Keith Levene, founding guitarist of The Clash and Public Image Ltd, dies aged 65

Keith Levene
(Image credit: Tom Hill/Getty Images)

Keith Levene, one of the most influential guitarists of British rock and post-punk, has passed away at the age of 65.

The news was confirmed in a statement posted to Twitter by author and writer Adam Hammond, who revealed Levene died yesterday (November 11).

“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,” wrote Hammond. “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.”

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Levene leaves behind one the most profound legacies of any British alternative guitarist, having helped define the sound of post-punk through his guitar work, particularly with pioneering outfit, Public Image Ltd.

Before he founded that band, though, Levene – who was born on July 18, 1957 in London, England – founded The Clash with Mick Jones when he was only 18 years old. He famously played an important role in convincing guitarist Joe Strummer, then member of The 101ers, to join the band.

His passion for music started from an early age, with Levene developing a strong affection for Yes and their guitarist Steve Howe, whom he once labelled “the greatest fucking guitarist in the world”. 

After founding The Clash in 1976, Levene went on to feature during the band’s early years gigs, and though he’d leave before the group’s self-titled debut album arrived a year later, he contributed heavily to the band’s sound, having played a part in writing What’s My Name.

In 1978, Levene formed Public Image Ltd with John Lydon – Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols – which embraced a definitive experimental and post-punk sound. Levene would stay with PiL until 1983, after which he went on to pursue a career in solo material, production and more.

PiL’s debut album – 1978’s Public Image: First Issue – is a prime example of Levene’s trademark guitar sound and style, which was noted for its raucous, infectious energy and boundary-pushing nature.

Levene stayed with PiL for two more albums – 1979’s Metal Box and 1981’s The Flowers of Romance – before leaving the group in 1983 over creative differences surrounding the band’s upcoming fourth album, This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get. His first move as a new solo artist was to release his own versions of those songs as part of his own LP, Commercial Zone.

His influential guitar playing and sound was noted by many of his contemporaries and later generations. Last year, The Quietus (opens in new tab) named Levene “one of the undeniable architects of the post-punk sound, with his guitar style occupying a space between angular abrasion and pop opulence”.

One of his biggest fans, John Frusciante, once praised Levene for his fearless approach to music, saying he “approached the instrument differently than anybody else”.

“It's people like Keith Levene from Public Image… who are exploring the possibilities of what you can do with the guitar,” Frusciante noted (opens in new tab).

An outpouring of tributes for Levene have been posted online, with messages coming from the likes of Ride’s Andy Bell, former PiL members Jah Wobble and Martin Atkins, and Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre.

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Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.