The Most Influential Musician You Never Heard Of

Genius is a curse, not only because it shares a driveway with madness but also because it often falls prey to that most insidious of demons: boredom. This is an occupational hazard particularly for musical geniuses.

"Genius" is a term that gets thrown around far too often, but it can most definitely be used in the case of one Julian Keith Levene, co-founder of The Clash and Public Image Ltd. The influence he had countless musicians and numerous genres cannot possibly be overstated. 

That influence has been overlooked largely because the people keeping score weren't even alive when a weird little band led by a classic Joker/Trickster avatar was stripping away the elements of rock music (such as it was) album by album and changing the calculus for musicians and producers whose ears were planted low to the ground, scanning the horizon for distant rumblings.

Levene and John Lydon were respectively a prog fan and an art-rock fan who'd grown bored of their bands' - The Clash and The Sex Pistols, of course - traditionalism and were after a sharper and weirder  attack on their audiences. 

Levene had roadied for Yes before the punk tsunami hit London and as Joe Strummer once observed, he could play anything and everything in the classic rock catalog. He seemed to be one of those guys every musician runs across and simultaneously loves and loathes: the one who can pick any instrument and get a handle on it (if not master it) with frightening ease and speed. 

So it was Levene used his yen for prog to invert the very geography of punk rock guitar. Instead of hammering away at power chords on the bottom strings, he took to the higher strings like a surgeon, devising dissonant riffs that were corrosively and deceptively simple in construction yet indelible in effect. Indeed, the oddly-beautiful chords he plays over the lead bassline on "Poptones" - PiL's most archetypal composition - come straight out of Yes' "Starship Troopers."

PiL had single-handedly created post-punk with their first album, stripping away the traditionalist Rock 'n' Roll trappings of The Sex Pistols and Clash. Their next album Metal Box (AKA Second Edition) went several steps further, stripping away the four-to-the-floor Rock beats for rhythms influenced by Dub, Disco and Krautrock. Levene mixed his non-Euclidean guitar virtuosity beneath Jah Wobble's brooding, rumbling bass, throwing in washes of synthesizer that ranged from atonally-irritating to heartstoppingly-beautiful. 

I will confess a forest's worth of weed smoked to that album when I was but a mere stripling. It was fucking magical.

Bored with that approach - and most probably annoyed by the battalion of imitators that rose up overnight in Metal Box's wake - Levene and Lydon upped the ante once again. 

They used a very silly pretext to shitcan Wobble and went about creating a new PiL sound centered on crashing, pounding drums and tortured wailing. Levene played bass and guitar on a few cuts, but set his focus on percussion, synthesizer and Musique Concrete.

Intrigued by the pounding, Bonhamesque drums on Peter Gabriel's "Intruder," PiL took what was a single-song conceit and turned it into a mission statement on 1981's Flowers of Romance. They hired engineer Nick Launay to perfect the driving, gated-snare sound that would soon become an annoying Eighties cliche. It did so after Phil Collins heard Flowers and enlisted Launay to recreate that sound on his first solo album. 

You know; the one with every air-drummer's all-time favorite riff.

Most incredibly, PiL scored a UK hit with the catchiest song on what a Warner Brothers record exec called the most uncommercial album ever delivered to a major record label. Apparently he never heard Metal Machine Music.

Having completed their unholy trinity of noise rock, Levene and Lydon changed direction yet again, forming a new lineup with drummer Martin Atkins and bassist Pete Jones. They took to touring the US to raise funds for a new studio album that moved the band in a more conventional New Wave direction. "More conventional" being an extremely-relative term when it comes to PiL. They would score their biggest-ever hit with 1983's "This is Not a Love Song" but trouble was brewing behind the scenes yet again.

Levene fell prey to that most common of destroyers of musical genius, smack. Well, he'd fallen prey to it many years before, but now a promoter in Japan was offering PiL a tidy sum for tour, live album and video project. The problem was that Levene's addiction would sink the whole affair and quite possibly land the entire band in a Japanese prison. 

So Lydon, ever the Machiavellan, cut his musical partner loose, hired a band he saw playing covers in a New Jersey Holiday Inn and set off for the Land of the Rising Sun.

Then things got messy. PiL were halfway through recording their new album but were now bereft of their musical architect. Levene took off with the masters and released them as a semi-bootleg called Commercial Zone. Lydon and Atkins then took their Holiday Inn band into the studio and re-recorded the album from scratch, producing one of the most excruciating piles of absolute sonic dogshit ever released, This is What You Want, This is What You Get.

The one decent song on it was Levene's instrumental "The Slab", which was retitled "Order of Death" (after an Italian feature film Lydon costarred with Harvey Keitel in) and later made famous when used in Richard Stanley's cult classic, Hardware.

Levene's version is considerably more accomplished but clearly unfinished. But it worked to showcase his boundless musical imagination, most clearly demonstrated here in these tracks (whose actual title is "Where Are You?"). 

The first version has Levene tossing off beautiful Country guitar riffs with grace and ease over a gentle acoustic backing that sounds uncannily like the lost track from Meddle. The second version is quintessential PiL: pounding atonality that seems to transmogrify the wildly-divergent approaches of their first three albums into a coherent whole. 

They opened with this when I saw them in 1982 and it filled the cavernous Channel more like an entity than a song. That was one of the greatest performances I'd witness by any band - and I saw a lot of bands - but it wasn't to last.

Levene's inclination towards weird, painful beauty informs his track. Playing both synthesizers and very Prog-derived bass, he produces something that is both classic and alien, both timeless and of its very strange time. PiL would never be this poignant ever again. 

Here we find Levene's divergent inclinations colliding in a single track. As was the fashion of the time, the band were toying with the pop occultism gripping London only to find themselves visited by unwholesome apparitions. This chilling cut was inspired by a malevolent presence that haunted the country home they were recording in and drove Lydon away from the joint. 

Careful what you toy with, kids. 

Levene, then locked in a perpetual opiate haze, seemed to process the experience differently. Lydon's chilling lyric here seems to be referencing his paranormal experiences - if not obliquely - but Levene instead seems to conjure up the specter and channel it through what was one of the most impossible guitar tracks I'd yet heard at the time. 

It all starts off in familiar Metal Box arpeggiated style (with Levene doubling on bass) then quickly seems to evaporate into maddeningly-elusive clouds of sound that embody the perpetual haunting of an idyllic country manor. Play it loud on good speakers - you'll feel the temperature in the room drop in short order.

The list of artists feeding at the PiL sonic trough - directly or otherwise - is too long to list. Not just the obvious and acknowledged Post-Punk, Goth and Coldwave acolytes - Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cocteau Twins, Killing Joke, U2, Joy Division and on and on and on and on - but also the Industrial and Techno pioneers of the mid-to-late 80s who cut their teeth on post-punk and fed Levene's concepts into sequencers and other electronic cauldrons. 


Levene reteamed with Wobble when Lydon returned with his deadly-dull Dad-Dub version of PiL back around 2010 or so. Sadly, years of hardcore self-abuse had wreaked havoc on his coordination and it was all a mere shadow of the mind-shredding Keith Levene I saw hurl molten slabs of metallic noise at a sell-out crowd of Boston skins back in 1982. 

A demographic not exactly famous for their patience with artsy self-indulgence, I might caution to add.

It doesn't matter- the point of art is to capture magic, which is by definition ephemeral. And Keith Levene's baffling sonic wizardry will linger on, drifting the electronic highways and by-ways like a phantasm.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for making this exceptional article on Keith Levene. Silly me you will think I am top emotional but I did cried today when I heard of Keith's death. Part of me just died. Keith if you read this From musical heaven right now se will miss you and we will always Know Your Name. God be mercifull on his poor soul.


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