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Excoriate Your Ears Guitar legend Keith Levine ushered punk rock in... And Out Again

Excoriate Your Ears

Guitar legend Keith Levine ushered punk rock in... And Out Again

by Tim London,
first published: November, 2022

approximate reading time: minutes

...even as the post-punks were desperately trying not to look serious or that they gave a fuck, they were secretly giving fucks
When I went to see Van Der Graaf Generator around 1975 it was almost as a dare to myself. I didn’t really like them - I have a sweet tooth and this was worse as a teen and VDGG were super-sour. Dark. Dour. And a bit boring. But I thought it was a hip, grown up thing to do. Even as Peter Hammill floated around the stage in his voluminous white, poetry blouse I was gritting my teeth and forcing myself to stay there and get, something, anything, out of the cost of a ticket.
 
Years later I had a similar experience listening to Metal Box by Public Image Limited, the group set up by Johnny Rotten and his old punk mates Jah Wobble and Keith Levene. I had loved their first single and I subsequently enjoyed other singles, but the album just sounded like a dirge to me, even if I could dig the rhythms and bass lines, it felt like Rotten was setting me a test, which I failed.
 
Then there was the guitar. For all the obit’s and sad tweets Levene’s releases were seldom and thin. Just five albums and a few EPs. He left PiL and went through the normal 1980/90s crappy experiences of dealing with record labels which no doubt meant releases were made more difficult. What there were, a selection of some instrumentals and even a faithful cover of Hendrix’s If 6 Was 9 don’t seem to add much to the legend. This might be because the style and sound he helped popularise was quite quickly absorbed and copied to the extent that it no longer sounded as interesting. But more probable is that, despite his antipathy to lead singers, there needs to be a visual focus, something, someone to keep an audience listening.
 
In this, Levene was reflecting that weird dichotomy that many punks brought with them. That generation, born late 1950s, were listening to heavy rock, prog and glam, even psychedelic music before constructing the mud huts of punk. And some of that mentality, of letting the music do the talking, of being a ‘serious’ musician, snuck into post-punk, even as the post-punks were desperately trying not to look serious or that they gave a fuck, they were secretly giving fucks.
 
Perhaps sensing that about his ex-bandmate, when Keith Levene left PiL on the eve of a Japanese jaunt Rotten replaced his band with some heavily mulletted cover band session players from New Jersey. Never one to let the opportunity for a self-harming insult on the grand scale to be left un-uttered, you can see and hear the dismal results on an episode of The Tube. It’s a great example of the catty shittiness that infected the London and New York punk scenes.

 
There were a number of guitar pioneers who, by accident of taste and ability or anti-rock design invented the spiky stylings of post-punk. The use of extreme treble (often through excruciating HH amplifiers) was a statement against the earth rumbling power of heavy rock Gibsons through Marshall stacks. In fact, a stack (speakers on top of speakers) was seen, by itself, as an almost comical indication of being a guitar hero wanker. Keith Levene jumped feet first into the effects, used in the late 1970s, to excoriate hearing rather than decorate. John McKay and John McGeoch of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Andy Gill of Gang of Four, Paul Foad and Lesley Woods of Au Pairs The Edge of U2, and a whole heap more were ladling chorus and echo on thin, harsh, discordant chimes. Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers’s gorgeous rhythm style subverted and squeezed, closer to the original ‘chicken scratch’ funk on which it was based, but often with open strings and a deliberate removal of any swing. If post-punk was funky, it was accidental.
 
Keith Levene’s position at the epicentre of UK punk rock meant that he enjoyed and then suffered from the mass of attention that brought, elevated to the position of a prime innovator but having to carry that weight of expectation as well as maintaining the required attitude that often meant a certain amount of mental harm and financial hardship as a result of telling people, many who deserved it, to fuck off.
 
There will be, for the boomers, a tsunami of cultural hero deaths in the coming years, in fact, it’s already started. The response to Keith Levene’s demise is a good example to all of us, to look out and remember forgotten names and give them some due.

Tim London

Tim London is a musician, music producer and writer. Originally from a New Town in Essex he is at home amidst concrete and grand plans for the working class. Tim's latest thriller, Smith, is available now. Find out more at timothylondon.com


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