With Public Image Ltd, Keith Levene was the primary musical driver behind the group’s expansive, dissonant, and experimental sound. He found a perfect, dub-informed instrumental foil in bassist Jah Wobble. Image courtesy of Keith Levene
Public Image Ltd’s Keith LevenePublic Image Ltd, founded in 1978, was heralded as John Lydon’s—aka Johnny Rotten’s—follow up to the Sex Pistols. But that somewhat misses the point. PiL wasn’t another punk band. They didn’t write songs per se—not in the traditional sense. They obliterated the traditional verse/chorus formula and lived on the musical fringes. Their sound was expansive, dissonant, and experimental. They composed music in real time. They sometimes failed, but that just made their successes sweeter. “My playing is just like it was in PiL,” guitarist Keith Levene says about his current style. “It’s just as electric. It’s sort of angry, and like toothpaste or crackly bright lights.”
I read somewhere that you started as a roadie for Yes?
Keith Levene: I was a roadie for Yes, but I didn’t start as a roadie for Yes. I went to five shows in a row at the Rainbow and, in my secret self, I had this plan: I am going to work for Yes. By the time the fifth concert had ended—I don’t even know how because everyone was out of the Rainbow by then—I migrated onto the stage. I had a lot of experience since I was about 11 when I started helping bands and then youth clubs. I knew about Eddy Offord [producer/engineer]. I knew about Mike Tait [tour manager for Yes]. I knew what a mixing desk was. I was 15, nearly 16, and I got the tour. It was the Tales from Topographic Oceans tour. I did the English one. I was probably the lowest kid on the totem pole, but I was in heaven, man. I’m playing with Rick Wakeman’s synthesizers. I’m watching Steve Howe—who just so happened to be my favorite guitarist—with my favorite band. What more could I have wanted? And I came back with money.
Were you already playing guitar at that point?
Levene: Not really. When I came back from Yes, I realized the thing I missed that was right under my nose: I didn’t like bands. I wanted to be in a band really badly. So, I suddenly had this mission: I’m going to get a Gibson and I’m going to really play hard. I had this SG copy and I was just dicking around badly. I found a guitar-playing buddy that was older than me in the neighborhood and that really helped. I learned how to learn things off records. I played the guitar a lot. After Yes, it took me about seven months to get a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe.
The next thing I knew, I was in the West London scene working with Bernard [Rhodes, manager] and Mick Jones and putting the Clash together. It was pretty quick. I wanted to be in a band and it was a good time to be in a band. I didn’t want to be Marc Bolan—I didn’t want to be anybody and that had all been done. The Beatles had all been done. That’s why Public Image endeavored to be the way it could be when it was at its best—because of all that history, all those experiences of a new kind of freedom for the first time.
You don’t play blues scales or power chords. How did you develop your style?
Levene: Everyone wanted to be either Duane Allman or Jimi Hendrix or so-and-so. The message I got from that was, “Anyone can play like someone else.” I didn’t want to play like someone else. I loved guitar. I didn’t realize at the time, because I was so young, but I had quite a good command of the production of music. I didn’t realize that I was hearing in my head the end product of something. It didn’t mean I knew how to play it. It just meant I knew where the feeling was to click into it. I did practice a lot, but just simple, normal stuff that you have to practice to be good at guitar. Everyone can play guitar, but to be good at guitar is one thing. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not good enough even now. I’m playing a lot right now. I’m going through a practicing corridor, playing minimum five hours a day. That’s a lot of fucking guitar, man.
What did you learn from reggae?
Levene: When we’re talking about reggae, we’re talking about reggae that is the singles, when they had a lot of Jamaican singles—not even 12-inches, but 7-inch singles. There would always be a great commercial record and on the other side would be an instrumental. That’s what evolved into the DJs talking over the instrumentals, and they’d be toasters, and then they put effects on it—and then in the studio they started dubbing out the backing tracks. That’s why a lot of reggae tunes you hear actually all got the same backing tracks—Allah, Aston “the Family Man” Barrett, Horsemouth on drums … you can go on and on. But the thing is, reggae singles evolving into this dub. As I was listening to prog rock and drifting through working for Yes and thinking, “I really want to do this thing”—that was my soundscape. I made a point of finding out how they did it in the studio and I’d think about it all the time. I mean, we’d sit around in squats—me, Sid Vicious, and a couple of other people—and the room would be empty and we’d be making the rhythms with our mouths. The whole Jamaican 12-inch scene was hand-in-hand with what they call the punk scene—or the scene I was on, the West London scene.
Although he started with Gibsons, part of Levene’s signature hard, clangorous, PiL-era sound was within the guitars he came to favor: Travis Bean Artist and Delta Wing models with aluminum necks, and an all-aluminum Velano T-style. Levene favors a thumbpick or nothing, and uses .013–.056 strings.
And you applied that knowledge when you started recording?
Levene: The thing that really kicked me off was Bill Price, the producer with PiL on the first single. It was done at Wessex Studios and he was such a fucking cool guy. He was a really good producer and I learned so much from just recording that single. That led to recording the first PiL album, and we were quite audacious, quite cheeky and we were saying, “We only want it our way. We’re going to produce it. We’re going to write it. And we’re not even going to know what it is when we walk in there.”
That was another thing I used: to real-time compose the PiL stuff. [Bassist Jah] Wobble was fantastic at that. Wobble made it really easy to do that because he hadn’t played in other bands, so he wasn’t marred by having worked with other musicians who were very pedantic and want to know what key it’s in and this and that. With Wobble I could just say, “Do the line you’re doing but just move it down one”—because it might’ve been in an awkward place for the guitar. It would be perfect. Wobble would play shapes and Wobble—he’s definitely the best white-guy dub bass player there is. It’s that simple. He’s the Aston “the Family Man” Barrett of white people.
How is real-time composing different from improvising or jamming?
Levene: People are running around improvising with pockets of chops, but they’re not taking any chances. My thing was, “I don’t even know what the tune is.” Maybe a beat is going and I put my hand up, which means, “Put the fucking red button on.” The rule was, “Don’t turn the red [record] button off, don’t do anything. Talk to us in the middle, but don’t turn the machine off until we say.” For “Swan Lake” [off 1979’s Metal Box]—I had the idea and I just played it because I got it off first time. “Poptones,” most of it I made up on the spot. Sometimes we’d play it back and redo it. That was part of PiL—sort of failing in public, as well as doing really interesting things. That’s the Metal Box. The reason it’s so expansive is it takes you into areas of failure and areas that you just wouldn’t normally go into. And a lot of people really liked it.
Would you do editing after the fact? Did you compose by way of editing?
Levene: Okay, here’s a great example. There’s a tune called “Memories” on Metal Box. We used the first section of one completely different mix and the second one of another. We had them on 1/4" tape by then, and I said, “Let’s edit the quarter-inches and see what happens.” And it worked. When you hear it now, you’ll know what happened.
You had a lot of unusual guitars—Travis Bean, metal-neck guitars—how did you come upon those?
Levene: I originally had a Les Paul Deluxe. Then I had this Mosrite, which I wish I kept. Then I had a Les Paul Special, which was doing fine for me. Then when I got signed, I got a few really good guitars. One was called a Veleno and it was an all-aluminum guitar—that was the original metal guitar. It looks like an aluminum Telecaster. I had a couple of those and then, because I could, instead of getting another Gibson or this or that, I got this new thing: a Travis Bean Artist. They were really fucking individual. It was an amazing guitar.
Post-punk guitar wasn’t all fire and fury. In this live version of “Poptones,” Keith Levene’s chiming single-note pattern—played on his Travis Bean Delta—creates a hypnotic effect under John Lydon’s (surprisingly) gently intoned vocals.
One day I was on Denmark Street buying some strings, and I asked, “What’s in that flight case?”—because it looked like a coffin. I thought it was going to be one of those godforsaken Flying Vs. I can’t stand Flying Vs. And I opened it and it was a fucking Travis Bean Delta. This spaceship triangular thing with a metal neck just like my other one. I asked, “Is that for sale?” And they said, “Yeah.” And I said, “I want that and I want that amp to match it.” There was a metal amp that was a flight case all in one. It was a cube. I never used big stacks. I never needed to. I didn’t like them and it was a statement, I guess. Travis Beans were definitely playing into the sound I wanted: that glass-shattering-loads-of-notes-equals-one note. I don’t do conventional lead solos, but I do use really high notes and a lot of them that can be very fast and that can be a repeated pattern. Aside from that, I used a Fender Twin Reverb silverface with a master volume.
Did you use pedals?
Levene: I don’t like effects. When I record, I count using effects as production. I like the sound the guitar gets through an amp with nothing in between.
Your distortion was always from your amp?
Levene: Yeah. A lot of the time it was the Twin Reverb silverface, but no reverb. I hate reverb. I had the guitar plugged straight in, but if it’s the lead bit of the “Public Image” tune or “Poptones,” I had a thing called an Electric Mistress on the side for that. I’d have a direct and I’d have the [Electro-Harmonix] Electric Mistress. I was quite pedantic about it. But then I stopped using that and, invariably, if I plug in onstage, I plug it straight into the amp because live’s live.
When I see bands now—punk bands, bands that are trying to be serious—the amount of equipment they have on these fucking pedalboards and all this stuff. I get it. But I say keep it in the bedroom, keep it in the studio, and do the best aggregate of it. I normally do it all as I record. I call it sound-at-source. If I’ve got an acoustic sound and maybe it’s got a delay on it and what-have-you, that’s the sound it’s making and that’s the sound I’m going to record. I’m not the kind of person that starts going, “Doo doo doo doo doo,” while this fucking loop goes around. I don’t do any of that bullocks.