(From Creem magazine, a now-defunct US publication, December 1981)
Life & Death And Killing Joke
by John Neilson
"I think Killing Joke is definitely a sign of the times
- it bothers me sometimes."
Keyboardist Jaz isn't the only one who's worried about Killing Joke. At a time when the English music scene embraces a bewildering array of white would-be funksters, disclosed reggae bands, Heavy Metal breast-beaters and pretty-boy synth players with lopsided haircuts, Killing Joke have been received with reactions ranging from guarded interest to outright hostility by the press. They have been accused of being unfashionably nihilistic, musically brutal, and morally bankrupt. In fact, Sounds - which championed the post-punk "Oi!" movement despite its undercurrents of racism and fascism - reviewed KJ's "Follow The Leaders" and gave it two ratings: ***** for the music and * for its moral stance!
Furthermore, the band's interest in the mysteries of the occult have led some of their critics to insinuate that Killing Joke may in fact be the Living Incarnation In Rock Music!! Heavy stuff, huh?
Not surprisingly, Jaz doesn't see it quite that way.
"We encourage as much unrest in our music as possible," he admits, "but some people - like NME journalists! - see our music as being really pessimistic. That really confuses me insofar as I think our music is highly optimistic in comparison to all the other shit that's going down. I think it inspires more lust, more vigor, more spirit than most of the escapist nonsense you can buy on the market these days. I like the idea of encouraging lust and raucousness in people as opposed to complacency and apathy, like with the kind of music you drift off to and all that - I used to be into that once, all that kind of nonsense, but things change ..."
Let no one accuse Killing Joke of making music for people to drift off to. More likely, it's music for putting on in place of punching out walls or hitting yourself repeatedly over the head with a two-by-four. It's the sound of teeth gritting, blood pounding in the temples and nerves stretched to the snapping point - the sound of someone facing up to whatever "killing joke" lurks in their life. Jaz gets very defensive when pressed on the question of what exactly constitutes a "killing joke," however.
"Killing Joke is Killing Joke! Everyone has their own interpretation - some say it's the ultimate irony, some say it's having no control over one's destiny. We don't ever want to restrict people's ideas of Killing Joke. We don't want any manifestos, either - that's not what Killing Joke's all about. People know what Killing Joke is all about - they know as soon as they see the name."
Brian-the-manager (these guys aren't real big on last names) sums it up by hinting darkly that "We've all got one in our lives somewhere - if it hasn't happened to you, it will."
It was at Brian's house in the summer of 1979 that Jaz and drummer Paul came up with the musical and conceptual foundation of the band. Bassist "Pig Youth" (or Youth for short) and guitarist Geordie were added soon thereafter, and within months the band released their first record - a 10" EP with "Nervous System"/ "Turn To Red"/ "Are You Receiving" - on their own Malicious Damage label. Their debut album was released in this country this spring (after several singles made their way onto Billboard's Disco Chart as imports), and the second LP, Follow The Leaders, came out this summer. Both albums, by the way, were released here on E.G. Records, home of such non-threatening musical entities as Robert Fripp, Brian Eno and the Ambient Music Gang.
While Jaz is loath to talk about the band's music and annoyed at my desire to do so, he eagerly falls into a discussion of America's reaction to the band.
"It's another world from Europe," he marvels. "It's just so different. In Europe and England, I'd even go so far as to say we're big in a funny sort of way. In England and Europe they don't view us so much as a band, they seem to use us as something to get their energies out of. There's just so little now that people who have that intense level of emotion can channel it into. I think Killing Joke is one of the few gigs that people can channel themselves into and release energy. We do have an exciting time onstage, and that's because people are there for one reason: Killing Joke - the idea as well as the music. It's different over here - people seem to be under a lot more stress over in England."
Following the band's loud, energetic set, I'm left pondering that reputation that - deservedly or not - has preceded Killing Joke into this country. Were they immoral? In talking with them I found that Jaz, in particular, has very strong beliefs about the environment, and that they are all concerned about the racist and fascist elements in their home country. Were they brutal? They understand volume as power, but then so does AC/DC. Were they evil? Jaz laughs when I ask him about this, telling me a story about someone who came up after a gig and gave them a piece of paper which read: "You are going to rot in Hell for your music!" Did that bother him?
"Nah, the nutters?" He laughs. "You never let them worry you. We always attract nutters - Youth attracts most of them!"
So what are Killing Joke's goals, plans, directions?
"Ultimately, I'd like to get the means to be in control of our environment - take that as you will. Until you have control over your own environment - I mean total control - you can forget it, because otherwise you're at the mercy of the Mass Mentality - you are in your country and we are in ours."
And that, as they say, is just one of life's killing jokes.