January 28, 2023

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Keith Levene, guitarist for Clash and Public Image Ltd, dies aged 65

Keith Levene, the co-founder of The Clash and Public Image Ltd, has died, his partner Kate Ransford and author Adam Hammond Approved. “It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of my close friend and legendary Public Image Limited guitarist, Keith Levene, 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 lived to be 65 years old.

Born Julian Keith Levene on July 18, 1957 in London, England, he fell in love with music as a child and was drawn to ska, prog rock and the Beatles. He started playing guitar as a teenager and became obsessed with Yes, calling Steve Howe “the greatest friggin’ guitar player in the world.” Levene hung around after attending Yes concerts and gradually began crawling onto the stage to take down gear and offered to help out on the tour. When he turned 15, Levene got a roadie job for Yes, cleaning Alan White’s cymbals and changing 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 that Levene was constantly playing the instruments but was slow to set them up — persuaded him to give up the roadie and pursue 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. Levene and Bernard Rhodes, the manager of Jones’ band London SS, famously convinced Joe Strummer to leave his band The 101ers to join the Clash. “[We] Talked Joe into coming to see me at Sheppard’s Bush,” Levene explained. “I played guitar with him and played some 101ers songs. He said, “Hey man I just love you and I love the way you play guitar.” So I said, ‘Will you do it?’ and we’ve got him in the Clash.” After bringing together bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Terry Chimes, they officially debuted in July 1976 with The Clash.

In September 1976, The Clash fired Levene for allegedly no longer being interested in the project. Before parting ways, Levene co-wrote a number of songs with The Clash, one of which (“What’s My Name”) would later appear on their self-titled debut album.

In 1978 Levene and John Lydon formed Public Image Ltd using Jah Wobble on bass and Jim Walker on drums and released their debut album Public Image: First Issue. He quickly established his raw playing style and what would define him as a guitarist. “What happened to me is that once I got good enough to know the rules, I didn’t want to be like every other guitarist,” Levene said in an interview. “I didn’t try to be different. I only had one ear for what was wrong. So if I did something wrong, i.e. made a mistake or something was out of key, I was open-minded enough to listen to it again.”