Wardance In Wigan
Killing Joke take their grim gallows humour on a tour of the grimy north. "Is it always this bad?" asks Gavin Martin. "No," Jaz tells him. "Sometimes it's worse."
Thomas Hardy would be hard pushed to create a more wretched pathetic fallacy. Picture Wigan and its narrow grimy backstreets under an overcast sky and ribbons of smoke from towering chimneys. A cold wind and endless rivulets of rain run together down the antique hilly streets.
In one of these streets a group of 20 or so punters form a bedraggled queue outside a small club called Trucks. Some have hitched from up to 100 miles to be here for the first Killing Joke performance of 1981. It's hard to tell if their shabby display of spiked, dyed hair, bondage gear and bedrolls is making the scene rook worse than it actually is or vice versa.
Whatever, Trucks is certainly a strange venue for any group to play. Its surreal decor takes the 'garageland' ideal to almost insulting extremes. The dancefloor is marked out into a three dimensional grid by scaffolding which serves no discernible purpose other than as an irritant to the dancing. Exhaust pipes, hub-caps, steering wheels and any other car parts or motoring accessories that came to hand have been used to decorate the walls. Along one side lies a disused coal lorry, the driver's cab providing the home for the house DJ.
The whole scenario is slightly sad, disembodied and barely believable - like something out of a low budget punk-in-the-apocalypse type movie.
Something has drawn these two groups of people, the fans and Killing Joke, to this deserted and uninspiring no-man's-land of Northern England. They are both committed to an ideal of fun and tension, looking for a darkly comic musical blitzkrieg for the dying days.
The setting seems to be a place that time forgot, serenely inhaling a thin smoggy air, not paying much attention to reality. Killing Joke bring their mysticism and hedonism, the fans bring their energy and compulsion. They're both looking for a cathartic frazzle of the psyches and a consolidation of attitudes and individuality.
But it's all a bit too weird. Reality has to raise its unwelcome head. We've been in Wigan half an hour when I learn the gig has been cancelled, the promoter being unable to provide the necessary power for the group's P.A.
Paul, the group's surly drummer, knows what's going on: "This is one of the Killing Jokes that follow us around everywhere we go."
"If you're going to talk to me, you'll have to speak in English. I've no time for journalists anyway - least of all your type," Martin 'Pig Youth' Glover grumbles at the tabletop.
Oh yeah, I reply, and what type's that?
"Irish ones. It's not your fault, I just don't trust Irish people. I might be the king of the Irish, but that doesn't mean I like them."
In the crowded motorway cafe, heads turn to focus on the odd exchange taking place between myself and this tetchy bass player swathed in an oily sheepskin overcoat, making pseudo symbolic scrawls on his ever-present sketch pad and occasionally fingering his matted, glue-streaked dreadlocks.
So you're a racist?
"No I'm not. Don't come political with me when I'm sitting here eating my lunch. I've never been political."
Perhaps it's unfortunate that most of the time I spend getting familiar with Killing Joke is in the company of the wilfully deranged and obnoxious Youth. His opinions and state of mind are often tangential and are a cause for concern to the rest of the group.
Youth is in fact still suffering from a hallucinogenic drug, the after-effects of which he hadn't bargained for. He took what he now believes to be a tab of Snoopy acid and a chain of events took place which he and the rest of the band would rather not discuss. What seems to have happened is that Youth went mad, burning a collection of crisp five pound notes outside his bank and getting up to God knows what else between then and three days later, when Killing Joke's publicist was called to Chelsea police station to find him wearing only a pair of boxing shorts. He ended up being sent to a mental home.
"Somebody slipped me the acid. I wouldn't have taken it myself if l'd known what would happen - but the mental home was great. I went crazy, sure, but then I began to see the funny side of life. I made a lot of friends in there, though it was really weird because I was in the ward for all the flashers. It was quite amusing."
Talking to Youth is not an easy business. Often he simply refuses to answer at all, or his reply is so obtuse that its relevance escapes everyone - including himself. His thought processes fluctuate between paranoia and inanity, as if he is trying to read between the lines of the conversation. It may be unfair to try to make a representative character portrait but ... After a day in his company his traits begin to lose their humour. He becomes a spoilt, self-important brat rather than an amiable loafer who plays Vicious style bass, loves reggae and admires Denis the Menace. Rather than living his insanity like a cartoon script, he often seems to wear it like a badge.
When he's left onstage at Tiffany's in Leeds or nursing a bottle of whisky in the corner of the dressing room moaning "Nobody loves me", he cuts a rather pathetic figure.
According to fleeting acquaintances Youth has always had a boring, obdurate side to his character and he hasn't really changed over the past month. Those close to him however are aghast at what they see as a total change in personality.
Paul: "We're going through a lot of problems with Youth at the minute. He's become really hard to work with and it's affected everybody around the group and a lot of humour has gone out of the band as a unit."
Youth was brought up in South Africa. Like most of Killing Joke his background was fairly comfortable though not always stable. He used to worship Sid Vicious but "That was three years ago" - now he likes Sheena Easton, Pinnochio, exotic nature and Aleister Crowley in no particular order. He is actually quite handsome, his boyish looks providing the group with the nearest thing they've got to a heart-throb. His appearance on stage is always accompanied by the warmest welcome.
He's incessantly drawing on his notepad while giving everyone within earshot pretentious and half-baked theories on Salvador Dali and Aleister Crowley (he claims the later had the definitive last word on journalists when he told them to "mind their own business").
Perhaps this explains why he wants to meet Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page - renowned for his Crowley fixation - though ostensibly he wants the meeting for "psychological reasons" and because he desires to spend a weekend in the guitarists Scottish castle. Zeppelin manager Peter Grant is in turn believed to be interested in meeting Youth to tell him what he thinks of Youth's pestering phone-calls to Page's personal secretary.
Undoubtedly Youth likes winding journalists up, relishing the opportunity to behave like a three-year-old who's just had his rattle stolen.
"I am his reincarnation," he says, lying in bed writing a letter to his granny and pointing at the cover of the Jim Morrison biography No One Gets Out Of Here Alive. "Well who else could I be?"
His latest project is to get a book of his poems and drawings published, partly because he's unable to write song lyrics, as he gets too depressed, and partly because he feels inspired.
"It won't just be about that acid experience. It will be about one experience - life. Like 't' stands for tarot but it also stands for tourism."
Mmm, quite. I talked to Youth quite a lot and very little of what he said made any sense. Perhaps the most pertinent thing he said was when, acknowledging his own obtuse manner, he smirked: "Isn't life like one big Agatha Christie novel?"
I seem to have met Killing Joke at a difficult time. Apart from the occasions I try to start a conversation, the entire party spends the three days cocooned in a unappealing lethargy.
In their small crowded tour van which carries three personal roadies, the band themselves, Peter Anderson and me, Dave 'The Wizard' and his dog, plus the occasional fan, the solemn mood is seldom disrupted.
Even the continuous sound track of warm black beating reggae gradually becomes part of the contiguous ennui.
Most of the time is spent reading - Youth alternating between his Morrison biography and a sci-fi novel, Paul reading George Bernard Shaw's Man And Superman, while Dave The Wizard circulates a collection of metaphysical and occult tomes among interested parties. The fact that everyone is consuming cough mixtures and assorted cold remedies only helps to deaden the atmosphere further.
Dave's role in Killing Joke presents the most striking materialisation of the group's (and specifically Jaz and Paul's) interest in magic and accompanying gobbledegook. Like The UK Subs, they believe their formation was mystically ordained. When I enter the van, the first conversation that takes place is a bewildering discussion between Paul and Dave with myself as intermediary. It concerns the significance of the four basic elements, the importance of the soul and the afterlife. Jaz tells me that of those four basic elements - fire, air, water and earth - it is fire which seems to have followed Killing Joke around. So it was when he first met The Wizard living in the squat above him. Dave was about to perform his daily fire ritual.
"So we said what's all this about and sat down on the floor to watch. He went through all the usual preparations and then performed the ceremony. Well I'd seen fire-eaters before but never anything like this. It was a flame about 15 feet high, he breathes fire spiritually. He becomes the fire - which is the way we play our music. Everything we do is an invocation, and what he's doing is invoking the fire. I felt we just had to have him in our stage act."
Before the performance the following night Dave, in his satin breeks armed with his seven-sided star on a stick and his obedient dog at his heels, goes about his preparations. The stage is filled by the smell of incense and a pentacle is chalked out on the dancefloor. He ties his hair back in a ponytail and daubs his tattooed face with grease paint. He resembles Ian Anderson.
A curtain with prints of planets and stars - just like kids buy at Halloween - is draped at the side of the dancefloor and to the accompaniment of a taped drum machine he stands onstage to recite from one of his fusty old magic books. The gist of the rant is that the will of man is the only law and woe betide those who should dare ignore their primal yearnings. The audience exchange nudges, smirks and raised eyebrows, but suddenly they jump back in shock as Dave approaches the dancefloor waving a blazing torch to clear a path to the centre of the pentacle.
"Babylon!" he screams, arm outstretched to the East.
"Gi' us a light mate," shouts a wag with a cigarette sticking out the corner of his mouth.
The Wizard breathes fire high up to the ceiling and the audience, who by now have formed a circle round the spectacle, don't notice the band wander onstage. When they start to play, it takes some people by surprise.
After the show a fan spots The Wizard scurrying out of the dressing room to feed his dog.
"There he is," he indicates to a friend. "He's a bloody nut. He's bloody great he is."
Making an inscription in his notebook, the mystery man smiles. "Even if only one person is thrilled by what I do makes it all worthwhile."
The Killing Joke live performance is, even on their own admission, in a state of disrepair. After the Middlesborough performance Jaz admits it was a "shit gig". In Leeds the following evening they have to leave the stage twice and nobody argues when I say it was another shoddy performance.
Visually it seems keyboard/vocalist Jaz has to overcompensate for guitarist Geordie and bassist Youth whose movements rarely go beyond stepping back and forth from the microphone to deliver backing vocals. It is a mite hypocritical when Youth tells the audience to dance.
For me the main problem with their music is its total reliance on a literally punishing power. They all admire AC/DC, and feel that music must have a searing forcefulness. To me it just sounds ancient and raucous - and, in many of their songs, unnatural. 'The Unspeakable One' for instance has a deceptively wry humour which echoes some of Arthur Lee's lyrics for Love, but It's drowned out by the ponderous force. Ultimately, their music is only capable of expressing anger.
Killing Joke are a stubborn, insular outfit. They make music for themselves, and draw on few direct musical precedents. Whether they like it or not, their commitment to a basic brutalising music has seen them adopted by the post-punk slipstream. They float somewhere above and between Crass and Theatre of Hate They use the words Killing Joke to capture the grand paradox of the human condition and the various twists of fate brought about by everyday situations. The theory and the idealism behind their music are more attractive than the recorded or live evidence.
'Wardance' opens their set. Introducing it, Jaz says: "Let's be realistic - we've only got a few years left so let's make the most of it."
The song draws a depressing, negative picture. It doesn't seem to offer any hope to the group or their fans - it feels like a visit to the mortuary. So what happens when the end comes, Jaz?
"Look, the ending when it comes won't be through a nuclear war or atomic bombs or any of that shit. It'll be natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. It's just the earth's way of cleaning itself and getting rid of the natural waste. It's like everything - life, rock and roll and the world: it all goes in circles and when the time comes the world will get rid of all the crap and those who survive will start a new civilisation, much better than the last one.
"'Wardance' is just about the way things are - it's about coming to terms with reality, one could say. It's taking a light-hearted attitude to it all; having a bit of a bop and a bit of a giggle. It releases the tension and the paranoia in anyone. In Germany they loved it, they were like wild pigs rushing all over the place."
Though none of the group admit to admiration for any of their contemporaries, they do admit to a certain sympathy for some of the aims currently being expressed. Recently they played the Trafalgar Square CND rally - though not with the attitude expected on such an occasion.
"Listen, that was a laugh. We just went to see the fools. We weren't playing under the CND banner, we were playing under the Killing Joke banner. We played 'Wardance', which was hilariously funny. It was a Sunday and there was a most sombre mood to the whole occasion. If you consider that 15,000 people couldn't draw one positive result out of that gathering you realise how pathetic the whole thing is."
Youth: "Maybe it was expected to happen anyway, Jaz."
Jaz: "Yeah, I know. The irony of it."
Youth: "Exactly, whose joke is it? But you've got nothing to be fucken scared of, have you?"
Jaz: "I'm not on about being scared, I'm just saying the results people got out of that CND thing were actually nil. The only way to stop a nuclear armaments campaign in this country would be to get a blueprint of the atomic bomb and send it to the government and say We've got one of these in every city and unless you meet our demands the first one goes up tomorrow. Ha!"
In Middlesborough the Gaskins dressing room is spacious and allows a number of fans to swan around after the gig telling the group that all in all they are the best thing since sliced bread. One guy gets an autograph on his hand, his jacket, and in his book. The task completed he sits down quietly opposite his friend. Five minutes later he's bent over rigid in his chair and his face is growing very red. "I'm going to be ..." Too late! A little pool of purple puke has stained the carpet but no one takes any notice.
Meanwhile his friend has started a barrage of questions and is getting short shrift from everyone, bouncing from one band member to another. Why don't you play Huddersfield, Morecambe, Liverpool? Do you want to be famous? Who's the most sensible member of Killing Joke? The group answer his questions as succinctly and abruptly as they do mine and those of a fanzine writer the following evening ("Yes" or "No" where possible). Although I sympathised with the plight of the latter our 'Boro pal was going on a bit. Eventually everyone ignores him and heads for the van.
"Can I come along with you?" he asks. No reply. He follows them down the staircase to the door of the van.
"Please give us a lift. I'm miles from home. I might get beaten up by skinheads on the way back."
Nobody gives a damn. I wonder why he even bothered leaving his house in the first place.
Perhaps the biggest asset in Killing Joke is drummer Paul. Along with Jaz he's the group's founder member and his loose approach shows a way out of their usual meshed musical massacre, be it with the diverted disco rhythm of 'Change' or the eclectic Glitterbeat of 'Tension'.
He's also the only member of the band said to be given to violence. "Well, I just take these irrational outbursts sometimes. I've hit everyone in the band at one time or another, except Geordie. There doesn't seem to be any point in hitting him."
What does Killing Joke mean to him?
"I think it's better for people to come to their own understanding if they want to. We aren't putting across any manifestos because it's for individuals. The best way for it to work is for people to grasp that in their own time through listening to it, if they're interested.