Keith Levene: Founding member of the Clash, dies at 65

Keith Levene, a pioneering guitarist and founding member of both the Clash and Public Image Ltd, died at the age of 65.

Levene died at his home in Norfolk of liver cancer, leaving a lasting legacy of influence on British rock music.

As word of his death spread, musicians praised his impact on the post-punk music scene. Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante is one of his admirers, describing his style as “spectacular” and saying that “he explored the possibilities of what you can do with the guitar.”

Keith Levene: Founding member of the Clash, dies at 65

Levene, who formed the Clash with guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon when he was only 18, was the one who asked Joe Strummer, the frontman of the 101ers at the time, to join them. Fortunately for the Clash, Strummer had just seen the Sex Pistols perform at London’s Nashville Rooms and was convinced that punk was the way to go.

Levene, who was born Julian Levene in Muswell Hill, north London, stayed with the Clash long enough to appear in early gigs and contribute to songs such as What’s My Name on their debut album, released in 1977. However, he became dissatisfied with the Clash’s increasingly political direction and went on to greater success with PiL.

When the Sex Pistols disbanded in January 1978, singer John Lydon (previously known as Johnny Rotten) and Levene formed the new band with bass player John Wardle (known as Jah Wobble). “John made a wise choice getting Keith,” Wobble said in 2012.

Their first album, Public Image: First Issue, reached No 22 in 1978 and was preceded by the classic single Public Image, which reached the Top 10. Their second album, 1979’s Metal Box, is regarded as a post-punk classic. With various drummers, the lineup took inventive new forms of post-punk, dub, freeform jazz and classical music into the Top 20.

Levene said in 2012: “People thought I was classically trained, which was bollocks. I knew the E chord, and ventured into E minor. We laid the music out on a plate for Lydon. He was very hip at the time and did really good work.” He played synthesiser on 1981’s The Flowers Of Romance, which was his last released work with PiL, but he played with Wobble again in subsequent years.

Keith Levene: Founding member of the Clash, dies at 65

In 2021, the website the Quietus described him as “one of the architects of the post-punk sound, his guitar style occupying a space between angular abrasion and pop opulence”.

Levene enjoyed building guitars and had been working on a book about PiL with writer Adam Hammond. His partner, Kate Ransford, who, with his sister, Jill Bennett, and her husband were with him in his final hours, said he had died “peacefully, settled, cosy and loved”. The family have asked for privacy.

The death is the second high profile loss to rock music to have been announced in 24 hours. A spokesperson revealed on Friday that Nik Turner, the co-founder of the British space-rock band Hawkwind, had died at 82.

Announcing the death of the Oxford-born multi-instrumentalist, a statement released on social media said that “the Mighty Thunder Rider” had “passed away peacefully at home,” adding: “He has moved onto the next phase of his cosmic journey, guided by the love of his family, friends, and fans.”

Keith Levene: Founding member of the Clash, dies at 65

Turner’s family relocated to Margate, Kent, when he was 13, where he was first exposed to rock music. After serving in the merchant navy, he traveled and worked throughout Europe while studying the saxophone in his early twenties.

He was introduced to free jazz in Berlin and became convinced that musical self-expression was more important than technique. “I made the decision that I wanted to play free jazz in a rock band.” “That’s basically what I was trying to do with Hawkwind,” he told Mojo magazine in 1999.