Genius In The Crowd
And it is written in the New Testament of Punk, dear children, that after Johnny left the Brazilian Cabaret version of the Sex Pistols he ran off with his mate John Wardle, now trading as Jah Wobble, and founded Public Image Limited, the great off-white hope of 1978. How good it was to hear for the first time the new sneery wail and the glue-the-ornaments-down bass rumble they kicked up on the eponymous hit single. But at least as fresh and startling was the new unit's guitar sound, which transcended anything else wonderful Radio One would ever have on in the daytime in those days. An incandescent shivery howl, the exact instrumental equivalent of Rotten's voice, it was produced by Keith Levene, a 21-year-old refugee from the Clash (and quondam Yes roadie) who went on to create some of the highlights of both PiL's first album and, more especially, of the joyous Metal Box ('Death Disco', a scornful diffusion of the Swan Lake theme; 'Radio 4', a totally unexpected trippy keyboard thing). Post-Wobble the duo and their rhythm section turned the amps up to 11 for the utterly extraordinary Flowers of Romance (think big beats in the Casbah, with violins thrown in) before splitting acrimoniously during the making of Commercial Zone, which John subsequently recut as This is What You Want..., and out of which he got a big single ('This Is Not A Love Song'). To the outsider, things went a bit quiet for Keith after that. One LP surfaced in 1989 and there was a series of obscure collaborations (including playing alongside Glen Matlock for a while), but nothing came out that --in those pre-Internet days-- Joe Punter was going to be able to lay his hands on with any ease.
And now the good news: Keith is back, looking rather less like an angelic blond guttersnipe and rather more like Chris Langham, with an EP, Killer in the Crowd and some possibility of a new LP in the offing. The title track of the new disc kicks, as I believe young people say, some serious ass, with lots of heavy guitar washes and twiddly keyboards, Levene's own vocals surprisingly convincing and individual, with a grungy sore-throated edge. If I say the effect is slightly like The Professionals going dance-crazy, I really do mean it as a compliment, though like all the best music it is the wrong shape to be stuck in a pigeon-hole. The other new tracks I've heard veer slightly towards World Music, with oriental influences and juddery percussion. There are echoes of the PiL days there, but it's fresh material that's been crafted with a lot of subtleties that only emerge on repeat listens (think of the way classic My Bloody Valentine slowly unravels as you replay it, how the elements you didn't get before emerge).
It's always nice to welcome the return of a giant who's been out of things a bit. The well-informed Tangents reader will do their duty to culture, history, and outsider art by hoying over to Levene Central at www.murderglobal.com and reminding themselves what they really love about those gorgeous, sustaining poptones.
© 2002 Mike Morris
© 2002 Mike Morris