Interview: Keith Levene – the founding member of The Clash and PiL talks about his new book

Keith Levene was one of the founding members of The Clash along with Mick Jones, a fact which means that when you find out that he’s been busy at work writing a book, titled “I Was a Teenage Guitarist 4 the Clash!” you take note. Phil Singleton recently met up with Keith via Skype to talk about the book in a lengthy interview, the first part of which he published on his own blog. The second part, however, we’re pleased to have been given permission to present here for you today – check it out after the break.

First off  a bit of background. The book is based on Keith’s diary from 1976 when he was a 17 year old member of The Clash. As the title infers, the book tells the story of the band’s early days from Keith’s perspective.

Phil Singleton, meanwhile, is the blogger responsible for the God Save the Sex Pistols website.

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Interview: Keith Levene – the founding member of The Clash and PiL talks about his new bookPhil Singleton: I Was A Teenage Guitarist 4 The Clash. You’ve had to jog the memory a bit going all that way back. How does it feel?

Keith Levene: This all came about through doing my “this is not an autobiography” book Diary of a Non-Punk Rocker. The idea had come up a lot. People kept asking “when are you doing an autobiography?” I said I’m not, why would I do one? Well, that all changed and I started doing a ton of interviews with Kathy DiTondo, talking about the times, the people, the places and it was quite fucking heavy therapy.

She’d be asking me questions and some of it would be the same old story, and I’d think I’ve told this story a million times, boring, but I’m telling her because she wants to know genuinely and she thinks it’s important. Then I’m realising, fuck – this is heavy duty, this hurts.

So what it evolved into was quite good for me. We were doing Diary of a Non-Punk Rocker, we were zooming in on areas of my life, we had to realise Diary of a Non-Punk Rocker is good but maybe it shouldn’t come out as a book quite yet ‘cos there’s so many stories that warranted closer attention and it could be a great series.

We didn’t plan it this way, it fell into place this way. We were doing this Commercial Zone 2014 campaign, and offered previews from Diary. Kathy came up with “I was A Teenage Guitarist 4 The Clash” and I said “fucking good”. Then I said “let’s do it Commercial Zone style” hand made and with the covers and so on.

Commercial Zone was made 1982/83. I left PiL over it and I’m sure everyone knows the story who is interested. By the time I’d pressed it myself that’s when I started to appreciate what had happened, where the fuck I was. I was this kid, with a skateboard, on the street with a load of records. I was a bloke that used to be in The Clash, used to be in PiL, but it didn’t matter, or it wasn’t going to matter ‘cos I knew that’s what people were like.

So I started making these custom covers. By hand. One offs, Commercial Zone came out as a dub-plate so it was easy to customise. People just loved these custom covers & it wasn’t too difficult to make ’em all unique. People lapped them up. It was great, it made money as well. I could deliver what I believe was the John Martin promise, individual records made for the individual.

Back to The Clash book, when we went to make the prototypes we wanted to make a campaign issue, we wanted it to be physical, because of the precarious nature of downloads we didn’t want it to get out, we wanted it to be special, worth having much like an album cover, hence we started making this… (Keith holds custom made copies to the Skype camera. They are amazing).

Wow! Good grief! 

They are all different, they are all hand printed. They are all put together by me. I sign them to order. I’ll write whatever you want, if you want me to write something stupid, or make something up, fucking great.

Interview: Keith Levene – the founding member of The Clash and PiL talks about his new bookSo it was quite painful looking back to those early days?

I didn’t know how talking about The Clash and the times in-between… I hadn’t realised I didn’t even understand what I was going through. It’s not a sour grapes thing. It’s stuff you just push aside to carry on. You have to continue at certain times. There was a lot of stuff I hadn’t taken stock of. Some of it was about self-recognition, realising who I was and who I am as well. So a highly emotional couple of years I’ve had.

How do you view that period in The Clash?

I was a kid, I was into all sorts of music, The Beatles, reggae, and at the time, prog rock. I’d just finished a tour with Yes as a roadie, which is another story also explained in the book. So basically you’re hanging out with me from when I was about 15 when I got a job with Yes, and then I didn’t get kicked off the tour, but I kinda got told not to come back on another one.

It was amazing for me and then, unplanned I started making this migration to West London and I tell you what happened, I take you there. Like when I met Mick Jones and how I talk about the scene that was emerging: The Pistols weren’t around, but they were, they were just around as I was making this migration. At this time it was more Patti Smith, Eddie and the Hotrods, Dr. Feelgood, The Stranglers.

The Pistols were probably around by then and had done a couple of gigs. I talk about how it came together, simply from my point of view. I don’t start talking about so and so did this and so and so was like this, none of that bollocks. It was fucking great, it was magical and I knew when I went home that weekend something really significant had happened in my life. I didn’t know what it was but I could feel it. All I wanted to do was get a band together so The Clash for me was to become this magic. The magic band that me and Mick wanted and I’m not saying it all fell apart and went sour, but I’m saying a 17 year old kid who probably became 18 by the time he made the decision to leave the band and score a win-win; and thinking he was young enough to be able to pull that off.

You know what I went on to do afterwards, I did some good stuff, but at the time it meant The Clash could be The Clash without any problems like me being difficult every 5 minutes about an idea they wished I wasn’t even suggesting. That was a big thing at the beginning with Bernard Rhodes and me along the lines of what the band could be…… I knew The Clash were going to make it.

Recently I was challenged by the writer (Kathy DiTondo) with an interesting question. “Why did you help form “the only band that mattered” simply to leave it?” Well….what was I to say? Hence we now have an array of books and we’re starting here. Essentially, or in this case – I Was A Teenage Guitarist 4 The Clash. It’s a lot of fun.

The books are all handmade, it’s kinda the spirit of punk rock. It’s about now, using stuff that’s around, not using plastic; the joys of getting and holding the thing in your hand whether you’re going to read it or not. You get a record cover out and you can imagine the music just looking at the cover.

If you could have your time again, would you leave The Clash when you did?

Obviously that’s what this book is about. I knew what I was doing when I did it, I knew they were going to make it. I should have made it a bit more – because they made it. If I had to do it all again – yeah, I’d do everything I did. I’m saying it a bit reluctantly because I haven’t had the easiest time but I think I knew at the time I was choosing the less travelled path every time I made a decision. The fact I’m sitting talking to you means that I’m OK and the fact I’m still here means that I can.

I’ve got great music, I’ve got enthusiasm, I’m learning; I’m more useless at guitar than when I’d been playing for a year. I’m looking forward to this Commercial Zone 2014 release. I’m probably going to do a rendition of What’s My Name – it’s part of the therapy course.

Interview: Keith Levene – the founding member of The Clash and PiL talks about his new bookYou’re credited on the LP with co-writing that. Are there any others you had a hand in or feel you didn’t get the credit for?

If you want to be just cold light of day, down to earth, realistic, I should’ve been credited for all of What’s My Name. If I wasn’t going to have a credit in any of the others, I should have been credited for a third of the album as a whole.

I’m not going to pretend for a second I wrote Protex Blue or Janie Jones or I’m so Bored with You. I’m not going to say I had anything to do with writing – ‘cos Mick came to me with tunes – but I had a lot to do with how The Clash are and were, and definitely the way we sounded initially.

There’s other stuff in there. Me and Mick both wanted to get a band together. How we got the band together initially, how Joe was drafted in. When you think of The Clash, who do you think of first? Joe or Mick?

It’s close, but Joe followed by Mick.

Essentially it was Mick and mine’s band. We put the band together. We got Joe in. This is all covered in the book. It’s told in a funny style. We didn’t make it funny, it just is funny. When we were 85% through the book, I did get the little feeling; I could make this a bit spicier. But once you do that you’re fucked! So, it’s not spicy, it’s real.

Do you cover your first meeting with Sid and so on?

It’s all in The Clash book!

Where I met Sid, where I kept seeing him, what he said to me when I came up to him. I talk about John being there, when I finally got together with Sid. John was there with various people who ended up in PiL.

When I’m talking about The Clash days I’m talking about the Davis Road squat where Viv Albertine from The Slits lived. Mick Jones was pretty much resident there. Paul Simonon was officially there after The Clash formed, suddenly he was homeless, it was a case of “guess you’re in”.

How did you feel seeing The Clash and other friends such as Sid having success in 1977? Did you wish you were a part of the action? Your own success came a little later with PiL.

I was having action! (laughing) It was a really good time. There were lots of funny little conflicts that happened in The Clash. Bernard Rhodes said you have to lose all your old friends. No-one was doing it but he certainly tried to. Friends got a whiff of this and could tell there was something a bit exclusive going on. I was on the bus going somewhere and it was maybe 4 days after this thing happened in Rehearsal Rehearsals that I wasn’t going to be in The Clash very soon. I was with Stuart, he said something then added, “But you won’t be able to do it because you’ll be in rehearsals with The Clash” and I said to Stuart that I’d left and he said “Oh, welcome back!”

Then I ended up in Pinner, hanging out with my old mates The other thing I was doing was working with Ken Lockie. That’s when I ran into Paul Jones but that’s at the end of that period because 3 days later, PiL was conceptually in the bag. It goes into it in the book exactly what happened with me and John way before that and The Clash.

The reason they look like they do is that I’m not putting out big album covers, I’m putting out books. When you read the book you’ll see there’s another side to me. It’s accurate from my point of view. It’s not accurate in history. It is what happened. If you are outside the situation or looking at it in hindsight, it’s probably not accurate. But everything in there is factual, that’s how it happened to me.

It’s exciting, because it’s about a band coming together, it’s not about a band splitting up. It about how a band came together that didn’t even have a name. And they became “the only band that mattered.” It’s about the band, it’s about the time, it’s about me, and it’s about the scene. The stuff I talk about really happened.

 

Get a copy of “I Was A Teenage Guitarist 4 the Clash!” by Keith Levene and find out more info about it by clicking THIS LINK.

For the full in-depth interview with Keith, where he talks in length about his current projects and a whole lot more, visit sex-pistols.net.

All words © Phil Singleton and Keith Levene 2014.

 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Pretty incoherent. I would’ve liked to see something about influences as a guitarist, eg were John Lennon, Richard Thompson, Lou Reed/Sterling Morrison influences?

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