Keith Levene is one of the most interesting people I’ve had the pleasure to chat with, he’s experienced a lot, created a lot and still is. I love people that are constantly moving forward and evolving; to live a life that’s stagnant would be hell on earth for me. At 15 Keith roadie for English rock band Yes, went on to be a founding member of The Clash and PiL, had a hand in the early days of The Slits, was in The Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious and contributed many things in the early days of UK punk he didn’t get recognition for. At 57 years of age, Keith is still as passionate, maybe more so now than ever, about all that he’s doing now: released three limited edition handmade books, I WaS a Teenage Guitarist 4 the ClasH, Meeting Joe [Strummer] and The Post Punk Years (covering the years 1976-1982); versions of his album Commercial Zone and more. He spoke to me from Prague a few months back.
KEITH LEVENE: I’m OK now. It was either pick my Mac up and throw it over the balcony or get away from it for a moment. I was really fucked off! Sometimes you’ll be doing stuff in this day and age, with digital stuff, on Macs or what have you, you want to do something simple but they work in annoying ways; everybody’s doing it and it’s not new anymore by the way. When things go wrong, it’s like buses coming at once, you wait for a bus and it comes and when things have gone wrong, one thing goes wrong, it can then click and everything can be OK, stuff happens and it’s fantastic; other times you go on to do simple things and it takes a long time. You think I’m gonna do this and this and this and this, and things start going wrong and you forget what you’re going to do, you get frustrated. You think, the reason I’m doing this myself is because the people that were doing it for you took longer and were a pain, all that kind of thing—I was in that space when you first called. As you can tell I still am a little bit. I’m OK though, I’ve just had some good stuff lined up for today. It’s taken me a long time to be in the position to have this shit lined up; one of the big frustrations is we had to create this stuff ourselves. No directors, no anything, we just do it all ourselves. I’m sorry, I just needed to vent.
B: That’s OK. I understand yourself frustration Keith, I do everything I do myself and I’m self-taught too.
KL: Fantastic. Do you live in Sydney?
B: No, further north, closer to Brisbane.
KL: Someone from Sydney wanted to bring me out a while back. I thought I could just come and use local people as my band. I thought maybe I could just turn up but I don’t want to bring a band, I don’t want to fucking tour. I got busy though, he got busy, and everyone got busy. Tommy Emmanuel is a favourite of mine. Do you know who that is?
B Yes. He’s an Australian guitarist.
KL: He is one of the most famous guitarists in the world, definitely, at least in Australia. What questions do you have for me? Ask me anything you want.
B: You’re in Prague at the moment; what inspired you to move there?
KL: It was a mistake! I did a project here last year. I knew about Faust Records Studios, I knew one of the drummers that worked in the studio here; it’s a big space just to drum. Faust was the only game in town, I know because like I said, I was working here last year. I didn’t even know that I was going to be doing Commercial Zone 2014 or whatever it was going to be at the time, it’s done now, it’s ready. I needed an old school studio, obviously it had to be with people I knew; I started working with people I knew but it didn’t work out. To answer the question, I didn’t choose Prague, Prague chose me.
B: With Commercial Zone 2014, I know you wanted to embrace the original PiL ethos; can you tell me what that is?
KL: The things is, I knew it inside but I’ve recently rediscovered it, that ethos is automatic to me. I don’t even know what ethos really means. It’s a general process and way of working I guess. When I say PiL, I mean me, obviously it worked really well for the first three or four PiL albums. What happened – I’m looking at it more in retrospect now – we had a situation where people were always talking about the Metal Box, it’s been 35 years! I’m going to release Commercial Zone 2014 in November , it’s the anniversary of the box set. I came in and thought that I’d bang it out in ten to twenty days, then I realised it’s not ready. I could have released something, I have loads of stuff but I wanted to let the whole thing develop in its own time. I wanted to capture the best part of the past. I kept coming to this block, CZ ’83. I’ve now been using CZ 2014 and I now know what it is. I’ve basically refined everything I’ve been doing for the last few years. It’s been a big, big effort to be back in music specifically and expanding it. I’m into things beginning not ending. When I was in PiL, it was rock n roll. Like John Lydon said recently “the big full stop”. We wanted to put a full stop on rock n roll. I like rock n roll, I like The Beatles and the shit before but that was all a past thing. Now here we are thirty years later and all I’m seeing is shit from the past, there’s nothing there.
With this project we crowd-funded it, since then I’ve expanded it times ten. I intended to do that, to deliver what I promised to these CZ 2014 crowd-fund people but more, like there’s the book. That’s the PiL ethos: it’s not enough to be just a musician. We weren’t trying to be pop stars. I like pop records, I like the hits, but I’m not trying to be a fucking pop star. I don’t want to be a John Lennon or a Paul McCartney, I want to be something else; I want to be the guy you can’t copy on guitar—I want colour, I want touch.
When the internet was coming in all you’d hear about was, oh you can see me do this or do that, or you can do this… now it’s a pain in the fucking arse. Tell me a time when your phone is really turned off. These phones are just mobile fucking computers. It went from being really exciting to being really fucked, they’ve turned it all off now. With me, I’m trying to use elements of it and deliver a product. Ever since CDs came out there’s been a debate of are CDs better or is viny better; vinyl was better but digital can take care of anything now days. It’s nice having a record but it wasn’t working. Everyone was like, we want vinyl! But then only 1 in 100 goes out and buys it and plays it on a record player. Some people just get it and never play it, they just want an album because they want a thing, they want an experience—they want the memory! Oh, I’ve got the memory. I remember what it was like in record shops and you remember too, holding the covers and talking about it, this PiL ethos was about that. Where we are now, that ethos really fits.
The fact that I chose that little period 1983-1984 CZ, Commercial Zone period, moved to the CZ here in the Czech Republic… the whole idea of the project was to get in the fucking Commercial Zone and see what the fuck happens in the Commercial Zone. Teen Guitarist [the book] has got a life. I’ve only just discovered this in the last few days as I’m printing off the book. You can see stuff I’ve been doing on the Teen Guitarist YouTube channel. CZ 2014 is actually going to be a couple of albums. There’s a lot of good stuff, I’m not looking to tour but I am looking for a teen guitarist; I’m looking for a kid that’s fucking great that wants to do this.
B: I’m overwhelmed by your passion Keith. You’ve been doing what you do for so long, it’s great that you still have so much energy and focus.
KL: Bianca, everyone says that! I remember this guy from when I started getting back on the scene, a geeky kid, great kid—the kid loved Keith Levene. You get these people that like punk or this or that, then you get people that like a certain kind of music AND Keith Levene, hence they like PiL. He loved me and we were hanging out for a bit. We were doing a geeky thing, I had just got some new Macs. I hang out with 20 year olds and the energy that I’ve got compared to them, is probably a hundred times more focused. This kid is 21, I’m 54 and hanging out and feel a bit weird doing that but, yes, I am passionate. This guy that interviewed me yesterday said, ‘Keith, you’re still angry, aren’t you?’ It made me laugh because I’m not angry, I still react in the same way—I don’t give a fuck. A lot of people don’t give a fuck anymore but in a different way, it’s them just not being arsed. Now is the fucking time for punk rock! 1976 was a fucking warm up, now is the time. If you want to get serious, now is the time! I’ve sensed that since 2011… here we are. Things are looking good in terms of cool things and there’s more to come. Have you seen or heard anything of the stuff on my YouTube?
B: Yes. I’ve looked at it all and I’ve been following your posts. I find it fascinating and I’m really digging what you’re doing. I was listening earlier to the one you recently put up, What’s My Name. I played it and then played the original and the new one is miles ahead for me.
KL: Bianca, I never recorded that, then I thought I’m going to record it. I’d been toying with it for years. When I did the draft version you heard on YouTube (I’ll do a better one for the album)… here I’ll send you a version I made of it now. The file will appear in front of you and you can accept it and give it a listen. It may take a minute to download…
B: OK great. Thanks.
KL: Oh it actually just says it’s going to take 21 hours [laughs]. I want you to hear it. What I did, I did What’s My Name, then this kid, this Rotten Johnny kid, did a vocal for it like the original. I asked him to do something madder. He asked me, what do you mean? I told him to just do a vocal on it; he said, yeah, yeah, Keith, I will. It’s just an upgrade, it’s just a vocal, it’s just a fucking guy talking. Anyway, you’ll see it, get it and see the focus. Everyone’s thinking this shit! Don’t tell me you’re not going into Starbucks or wherever you’re getting your fucking coffee from, or you’re in some awful pub and this fucking music that they’ve been playing since the late 80s comes on… it’s got worse and worse. When Cher brought out that awful fucking tune with that autotune it was the end, it was over; she tripped over her knob, found the special effect, the special effect went wrong and she was like ‘oh I like the sound of that’ and now we’re had twenty fucking years of robots singing through computers. My computer does more in its sleep than this fucking music. Listen to me crying here! I listened to this music in the restaurant last night and it was fucking awful. They had this flatscreen telly playing this corporate fucking shit! We’re immersed in this shit. Now is the time for punk rock! Maybe I am pissed off and angry? [laughs]. No, I’m not. I’m too old to be angry; the anger just turns into passion. Like, what the fuck can I do about it? What can I contribute to this planet? I can look at myself in the fucking mirror.
B: Tell me about the book, I WaS a Teenage Guitarist 4 the ClasH. It looks amazing. It reminds me of a zine. It’s very handmade and personal.
KL: Yeah. I only realised a couple of nights ago, people say, ‘have you put any words on, Commercial Zone, the new one?” It’s taken me ages to get it… It’s not a remake, I’m not even going to be doing any of the tracks in the end. The words to Commercial Zone is: I WaS a Teenage Guitarist 4 the ClasH. That’s spawned a certain record, this Teen Guitarist record. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet. It’s going to make me make an album that has a focus of words which, I’ve never done that. The best guy I ever had for that was John Lydon when he was good, he was fucking good in the beginning, to be Johnny Rotten in those days… He knew me, he knew Keith, which helped and to have the Sex Pistols happen to him and I’m on that scene anyway; I’ve done The Clash, I’m doing the Slits… I actually elected to not be in the Sex Pistols. It came up when they drafted Sid [Vicious] in. I was in The Flowers of Romance with Sid. Sid was cool, it wasn’t because he was the greatest musician on the planet, it was because he had ‘it’, that indefinable thing.
For John to turn around and say ‘Good idea Keith, I like it’ and come to me and say ‘I call myself John Lydon’ to be… obviously he changed his mind somewhere along the line. He changed his mind at the wrong time, he should have gone off and called himself Johnny Rotten, not PiL. I guess that’s for John to figure out.
What I’m doing is finishing business, I did Metal Box In Dub, some unfinished business with [Jah] Wobble, we kind of tested our own material; we needed that going through the PiL shit. The music stood up. People were turning up. A guy came from Australia to Wales, Bianca, this guy landed, came to the gig, was amazed and went back to the airport and got back on a plane—that amazed me. A guy came from California to see us play in London too. He said that ‘last time I saw you play was the L.A. Olympic Auditorium and I was upset but now I forgive you for everything, you’ve completed a circle’ so, I’ve completed a circle in someone else’s life in some deep thing, some unfinished business they had with PiL. This 2014 thing, that’s it, it’s over.
What is going on with this Bianca is that CZ 2014 is the entire PiL album that never got to come out. I thought we were going to put the record out, go to Japan and get a break. There was pressure to record, I was waiting for an advance from Richard [Branson] which he held on to ‘cause we were in a different territory. I got these guys going, where’s the fucking money going? I’m like, what fucking money? There was a lot of intense feelings about the original project. To actually be here now and finally getting it out there without the bollocks is just what I needed. The way I feel now, even with just the results I have now, is that I’ve really, really got it! I still have a lot of work to do over the next month but I feel I’m going to unveil this PiL album.
The first fucking thing that I recorded in the new zone, in the key zone, where you go in and you do it, you don’t even write it, you just let it happen… I felt really good about it. There’s a massive PiL element and a little bit from the Flowers of Romance thing, it’s finishing unfinished business—I have to do this. I’m using the book, because I have to; I’m using the YouTube channel like tools, like band members. There’s no rule you have to be in a band. PiL’s not a band, we’re a company; there’s the PiL ethos again. I’ve elected to work on my own because it’s simpler. I don’t have enough life left to be waiting around or dicking around or to work with annoying drummers or people—I’m difficult enough to work with!
KL: I am! I’m so difficult to work with I can only be with me at the moment. Thank god I’m getting fucking results!
B: Where do you find you get your best ideas?
KL: You never know what’s going to happen. It’s never like, oh everything is so wonderful, oh man I’m so enthused. It’s like I’m sitting around sweating. I have really bad ideas but then somehow that could change at any second, next thing you know, you can’t fucking stop. You start telling yourself, I’ve got to stop so I can walk away for five minutes and come back… There’s no time and place. I had a really good idea recently at 3:44 in the morning. I wanted to get up and do it but I told myself to turn your fucking mind of and get sleep. If I sleep on an idea and wake up and still want to do it, then I know it’s a great idea. I’m out of the experimental PiL mode and I’m just trying to get things out, bang! Bang! Bang! That’s only happened in the last week.
B: That’s exciting.
KL: Good. I’ve felt pressure since this [funding] campaign. It’s a weird pressure. I never hear from people too much that have contributed. The pressure though really has been that I have to face this fucking thing, I have to get this 1984 business out of the way and get upgraded. People won’t upgrade to where we are now, they’re so busy. I want to create new memories for people now, it’s sort of like Blade Runner. That What’s My Name thing took two hours. I can do things but I might have had it in my head for two years. Sometimes I can get the essence in a few minutes then just refine the track. I was lucky being in PiL and getting that experience going into multi-tracks, just before it changed to digital, when 24 tracks were optimal. The thing is, now you can do anything; you’re not restricted by tape, you can create any physical thing you want to. To put it all down now into simple ideas, to powerful, useable ideas, it’s taken so long to get there.
B: Why is music important to you?
KL: Music is important to me because I’m a composer. It turns out that I really am a good musician and composer. I can’t read music, I’m self-taught. I don’t listen to a lot of music, I don’t like bands. I love the bands in the 60s, all of that shit, the ‘Stones and The Beatles. When I was in The Clash I didn’t give a fuck about any of the other bands that were around and I thought they were all crap and I had no time for them anyway. Music is really important to people but I haven’t got time to listen to it. I haven’t heard a good fucking thing for years apart from a few weird sources. I was never really enamoured with punk, it just came at the right time. I was into jazz and all this shit. I had only started playing and I was a roadie for Yes when I was 15.
When I came of tour with Yes I realised I wanted to be in a band. Having a band was a big fucking thing for a 15 year old. I’m looking at this cherry red guitar in my little bedroom, I remember like it was yesterday, I’m looking at this thing and thought I had to get a real Gibson. I knew me well enough by then to know that I wasn’t going to allow myself to have a Gibson unless I could play really, really well, proper. I could play a few chords and tunes but that was it. I was lucky that everyone I knew in my local area wanted to be a guitarists; the two best guitarists in my neighbourhood was me and the guy that took me under his wing. He wasn’t better than me though, he was a good guy, an American. He was the one who got me into the whole, the more you play the better you are thing, as well as all this crap American music.
I had two sisters, one three years older than me and the other six years older, they got me into The Beatles when I was three. I got taken to the doctor because I’d just stare at the record player all day and my mum freaked out. By the time I was 15, in terms of music, it was like being 25 with the scenes I was exposed to. It’s not just music that’s important, Stevie Wonder said this in an interview once ‘it puts an emotional stamp on things’ a time and date, a kind of JFK kind of moment. People say that when they heard that guitar solo on Public Image’s first single that it changed their life. I don’t get that for me but I do get how people can feel that. It’s important because it gives people that emotional stamp. Music can be soothing or it can be painful depending on what you are going through. If you have an argument with your partner and you listen to all of these tunes you love, you find yourself not being able to listen to them because you associate them with them.
When we started bands, when we started punk – I never liked that expression but we needed something – I wanted more! I wanted something better than The Beatles, better than Yes, because all that had been done. Everything got smaller but the options to me, got greater.
When the magic of PiL ran out, I knew it would happen… I thought, oh you’ve got to get out of this, like with The Clash when that ended. The way I had it worked out in my head was, if The Clash are going to work, get the fuck out because you’re just going to be difficult and are going to make it difficult for them; they don’t get it, they never gonna get it so don’t worry about it, fucking great! I thought I was young enough and could do it again; I was a teen guitarist. I knew I could do it and it would be way better. I knew The Clash were going to make it but I couldn’t believe how they made it. I’ve never listened to the first Clash album the whole way through.
Since I was a kid I have constantly known what I don’t want. We’re so told by everything around us what we should want, where we can get it, why we should get it, get it quicker here, get this medication. I came from the 60s where it was take this pill to stay up longer, take this pill and you can have sex, take this pill and you can grow another set of teeth, yeah, whatever—take this and you’ll go to another universe! AND we believed it! It’s bad living and we’re all so affected by it. There’s too much recreation, there’s too much nostalgia, it’s got to stop. I guess things like social media has really put this in our face, everything is everywhere and it’s globalised. Wherever I am in the world I could be fucking anywhere, with technology it’s all the same. This is the future I saw coming. I’m doing what I’m meant to do. When I say there’s nothing new under the sun, I mean, good is always good, simple is always simple; you don’t have to know about it to like it but if you do know about it you’ll probably like it more—that’s what I want.
I got really sick of lots of stuff in rock n roll, like a load city girls asking me to sign their underpants. I was always slagging off people like Lou Reed and Keith Richards… the emerging of a respectable, proper pop star would be John Lennon, who if he made mistakes he made them big and in public, he tried to do the right thing; people like Keith Richards just used and abused everything and sent the wrong fucking message. The guy who started sending the right message was Buddy Holly. This is all by and by though. This is just what Keith thinks.
B: I’ve read about the time you walked into a pub in London and saw your first Sex Pistols gig, you said it was the maddest thing you’d ever seen, a high point of your life; what else has been a high point in your life?
KL: I can’t be asked to think about it. If it doesn’t come straight to me I don’t have time to think about it and let it come through. I don’t even want to talk about the high points in my life right now.
B: I think it’s nice to keep some things to yourself, to keep things private and for you, there’s something special in that. I think in general most people overshare, especially online.
KL: Yeah. I find it hard to answer, what has been other high points in my life… like if I say I vividly remember JFK being shot, I didn’t even know what it meant to be shot, I think I was five or six (you never really know what age you are when you’re around that age). I know I was at the first place I lived, I can vividly remember the blue door and the atmosphere. I’ll score that as a ‘high point’ because it was so interesting and you could really feel it. To me he seemed he looked like a pretty old school guy, I like old school. Another example, bad old school would be Ed Sullivan or Eisenhower, that kind of guy. I didn’t realise how much charm and panache JFK had. The whole thing that happened with the Kennedy thing, before I started getting older and could understand what they were talking about on the TV… there’s another thing, sorry I’m jumping off track…
Another high point, something I haven’t done for years because I can’t stand it, is watch TV. I’m sacred of it. It makes me feel sick when it’s on and I’m in the room, I have to just leave. I used to just sit there and watch it to be polite but if I’m somewhere now and they have TV on, I’m like, I’m here interact with me, if they don’t then I’ll fuck off. TV is fucked. TV now is just a communication medium, it’s horrible. It’s so unrewarding. Why I thought TV was great growing up was because it was new. In punk rock times TV only just went colour. Everyone has everything now. We’re so busy with dealing with this useless stuff, all this stuff that we’re told to check out, we get pulled into it. It’s all so run of the mill. Society wants you to consume. The whole punk thing came at the end of the 60s, we wanted something new, to keep it simple.
I opened the door of the Nashville, as I opened the door the ‘Pistols started. It’s like they were like, oh Keith’s here, bang! It was so bizarre. I wasn’t impressed musically but that feeling I got was such a good feeling. You could see everyone look at John and the noise he was making, it was a relief. There were people on the scene like Bernard Rhodes and Malcom McLaren; Bernie was very esoteric and an artistic guy and had a lot of experience, had experience in places English people don’t end up in very often, that made him an interesting guy. They were at the same gig. I was sitting with him and watching the ‘Pistols, later me and him would put The Clash together. Me and him were pretty OK, but him and the rest of the punk rock scene, let alone The Clash, weren’t communicating, we were not on the same page.
B: When you were making your handmade book, I WaS a Teenage Guitarist 4 the ClasH; was it fun for you?
KL: I have three more to make today. I’ve spent last three weeks making about 12 of them. I can’t do it unless I’m feeling right. When I’m making the covers, I go into this mode. They take a really long time to make. I have t-shirts too. It’s so punk, when I say that something is punk, what I mean is, it’s fresh and exciting.
I’m not going to put out CZ 2014 in November if it’s not good enough. At least I know enough that it will never be good enough for me but… even with the first Commercial Zone it was just good enough to put out. They were all like, we want it to be heard, I was like, oh fuck off, just fuck off, I can’t take it anymore. I’m just going to finally do it how it was meant to be. That stuff I sent you, no one has heard that besides me and the guy on it.
I looked forward to chatting with you again for your Conversations With Punx project.
B: Me too! I’ve been working on it for the last decade. I’m releasing the first edition of the book DIY. I’ve thought about doing the crowd-funding thing but I’m not sure.
KL: It’s not illegal to ask for money. People don’t mind paying for something that’s worth having, like what we’re both doing. There’s something more involved about doing things that way rather than just ‘product’. You’re sharing stories, this is how we know the stuff we do know. Nobody knows anything anymore because they have fucking Google, Google knows it all for them. I like the feel of what you’re doing. It’s better getting it to 3,000 people that are really into it and really care than getting it to 300,000 people that might read it once. Things are so disposable to people these days. I’m excited about it, I like doing things and I like people that do things!
All thoughts forward,
All photos courtesy of Keith’s fb/site. Please let me know if you took any of these so I can credit you/remove it if needed :)