else that had come out of the punk explosion; as Bob Stanley put it in his book Yeah Yeah Yeah: “It sounded like the future.”

After PiL had set out their sonic stall on their debut album Public Image: First Issue, the follow-up, Metal Box, truly tore up the rule book. Consisting of three 12in 45s – in a metal box – it was a masterpiece of alienation. With Lydon’s howled, dystopian lyrics underpinned by Jah Wobble’s thunderous, dub-influenced bass and Levene’s scratchy cascades of guitar (and deeply unsettling synthesiser lines), it was the soundtrack to a nightmare.

The third album, The Flowers of Romance (1981), was in its way even more groundbreaking, described by Levene as “the least commercial record ever delivered to a company”. Wobble having departed, it largely featured Lydon declaiming over heavily processed percussion.

Levene in a New York Studio in 1982 - Laura Levine/Getty Images
Levene in a New York Studio in 1982 - Laura Levine/Getty Images

In 1983 they had their biggest hit, This is Not a Love Song, which reached No 11 in the UK. But with Levene still wrestling with heroin addiction, he and Lydon fell out, and the tracks they had been working on became two albums, Pil’s This is What You Want ... This is What You Get and Levene’s Commercial Zone.”

Levene moved to Los Angeles, where he undertook production duties with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Tone Loc and Ice T. He made several solo albums and EPs, and toured and recorded with Jah Wobble. The last album he made, Commercial Zone 2014, was funded by crowdsourcing. He published several books – I WaS a Teenage Guitarist 4 the ClasH; Meeting Joe: Joe Strummer, the Clash & Me; and The Post Punk Years – and was working on a history of PiL at the time of his death.

Keith Levene married, first, the American musician Lori Montana; they had a son but divorced. His second marriage, to the writer Shelly da Cunha, also ended in divorce, and he is survived by his partner Kate Ransford and his son.

Keith Levene, born July 18 1957, died November 11 2022