Keith Levene (P.I.L., The Clash)
by Interviews

Keith Levene has one of the greatest resumes in punk rock. He was an early member of the Clash and actually drafted Joe Strummer into the band. After that, he was in the Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious. After that, he formed P.I.L. with John Lydon, and in doing so, helped create (or maybe even created) post-punk with his distant, frenetic, unstable guitar tones.

But, as with many bands, there was friction. While recording what would be P.I.L.’s fourth album, he split with Lydon and headed to America. There, on his own, he released the unfinished album as Commercial Zone. Meanwhile, P.I.L. released This is What You Want… This is What You Get using Levene’s compositions, but new sound recordings with new musicians. The result is an album that exists in two forms, but is complete in neither.

Now, Levene is raising funds to release a completed version of the album through an Indie Go Go campaign. Because Levene is working on a new version of that mysterious release, features Editor John Gentile spoke to him about what broke up P.I.L. in the first place, the new release, how Levene is hand-making the cover art and some classic punk rock history.

Commercial Zone is the point where you left P.I.L. What was it like in the band at that time?
It was quite funny because we arranged to do all this, but we didn’t even have a band at that point. It was just me and John Lydon. John was off doing a movie initially, with Harvey Keitel. I had this idea that we could really make it on the fourth album. We could consolidate and really make a cool album.

We ended up in America, and because we were there, Virgin put out an advance. It kind of put us into a different mode.. I was working on a soundtrack and just started composing stuff. John came back, and our manger pulled in Pete Jones and Martin Atkins. It was a built-in band, so bang! You had P.I.L. again.

It was good. We were trying to save the band as well. I knew that we were on the edge of something and I thought Commercial Zone would pull it back together.

Why do you think on the verge of pulling the band back together, the band split up. Was it artistic differences? Personal differences? Were you guys not getting along?
Not getting along, definitely. We spent too much time together, definitely. P.I.L. was such an intense ride. It so should have, could have made it. People are still talking about it now, so it sort of did. It had this magic about it -- the first band after the Sex Pistols and me walking away from the Clash and all that. Let’s face it. People do talk about them now -- people talk everyone now, though.

It all seemed so possible and it all went so wrong. I had to be honest. Even if I could release Commercial Zone as what I thought that it could be, John just wasn’t going to step up to the plate. It just wasn’t to be. Commercial Zone should have been the one that whacked it out of the park.

With CZ2014, I intend to make good on that. I intend on making the fourth P.I.L. album, I really am. So, it’s unfinished business. I walked away from a lot. I walked away from a cool series of gigs in Japan. I had these Japanese people’s ear and they were really into it.

I was pissed off. I was sort of "I’m irreplaceable, so replace me!" I mean, I didn’t actually say that, but I did say, "I’m done! I’m not going to Japan." I did give them just enough time to replace me for Japan. In a way, I didn’t want to leave, but I knew once I said that I was done.

I had been through a lot -- tons of studio time and really long schedules. It wasn’t so much artistic differences, as it was differences -- the bickering. I had just had enough.

Do you think John Lydon was sad that you left, or do you think he was glad that he was now in charge of P.I.L.?
Well, he was always the main guy in P.I.L. anyway. I definitely wasn’t in charge -- no one was, really. It was usually the best idea wins. It was supposed to be more than just music, and it was. I wasn’t in charge of the music, either. Though, I did make a massive contribution, guitar and otherwise.

I do think John was sad I left, but he was too proud to say anything. He didn’t say anything like, "We can work it out." But, in fact, we did work it out. I had a chat with John the night before I let them go in and mix "This Is Not A Love Song." That makes it sound like I was in charge of the band. Ha!

I said, "Listen, all you have to do is go in there, play it back, and make a monotone mix, and there you have it." The same day, I said, "Listen, I know things haven’t been copacetic, but it’s me, man." We were all hugs and everything. The next day he had to go off to LA to hire a lawyer -- not for the band, but for him. So, maybe I was missing something anyway.

I had to go back into the studio to mix "This Is Not A Love Song" as a single mix. They did this dub thing, which I’m sure is great, but it’s not a single. For all the effort that I put in, I had to go in there and just nail the single. And that’s when we had a big blow up. The next morning, we delivered these tapes to these Japanese guys, and I said, "By the way guys, I will not be in Japan." John was in LA and that was it. That was the walkout.

When P.I.L. first formed, your playing was extremely different than the rest of the guys in the punk rock scene. Were you bored with the punk rock sound?
Well, I was aware of the punk rock sound. Let’s face it, when I walked into the first Sex Pistols gig, they nailed it. I think the quintessential punk album is Never Mind the Bollocks. So I had that pressure on me because we had John in the band. The first thing we did was call him John Lydon, which said something.

I don’t like punk rock. I think it sucks. I love the feeling that it gave me, a 17 year old walking into the Nashville. I was a fan of Yes, and all these prog bands, Emerson Lake and Palmer -- you name it. I was into all the '60s band. I had all these influences.

Was your new sound in P.I.L. a tactical choice to differentiate yourself from the other groups?
Absolutely. I didn’t want to play lead. Anyone could play lead. Look at this Van Halen guy -- that proves anyone could do it. Look at YouTube today. I knew what not to do. I didn’t want to play like Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page. I didn’t want to be like any of these guys. I knew what not to do. I wanted to play really fast rhythm as lead. I wanted to be different, but I didn’t want to splash it all over.

Did you know that your independent pressing of Commercial Zone would cause a ruckus between you and the rest of P.I.L.?
Oh, the ruckus had already happened. By the time I pressed it, I had [Virgin Records owner] Richard Branson talking to me saying, "Oh, Keith, I really like it!" because he hadn’t heard the other version. "I want to release it," he said. So I said, "Well, Richard, release it! And if you’re not going to, I will." So, he gave me some money and some of the publishing and this was under the understanding that I wasn’t going to be in P.I.L. anymore.

I went off and released it. I did a deal with someone in New York to press 10,000. He said, "I can’t press it! Richard Branson is going to sue me." I said, "No, I talked to him." He said to me, "Well, I believe you too, Keith, but I still don’t want to put it out." So, they pressed it for me. I gave them their money back, something like $8,500, which was a lot of money back then. I wasn’t in a band, anymore. I was completely cut off. All my equipment -- every fucking thing -- I couldn’t get any of it back. It wasn’t like I left the band and it was harmonious -- Keith picks up his equipment and left. Everything that was in that loft, I lost.

Why is now a good time to release Commercial Zone 2014?
Well, I’m so much better now then I was then. I can real-time compose now. I’m better than I was and I still want to do it. I was doing these different projects and I realized that there was one more thing that I had to finish. I had to ground the situation and put the album out proper, with fantastic custom covers. Suddenly, it all came together. Bang! It’s the whole P.I.L. ethos. It’s not just music.

I’ll do the Commercial Zone shows, and arrange them, and it will be great, but I’m only going to do them in a few places. I’m not going to go play around pubs. It’s all different now. Bands are done. There will always be bands, but it’s supposed to be exciting. I won’t showcase it, but I do want to play the album live.

Are you saying that rock bands are past their due date and aren’t exciting anymore?
Well, weren’t we saying that in P.I.L., really? Bands go on tours and they talk about rock and roll. With P.I.L.. we’d say we were rock, but a little bit past that. It’s that pioneering spirit when you’re a kid. I pulled off being a unique guitarist because I was a kid and could think that I could pull it off, and I did.

Well, what do you think is musically exciting, now?
I’m really trying to think hard… I got a buzz… you’re not going to like this. I really like Darryl Hall and John Oates and Duran Duran -- I just like hit records. I like what Nile Rodgers did with Pharrell. But in the same time, I think it’s insipid. I just like the music. Pharrell just gets on my tits. If you think about, if some kids just formed some band, and it was dynamite -- what’s gonna happen? What’s gonna happen? It’s done, man.

When you think about it, bands that came from Elvis and solidified by the Beatles -- it’s done. You hear it today and it’s auto-tuned, it just sounds like a mass of Macintosh computers in sleep mode, composing. I can sit in a coffee place -- just awful, awful bland fast food music playing. I can’t think of anything good coming out. What’s the last record I bought? "Oh Well" by Fleetwood Mac -- I downloaded it two nights ago. The record I bought before that was "Make It Easy." If there was something new out there to download, I’d do it.

Well, Keith, I actually like Hall and Oates, too! I think I give Pharrell a little more leeway. I think he’s sort of a Marvin Gaye-type character.
The thing about that is, I’m in England. I’m too far away from him. He’s a little bit too controlled, for me. You can count on Giorgio and Nile Rogers. I do think he’s good, I just wonder how much of a composer he is. "Happy…" ughhhhhh… On Commercial Zone 2014, you’re hand-making a lot of the covers that people can get. It’s sort of like the artwork that accompanied the famed Metal Box album.
It’s different now. It’s not like I’m just making a record. That’s a big deal. It’s me, I’m making the whole thing. I like to think that I’m putting out something much more interesting than the Metal Box. With the Metal Box, we knew that we were making much more than the first album. I had learned a lot. The concept of putting it in something with a key -- Metal Box went down very well.

When I did the original Commercial Zone I did make custom ones, with found art. It might have skateboard grip tape or computer programs hanging off of it.

I’ve carried that tradition on with Commercial Zone 2014. There are two types of covers. One is hand-signed, stamped, and numbered which I’ll do. Then there are these textured covers. It’s all on Indie Go Go right now.

The textured one is wearable, washable. You can live it and it will form its own ecosystem. They’re all different and feel amazing. They’ll all be unique. I haven’t made them yet. My sister and I always had this idea with 3D and textures and implementing it into the pictures. A lot of covers are very sterilized, like a Polaroid. I’m trying to make this release something lasting. Maybe if you leave them, they’ll develop an ant’s nest or something.

Let’s talk a little bit about history. I believe you and Bernie Rhodes went to a 101ers gig to draft Joe Strummer into the Clash.
The Clash wasn’t called the Clash then. We had another vocalist then. He was never going to be it and he knew it. He was good. I told Bernie, "There’s this guy Joe. He’s totally in the wrong band but he’s totally the right guy!" I knew Joe. We weren’t mates -- well, we were mates, but we didn’t hang out. He lived in this squat with his hippie friends -- and I’m not saying "Oooh oooh! Hippies!" I’m a hippie. I liked those guys. They came and painted the Rehearsal Rehearsals of the Clash.

We went to this 101ers gig, and Bernie saw it, and there’s this guy in a Zoot Suit, and he’s looking cool. It was very "Elvis has left the building." I called Joe over and I talked him into it. I was playing with him in a small, soundproof tune in a squat. I played him a 101ers tune and was like, "You should do it like this." And he was like, "I love it! I love it! I’m going to do it!" At that age, it’s all about not letting your mates down.

But, the grand irony is, that when you saw him years later, he sort of acted like he didn’t know you.
How’d you know this?!

Keith, I had to do my research. You are a legend!
Thank you! I had been living in LA after Commercial Zone and everyone was. Hence, Joe Strummer was there. I had been in a rehearsal room with Flea, just doing things, and one day, I’m packing up and Joe walks in. I go, "Oh Joe! It’s Joe!" But he was all, "I don’t know whether to say hi to you or not." So, I was all, "Fuck it, I don’t have time to deal with it." But really, I was pretty hurt by it. I could tell pretty quickly, I was getting a blank response and just sort of went out on my way. I think that was the last time that I saw him.

When you were in The Flowers of Romance with Sid, the infamous "Belsen was a Gas" was written, but no one knows who wrote it.
Sid wrote it. Sid wrote the words. I wrote the music. It was like "Religion" from P.I.L. I remember John walking up to me with this smirk and walked away. then bang, within seven minutes, I had the rhythm. With "Belsen," Sid was laughing, and I knew what it needed, and banged it out.

People often portray Sid as this dumb guy that couldn’t play an instrument. But, you had a different perspective, I believe.
Well, it’s not a perspective, I hung out with Sid for years. He’s my friend and I know him. He was highly intelligent, and potentially geeky. He had a je ne sais quoi. He was intelligent enough to be able to act like he wasn’t and just have fun. If he didn’t have the pressure in Pistols, he could become a great bass player. He was no Glen Matlock, but he could have been, if he had the interest. In fact, Sid could do anything if he had the interest. Sid was totally intelligent and totally capable.

Sid as a person was really developing. Malcolm wanted Sid for the Sex Pistols and we said, "Sid, you have to do it." We had been styling him up, just for fun. We were walking around in the West End and people are taking pictures. Sid was a big character. He was destined to be something. Malcolm wanted him for the Pistols and it really fitted.

I remember Nancy. He did love her. I think it was broken wing syndrome. He wanted to save her. We were young. We didn’t have any frame of reference.