A guitarist with incisive playing, he laid the foundations of post punk and paved the way for cold wave, going so far as to mark the history of British alternative rock. Keith Levene has passed away at the age of 65.
Punk rock and “guitar hero” were not two words made for each other…. And yet, the movement based on its rejection of the very notion of prowess and the (vain) display of virtuosity had its own. Musicians whose original and innovative style in no way betrayed the ethics of new wave. One thinks of John McGeoch, the brilliant guitarist of Magazine, of Siouxsie and the Banshees then of PIL, sadly disappeared in 2004. But also to Keith Levene, essential in the original sound of Public Image Ltd, alias PIL, precisely − the group formed around John Lydon after his withdrawal from the Sex Pistols −, whose we learned the death at age 65.
With Jah Wobble, Lydon’s childhood friend and great reggae lover like him who brilliantly improvised as a bassist, the former Johnny Rotten called on Keith Levene for his new project. The two men had crossed paths during a tour with a stammering Clash, of which Levene had been one of the co-founders, finding that they felt as much out of step with their respective groups as they were on the same creative wavelength. And if Audience Imagethe furious first single from PIL looked like a superb unreleased Sex Pistols release, it was in reality only a scathing farewell in fanfare to the already worn limits of a punk rock on the verge of self-parody.
First Issue, PIL’s first album in 1978, immediately turned the page with an exciting cold, heavy, brutal sound, but also leaving room for space, with a vociferous Lydon over his chilling incantations. If the powerful bass of Wobble held the whole, it is the stringy and shearing guitar, all in acid arpeggios of Levene, which cut the most in the quick. Music, created by “four guys blasted with radically opposed drugs” according to Wobble, which was then unlike any other, and not only laid the foundations of post punk, but paved the way for cold wave. Two genres including Metal Box, prodigious double album published in 1979, as captivating as it is suffocating, more extreme and successful than its draft predecessor, will be the crowning achievement – on a par with the Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. An album inhabited by the fascinating ghostly but omnipresent guitar of Keith Levene, whose more or less avowed emulators are countless.
If on Flowers of Romance, Levene had largely swapped six strings for synths, the album already sounded the end of his collaboration with Lydon, his break with PIL. A dotted solo career, discreet reunions with Jah Wobble will follow, but in just three major, precursory recordings, Keith Levene will have marked the history of British alternative rock with his incisive playing like few of his contemporaries.