Keith Levene:
The Wire #226, December, 2002

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 2002 The Wire / SIMON REYNOLDS


The Wire #226 , December, 2002Keith Levene was the guitar genius behind Public Image Ltd.'s avant rock assault on the charts in the post-punk golden age of 1978-80. But since his falling-out with John Lydon, his career has remained in the shadows. Although his PIL years have been a weight around his neck, he has found a new lease of life with the launch of his own label project, Murder Global.

Getting to interview Keith Levene is a challenge: it took half a dozen attempts before we finally connected. One scheduled meeting is scuppered when sudden money troubles leave Keith a bag of jangling nerves. Another gets cancelled at 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 raw from his five year stint as Public Image Ltd.'s aesthetic helmsman.

But finally I'm speaking with the legendary post-punk guitarist in the flesh, chez Levene – a studio flat in a nondescript warehouse building. It's literally a studio flat, because along with bed and kitchen, the large single room contains a recording set-up: a compact mixing desk, several computers and keyboards, massive Marshall speakers and an array of guitars neatly racked across the floor. Levene's home doubles as HQ for Murder Global, the rubric under which he's just begun releasing his first recordings for 13 years.

Even then, there's a major interruption when Levene gets tipped off about someone on eBay who's selling bootleg CDs of his album 'Commercial Zone'.

"I'm sick of being ripped off," he says apologetically. "I've 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 Jeannette Lee, with Virgin Records.

What comes across keenly from our five hour conversation is the sense of Keith Levene as a basically trusting, 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's 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 uncompromising albums of the post-punk era: 'Public Image', 'Metal Box' and 'Flowers Of Romance'. The lyrics and the attitude stemmed from 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 in 1980, at the peak of PIL's prestige. Immediately after 'Metal Box's release at the end of '79, he was lauded as the most innovative guitarist of his generation.

The Jimi analogy isn't so far off, because unlike most of his peers, prior to punk Levene did what guitarists were supposed to do in those days of virtuoso musicianship – practie, practise, practise. As a teenager growing up in North London, he spent eight hours jamming at a friend's house most days of the week.

"Because he was older than me," Levene recalls, "a Jerry Garcia fiend and an egomaniac, he always played lead. But it didn't bother me because I liked playing rhythm."

In those days Levene's favourite group was Yes.

"I actually worked for them as a roadie when I was 15," [1] he remembers. "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, guitarist Steve Howe, but the gig didn't last long because he irritated the group by messing around on their instruments. Prog rock's perceived 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. And here's a shocker for the 'Metal Box' fans: Levene reckons 'Poptones' is seriously indebted to Yes.

"I was playing 'Starship Troopers' 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's very Howe-influenced."

Levene and his jamming buddies were into a dizzyingly eclectic range of music, from reggae to Steely Dan, Mingus to American West Coast rock. [2] Punk's year zero edicts meant you had to hide your Crimson and Mahavishnu LPs 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 group and the most radical group to emerge from UK punk: The Clash and PIL.

After manager Bernie Rhodes introduced him to Mick Jones in early 1976, [3] 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 101ers. By the end of that year, though, Levene was pushed out. Jones' tastes lay in a more traditional rock 'n' roll direction, whereas Levene wanted a harsher guitar sound and less conventional structures. Levene also claims that Jones envied his superior guitar skills and youthfulness. He says:

"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," he says.

Punk lore, however, maintains that the primary reason for Levene's departure was his drug use – specifically that the drastic moodswings caused by amphetamine use made him hard to work with. Levene denies it. When the group confronted him about why he was always so negative and blamed it on amphetamine, he recalls:

"I was like, this is not about speed comedown, because 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 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. [4] During this period he helped Albertine develop her Slits guitar sound, "like a buzzsaw crossed with a wasp", as she later described it. [5] 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 Quickspurts, the first incarnation of Ken Lockie's group Cowboys International. [6]

In early 1978 Levene and Lockie were walking past Great Portland Street tube station in London's West End when they ran into a shared acquaintance of Levene and John Lydon. The friend said that Lydon, who had just become an ex-Pistol, was desperately looking for Levene.

"He gave me John's number," he continues, "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. And lo, the seed of PIL was sown.

"The bond was based on a similar hate and a certain 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 groups: the relapse into American hard rock tradition. Indeed, 'London Calling' was anointed the Best Rock Album of the '80s by 'Rolling Stone', and 'Never Mind The Bollocks' is now a heavy metal classic, its songs covered by everyone from Mötley Crüe to Motörhead.

"To me the Sex Pistols were the last rock 'n' roll band," contends 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 of Jah Wobble's bass of the primary melodic role, and Levene's quasi-harmolodic guitar work. Indeed, Levene calls his signature technique the James Blood Ulmer effect. Essentially this involves the deliberate incorporation of mistakes. When Levene hit a wrong note, he would immediately repeat the error to see if the wrongness could become a new kind of rightness. He explains:

"The idea was to break through conditioning, take 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 a document of a song being composed in real time. Levene mostly eschewed overdubs and generated what often sounds like multi-tracked 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. The crucial point of intersection for the three core members was dub.

"The whole reason PIL worked was that Wobble, me and John were just total dub fanatics," Levene says. "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 effects.

"It was like using dub before you've even recorded – because dub is the art of subtraction."

Mostly you heard the reggae influence in the prominence of Wobble's bass, in the attention to texturising 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 group but a "communications company" with plans to diversify into "video albums", movies, even designing music technology.

This non-group 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 punk documentarist Don Letts.

"Wobble was really against her joining PIL," says Levene. "But Jeannette was telling me how she'd had a lot to do with the editing of Don Letts' '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."

In 1978 British punk rock was in its death throes, and the future was wide open which put PIL in a position of bizarre strength. John Lydon was the most charismatic and significant British frontman to emerge since David Bowie, and Virgin Records indulged his artistic whims in the belief that he was going to be the superstar of the 1980s. Virgin's co-founder Simon Draper also paid more than lip service to notions of 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, with groups such as XTC, Devo, Magazine, Human League. Although Lydon would openly diss Branson, Draper and Co. as a bunch of "Hampstead hippies", [7] Virgin deserves some kudos for financing these ambitious albums.

"Branson was like a super-hippie," contends Levene, "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. 60 quid an hour, 1000 a day – a fucking lot of money back then!"

PIL's first 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 the cleansed, reborn rock of the 1980s.

"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 '60s folk rock, pretty and plangent, a post-punk cousin to The Byrds' 'Turn! Turn! Turn!'. 'Public Image' received rave reviews and reached number nine on the UK charts 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 messiah role and wallowing in self-indulgence. The opening dirge 'Theme' was a borderline unlistenable cacophony of despair, while 'Religion' offered crude anti-clerical doggerel. Things perked up, though, with the Beefheartian thrash-funk 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 sensibilities prevailed. Yet the first album didn't quite live up to PIL's 'rock is dead' rhetoric.

"The first album is the one time when we were a band," says Levene. "And I remember worrying at the time, does this do too much what we publicly say we're not going to do? 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, 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-style silly voices, whose underlying raison d'être 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 effort which we are now doing 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', one of the most avantgarde records to ever penetrate the Top 20), the Prophet-5 synth-laced terror ride of 'Careering', the Satie-like 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" and 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 entracing and insidious noise.

"All that is is me playing the guitar part and duplicating it, but feeding the second one through this effect I'd set up on the harmoniser. Meanwhile John is lying under the piano and singing that weird feedback voice, while twinkling the keys at the same time, just to be annoying. You can hear the piano on the record."

'Metal Box's format was as striking as its content. The album came as three 12 inch 45 rpm discs, housed in a matt grey film canister.

"We were celebrating the idea of 12 inch singles, reggae pre-releases, slates," Levene explains. "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 £66,000 extra. We can only do this if you give us a third of your advance back.'"

Released shortly before Christmas 1979, 'Metal Box' reversed PIL's initially shaky standing in the post-punk universe. The record was universally praised. One measure of its epoch-defining reputation is the fact that 'NME' made Lydon its 24 November cover star – with no interview, just a full-page album review. The album even did relatively well commercially, selling out the 50,000 limited edition canister format by February 1980, and going into re-press as a conventional double-album, 'Second Edition'.

1979 and early 1980 was the golden age for PIL. Levene felt great to be alive in that post-punk dawn: working with friends, making fulfiling 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 at £12,000.

"It was on the corner of Gunter Grove, which was horrible, and Edith Terrace, 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 Lydon's massive speakers pounding out reggae in the communal upstairs living room, Gunter Grove was a magnet for post-punk luminaries, from Don Letts to The Slits.

But golden ages never last. Basking in their godlike prestige, PIL rapidly became idle idols. A short traipse across America in 1980 turned them permanently off the idea of touring. Nor were the group making music or making good on any of the big talk about diversification they still reeled out in interviews. Levene had pipedreams 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 facade appeared, when Wobble left the group in a cloud of acrimony. The official dispute was over his versioning of PIL rhythms on his solo album 'The Legend Lives On'. But as the one member connecting with the audience Wobble was also frustrated by the group's dearth of live performances, embarrassed by the company's failure to diversify into an umbrella organisation, and pissed off with the irregularity and paucity of his PIL Corp. pay packets.

Levene says Wobble was also "getting frustrated because 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 of a knack for it than the others."

At the end of 1980 PIL rushed out that most rockist of stopgap 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." [8]

Years later he attributed PIL's downfall to the group being three different guys on three different drugs. [9] It's not clear what Wobble's and Lydon's personal poisons were, but Levene's heroin use is well documented. In a 1983 'NME' interview [10] 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 is a maintenance thing, you have to have it to get normal."

He 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 analysed 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 surprisingly 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, Levene 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 video games and watched a lot of videos," he says. "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 started 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' magazine as "very acoustic, human [...] but very fuckin' heavy". [11]

Moving to another costly Virgin studio in West London, the Townhouse, PIL procured a host of secondhand acoustic instruments – ukulele, saxophone, banjo, violin – and used them to generate raw sonic material for sculpting on the mixing board.

'Flowers' is the 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 deliberately using "John's total ineptitude to an artistic advantage", [12] and of deliberately putting himself in the position of childlike novice grappling with unfamiliar instruments. "It was like two kids let loose in the studio, all restrictions lifted."

Reprising the more outré 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' is 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') [13] and reckless gall played as much a part as aesthetic fearlessness.

Still, the title track is astounding. Released as a single in April 1981, 'Flowers Of Romance' made number 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, Jeannette 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 standout, 'Under The House', was built around voodoo 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 Studios, but Levene claims it's about a more abstract sense of evil that Lydon was unusually sensitive to.

The Wire #226 , December, 2002Virgin hated the album, pressing up a measly 20,000 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 post-rock space, with Levene's guitar all but stripped out. But Lydon's palette of derision and disgust was curdling into self-parody, and the 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 15 May 1981. Intended as a 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 art space like downtown Manhattan's The Kitchen. It drew a rock 'n' roll crowd who were certainly not up for seeing the group in 'live video' form, skulking behind a gigantic video screen and making an amorphous cacophony. 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 develop 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 remarks. Levene had cleaned up, but his relationship with Lydon was deteriorating.

He continues: "John was moodier but not really saying anything about it, I was moodier but not really saying anything about it, because we weren't really sure what to do next."

'Flowers' was clearly not going to keep the 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.

What was unique about the PIL set-up was slowly disintegrating. The balance was off-kilter. Lydon, the non-musician, was resentfully dependent on Levene to provide music, and Levene, resentfully dependent on the Lydon brand name, chafed 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 group.

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 a weird thing started to happen, says Levene: "John Lydon sort of became Johnny Rotten again."

It was as if Lydon realised that the Sex Pistols adventure was where his rock-myth bread was buttered (in his autobiography, the entire PIL story barely merits a couple of pages).

Tensions reached a head in mid-1983 over the group's next 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 releasing 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 forth 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," he says. "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 the 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 Abeba!"

By 1985 Levene was resident in Los Angeles. He worked on the soundtrack for a Penelope Spheeris movie called 'Hollywood Vice Squad'.

He recalls: "It was a total nightmare, the movie was awful!"

Some of the music he made during this period resurfaced on 1987's '2011 – Back Too 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, [14] drew on the services of his new L.A. rock buddies, among them Hillel Slovak and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. [15]

"Flea actually tried out for PIL," Levene grins. "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 L.A. period Levene earned a crust working in computers and desktop publishing. For a short time in the early '90s 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 Leveneland 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 Murder Global.

And this autumn he's made available his first new solo recordings in 13 years, a five track EP entitled 'Killer In The Crowd'. [16]

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 intruiging if frustratingly brief instrumentals 'Aztek Legend' and 'Aztek Dubd'. As their titles suggest, these two slivers of imaginary soundtrack 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 timpani 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. [17] A group improvisation recorded in a 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 future "cartoon or small 20 minutes digital video movie." [18]

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 could fare better if he developed his most esoteric and uncommercial impulses (as glimpsed in 'Camera Dodgers') and operated in the independent sector, Levene is unconvinced.

He's had terrible experiences with indie labels, he says, and feels that "if I go the independent route, I might as well put the record out himself."

It's poignant, because Levene clearly 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," he says wistfully. "Of course it was John who got me that freedom."

It was also 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, though.

If Levene could just shed these "useless memories" [19] of corporate-subsidised avantgarde mayhem, find the right support and the right accomplices, he could still make amazing music.

('Killer In The Crowd' is out now on Murder Global:


[1] According to his Perfect Sound Forever interview (February 2001), Levene went to Yes' five London concerts at the Rainbow Theatre (20-24 November 1973) and was allowed to assists the band's drum roadie Robert 'Nunu' Whiting. The UK leg of this Yes tour, on which Levene claimed to have been "going around" with them, ended on 10 December 1973, then keyboard player Rick Wakeman left. When Wakeman went to record his solo album 'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth' at the Royal Festival Hall in London (18 January 1974) Levene approached him again for the job of a roadie, but Wakeman refused.
[2] According to his 2002 interview with, Ultravox drummer Warren Cann shared a flat near Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Friern Barnet, North London, with Levene in 1975. Levene tried to talk him into getting him into Ultravox. Cann: "I'd say – Listen, Keith, all you ever listen to is all that fucking widdly-widdly jazz rock Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren Utopia crap ... Forget it!"
[3] Levene was actually introduced to Mick Jones by Viv Albertine. Albertine shared a flat (at 22 Davis Road, London W2) with Alan Drake, a schoolfriend of Levene's older sister. When Albertine and Drake met Mick Jones at one of Roxy Music's Wembley gigs (17-18 October 1975), Jones started to hang out at Davis Road and met Levene there.
[4] Levene only joined The Flowers Of Romance early in the new year 1977, shortly before they split.
[5] As quoted in Jon Savage's book 'England's Dreaming – The Sex Pistols And Punk Rock' (1991)
[6] The Quickspurts were the rehearsal band of Steve Dior and Barry Jones in autumn 1976, which came to an end in December 1976 when Jones became co-promoter of The Roxy Club. Dior and Jones later founded The Idols, then London Cowboys. The Quickspurts had nothing to do with Cowboys International, the band of Levene's friend Ken Lockie.
[7] 'ZigZag' (December 1978)
[8] 'Sounds' (3 May 1980)
[9] "Four emotional cripples on four different drugs" (Jah Wobble in 'The Guardian Weekend', 7 September 1996)
[10] 'New Musical Express' (12 November 1983)
[11] 'ZigZag' (April 1981)
[12] 'Perfect Sound Forever' online magazine (July 2001)
[13] 'Rolling Stone' (5 March 1981)
[14] The record was actually called 'Violent Opposition' and was credited to Keith Levene.
[15] A short bit on Levene and the Red Hot Chili Peppers is featured in Anthody Kiedis autobiography 'Scar Tissue' (2004).
[16] 'Killer In The Crowd' went on sale over the website in August 2002. It was properly released on Martin Atkins' Underground Inc. label in the USA in June 2004.
[17] A full-length album was announced for release on Underground Inc. but was neither completed nor released.
[18] A short film composed of stills using the track was uploaded on iMurderglobal's Youtube channel (3 September 2009).
[19] From the lyrics of 'Memories' by PIL.


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