Keith Levene Recalls Joe Strummer Was ‘Very Sincere, Very Generous’ Guy
Interview © 2016 IVOR LEVENE, Photos © MELANIE SMITH
I recently sat down for a long discussion of happenings past and present with the founder of The Clash and Public Image Ltd., Keith Levene. (Part One is posted on EastCoastRocker.com . This is Part Two).
Unless you’re more than a casual fan of the aforementioned bands, Keith is not going to be a familiar figure to you; he left The Clash prior to the band’s recording of their first album.
He founded PIL with John Lydon and then split with him after friction within the “company” but has kept his hands and his head in the punk culture since taking a break from the music scene.
Working from the present backwards, Keith is going to hold what can best be described as a kickstarter for punk this summer in London. Entitled “Screen on the Green,” the event is going to be a retrospective of the last 40 years of punk, but will also look forward and try to position itself as a catalyst for future generations of punks in music, art, and fashion. (See Part One on EastCoastRocker.com for details)
If you’ve followed Keith on social media in the past few years, you’ve no doubt seen some slagging and Twitter-fighting between Keith and John Lydon over creative differences and PIL, and the haters who insist he was kicked out of The Clash for doing too many drugs. Keith Levene wants to set the record straight, let you know that the spirit of punk is alive and well, and have you “pull your head out of your ass” when it comes to the history of his involvement in The Clash and PIL.
Do you want to talk about some of your early years? I’ve heard you’re not one for rehashing the past.
No, it’s quite fine. Go ahead.
I’ve heard you were a roadie for Yes. How old were you?
I was 15. Or maybe 16. It wouldn’t have mattered if I were 12 then, they couldn’t have gotten rid of me, so they just hired me.
Did they inspire you at all?
Oh, fuck yes. The reason I got the job is I went to The Rainbow five days in a row. I knew somewhere in the back of my mind, I had this all planned out, it was the last night of the gig; I just didn’t leave, and then just kind of migrated onto the stage. It was a big buzz for me, I mean, I was really into the sound guys, I mean, you had Rick Wakeman on synth, and Steve Howe who was my favorite guitarist at the time, So I just started helping them and helping them and it’s like 4:30 in the morning, and they said “Look, if you show up for work this way, you’re on the bus,” and that’s how I ended up on the UK tour.
It’s ironic that you were inspired by something that’s about as far away musically from The Clash as you can get.
Well, I’m pretty much as far from the Clash as you can get. The band was put together for inspiration. We knew that we wanted to put a band together and fast friends, and a scene that was propagating in west London. There were a few incarnations of the band Fast Friends with me and Mick Jones that really went south just before the name The Clash was coined.
In fact, I never liked the name The Clash. Every time they would do something, I didn’t like it but I could see how it worked.
The thing I really did with The Clash is electrify it and really make it go faster. I recruited Joe Strummer into the band. I got him away from the 101’ers who was the top band. It was like “We haven’t even got a name, but this is the band you should be in.” And then I took him down to the Davis road squat and got him in this really confined space with a guitar.
We just stayed there and played his tunes, and some of The Clash tunes that we’d got and we’re playing some of the other tunes that we’d loved from the mid 1970’s. We were playing the fucking Eagles, and Joe Walsh, stupid stuff that you don’t really play any time. And he was like “Ah fuck, I’ll do it, I’ll do it,” and I’m blasting him, talking to him and winding him up, saying “you’re so fucking old.” I was 16 and Joe was 21 and I’m just winding him up. But I loved him.
Joe was like the hub of a thriving hippie community, the 101’ers, and it was so much more than a band, and I could see the pain on his face, realizing “I’ve got to fucking do this.” He hadn’t even met Mick yet. Joe joined the band and he fit like a glove, and it all came together. I mean, The Clash were really good. You like The Clash, yeah?
Yes, very much so.
It’s all bollocks about them meeting on a queue, and its all bollocks about them kicking me out of the band. If I’d have stayed in the band, I would have just been a white elephant pain in the ass because they’d have never lived up to what I’d wanted. I mean, you can tell by PIL that I didn’t want The Clash, and that I had to leave, and I did. I did a gig at The Rainbow, but not with them. I put an impromptu band together with Richard Soul and two other guys, Matt Scabies, and I can’t remember the third guy. One night was really good and one night was really crap, but it was a lot of fun.
You say you didn’t agree with what The Clash was doing, what was it specifically?
They just weren’t good enough for me. They weren’t complicated enough. Listen, it just wasn’t what I had signed up for. They were just doing their best and I thought “they’re going to do it whether I’m there or not” so I’m gonna go off and do something else. And I was young enough and cocky enough to think “I’ll get another band together, fuck it!” And I did.
I got another band together with Sid called “Flowers of Romance,” and that was going very well. And by then I’d taught [?] how to play the guitar and how to put the sticks together, and everyone knew everyone, and Sid was learning how to be a singer and I was teaching him how to play bass. And then this position in The Sex Pistols became available, and I said to him, “You’ve got to go and do this, you ARE The Sex Pistols,” go do this fucking gig. It was a shame about Glen, it was wrong the way they treated Glen, but it was going to happen anyway. It was in the cards, and it was happening already. So there went Flowers of Romance along with Sid, and then PIL came together.
That was kind of the result of something that had happened in The Clash. When we played The Mucky Duck, [the Black Swan], it’s a renowned gig, again, Pistols and Clash, that was the gig that I knew I wasn’t going to be at. Everyone hated everyone. I knew all the “Johns.” Sid was a “John,” and he was sitting on his own all pissed off and looking really great, and I’m there, and I write, “What’s my name” in the sound check, bowl off stage, and don’t hang out with the band, and go hang out with John who’s sitting on his own. I said to him “I’m done with this lot, this is over,” and he was like “Fucking good.” I mean, he was moaning about The Pistols and I said “Look, I know this will probably never happen, but if The Pistols ever end up breaking up, we should do something together,” and then said “Fuck it, we should do something anyway,” and he just said “Yeah.”
The thing is about John Lydon is that he was really good, not like the Lydon now, or maybe he is. He was just really exciting then; there was just a lot of potential then. As soon as The Pistols split up he came and found me, the whole thing was pre-arranged.
What was it like working with John Lydon?
I don’t know. All I know is that I really liked him, I just didn’t get why things weren’t working out. I still don’t get why PIL isn’t going further. I guess the best reason I can give you is to tell you to look at the videos and look at what John is like.
Where do you think this rumor that you were kicked out of the Clash for drug use came from? I personally find it hard to believe and if it were true you’d probably go down in history as the first person ever kicked out of a band for using drugs.
For some reason, everyone else is a hero for doing drugs, but I’m a naughty boy. But I left The Clash and we arranged it. What was the question …?
Where do you think this rumor started?
This is a fact, and it doesn’t sound great to me. This is something that I’m trying to set straight. The story that’s out there is the story that’s out there. I just told you what I did with The Clash, right? It didn’t matter what drugs we were all doing. You never saw any pictures of me with The Clash, and they just really played it down.
They could have invited me to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I founded the fucking Clash. I got Joe Strummer in The Clash; I’m just as responsible for the band as anyone. Joe and me got on really great, and we saw each other a lot after I left the band. Mick and I really didn’t have any time for each other but we’ve always been polite. And I don’t even really know the rest of the posse now; I’ve had the odd encounter with Terry Chimes. Topper and me got on really well. It was all individuals, there was no “Keith and The Clash,” it was “Keith and Joe, Keith and Topper, etc.”
Do you think Joe let The Clash go to his head?
I think that Joe was a very very sincere guy. What bugged me was that Bernard was turning Joe onto a lot of these very socialist books, and all this kind of heavy-duty stuff. He was suiting him and booting him and giving him a quick education, and that went to his head. That whole political stance really got on my tits, but when it comes to who or what Joe is, Joe was a very sincere guy, a very generous guy. He WAS Joe fucking Strummer, not Woody whatever the fuck his name was. I just think Joe really did his best and was a great example of a pop star.
It sounds like he treated his fans really well, but didn’t he treat his band poorly? I heard at one point he fired the entire band and then ran off to Spain because he couldn’t cope with all the pressure and backlash.
It’s fucking great. I didn’t even find out until about a year ago that he had fired Mick from The Clash. There you go! That tells you everything. Even if Mick wasn’t there, I would have found someone just like him and said “here, just fucking be in this band so I can leave,” right. There’s no bad feeling there, but the could have treated me a bit better. But I’ve gotta try and set the record straight. This Screen on The Green thing, it was too focused on the 1976 thing, and what have you, but at the same time, one of the things I had gotten out of it was that I have to get the right story about me out there. The wrong story about me is out there, and it gets on my tits a bit. It gets under my skin.
So what happened to the spirit of punk?
Punk basically disappeared up it’s own ass because nobody supported each other. I can really dig being blinkered and being in a band and saying “my band is the best fucking band out there,” and not giving a fuck about anyone else, but in the end, we’re all on the same team, right?
You used to live out here in Los Angeles, didn’t you? How would you describe that time in your life?
In varying scenes and degrees. If you want to talk about when it was the late ’80s and when it was on The Chili Peppers scene and L.A. Weekly’s scene, it was a little bit Hollywood, a few soundtracks, and typical Hollywood stuff. Then there’s my predilection to not be a tourist. I lived in LA in the ’90s and I was just a regular guy. I wasn’t like “Keith Levene the pop star.”
LA was quite a confusing time for me, I was in an awful state, my confidence was just trashed and I was also trashed from drugs and what have you, so it was a reckoning. I think everybody went through this reckoning of “What the fuck have I been doing for the last 15 years?” Artistically, it was like jumping out of a jumbo jet, I mean to say to Lydon “fuck off” and “fuck you” in Japan and drop CZ. Even though I learned a lot from it, I never really assimilated it until about the last few years. I didn’t re-make it, I made Commercial Zone in 2014 as a completely original album, as a crowd funded thing, which I delivered. There’s a few of them around, and when I run out of them, that’s it. It’s just not going to exist any more. So yeah, when I was in LA, I tried to meet up with John three times and on the third time he tried to fuck me, and I said, “That’s it.” I got into a lot of the scenes you’d get into in LA. I ran into Keith Richards at Musso and Frank’s. I think it was the Rolling Stones actually that were all there. So there were a lot of good memories, and a lot of heavy stuff.
Tell me about the time you ran into The Stones.
It was on Hollywood Boulevard, at Musso and Frank’s, he’d often turn up there, no big deal, and no reservation needed you know. Everyone knew the Stones were coming to town for their fucking Coliseum gig; this must have been ’87 or ’88. There was this big long table in there, and I was like “Wait a minute, that’s Mick Jagger” and “Oh, there’s Keith Richards, and here they all are.” I was with this guy Adam who’s not with us any more, he was this martial arts guy and like a manager. He was the closest thing I’ve ever known to Bernard Rhodes. He’d just said hello to Sean Penn in the parking lot, and Sean said hello to me, and that was nice.
“So then we went inside, and The Stones were there and Adam asked me “Do you want to go see the Stones show?” and I thought ‘No, I don’t want to go to the fucking Stones,’ and that was when Guns ‘N’ Roses was opening up for them, and I fucking hated them too (I can say that, I was very angry). So anyway, I went there after all and saw the show, and it was like a fucking fascist rally. There were so many people in there in yellow t-shirts, and the place is full of security, and I was really fucked up. I think I got kicked out of the gig for dancing…!
Why did you leave PIL?
Well, PIL fell apart anyway, that was me going downhill. I was tired, and I wasn’t confident, and I was just about to get married. John just wasn’t there at first, he was doing this movie with Harvey Keitel, and that was OK. We were on American soil, and we were getting no support from Warner Bros. and we had to make this record. I went to a lot of trouble to convince this lawyer to let us use this studio. I mean, who was PIL anyway? I was fucking PIL. I thought they might go on, and call themselves “The Johnny Rotten Band” or something. If he wanted to be PIL like that, it’s obvious he never fucking got it, did he?
Didn’t you have creative differences with Lydon?
Creative differences? What does that mean? What we had there was a failure to communicate. There was no fucking creative communication there whatsoever, everything was an anxiety attack. There was no respect for each other, everything was a chore. Every once in a while I’d get into the moment if nobody else was around. I had a really good relationship with the sound engineer. John was just not on board enough. I even had this whole make up session with him where we were back on track, and the whole thing fell apart again after just one day.
How did Lydon react when you released Commercial Zone?
What they did was say I’d fucked up the masters, so they had to re-make the record. They took the masters, dubbed it up and released it. I put out Commercial Zone because Richie gave me the rights to it, and I had to do it for my sanity. Then I sold 10,000 of them and decided I didn’t want to be in the record distribution business.
One last question; is there anyone around today who inspires you?
Nilsson, Brian Wilson, Fleetwood Mac with Peter Greene, my missus inspires me, Nile Rogers.
Do you think maybe we’re distantly related?