Living On The Punchline
Ross Fitzsimons Gets The Killing Joke
It's strange how reputations grow, build and travel, how innuendo and assumption can distort the original attempt and intentions, how others' perception of your ideas or efforts can be so far removed from reality. It's happened to us all at one time or another...
And happens to these four individuals a lot of the time. Killing Joke?
Their reputation amongst London's music press "cognoscenti" generally stinks.
Reasons? Difficult to pin down - one journalist I talked to hadn't encountered them but he'd heard. He also seemed dubious that I'd met the band a couple of times, even spent the better part of a day with them to do this interview. So for why?
Well, a lot of disquiet surrounds their entanglement with Island Records. Then there was Youth (the Joke's bass-player) as a 4" Be 2" - definitely a mistake. Then there was the time Paul Morley from NME (so legend has it) came within an inch of his life when he went to interview the band - the story goes that he barely escaped with his Stowaway intact.
Add to this the name (again), the graphics, the "look", and above all the music - what do you get? A question worth trying to answer. (N.B. If you already know the answer, further reading comes under the heading of "idle amusement".)
Cut to The Townhouse, one of London's "top" (i.e. expensive and salubrious) recording studios. It's a grim, wet Sunday afternoon, the kind of day when all you're capable of is opening one eye for John Wayne or Clark Gable on the boob tube.
Killing Joke, however, are hard at work. To find them we descend through a passage that looks alive (even if it sounds dead). It's not only the carpet that's shaggy here - the walls are too (when they're not busy being "naturally" rocky). Through a few doors is the control room, more shaggy pile and stone with the added bonus of machines, dials, meters, knobs, lights, double-glazing (and a television!). All the band are present and correct -introductions over they get back to work.
Work today means putting the finishing touches to the soon-come single "Follow The Leaders" which from where I'm sitting sounds, uh, great! It's unashamedly tight, hard, fast and loud - hearing it is a charge The band use their time efficiently, and while Jaz (of keyboards and vocals) seems to steer proceedings along, there is no absolute control of the operation: it's a four-way thing. Produced by Killing Joke is no joke Overdubs and vocals are 'laid down' with the minimum fuss, maximum effort, until the desired result is achieved; it is staggering in its potency.
But unless you're 'involved', sitting in a studio eventually becomes a mind-number. An exploratory mission up the spiral staircase yields a gamesroom, where I effortlessly beat Joke manager Brian Taylor at snooker while he trounces me at Space Invaders.
The same gamesroom provides the location for the ongoing interview scenario situation at a later stage of proceedings, when the band take a break from recording. Jaz's original idea is that I should ask questions at random and the band will each give answers in turn -he'll answer one, Youth will answer another, Paul (the drummer) another and Geordie (guitarist) another and so on in rotation. It doesn't, however, quite work out that way (it never does).
So kick it up and see what happens. It should come down.
Killing Joke have always had a strong visual style - the graphics on their sleeves and posters are striking and original. Mike Coles is the man responsible (you can also see his work on the new Blades sleeve), though Paul explains, the final results are 'just a synthesis of everybody's tastes'.
|The effectiveness of these images is easy to gauge - a recent tour poster shows
Pope Pius marching through ranks of uniformed Nazis, with, the prelate in question
returning the upraised 'Sieg Heil'. Apart from widespread incredulity that the
picture could be for real, the gig they were due to play in Glasgow, which is
a predominantly Catholic city, was pulled as soon as the posters went up.
Interrogated about it, Jaz becomes almost apoplectic. "THAT IS A REAL PHOTOGRAPH!" he shouts, "Pope Pius! That was taken in 1938! The guys are the S.A., Hitler's S.A. He was giving a blessing to the Nazi party, basically."
Apoplexy is turning to derision: "It's an been fucking hidden up anyway, like five years ago there was a big outcry because they round out Pope Pius wanted all the Jews out of Italy under Mussolini's orders. But that's an actual photograph, we can prove where that comes from. Merely one example or the Killing Joke."
Citing another instance of hypocrisy does little to change his mood. "That is another example, but don't keep quoting me on this. You know there are loads of examples -your life's a fucking' Killing Joke!"
Paul's tone is more measured: "There are so many things that happen every day to you. The more you become aware of what they are, of what it means, it's really crazy! (laughs). It's funny in a way, but once you notice, when it hurts, you realise what's happening to you. Then you treat it with an open mind, interpret it with music."
There are nine people in the room, seven if you ignore the two guys playing snooker up in the corner - neither of them seem any good at it anyway. Besides the four Jokers and myself, the band's manager Brian Taylor hangs about and throws in the occasional tuppenceworth while "Leukaemia" Henry fiddles with his apparatus and captures images for posterity. Jaz talks most, occasionally stressing that what he's giving is an 'individual' opinion; he's seldom interrupted, contradicted or corrected in what he says.
Jaz is dark, with short close-cropped hair, none too tall - restless and animated as he talks. The gaze is piercing, the voice is strong, the accent is very identifiably English. He paces the room, rarely staying more than a few seconds in the one place.
youth meanwhile sits to my right and says little, looking slightly amused at the proceedings - occasionally bemused. He's tall when he stands up, has matted, spiky hair, moves slowly, scratches and rolls up. Friendly enough in conversation, he offers little in "interview".
Paul has plenty to say. He sits to my left, speaking quietly, choosing his words carefully. He's nursing a sore throat and would otherwise undoubtedly have had a great deal more to say. Great quiff!
Geordie says least of all. Nothing in fact, while the tape is rolling. Off it he's reasonably loquacious though never revealing anything special. Like Youth and Paul he's tall and lean, his most striking feature being the shock of blond hair he carries. Warning: Peroxide can seriously...
Brian Taylor is by contrast short and dark and Irish by implication - much of his childhood was spent in Charlestown, Co. Mayo and he's got relations all over the country. Taylor is affable, friendly and seems efficient. He needs to be to keep track.
And Colm and I are just doing what's expected (I think). I kick it up again.
So why all the negative press, Jaz? "They don't like us, they don't like bands who call themselves Killing Joke, they don't like bands who have that fucking attitude. We've asked them why.
They keep slagging our kind of music, yet you want to ask what they like. We asked one guy - he liked The Police, a band called Orange Juice, what was another? Oh yeah, another wonderful one, Squeeeeze! These kind of people don't even fucking understand what we're about, they've got no idea, they shouldn't even be doing the job! People with creative minds who love music should be doing it, reality music, music that confronts reality "
Paul: "It's just that most of these people have predetermined views of what they're going to like and what is rational to like."
Jaz pins it down to personality: "You look at the guy's life-style and you can generally assess what they're capable of understanding. People who understand the way we live, maybe they've got similar ways of living, they can understand us. But some of these "trad-rock" guys, going out to review a band, all the cocaine clothes, fresh from university, always wanted to be a musician. Why should these people dictate what kind of music you're into?"
So if Killing Joke don't get across to the "hip" "cognoscenti" in London, who does buy the records and go to see the gigs, from Nottingham to New York? And what do they make of it all?
Jaz: "Most people can't understand what the fuck they're on about anyway. If they know the name of the band and hear the tone of the voice, the reaction that's coming out of that, maybe they can understand the animal content... Listen, language is just culture, isn't it? You talk the way you talk, another geezer in another country talks his way. But we're endeavouring to get beyond that barrier.
"If a geezer from the other side of the world can recognise the animal in me - when I'm a fucking animal I'm a fucking animal - they don't need words, they don't have to understand what I'm on about. Half the audience in England doesn't, let alone anywhere else. If they can understand the energy I'm putting out and that I'm a part of Killing Joke too and I realise the fucking situation, they can understand that feeling. You know what I mean?"
Jaz also reckons Killing Joke take it a lot further than merely playing and recording. "Sure we do, in the way we play our lives. That's down to a very personal individual thing. Half the bands that scream about this or scream about that haven't even gone through the experiences they're screaming about. We try and cater for that, we certainly do go through mucho experiences in this band."
Don't ask me how, but from here we switched to talking about Ian Paisley. Jaz suggests that Ian stands up for what he believes in. "That's the Killing Joke, isn't it? He believes in what he believes in the same way you or I believe in what we believe in. He's a wanker - anybody can look at his face, see his ego while he's talking. The animal thing in us all, that's how I recognise it. You can talk all you like, all the shit, all the right words. But it's like that thing we don't talk about, that thing I observe in you and maybe you observe in me. We communicate where each are at. if you've got (strangled) HITLER SHOUTING! you know where he's at from the whole fucking feeling of him "
And the general situation in the North? "Look at the fucking problem you got there, that's just religion. Look at the way they practise their religion in their lives, not only in church. That's the Killing Joke! People don't even understand the symbolism behind the cross anyway, it comes from long before Christianity I don't want to get into the science of it, but they don't understand the original intention behind the symbols they use. Say Youth uses a swastika and he doesn't understand how people are affected by that, that's fucking dangerous, someone might come and fuck him over the nut... The other example. If two religions are fighting against each other both use the same symbols, the four points. People don't even know what the four points mean any more and that comes from before Christianity.
"It's like the information people are fed - a history book at school over in Ireland, I'll bet it's different to the books in Spain, France, England, they've all got their own. The kids go "wow, my history book's different to yours, I wonder why that is?" What you're fed ... What we must do is question our basic values, the things you talk about, the things you do naturally now, because you're taught like that, to question them - that's good. Cos if you can break out of your mould, that's great. The only way we can do it is by changing ourselves and our own personal environment. I can't fucking say 'This is our manifesto! This is what you should do if you're with us!' We just put over our ideas and it's up to the individual if they can relate to something in it. But what can we do? Say 'Do this! Do that!'? All we're trying to do is make people aware of what's going on.
"Listen!" he insists in a rush of associations. "I wanna talk about the album, right? it's totally relative to Ireland. People should look at the cover, realise some of the ideas, the religion aspect - that guy leaning over, his life's a Killing Joke. Most people in Ireland probably haven't heard the first album. That track on it 'Bloodsport' - all different ideas around it. Even now man is still the same as he was thousands of years ago. He needs blood, whether it's ritual or war, it's a fact that even now there's something in man that needs blood and if he can understand his own nature maybe instead of bloodshed in fighting, it could be done in pure ritual. If they really knew about the science and the religion - Christianity's just one fucking side of it - call it D.O.G., call it G.O.D., call it what you fucking like, if people had any form of understanding they'd realise for themselves, they'd see themselves fighting and killing, and realise it could be done in pure ritual and achieve the same effect.
"You could crack an egg! Do you understand what I mean? The simplicity behind it, it's just emotion, isn't it? Kill! Enemy! But it could be done in pure ritual. I don't know how - I do know how, I've got my own views about it, we all have. Every forty years there's this force that comes around, that man needs to fight again. It feeds on hunger, war, bloodshed. We know this - at the moment we're just progressing in the physical world, the one dimension. Now I believe we're going to progress, looking at it positively, out of some of the destruction, I believe this time people will learn about human nature and be able to come to terms with it."
After the destruction?
"There will be destruction, of course there will.
"It's natural, it's great."
Why is it great?
"But look what will come out of it."
What will be left?
"There again it all comes down to the way you were taught - you were taught to value individual life. Of course we value our individual lives, (but ultimately ...) I believe in going to the fullest, keep going till the body stops. But the attitude - fear of death ... death is as natural as birth."
Death isn't something to be afraid of, but neither is it something to wish on other people.
"I don't wish death on other people - but if you look at life, it goes in a circle."
This may be the last place you anticipated finding a treatise on myth and mysticism but with a passionate intensity, Jaz delves into areas often a cause of scorn among rock's critical faction.
"Listen to 'Tension'. Go home to Ireland - you'll notice that half your pre-Reformation churches are built on stone circles. Look at your ancestors, how they built in circles, how they lined them up with the heavens, they had knowledge of it. So listen, you and me are cold, we're outside. What do we do instinctively? There's a few of us, we light a fire.
"What do we do if we wanna talk? Instinctively we feel comfortable in a circle. Then I wanna be as warm as you do on the other side of the fire so we stand equidistant away. It becomes the circle. Then when I go I leave a stone there to say this is my place, this is the place that we all come together collectively as a circle. Then each family stone becomes a tribal stone - you build a bigger circle going from the family to the tribes and then to the nations, where each nation puts their stone down. It's simplistic I know and it might sound far-fetched, but it is possible, looking at what will happen in the next two years."
Nor did the conversation run aground here. This may look like a monologue to you (it did to me too); a rant it isn't, however. Neither is it a performance. It's obvious that what Jaz says he feels and what he feels, he feels strongly. The conversation flows. Where do the superpowers come into an this speculative thinking?
"Listen, if you've got an understanding of how it ticks you don't want to worry about them ultimately. For every positive, there's a negative. You're as strong as he is. You might be the negative - there again it depends which way you look at it. Ultimately I believe that if you fuck the Mother - we call the earth the Mother - if you pump her full of shit, your food-cycle stops. That's very stupid.
"I think it's time now to really consider and question present values and to come to the most simple logical conclusions, the reasons why - it's almost primary school stuff. That's true."
But Jaz is fearless. Everywhere and nowhere is sacred before his marauding intelligence.
"If you look at architecture as a different example - you re getting high-rise blocks because they're built for pure economy. You've only got so much land, but the architect could say 'If I use my true inspiration I can make it feel good for the people who live there' - the whole idea, that cities were built in certain places that fit into the rhythm of the land. Now we don't have any values of the earth or anything else so we just build anywhere. The architect has lost his Masonic..."
"The architect should be made to live in the place he designs," says Brian Taylor.
"Exactly!" Jaz says, before becoming virtually incomprehensible in the rush to communicate. "But if you look at the Freemasons and the people behind this - because I've studied this, I've had a lot to do with the church and I don't mind saying that I spent thirteen years of my life solidly with the Church - music - that was out of my own free will. I have pagan parents, they never set foot inside a church, they celebrated May Day, they celebrate the 21st instead of the 25th at Christmas. I never questioned why - that's why. But architecture, why certain buildings are built in certain places and why what was there before and the intentions and reasons behind that, why a lot of the pre-Reformation churches are built where two underground streams cross and then the ley-lines and then the Freemasons you've heard of they're meant to control whether you're a doctor or MP et cetera. These people are meant to control everything by the true inspiration."
Whew! This is getting out of hand, Jaz! My mind being suitably boggled at this stage, 'America' seems a suitable topic to bring The End somewhat Nigher. "We have to play San Francisco before 1982," remarks Brian. "That's a Killing Joke - you know all the service industries there are built on the fault line!"
Killing Joke recently played New York, an experience Jaz found "Fucking hilarious! They just couldn't believe it. They were almost petrified, uncomfortable. Then they all started dancing! It was really odd - New Year's Eve, we're Killing Joke, they live in New York, Ronald Reagan's getting in ... it was just great, there's not even going to be passion about it anymore. That's true - when it gets to the stage where you have no feeling, that's fucking dangerous! When I cut my arm I see the blood, that's human, that's simple for me. I like getting down to the basic forms of communication."
When it gets to this point I realise that we've avoided any direct reference to the relationship with Island, the incident with Morley and other items of fact 'n' rumour. There is no discussion of Killing Joke's abrasive music, their aggressive songs, their rough dub. There are no musical reference points suggested nor interests and influences accepted. It's gone beyond all that.
And while there maybe faults in Jaz's assumption that things can be stripped back to these basics of myth, the strength with which he argues the case means that you must take it seriously. You must give Killing Joke credit for believing as well as for doing.
Which only begs the question - why use music to express all this, Jaz?
"Because music is the one thing that people accept that they can't see. Music is not formed into matter, sorry, do you understand that?"
It's just signals.
"Right. Music is the one thing people accept that they can't see, and that says it all that's enough, isn't it?"