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GONZO WEEKLY #171: Jon meets Keith Levene

I loved the Sex Pistols. They spoke to me in a way that was mine and mine alone. I was expelled from school a few days before the Silver Jubilee, and God Save the Queen summed up everything that I felt, and everything I wanted to say but was too much of a teenage boy to be able to.

I was living in Bracknell, Berkshire at the beginning of 1978, and I was walking to work in the ice and snow of a Berkshire winter when I heard that the band had split. "That makes sense" I thought to myself. The career arc of the band had a glorious symmetry about it, and like thousands of others I waited to see what they were going to do next. 

What Johnny Rotten did next was to stop being Johnny Rotten, and do something completely different. The day that the first single by his new band Public Image Limited came out, I was there in Braddicks record shop (where the funeral parlour is now) at the end of Mill Street in Bideford.

I took it home and put it on my little battery operated record player. "Two sides to every story, somebody had to stop me" keened Lydon, but it was the guitar sound that grabbed me. 

Keith Levene is a founding member of The Clash and The Flowers of Romance (most notable for also featuring a pre-Sex Pistols Sid Vicious). Levene was responsible for helping to persuade Joe Strummer to leave the 101ers and join the Clash. Although he never recorded with The Clash, he co-wrote "What's My Name", featured on their first album. Levene wrote that song at the Black Swan when the Clash and Sex Pistols performed at that club in July 1976. On that night, Levene suggested to a Lydon that they consider a possible future collaboration.

According to Simon Reynolds in his book Rip It Up and Start Again, Levene was an avid progressive rock fan who had served at age fifteen as a roadie for Yes on their Close to the Edge tour.

After the Sex Pistols disintegrated, Levene co-founded Public Image Ltd (PiL) with John Lydon. His guitar work was much imitated by others at the time, including The Edge of U2. Levene was one of the first guitarists to use metallic guitars, such as the Travis Bean Wedge and Artist as well as the Veleno, the latter of which was nicknamed the "Leveno" in his honor.

Levene was heavily involved in the writing, performing and producing of PiL's early ground-breaking albums: First Issue, Metal Box and Flowers of Romance. However, he left PiL in 1983 over creative differences concerning the band's fourth album, This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get. Levene has stated this was a very difficult decision for him to make but he felt he had to in order to maintain the integrity of the project.

In 1984, he released the original versions of the songs on his own label under the title Commercial Zone which was the original working title of the album. In 1985 he moved to Los Angeles and in mid-1986, Levene was asked to produce demos for the album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan by the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Master Control in Burbank with engineers Steve Catania and Dan Nebenzal. Also in 1986, Levene worked together with DJ Matt Dike, experimenting with sampling techniques and hip-hop for Ice T and Tone Loc on their early recordings for Delicious. In 1989, he released his first solo release, Violent Opposition, on which members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers performed. In 2003, Levene contributed to industrial rock supergroup Pigface's album Easy Listening..., and he has released several solo records, among which was the Killer in the Crowd EP in 2004.

At an impromptu appearance at the Musicport Festival in Bridlington Spa on 24 October 2010, where they were joined by vocalist Nathan Maverick, Levene renewed his association with former PiL bassist Jah Wobble. In 2011 Levene contributed to three tracks on the album Psychic Life, a collaboration between Wobble and Lonelady.

In early 2012, after some planned Japan gigs were cancelled because of visa issues, Levene and Wobble played various venues in England, Wales and Germany as Metal Box in Dub. This was followed by the release of a four-song, eponymous EP, Yin & Yang.

In the spring of 2014 Levene went to Prague to record "Commercial Zone 2014", which was successfully backed via a crowdsourcing campaign at Indiegogo.com. In 2013 he discussed this album, “Search for Absolute Zero,” According to Keith it is a good launch into the future.

"A haunting instrumental piece, the album’s title track and other tunes seem to pick up where Commercial Zone left off. Levene has also been writing a film, which has a working title of “Camera Dodgers.”  In addition, he has recently collaborated with Mark Stewart, Julie Campbell, and Jah Wobble on other projects. His plate is becoming increasingly full, but that’s the way Levene likes it.

“I started doing things in music because I wanted to, not because I could get a deal.  Friends of mine have asked ‘how are you going to get paid, Keith?’  I respond, I don’t know…I don’t care... I just have to do it.  Budgets for the things I have wanted to do as of late have seemingly fallen in my lap.  In the end, I just want to do what I can - while I still can.”

“At this stage of the game, I’m going to do exactly what I want.  I encourage everyone else to consider the same.  Pursue your dream.  Believe in the magic.” Levene says."

I first met Keith on the night of the final concert by The Deviants - the Mick Farren memorial concert. I interviewed him for the first time that night, and I like to think that I was at least partly responsible for getting him signed to Gonzo. Two and a half years, and several interviews later, I got an email from him, so I gave him a ring....


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