LOOKING FOR SOMETHING
"Another strange thing happened when I was in LA: I went to a meeting of physicists, artists and scientists out in the desert somewhere -- when I was there, one of these professors came over to me and said, "Keith, I've got some people here who really need to speak with you" and he introduced me to these Hopi Indians. These guys could really relate to some of the tunes I was making -- I had made a track with this deep drone tone weaving through the whole structure of the song, which tied in with their natural world philosophy and some of their shaman ceremonies. That was fulfilling, speaking with those Indians tribesmen and elders."
Greg Whitfield interviews PiL/Clash guitarist Keith Levene for 3AM.
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
It's a cold and windy day as I make my way to Levene's Missing Channel Studio in North East London. He opens the door; a slim wiry figure, dressed in black flight jacket and black jeans, his familiar shock of blonde hair immediately conjuring up memories of those early PIL record sleeves. He invites me into his flat; a very large spacious loft area, with high white walls, metal pillars, heavy wooden flooring and massive gallery windows overlooking the energy and movement of East London's urban sprawl -- I glance out over wind swept, busy streets reflecting London's flux and diversity. Hassidic Rabbi's stroll past serene Rasta's (otherworldy in their pre occupations) mingling with the newer waves of Vietnamese and Kurdish immigrants.
Half of Levene's large and spacious flat has been converted into a studio, the other half is his home. A drum kit and mixing desk dominate the centre of the studio (bear in mind, Levene played drums on the Steel Leg EP with Don Letts, as well as playing on some of the Metal Box tracks) -- an array of guitars are neatly stacked against the walls. The piles of records and books scattered about the room reflect something of Levene's taste: a lot of it is bass heavy classic Jamaican tunes from the early 60's onwards -- records by great men like Don Drummond (the audaciously talented and original hornsman who died in a sanatorium for the mentally ill in Kingston, Jamaica), the Cuban -- Jamaican sax player Tommy Mcook, Studio One legend Roland Alphonso, some Can albums (Tago Mago) and some free jazz (Billy Cobham). There are piles of books -- mainly on physics, quantum theory, the origins of underwater sea life and works on art and cinema ("Escher has always been a favourite of mine" says Levene ).
Levene formed The Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious and The Slit's Viv Albertine, co wrote some of The Clash's first album (after stealing Joe Strummer from the 101'ers), played on the first three definitive PIL records, aswell as later going on to record some tracks with the best UK and Jamaican reggae artists: Serious, dignified and spiritual chanters such as Bim Sherman and Prince Far I. Check out Levene's sparse but intense work on Singers and Players War of Words, Creation Rebel's Threat To Creation and Dub Syndicate's Stoned Immaculate.
Whilst aspects of Levene's guitar style heard on those PIL and ONU albums does arguably have some precedents in the works of Keith Hudson (Satan Side and Hunting), Earl Chinna Smit, (Nature Dub from East of The River Nile), and Coxsonne tunes like Zoot Sims' Studio One side, African Challenge, Levene has never been over derivative in his work, and his guitar patterns are clearly very much his own. As Keith explains, "I respected my influences enough to never imitate them. That was always very important to me -- It still is. What you hear on a PIL record is no steal, you understand?"
Levene and Lydon circa 78
'Reaching the Badman' and 'Devious Woman'/'Threat To Creation' with the late Bim Sherman are serious tunes -- deeply inventive, strange guitar loops and jagged ice like patterns raise these tracks to new levels of innovation far above generic form and structure. Like his playing and composition on Metal Box and Flowers of Romance these sparse sounds cannot effectively be compared to other artists or even, for the most part, adequately described. The guitar sounds and structures Levene creates just are.
Such are noises that defy categorisation.
Essentially, Levene's best work has sought a new anti structure and syntax, which has all too often been absorbed by other musicians and passed off as their own creation -- but as the mic chanter Prince Far I cantankerously emphasises in his autobiographical invocation on his Staggering Heights ONU Sound album, "First is first and second is nothing. Check it!"
His exit from PIL also saw him recording with ground-breaking industrial noise funk outfits, namely some of the ex members of The Sugar Hill Gang -- Keith Le Blanc, Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald had made up the backbone of The Sugar Hill rhythm section, recording the pounding physical funk of 'White Lines', 'The Message' and 'Malcolm X' all released on the Tommy Boy label. These musicians were making records with a drum sound like a concrete door being blown off its hinges, the snares punching holes in the mix. Whilst in LA, Levene also worked with Flea and Hillel from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and members of the famed early hardcore band, Fishbone, recording loose and aggressive metallic funk tunes like 'Looking for Something' and a surprisingly low key and spiritual version of the Hendrix tune 'If 6 was 9'. He also found time to contribute to a movie soundtrack.
Should the listener still feel any need or desire to categorise the Levene sound, it would arguably be better to give up.
There is a lot to talk about : A whole lot of history to discover -- Levene, like Lydon and Jah Wobble, has somewhat of a reputation of being a person that speaks his mind, tells it as it is, as he feels it. And indeed, it's true. Like Wobble and Lydon, you get the impression Levene is not someone you're going to mess around. (But beyond that, there is a certain directness, a sensitivity to his character, a lack of pretentiousness, and what seems to be an ever present sense of mischievousness and humour, close to the surface. Levene is quick witted, with dark and intelligent eyes -- his mind moves rapidly, jumping fast from subject to subject. "My mind thinks about so many things at the same time, so excuse me if I change the subject fast or answer your question with a very different point!" Levene explains, with a spirited smile.)
Lydon circa '78 with Levene's guitar
Over the years, the press has enjoyed pumping up the supposed drama of the enmity between the ex members of PIL -- the mistrust, bitterness, anger, paranoia and resentment that Wobble, Levene and Lydon apparently feel for each other, but throughout this interview, I sensed nothing of the sort from Levene, but rather a sense of fondness and regard for Lydon, and a definite recognition of what Jah Wobble has achieved.
1. Memories of the Pre Pistols and pre PIL years in London:
(Viv Albertine describes The Flowers of Romance's attitude to guitar sound to Jon Savage)
(Paul Simonon describes the first day of The Clash)
Joe Strummer in the 101'ers with Richard Dudanski on drums, circa 1975
Keith Levene, Paul Simonon and The Ramones circa 76
photo credit, Dennis Morris 1977
Wobble as Johnny Thunders bodyguard, circa 76/77
John Lydon with Johnny Ramone circa 1976
2. Memories of PIL.
PIl circa 79. Lydon, Levene and Jeanette Lee
Jeannette Lee, circa 78
Jah Wobble circa 78
(Vivien Goldman, 1980)
Wobble and Lydon, circa 1978
3. Memories of ONU Sound.
Adrian ONU Sound Sherwood
4. Post PIL, post ONU Sound, LA years and now.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Greg Whitfield writes about music and art, and has produced work for the BBC and a number of art journals. He also writes promotional press releases and publicity copy for various London-based record companies.