Interview: Keith Levene

Founding member of The Clash and Public Image Limited, Keith Levene has had a busy couple of years. His latest book, Meeting Joe: Joe Strummer the Clash and Me packs a heavy punch as the legendary guitarist seeks to address the truths (and mistruths) of his life as a 17-year-old music lover and future trailblazer. Kathy DiTondo caught up with the man himself to see what lies within:

How did you become involved with the Clash?
I formed the Clash. I was a founding member although there are certain people who have elected to rewrite history and create this myth that I was some mere apostrophe in the history of that band. I was a kid looking to be in a band. It was the only thing that mattered to me and most of my friends. I was 16 and going on 17. This was about a year or so after I’d roadied for the prog rock band, Yes. I made the migration to West London from my family’s home in North London and saw this incredible and exciting new scene forming: the punk scene. I was exactly at the right place at exactly the right time. After a while I met Mick Jones which led to meeting Bernard Rhodes and the rest is history… that apparently matters [laughing].

You talk about dispelling certain myths regarding the formation of the Clash in your book. What myths specifically are you referring to?
There’s loads of things that have been said over the years that I address in my book. Where do I start? Here’s one: Mick Jones met Joe Strummer on a Lisson Grove dole queue and invited him to join the Clash. That’s absolute bollocks. We’ve all done our time on the Lisson Grove dole queue and it certainly could have happened that way but it didn’t. How did Joe meet Mick? He met Mick after I brought Joe into the situation and that’s probably how Paul [Simonon] and Terry [Chimes] met him as well.

How did the Clash come together?
Mick and I wanted to form our dream band. It was the most important thing to both of us. We started off playing electric guitars not-plugged-in in bedrooms including at Mick’s grandma’s place on the Harrow Road above the Westway. Mick would say things like “these are the songs Keith!” He would be sitting there with his long hair and velvet jacket and blue suede winkle pickers. Mick would show me certain songs. He romanced me in a way by playing this Small Faces tune, ‘I’m Only Dreaming’. I’m like “this guy is great!” I assumed all the songs that were going to be his would be at least as good as this. I figured if he could play ‘I’m Only Dreaming’, that was the bar.

I’ve read that Bernard Rhodes gave Joe Strummer an ultimatum… ?
Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that too. That story that Bernard supposedly threatened Joe with a “you have 24 or 48 hours or whatever (to leave your life with the 101ers and join what was then an unnamed and untested band).” Nonsense! Bernard didn’t give anybody an ultimatum over anything. I wasn’t given an ultimatum to leave the Clash and Joe wasn’t given an ultimatum to join the Clash. Joe decided on his own volition. Joe was his own man and he’d never allow someone to push him around like that and especially over a decision that big. Joe cared about people. I saw the pain in his eyes when he finally decided to give us a chance. Not because it wasn’t the right move for him but because it meant he then had to go back to the squat where he lived with all his mates and basically tell them it was over.

What was it like being in the Clash with Joe?
I admired Joe. How could you not? Joe was almost five years older than me. That’s a huge difference when you’re a 17 years old kid. Still we got along well. I liked Joe as a person and the feeling was mutual. He had a lot of wonderful qualities. Joe was a great guy to be in a band with. He was without a doubt an ideal front man to have. Joe was open. He always wanted to make things better. I believe that’s what he liked about me. It was a given. Joe also knew the unspoken thing the band is everything and that the band came first. I got along great with Joe and Paul and Terry and even Mick at first.

It’s been said that you were fired from the Clash?
No. Absolutely not. That never happened. It was a personal decision for me to leave.There was no firing. Part of it had to do with Mick, who, in my eyes, went from being the most exciting person on the scene to this complete jerk.

There was absolutely no pleasing him once the band started coming together. It was as if I could do nothing right in his eyes.

What do you mean?
Where do I begin? [laughing] He’d yell at me for being late for band rehearsals that had never been scheduled in the first place. When he got mad at me he was like a drama queen who was impossible to please. On top of this Mick was inflexible in terms of developing music in different areas and not simply sticking to one predictable thing. That was huge to me. When we first met he’d appeared to be so open-minded and interested in different forms of music. That’s what convinced me to want to start up a band with him. But he wasn’t. It’s a shame because I’d started writing music fairly soon in the process. In Meeting Joe I describe how I wrote ‘What’s My Name’ on stage at the 4 July 1976 gig at the Black Swan. I had a lot more tunes in me at that time.

You have just released a Meeting Joe EP to accompany the book. Tell me about that project and why you did it.
The EP was something I was composing as we were finishing off the book. The book and EP started feeding into each other. The EP is comprised of all new tunes with the exception of ‘What’s My Name’: I wrote it with Joe on stage at that Clash/Sex Pistols gig in Sheffield. As there is no Joe… there is no vocal on it on the EP. It’s instrumental. All the tunes on the EP apply to Joe. One is called ‘Greyhound Dream’. If you listen to it and start thinking about the Joe you are reading about in the book: it fits. It summons up the Joe described in the book. Really you have to read the book and hear the tunes to understand what I’m saying here. The music is romantic and dreamy, like Joe.

Meeting Joe: Joe Strummer, the Clash & Me is available on Amazon Kindle

A signed hard copy version with added content, photos and the Meeting Joe EP is available at

Photo courtesy of Cindy Stern.

Kathy DiTondo

Pete Cary

Pete Cary

Pete Cary

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