Essaying the pop culture that matters since 1999
Post-punk is one of the most adventurous genres in rock history, and Public Image Limited’s Keith Levene is one of its greatest trailblazers. Rotation Chuck Bushing
The recent passing of Public Image Limited (PiL) guitarist Keith Levene had many of us reminiscing about a time and genre when myriad songwriting conventions and musicianship were challenged and changed. In 1978-’79, as new wave, hardcore, street, and oi! upstarts sought reforms or revivals of primary punk’s established tenets, and post-punk acts like PiL brought a revolution in their desire to destroy and replace the systemic clichés of both rock and punk rock. The punk of 1976-’77 introduced new attitudes and contents, post-punk questioned forms and methods, too
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the instrumental position of the guitarist, from which all fountains of deconstruction and reconstruction burst forth. It is neither hyperbole nor revisionist history to consider post-punk one of the most adventurous periods and genres in rock history and its axe innovators as the generals of the revolution.
In all genres, definitions and parameters are inexact and tenuous, ripe with examples of exceptions and outliers. Thus, although post-punk is generally regarded as representing a British music style that flourished between 1978 and 1984, such a generalization could rightly be challenged by those citing comparable pioneers beyond the UK and/or operating before 1978. They might also question whether the genre’s eclectic range of music output can be called a style at all or even rock music. Genres, like cultural revolutions, are never clean or clear cut; beside the tentacles severed in search of a new future are the remaining ones connecting to the past.
Such is the case with the guitar revolutionaries of post-punk. Prima facie, John McKay (Siouxsie and the Banshees), the late John McGeoch (Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees, PiL), Andy Gill (Gang of Four), Gareth Sayer (The Pop Group), Bernard Sumner (Joy Division), Robert Smith (The Cure), and Keith Levene played in ways remote from traditions most rock—and punk—drew from. Yet, behind their seemingly unique tones and techniques is connecting tissue to other genres like progressive rock, funk, dub reggae, and so-called “krautrock”.
Recent tributes to Levene and McGeoch have noted their trailblazing techniques without giving full due to the prior sources that also traversed those trails. The same can be said of post-punk in general, the prefix “post” too often interpreted as a sign that this music severed all ties with the past, as though a revolution was created from a void. However, like the post-modernism, post-structuralism, and post-Marxism with which it shared cultural space at the time, post-punk was both inextricably tied to the revolts that preceded it while simultaneously ushering in transformations thereafter.
Punk rock was never as homogenous as stereotypes have made it out to be, and exceptions to its Ramonic template existed within the movement early and often. Wire, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Slits were among the early sonic outliers, as were US mavericks like Suicide, Pere Ubu, and Television. By 1977 author Jon Savage was distinguishing the more industrial-sounding acts, calling them “New Musick”; later, such bands were merely subsumed under the post-punk umbrella. Common to these acts and their successors were characteristics fundamental to the punk uprising: a DIY philosophy; an underground infrastructure; an irreverence towards preexisting rules and roles in rock culture; and a rebellious youth born of turbulent times, what Johnny Rotten described as “the flowers in the dustbin” and the “poison in your human machine” in “God Save the Queen” (1977).
As the suffix suggests, post-punk did not cut all ties with its parent genre. Author Simon Reynolds says of its practitioners, “They dedicated themselves to fulfilling punk’s uncompleted revolution”. Talk of the death of punk during 1978 often ignored the simultaneous emergence of post-punk. Perhaps the latter’s less outrageous public gestures and less visible tribal symbols account for such an oversight; nevertheless, on reflection, one recognizes a more comprehensive revolution happening after punk’s first throes.
Inheriting punk’s contrarian sensibility, post-punk acts reconceived its calls for anarchy and riots more metaphorically, applying them to punk’s increasingly formulaic structures and predictable riffs and rhythms. Even the once incendiary lyrics came to be seen as tired and worn, full of stock imagery romanticizing caricatures of white male working-class rebels. Post-punk revolutionaries recognized that doors had been opened but that now was the time to walk through them.
Paramount to post-punk players was operating beyond the cul-de-sacs punk—and its associated street, hardcore, and oi! off-shoots—were going down. The explosion of independent labels across the UK decentralized punk identity such that middle-class students from towns and suburbs became a larger part of the broader subculture. This demographic defied dumbed-down punk fundamentalism, validating and often spawning those artists that mixed theory with praxis. Together they looked beyond, into the avant-garde quarters of art and literature where kindred spirits resided or within their college humanities departments where theories of deconstruction, defamiliarization, and demystification echoed their missions of intent.
British rock journalists like the NME’s Paul Morley and Ian Penman fed the beast, too, offering (pseudo-)intellectual models—based on their cursory readings of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida— to explain the new acts and to encourage others to follow in kind. Even those artists ignorant or scornful of the idioms, ideas, and ideologies being foisted upon them—like PiL and the Fall—were embraced as Gramscian “organic intellectuals” or what Reynolds calls “anti-intellectual intellectuals”.
The new spirit of inquiry revolutionized prevailing punk attitudes about rock and pop traditions, too. Many punk bands took great pride in their Stalinist refusal to acknowledge musical influences not passed and privileged as cool by the in-crowd. What they disliked was often worn as a badge of honor more than what they liked, and their self-censorship manifested in styles and sounds that became reductive and redundant. A veil was lifted as post-punk proceeded, though, with veterans like John Lydon and Keith Levene glad to be liberated from the limitations of their prior bands, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash, respectively. Suddenly musical forms previously slighted by punks—disco, funk, and prog rock—were in play, mixed, matched, and reoriented into strange new configurations. Guitar styles were transformed as contained Chuck Berry riffs, and blues patterns were replaced with open-ended funk grooves and incessant drones disoriented by sound effects.
Keith Levene—a.k.a. Bad Baby to his bandmates—paid the price for his revolutionary musical ambitions. A founding member of one of punk’s foundational bands, he clashed heads with fellow guitarists Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, both of whom were unimpressed with the experimental sounds emanating from his instrument. Rock journalist Alexis Petridis reports that a bootleg of Levene’s last live show with the Clash reveals a discordant and dissonant sound at odds with his peers’ rock riffing. Reflecting on his brief tenure with the band, Levene said of his power struggle with Jones, “The difference between me and him is the difference between The Clash and PiL” (Gross).
Levene met John Lydon during punk’s early days when they crossed paths playing the same London venues. Bonding over their mutual dissatisfaction with the musical conservatism of their respective bands, Levene suggested they join forces should the Pistols’ empire fall. Fall it soon did, liberating Lydon to reinvent himself without the shackles of Malcolm McLaren’s “guidance” or Steve Jones’ repertoire of derived chord patterns. Selecting Jah Wobble as his bassist and Levene as his guitarist, Lydon bonded with his bandmates over their common passion for dub reggae, krautrock, and the more experimental exponents of prog rock.
Few of these influences were yet fully apparent when PiL dropped their first single, “Public Image”, in October 1978, though what was on display was an exhibition of guitar playing Lydon would later call “genius” (The Public Image Is Rotten). Working with a rhythmic backdrop featuring Wobble’s deep bass notes and a reverb-drenched snare sound (provided by Jim Walker, a Canadian student residing in the UK), Levene unleashed a simple yet hypnotic arpeggiated motif, double-tracked with harmonics to create mood and momentum. Pushing and pulling in tandem with Lydon’s wails of woe, Levene offers sonic tingles, his treble-heavy high note shapes periodically cutting through the bass foundations. A startling debut indicating a band with one foot still in punk but the other way beyond, “Public Image” provided a blueprint for the kind of chiming, soaring guitars “big music” bands like U2, Simple Minds, and Echo and the Bunnymen would aspire to. Ironically, it proved less of a prototype for PiL’s future work.
Released in December 1978, debut album Public Image: First Issue provided glimpses into the unknown and unheard alongside tracks that might have landed on the Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks album had Lydon been at the controls in the studio. In the “punk” camp were “Religion II”, “Low Life”, and “Attack”. On all three songs, Levene oscillates between standard punk riffs and the kind of serrated guitar interventions that John McKay brought to Banshees songs like “Jigsaw Feeling” and “Mirage” on The Scream (1978).
That sound was achieved by playing two high notes on the high E and B strings together with insistent regularity. Although played through a “clean” amp (Glucken), heavy chorus and reverb were added at the production/editing end to create an off-kilter bell-ringing effect. Even stranger sounding are the album’s other tracks, particularly the opener, “Theme”, which serves as a canvas for Levene to jam out nine-plus minutes of spontaneous guitar scales and swoops amidst what Adam Sweeting calls “woozy chords”. Their dizzying effects foreshadow the atmospheres created by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields—and other shoegazers—a decade later. No wonder Levene later described First Issue as PiL’s “goodbye-to-the-Pistols” record” (Gross) as it has the past on its mind, but those memories were fading fast.
A cleaner break was made with the follow-up, Metal Box (1979). Here, Levene assumes greater authority over the band by becoming a producer-player affecting all compositions, arrangements, and sounds. Employing what Reynolds calls “spacialized production”, Levene makes Wobble’s simple bass lines the melodic core over which he is “freed up to freak out”. As with the dub he and his bandmates revered, Levene works with subtraction as much as addition, punctuating songs rather than just strumming through them. Closest to the past are “Memories” and “Poptones”, with their discernible song structures and patterns, but even they are far from the rock norms their titles might suggest. The former features, says Reynolds, “glassy shrouds of Arabic-sounding guitar” that complement Lydon’s muezzin-like vocals, both indicators of ambitions to move further away from American-based staples and towards sounds evoking parts of the world less charted.
PiL’s take on world music veers towards Africa and/or the Amazon in their next album, The Flowers of Romance (1981). By then, Wobble had departed, leaving Levene and Lydon at the helm in the studio. What they came up with was a percussion-based collection almost devoid of the electric guitar wash and industrial synth noises that had identified the band’s sound to that point. Instead, they made the studio board the main instrument, feeding each bell, whistle, and drum beat (and an amplified watch) through digital samplers and processors.
Remarkably, some of it is quite listenable, particularly the title track, which climbed its way up the UK singles chart in the spring of 1981. Whether one considers the Flowers album to be an original work of musique concréte or self-indulgence of the kind punk once railed against, it was perhaps, as Levene later opined, “the least commercial work ever delivered to a [record] company” (Sweeting).
When Levene left PiL in 1983, he took demo versions of songs the band had been working on for their fourth album. Subsequently released by him on Commercial Zone (1984), they give us clues as to what the band had been up to over the past couple of years. Like much of the post-punk of that time that had transitioned to new pop, one’s ears inform that attention had shifted—as the title suggests—to seeking more pop-ulist appeal. Gone are the dental drill sounds, bum notes, and violins put through distortion; instead, tight funk grooves pervade these tracks, Levene at times sounding as much a kindred contemporary of the Associates as the Gang of Four. Although this album signaled the closing of several roads at the time, Levene, Pil, and post-punk have proven to have enduring legacies regarding their subsequent influence.
“We are still living the aftermath of those innovations,” argues critic Jason Gross of Levene’s contributions to the first three PiL albums. One wonders what Sonic Youth, the Pretenders, U2, the Smiths, My Bloody Valentine, and Radiohead would have sounded like without the precedents of sound and style laid down by Levene. Even today, when listening to the more experimental guitar-based acts emanating from the UK—Fontaines DC, Black Midi, Goat Girl, Idles, Dry Cleaning, Black Country, New Roads—we are sometimes sonically transported back to a genre and player whose revolutionary purposes resonate forward to anyone willing to defy the clichés and constraints of rock(ism).
Gluckin, Tzvi. “Post-Punk Guitar Antiheroes: Andy Gill, Keith Levene, and Gareth Sager”. Premier Guitar. 14 September 2017.
Gross, Jason. “Keith Levene” (interview). Perfect Sound Forever. February 2001.
Petridis, Alexis. “Keith Levene wrote his own rules for rock guitar”. The Guardian. 14 November 2022.
Fiiller, Tabbert, Director. The Public Image Is Rotten. 2017.
Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. Penguin. 2005.
Sex Pistols, “God Save the Queen”. Virgin, 1977.
Rock Drill Machine Parts Sweeting, Adam. “Keith Levene Obituary”. The Guardian. 14 November 2022.