Public Image Ltd and The Clash founding guitarist Keith Levene dead at 65

Keith Levene
(Image credit: Chris Walter)

Keith Levene, the guitarist who was a founding member of both The Clash and Public Image Ltd, has died at the age of 65. The news was broken by author and writer Adam Hammond.

In a statement on Twitter, Hammond wrote (opens in new tab), "It is with great sadness I report that my close friend and legendary Public Image Limited guitarist Keith Levene passed away on Friday 11th November. There is no doubt that Keith was one of the most innovative, audacious and influential guitarists of all time.

"Keith sought to create a new paradigm in music and with willing collaborators John Lydon and Jah Wobble succeeded in doing just that. His guitar work over the nine minutes of Theme, the first track on the first PiL album, defined what alternative music should be.

"As well as helping to make PiL the most important band of the age, Keith also founded The Clash with Mick Jones and had a major influence on their early sound. So much of what we listen to today owes much to Keith's work, some of it acknowledged, most of it not.

"Our thoughts and love go out to his partner Kate, sister Jill and all of Keith's family and friends. The world is a darker place without his genius. Mine will be darker without my mate."

Levene was born in North London in 1957, and became obsessed with Yes guitarist Steve Howe as a teenager. He eventually worked for the band as a 15-year-old, becoming a member of the road crew for the Close To The Edge tour. 

In 1976 hooked up with Mick Jones to form The Clash, but was a member of the band for just eight months, and never recorded with them. He did, however, play a significant role in the band's history, after approaching Joe Strummer at a 101'ers gig and convincing him to join the band. 

“[We] talked Joe into coming over to my squat in Shepherd’s Bush,” Levene told Perfect Sound Forever in 2001 (opens in new tab). “I was playing guitar with him and playing some 101'ers tunes. He went, ‘Hey man, I just love you and I love the way you play guitar.’ So I said, ‘Will you do it?’ and we got him in the Clash.”

In 1978 he joined the founding line-up of Public Image Limited alongside former Sex Pistol John Lydon, bassist Jah Wobble and drummer Jim Walker. He played on the band's first three albums, Public Image: First Issue in 1978, Metal Box the following year, and The Flowers of Romance in 1981. He left during the recording of the fourth album, 1984's This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get, as musical differences and ego clashes took their toll. 

After leaving PiL Levene's career became more low key, but his angular, razor-edged playing continued to influence a generation of post-punk musicians, from Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, who said Levene “explored the possibilities of what you can do with the guitar”, to Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie, who said he "reinvented rock guitar playing."

"Did I want to be Eddie Van Halen who was kind of around at the time?" Levene told the What Bitcoin Did podcast in 2020 (opens in new tab). "Did I want to be Jimmy Page or Jimmy Hendrix or any of those kind of things? No way. Not because it was hard, because I could play like that. I chose not to do that as a letter of intent. We don't copy."

Levene also worked on the demos for the Red Hot Chili Peppers' The Uplift Mofo Party Plan – the album the band made immediately prior to Frusciante joining – and collaborated with rappers Ice T and Tone Loc. He was part of industrial music supergroup Pigface, and released five solo albums, including Yin & Yang, recorded with his old PiL bandmate Jah Wobble in 2012.

Levene's parter, Kate Ransford, tweeted (opens in new tab) "RIP Keith Levene, my beloved partner who passed away at our home on 11/11/22 peacefully, pain-free, cosy and well loved. He was an iconic guitarist and composer. My best friend, my love, my everything. I love you to the moon."

No cause of death has been announced.

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 36 years in music industry, online for 23. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.