Recalling PiL: The Commercial Zone Era with Keith Levene and Maureen Baker
In the early 1980’s Public Image Limited moved to New York where they met photographer Maureen Baker. For Louder Than War Kathy Di Tondo considers the results of this coming together of diverse talents.
They were a company, not a band!
Formed in 1978, in the aftermath of the British punk rock movement. They held the promise of all that punk could be…or should be.
Artistic? Avant-Garde? Alternative? Post-punk?
All of these terms appear much too limited. In retrospect, it appears they were decades ahead of the rest. We are only now getting to understand what they really were all about.
They were called Public Image Ltd or PiL for short. Maybe ‘unlimited’ was more like it. At least, that was the intention during the first years of the company’s existence.
‘I like to think we were unique,’ says PiL shareholder and founding member, Keith Levene.
‘Yes, we really were a company. A proper company. We were registered. We had meetings. Minutes were taken, and so on’ adds Levene.
And during the first few years of PiL’s existence, London was home base.
The company has relocated operations to, where else, but the hub of the global financial world: Manhattan. Flowers of Romance had been released. Next up: Commercial Zone.
‘We’d fulfilled a certain potential with Flowers. Now, we needed a cross-over. PiL needed to do something to expand into an abstract area, which I called the Commercial Zone. It was now or never. This was it. The fourth album had to deliver, but in a different and better way than the first three did.’ Levene explains.
Enter one talented young photographer named Maureen Baker.
‘I met Maureen through Bob Tulipan,’ Levene recalls. ‘Bob was immediately brought on board to act as the needed missing business link we were all looking for.’
‘Bob was a can do American guy who was into business as well as music. Actually, I saw him as a member of PiL. And he, in turn, saw the potential of the company. We got along from day one. As far as I was concerned, he and I were the only two at the time who were doing anything to truly advance the PiL agenda by exploiting the company’s full potential. And not be just another band,’ states Levene.
Meantime, Baker’s keen artistic eye was there to document it all.
Baker had unfettered access to PiL, an enterprise that even seasoned journalists feared approaching. And she delivered … in spades.
Recently, Baker decided that a slew of previously unseen material from her association with PiL should see the light of day. In doing so, Baker recalls how she herself entered the Commercial Zone.
‘When I first met PiL, they were living on the west side of Manhattan. Everyone else was on the east side,’ Baker laughs.
This dichotomy seemed to sum up the PiL ethos perfectly. If everyone else turned left, PiL would instinctively turn right. In short, PiL saw and did things differently. And were well proud of it.
Although Baker has photographed a number of performers and acts, she immediately recognized that PiL was special. ‘I liked PiL a lot. I even used their song The Public Image as the intro to the radio show I hosted back then,’ Baker points out.
While recalling the ambiance where Commercial Zone was spawned, Baker explains as follows:
‘Manhattan in the early 1980s was a very different place than it is today. Back then it was the world’s playground. It was truly an exciting time. You simply had to be there to appreciate what it was like. It was utterly amazing.’
Baker was invited to participate in the first PiL live event following the infamous Ritz Riot show. The Ritz was a well-known club in Manhattan at the time. PiL’s show was intended to exploit the cutting-edge technology which resided at the Ritz. Levene noted that the technology which was housed there was not being used to any potential.
‘It took a great deal of effort to explain to the Ritz management not to promote the show as a typical gig but as an interactive video event starring PiL. Im not sure what they did. But the people who turned up appeared to want Johnny Rotten and the ex-Pistols maybe? They demanded a traditional show. I wish they would have stayed with us a bit longer that night so as to allow things to unfold as I had envisioned’, Levene explains. ‘What I had in mind never saw the light of day at the Ritz. It still hasnt been done to this day.’
Next destination for PiL following the aborted Ritz event was Manhattan’s Roseland Ballroom with Baker on board.
When asked if she ever felt intimidated by the audiences who came out to see PiL, Baker responded ‘No, However, the Roseland show certainly had its moments.
‘I was up against the stage behind the barricade,’ Baker explains. ‘At one point, the barrier completely collapsed and the fans all came forward, but I didnt get hurt.’
Baker points out that PiLs audience members were extremely diverse. They ran the gamut from the art crowd to punks.
Upon hearing this, Levene adds with a smile ‘Not to mention the geeks who, like me, were into the latest technology!’
There would always be a bunch of intelligent-looking guys with glasses on my side of the stage who appeared to be completely enamoured with my gear and the make of the leads I was using,’ Levene says.
At one point during the interview, Baker asks Levene if he remembered how the audience would throw coins up on stage at the members of PiL. On occasion they would miss their mark and Baker would get hit by some of the flying nickels and quarters. Levene and the other members of PiL were also occasionally struck by these projectiles. He jokes, ‘Maybe Johnny should have had them throw paper money instead!’
Baker’s photographs were shot from various vantage points, the stage itself, lying on the floor in between the bands monitors, hanging from the sound system rig high up. You name it, Baker got the shot. This is particularly remarkable because her philosophy was to ‘stay out of sight’ as much as possible so as not to interrupt the performance.
‘Maureens approach was very different from many others. I have had cameras stuck in my face by stalker types. But Maureen was very quiet and stealth when she worked,’ remembers Levene. ‘She went about things in a professional manner. Always. She got the shot, but she never got in the way.’
Although the members of PiL were supportive of Baker, this was not the case with every photographer who attempted to photograph them.
‘I remember during one particular show, another photographer was also taking pictures. But the band refused to look at her. They only looked at me. After that show, this particular photographer broke down in tears and decided to hang up her camera that very night,’ Baker remarks.
Baker was clearly a part of the company herself. While referencing one photograph of the band, ‘You’ll note they all had red hair in this shot. I did too. This is because we all decided to dye our hair red.’
Baker’s association with PiL ended several months before Levene himself left the company. In their years since leaving the Commercial Zone, both Baker and Levene have busied themselves with a variety of other projects.
Although she has always been involved in photography amongst other artistic endeavours, Baker has also operated a successful business management company. When asked about her personal philosophy on successfully managing musicians, writers and other artists, Baker points out that there is no cookie-cutter approach to same.
Baker simply puts it this way: ‘What you need to know is this: Each artist is a individual and must be treated that way.’
Levene has been involved in an array of activities in the three decades since leaving PiL. Although he is probably best known for his legendary guitar work, he also plays bass, drums, synthesizer, and keyboards. He has released a few projects in his own name including Violent Opposition and Killer in the Crowd and has worked with a number of other artists. Moreover, Levene has produced a number of other acts, and has written scores for film. Additionally, he has been involved in the computer industry.
At the present time, Levene is working on a number of new projects, including a few that Baker is involved in.
‘I asked Maureen if she’d be interested in contributing some unseen photographs to my upcoming release Absolute Search, the sister release to Search4AbsoluteZeRo which I released earlier this year, and Maureen agreed,’ Levene says.
‘In many ways, Absolute Search is about unfinished business from my association with PiL,’ he adds, which ended in 1983 over creative differences regarding the Commercial Zone project.’I never got the chance to finish that project with PiL,’’ explains Levene. ‘Maureen was around to document what was happening during that very period. I consider her part of the A team, and I welcome this chance to integrate her work with mine. So, naturally, I’m really happy to be able to pick up where things left off.’
Levene also states that Bakers work will appear in his forthcoming non-memoir entitled This is Not an Autobiography: The Diary of a Non-Punk Rocker. A few teasers from that project has already appeared on Levene’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, with full-blown outtakes to be made available through Levenes website.
‘I always look for the magic in things. And theres certainly magic involved in reconnecting with Maureen,’ Levene says.
‘I was supposed to play Tokyo with PiL, but didnt get the chance to do so because I chose to leave rather than compromise the integrity of the Commercial Zone project.’
Levene continues, ‘I didnt like where things were going with PiL. The company I signed on for in 1978 was becoming a completely different proposition in 1983. I think the work sort of reflects that. Then fast forward, 29 years later. In February 2012, I was supposed to do a Metal Box in Dub show in Tokyo with Jah Wobble, but that didnt happen due to an error with paperwork that was fixed a couple months later.’
‘Although Wob and I played Mount Fuji and had a great time doing it, I havent played Tokyo yet. Tokyo and Manhattan are the two venues I think of in context of the Commercial Zone I have in mind. Neither have seen the light of day, not as of yet anyway. And guess what? Maureen was in both places. We were together in Manhattan in the early 1980s and then she travelled to Tokyo in 2012 to see the one Metal Box in Dub show that never happened.’
Thus, Levene explains that there’s ‘definitely unfinished business with Maureen, and the time is now to address that.’
Keith Levene’s Search4AbsoluteZero, AbsoluteSearch and his forthcoming non-memoir entitled This is Not an Autobiography: The Diary of a Non-Punk Rocker (scheduled to drop on May 1, 2013) are available now exclusively through his current website and his new Keith Levene Live website.
All words by Kathy Di Tondo. More work by Kathy on Louder Than War can be found here.
Photographs by Maureen Baker.