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Keith Levene, Co-Founder and Guitarist of the Clash and Public Image Ltd, Dies at 65

Musician had been battling live cancer for the past two years
Keith Levene, Public Image Ltd, The Clash
(Photo Credit: Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

Keith Levene, the guitarist and original founding member of influential British punk bands the Clash and Public Image Ltd (PiL), died on Friday (Nov. 11) at the age of 65. Levene’s partner, Kate Ransford, confirmed the news on Twitter. The Guardian reports Levene had been suffering from liver cancer and passed away at his home in Norfolk.

“RIP keith levene. My beloved partner who passed away at our home on 11/11/22 peacefully, painfree, cosy n well loved .he was an iconic guitarist and composer my best friend , my love , my everything , I love you to the moon,” Ransford wrote.

“A sad time to learn of the passing of guitar giant Keith Levene,” PiL drummer Martin Atkins wrote on Twitter. “We had our ups and downs that had mellowed over time. My respect for his unique talent never will.”

Levene was born Julian Levene in 1957 in the suburban London town of Muswell Hill and began his career in music at 15 as a roadie for Yes. In 1976, when he was just 18, he co-founded the Clash alongside Mike Jones, Paul Simonon, and drummer Terry Chimes. Levene, along with the Clash’s manager Bernard Rhodes, was instrumental in recruiting vocalist Joe Strummer, who was playing with the 101ers at the time.

Levene played at some of the Clash’s earliest shows and wrote tracks like “What’s My Name” from its 1977 debut album, but he quickly left the band due to conflicts over its direction.

In 1978, he teamed up with John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), bass player John Wardle (Jah Wobble), and drummer Jim Walker to form Public Image Ltd following the Sex Pistols’ breakup. Levene played on PiL’s iconic post-punk albums such as 1978’s Public Image: First Issue and 1979’s Metal Box, which have proven highly influential in subsequent years.

After leaving PiL in 1983 due to creative differences, Levene moved to Los Angeles two years later, and went on to work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, and Ice T. In 2003, Levene contributed to Atkins’ Pigface project on the album Easy Listening, and in recent years, he released additional solo work as well as collaborations with Wobble. Neither Levene nor Atkins were involved in PiL’s surprising 2009 reunion, which has led to the release of two new studio albums.

Tributes have poured in from a number of Levene’s close friends and colleagues, including Welsh author Adam Hammond, who was working with Levene on a book about Public Image Ltd. He was among the first to post about Levene’s death, hailing the musician as “one of the most innovative, audacious, and influential guitarists of all time.”

“One of my favorite bands of all time’s greatest era,” Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea wrote on Twitter. “The way you four played together, will never happen again, so powerful and hypnotic. Poetic and dissonant, cerebral and animal. What a rhythm what a sound. Everything. Rest In Peace Keith.”

“Just found out Keith Levene passed away. i owe him much of my guitar style, in some ways. he made it possible to be me,” Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe wrote.