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FM to WEB: An exclusive article by Keith Levene on Clash

I co-founded the Clash in 1976. My “Meeting Joe” book describes my time with the Clash and how I persuaded Joe Strummer to leave his band the 101ers and give the Clash a try.
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Meeting Joe:  Joe Strummer, the Clash & Me
By Keith Levene

I was asked by Dimitris (Antonopoulos) to discuss my new book and accompanying soundtrack called “Joe Strummer, the Clash & Me.”

I co-founded the Clash in 1976. My “Meeting Joe” book describes my time with the Clash and how I persuaded Joe Strummer to leave his band the 101ers and give the Clash a try.

(Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, me and Paul Simonon)

How did it all happen?

When I was 17 years old I migrated from my family’s home in North London to West London. By then I had been playing guitar for about five years and wanted more than anything else to be in a band.

The music scene in London was immensely exciting.
There was an incredible vibe in the air fueled by youthful exuberance.

Music was in transition and the Sex Pistols led the change. The Pistols were great but I felt it wasn’t enough. I wanted to be in a band that was an alternative to the thing the Pistols were spearheading.

One day my friend Alan introduced me to this guy called “Rock and Roll Mick.” It was Mick Jones.

Mick was a couple years older than I was. In fact all of the people in the Clash were older than me.

I liked Mick at first. I looked up to him. I guess from my naïve 17 year old perspective I felt he was the coolest guy I’d ever met to date. My opinion of him however changed later on as he began to reveal his true self to me. I really overrated him. He became my worst nightmare in the Clash and it took me completely by surprise. It was as if I could do nothing right in his eyes.

In the beginning we seemed to want the same things. We were both guitarists. We practiced guitars not-plugged-in at his gram’s place off the Westway. We wanted to be in a band together. We wanted to do something special with music.

Mick and I had endless conversations about our future band. In the end it was obvious he wanted one thing while I was into something completely different where the music was concerned. This was the major reason which led to my leaving the Clash.

I wasn’t fired from the Clash. This is another myth that has been perpetuated over the years.

My leaving the band was a mutual thing. I wanted to progress my music into a completely different area or at least be open to some different things. It seemed like they didn’t. You can get a taste of what it was I was into with Public Image, Ltd. (“PiL”). You’ll also get an idea of where the

sound of the Clash might have gone by listening to “What’s My Name” from the “Meeting Joe” EP.

Anyway on this one particular day back in 1976 Mick said he had this guy who might be our bassist despite the fact he couldn’t play bass. The guy’s name was Paul Simonon.

Sometime after that I met Paul. I loved Paul’s persona. I didn’t see Paul’s lack of bass-playing abilities as a huge problem because Paul fit. I knew he could learn to play bass if he wanted to.

I dealt with a similar situation a couple years later with Public Image, Ltd. (PiL). Only the stakes were much higher with PiL.

PiL’s first bassist John Wardle was a novice when he’d joined PiL unlike John Lydon and myself who came to the table with experience.

Lydon had had intense band experience with the Pistols and had achieved international fame as Johnny Rotten. As we all know he also had tons of charisma. In fact when it appeared that things weren’t going where I’d hoped with the Clash I approached John at a Clash/Sex Pistols gig and posited the idea of possibly working with him in future. In 1978 Lydon and I formed PiL.

Music had been my life for quite a while when PiL was formed. In addition to being a founder member of the Clash I’d been involved with other bands and musicians. I also worked on perfecting my guitar-playing from about the age of 12, had roadied for the prog. rock band Yes at age 15, and taught people like Viv Albertine to play their instrument of choice. I was open to all forms of music so long as it was good. It was the most important thing in the world to me.

Conversely when Wardle joined PiL he lacked that kind of background in music. We took a tremendous risk in giving Wardle his position. There were many other people we could have selected who were more experienced. On top of all this as Lydon was not a musician it put added pressure on me to deliver the sound PiL ultimately did with the first album. I imagine a number of other people standing in my shoes wouldn’t have given Wardle the time of day in light of his lack of experience and the brief PiL had to fulfill. In retrospect, I certainly wish I hadn’t even though I knew I had it covered either way.

I should have insisted on someone who was an experienced bassist and could converse with PiL. Nonetheless I worked around Wardle’s shortcomings based on his personality and the music he was into and not his musical abilities though he was learning. He was into dub and I needed that low end.

Where the Clash was concerned Paul was also inexperienced on the bass. But Paul also had a quiet intelligence about him and had great style. Plus he was a bit of an artist. We agreed to bring Paul in on bass. Paul learned to play bass over time and he always looked great.

On drums we had Terry Chimes. From time to time someone else would sit behind the drum kit.
There always was a question mark over Terry’s head. This was not because of Terry’s inadequacies. Terry was a very capable drummer. He was all business. Terry was a decent guy but As I recall Mick seemed to have a problem with Terry.

My “Meeting Joe” book describes how we concluded that Joe Strummer might be the right guy for the job as our front man. I talk about how I approached Joe and persuaded him to give the Clash a shot. It wasn’t a shoe-in. We didn’t even have a name when we got Joe and Joe already had this other gig.

Joe was the leader of the pack of a band called the 101ers. Joe had been with the 101ers for a couple years and they were a successful pub band that also played festivals. Joe’s mates were in the 101ers with him and the band was even named for the squat where they all resided. On top of all this there was this entire community of people who surrounded the 101ers and lived for that band.

One of the fabrications I dispel in this book is that Joe immediately joined the Clash after Bernard Rhodes – the Clash’s manager who wasn’t really a manager - gave him some ultimatum that he had 24 or 48 hours or whatever to drop the 101ers for us. As if Joe could be pushed around like that over anything much less something that important in his and other people’s lives.

Joe most certainly was his own man. He was hardly the type of guy who would drop the commitments he’d had to people who depended on him without giving it serious consideration. Joe was a lovely guy. He cared about and looked after people.

I can assure you that Joe didn’t take the decision of leaving the 101ers for the Clash lightly. He wasn’t the type of guy who would just up and leave his mates because Bernard gave him a deadline that you have a day or two to join the Clash or else. It didn’t happen that way. I know for a fact because I was there and it’s all in the book.

(Keith Levene and Joe Strummer, 1976)

In addition to the “Meeting Joe” book I’ve also released a soundtrack. The “Meeting Joe” EP was something I was composing as we were finishing off the book. Therefore 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 that tune with Joe on stage at a Clash/Sex Pistols gig in Sheffield back in July 1976. Incidentally - this is one of several Clash gigs that I participated in during those crucial early months of the band’s developments when the press and general public started taking notice of the Clash. This was probably right around the time that record companies or at least the record company that ultimately signed the Clash also started getting wind of the band.

I point these things out now because I’m not happy that certain parties who should know better have elected to portray me as some mere afterthought in the history of that band, have either perpetuated or continue to perpetuate the myth that I was less than a founding member, and who have done nothing to correct the record regarding many things. These include my contributions to the Clash’s sound when the band was just forming, my alleged firing from the band, my alleged lack of commitment to the Clash, and how it was that the face of the Clash – Joe Strummer – came to join up with us.

(Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Keith Levene, Paul Simonon).

It’s no secret that I did not agree with the musical direction the Clash restricted itself to. As I have stated this was a major reason which led to my leaving the Clash even though I knew the Clash was going to make it. Once we got Joe it was a given that the Clash would make it.

The tunes on the “Meeting Joe” 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.

The music is quintessentially Joe. It also leans towards what the Clash could have been in my opinion. 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 http://www.amazon.com/Meeting-Joe-Strummer-Guitarist-Levenes-ebook/dp/B00RY2II0G

A signed hard copy version with added content as well as the “Meeting Joe” EP is available at www.teenageguitarist76.com

Follow Keith on twitter at @missingchannel

(Keith Levene, founding member of the Clash, © Cindy Stern).

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