Jon Downes meets Keith Levene


After about a year wandering around the countryside being kicked out of various jobs, by the autumn of 1978 I was back living with my parents in the little village in North Devon where I once again live today. I had always seen punk rock as an art movement rather than anything else, and by this time The Sex Pistols had let me down with a bump as they became a cabaret show rather than a rock band. John Lydon had been suspiciously quiet for some months, and most of the rest of what had first enthused me about the movement had dissappeared into a maelstrom of self indulgence, and crass commerciality. I felt isolated and very alone.

Eventually the day came: the first single by Lydon's new band Public Image Limited was out. So, making some convenient excuse to my parents (who were probably onl;y too glad to get rid of me for the afternoon) I went into Bideford, made my way to the long defunct Braddick's record shop, which had fuelled my adolescent musical explorations for so many years and purchased the 7" artefact.

On returning home, I – almost reverently – unwrapped it and placed it on the turntable of my crappy little mono record player. I had built it up in my mind as something extraordinary. This was going to be a record that would make 'God Save the Queen' sound like The Bay City Rollers. I was certain of it. As I lowered the needle onto the slab of black vinyl, I held my breath in anticipation…

…It was different. It was very different. Rotten's voice, as scabrous as ever, wasn't raging against the machine. Or at least he wasn't raging against any machine that mattered to a nineteen year old manic depressive living in a tiny village that no-one has ever heard of. He seemed to be railing against the media, or maybe it was people like me who had never understood what he was actually talking about:

Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.
Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha.
You never listen to word that I said
You only seen me
For the clothes that I wear
Or did the intrest go so much deeper
It must have been
The colour of my hair.

But the thing which really affected me was the guitar sound. I had been expecting the over produced heavy metal thunder of Steve Jones, but instead got a shimmering, acidic sound like shards of broken glass, but with an unearthly beauty. The guitarist was Keith Levene.

For the next four or five years I bought every PiL record as it came out. The unholy trinity of Levene, Lydon and Jah Wobble on bass until leaving before the 1981 LP 'Flowers of Romance' was recorded, produced scary, but gloriously beautiful music that ticked much the same emotional boxes for me as did Yoko Ono's early Plastic Ono Band records and provided a perfect sonic bridge for me between the noisy rock and roll music that I loved and the avant garde soundscapes that I admired. The reviews always hagioligised Lydon and Wobble, but I already semi-worshipped at the altar of Johnny Rotten, and – at the time – I didn't have a hi-fi that did justice to Wobble's avant-dub bass playing. No, for me, it was always about Keith Levene's extraordinary guitar soundscapes, and when he left the band in 1983, they lost something which has never been replaced.

A couple of weeks ago I received an e-mail which led on to me talking to the man himself and eventually doing an interview on the balcony at 'The Flyover' in Ladbroke Grove. You can watch it here.

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