Keith Levene: Killer in the Crowd

Keith Levene
Killer in the Crowd
Underground Inc.

Keith Levene is a man erased. His career manages to stand continually in the mere periphery of rock history, a man seemingly doomed to never fully realize the standing he could have in the rock world. He is a man, perhaps, unwilling to fulfill his potential.

A little history, first, for those who need it. Keith Levene went from being a Yes roadie to one of the founding members of the Clash, making him one of the few connecting figures between the prog world and the punk world. Following his departure from the Clash, before the band began releasing albums, he formed the legendary and unrecorded Flowers of Romance along with Sid Vicious and future members of the Slits. Despite these high profile associations, Levene made his recording debut with Public Image Ltd. Although John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) was the voice and the selling point of PiL, Levene’s experimental atonal guitars and keyboards helped to define “post-punk”. Where the Sex Pistols pretended to destroy rock and roll music and the rock and roll mythos, while really only embracing both at their greatest extreme, Levene’s influence helped actually to create a jumpy, disturbing, and thoroughly un-pop alternative to “rock and roll”.

Of course, the lure of the rock and roll myth, for good or for ill, always seems to prevail. John Lydon slowly started creeping back into the pop mainstream, in the all-too familiar guise of the “Antichrist” attempting to destroy the pop mainstream. With Lydon AWOL in the show biz world, Levene took control of the masters of PiL’s fourth album and attempted to wrest artistic control of the band. Lydon, upon hearing the masters, erased most of Levene’s work and released his own version, and proceeded in the next twenty years to destroy all credibility that PiL had given him with money-making reunions and embarrassing forays into reality TV.

When Lydon erased Levene’s contributions, he seemed to effectively erase Levene himself. Apart from a few EPs, and a few highly entertaining and informative interviews, Levene was not only absent from the music world, but rarely even mentioned. Part of the post-punk ethos was the inclination for radical simplification, of stripping down music to its barest skeletal form. It seemed that as Levene was living his post-PiL life, releasing a handful of scraps and making a few, unnoticed, guest appearances, he was trying to apply this ethos to his own life, perhaps consciously avoiding making a full musical statement (the decision, of course, an oblique musical statement all of its own).

Killer in the Crowd, a limited edition EP, seems to continue this reduction. It is Levene’s first release in ten years, but it hardly seems to even qualify as a release. It is a mere five tracks that clock in at a total of fifteen minutes. The album is over before it even has time for the listener to register that it has begun. Of these five tracks are two straightforward rock instrumentals, “Sound Stage One” and “Object B”, which present Levene as a sort of anti-Steve Vai, a lead guitarist who refuses to lead. The chugging main riff of “Sound Stage One” is provided by bassist Dan Hyams, the only non-Levene musician on the entire album, while Levene’s guitar is almost inaudible. On “Object B”, Levene’s guitar is again on the outskirts, this time obscured by charging synth-strings. It is true that Levene is playing all the instruments, but the guitar has always been the “personality” instrument in rock and roll, and by limiting the effectiveness of his signature instrument on these tracks, he seems to be content on continuing to pull a Lydon on himself and erase himself from his own music.

What follows is even more puzzling, the 43-second “Aztec Legend”, a fever dream approximation of the opening credits to an imagined foreign film, and, then, an extended dub rendition. Too short to make an impression, but too strange to ignore, these bizarre, tossed-off tracks make explicit the implicit statement of the opening instrumentals: there is no coherent personality involved in making this disc. This is a collection of fragments, some fascinating and others dull, that seem to come from nowhere and from no one in particular. The concluding “Killer in the Crowd”, featuring Levene’s full on guitar assault and vocals, sounds contrived and pale after the unnerving strangeness that precedes it. It seems like it should be a rock song, but it sounds wrong, like an alien in a new body trying to figure out how to act human. It is an ingenious mimicry of a “rock and roller”, a brutal, blast that nonetheless feels cold. The video included on the EP, filled with blurry footage of an unidentified band and a few random shots of Levene alone, reinforce this alienation.

Killer in the Crowd is just a prelude to Levene’s first full length-album ever. Perhaps on the full-length he will manage to discover how to assert his musical identity, as fractured and multifaceted as it may be, without succumbing into rock clich√©. Killer in the Crowd is fascinating, yet ultimately unrewarding. The publicity remarks that with this recording, Levene has ended his public silence. This seems wrong. Killer in the Crowd is just silence made up of notes.