Thursday, 18 December 2014

Keith Levene: The Un-Punk Rocker Speaks

“I’m not a big fan of punk rock,” said Keith Levene. “I don’t consider myself a punk … maybe an angry hippie … a hippie mutant.” That’s a big statement coming from a guy who was at ground zero when “punk rock” lit up London and then quickly spread like a virus to the rest of the world. Levene, an original member of the Clash and, later, a founding member of Public Image Limited (PiL) with John Lydon (nee Johnny Rotten) and bassist Jah Wobble, still has definite opinions on that time.
“I was only a kid, I was only 17 or 18 when the Pistols were around and the Clash was balls,” Levene intoned. “I walked away from the Clash because … I don’t even consider them punk, I don’t know what they are. I think the Pistols were punk, and then you start getting all these expressions like ‘new wave’ … it was a very inspiring time, very new time … but I think the music that came off of that scene was just crap, just endless, endless, endless bollocks.”
An influential guitarist who suffers for his art, Levene has always focused on his craft and still seemingly takes umbrage with being lumped into that genre.
“For me, the really good bands were the bands before the punk rock thing … bands like Yes and Pink Floyd and what have you … even a chart band had more to offer than punk rock. The Police were really good, but were they considered punk? I don’t think so. Duran Duran is more my cup of tea than the friggin’ Rezillos … nothing against the Rezillos, I’m just using a random punk band … I can’t think of any punk bands, I just don’t like punk. The Damned were a rock band. The Damned had more in common with Led Zeppelin and AC/DC than they had with any punk rock. I think a lot of them were bandwagon jumpers and there wasn’t that much going on.”
The man has a storied past. Imagine being a teenaged innovator, a gifted guitarist, with a burgeoning music scene at your beck and call, and you’re charged with helping to form a band that changed the world.
KeithLevene-Lydon“I met (Mick) Jones because I kind of made it onto the West London scene … you had people like London SS and other people that ended up in very well-known bands,” said Levene. “Me and Mick Jones really liked one another, next thing we knew we wanted to get a band together. Next I knew Mick introduced me to Bernard Rhodes and we started discussing, not the Clash but an alternative band to the Sex Pistols. Then, we got Paul Simonon in the band, and then me and Bernard poached Joe Strummer out of the 101ers. This all happened over a three-month period in late 1975 or early 1976. The first thing that happened was they called it the Clash, at some point they coined that name and I wasn’t crazy about that. My interest waned after that. I really didn’t like the direction the band was going in, but I thought they’d be great as themselves.”
Levene remained long enough to garner a songwriting credit on the Clash’s self-titled debut (“What’s My Name”). Following his departure, Levene found himself more at home in an experimental group which showed promise and had the moniker Flowers of Romance, a band fronted by John Beverly (a.k.a. Sid Vicious). “You’re not going to really find much on them (Flowers of Romance),” he said. “At the time, we were just youngsters. Really, all we were doing was getting a band together, and we felt we were in the right scene. If a band was going to happen it was going to be our band. We were getting attention. We did some very famous rehearsals. But, before we got anywhere Malcolm (McLaren) wanted Sid for the Pistols, and I was like, ‘You know, this is the best thing that’s ever happened … the Pistols … you gotta do it, you gotta do it.’”
The band never played a concert.
“Sid was a front man in Flowers,” Levene continued, “he wasn’t playing bass. He went off to play bass for the Pistols and took his personality with him. He really was the Sex Pistols, that guy … incarnate … but he couldn’t say no to that one. He did say no … he didn’t want to do it … he was like, ‘No, Keith I ain’t gonna do it,’ and I’m going, ‘Sid, you gotta do it.’ If Sid wasn’t removed from the situation I think we might have become what PiL was trying to become.”
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