Suddenly everything's gone only rock'n'roll again. Punk, mod, ska, HM - it's the same old escape route in a different make of limo. Down in the bondage division, Killing Joke are striking Spokesman Of A Generation postures. Paul Rambali asks why.
Let's put it this way: everybody's looking for something to fall back on.
Three years of rock iconoclasm have proved that no sooner is one poster torn down than another appears to take its place. There's plenty of room on the hoarding, and lacking a piper to call the tune, we pay our money and take our pick. Punk, heavy metal, mod, modern, rude ... they sound as hollow as I feel.
For a time this fragmentation seemed healthy. Now it just seems like it's crumbling.
Each style gives its adherents an elite status, a reason to look down on the rest. So they use that excuse to take it out on each other - instead of on the system that causes their discontent and their revolt and finally closes in like a fog on all the frail, frustrating aspirations of teendom, until one day they find they don't even know their hopes from their fears, and the only thing left to take it out on is the wife.
What a sad and terrible waste of all that healthy, honest, confused and ill-directed rage. Shave your head, wear a bum-flap, buy a suit or stitch logos onto your back if you must compensate for feelings of inadequacy but don't squander that rage.
And don't wait for your 'leaders' to define it for you either, because all you do by following them is compensate for their feelings of inadequacy, often in cash, which only adds to their complacency and helps turn them into the very thing they - or some of them - set out to turn you against.
But people need something to identify with, and these days they'll take what they can get. Last Tuesday I found myself amongst the bondage division, watching them trickle into a sorely under-advertised Killing Joke performance at the London University. An operative of Killing Joke's Malicious Damage label pointed out a dim and stubborn regional punk crew who follow the band obsessively. "They're looking for a leader," he observed dryly. 'Like everybody else."
In the few months that have elapsed since Killing Joke released their 'Nervous System' EP, a virulent cocktail of after-punk ingredients, they have come close to the point of being handed the standard. So close, so quickly, and So slickly, that suspicions have been aroused. The previous weekend they played to a Lyceum full of people who had come to see Joy Division, after ads had given Killing Joke equal if not greater prominence on the bill. It turns out the promoter had naively entrusted the advertising to Killing Joke, who'll take what they can get too.
They're not so much unscrupulous as plain guileless. But they're learning, and experiences such as their short-lived acrimonious liaison with Island Records will teach them cunning. Meanwhile they kick out hard-nosed, hammerhead modern riff structures and spew out harsh, psychotic lyrics with sufficient conviction to make a dent in the pervading apathy, but not quite enough originality to be wholly persuasive. Nonetheless, a new single out soon on Rough Trade called 'Wardance' makes a predictably abrasive noise.
They are basically brats. They don't want to provide you with another entertainment. "No," says their founding member, "we want to fuck them up in the process."
His nick-name is Jaz, he plays keyboards and sings, and he's given to terse statements. About a year ago he and Paul, the drummer, put an ad in Melody Maker that put them onto a guitarist called Geordie, and soon after they found a bass player bearing an uncanny resemblance to Sid Vicious, called Youth. In 1977 Youth was "posing about down the Roxy", Geordie was at school failing his A-levels, Jaz was living in a "hell hole called Cheltenham" and playing with Paul in a band run by someone called Matt Stagger.
"It was a good band," says Jaz, "but it was his show, and towards the end it got sickly commercial and we just didn't fit. It wasn't being very honest, and when it comes down to playing, if you lie, it sounds like it."
Killing Joke's ambitions lay in the sphere of rhythm and noise. Youth cites Chic, as an example of the rhythm. "All that sugar shit on top, you can forget that, but the rhythm's there."
"And the production," says Jaz, "a fat sound. We're gonna get that, eventually. But we're gonna have noise on top of it: mangled, distorted, searing noise. "
Otherwise, their intentions are vague. "Music has to keep progressing and changing," explains Youth, mindful of the early punk tenets. "Any music that remains stagnant ends up like all the other crap that's been before it. You have to keep going forward, and there's not many bands that do that."
Needless to say, despite musical similarities to the likes of Wire, Gang Of Four and PiL, they feel no particular affinity for other bands. "We're all different, y'see ? We're not like all the other bands, all clones who all like each other." Jaz is not in a generous mood.
"...Whereas we all hate each other," continues Youth. "We've all got different ideas and out of that we've got a general direction. Somebody will write a song, then it'll be passed to someone else, censored, and passed on again. Sometimes it gets to the point where one of us will walk, and if it gets past that point we usually end up with a good song."
They all agree they want to provoke, but what they want to provoke is vague.
Youth attempts some sort of definition: "Changing the attitude to looking forward Instead of back; doing something different instead of following something else."
But they don't want to dictate, nor foster violence, nor provide merely token aggression. "We play the way we feel all the time. We don't pose."
No, they don't. They're genuine. Genuinely limited. But they are good within their limitations, capable of generating some heat and sounding energetic and purposeful. So purposeful that you're forced to ask what the purpose is. The answer lies in a tangled mess of handed-down ideals and private drives. Jaz says he had the idea for this group ages ago. What was the idea? "To form a group."
Youth grapples a little more patiently with the question. "It's like with the skinheads. They stand there looking around, then they'll decide to start bopping up and down. After about six or seven gigs they'll start to wonder why - and then perhaps they'll start changing, and that'll be worthwhile. But in the meantime you feel like asking them what the fuck are you here for? Why are you doing it? You can see they're not doing it because of the reasons you're doing it."
Confused? So are they. I wonder aloud if they know the significance of the red and the black - the international anarchist colours - used on their logo. Youth does, the others don't. "We're not into politics," someone mutters.
The top-dog at CBS Records walks out halfway through their gig that night. "Good," says the Malicious Damage operative. "That'll keep CBS off their back."
As I leave a member of Killing Joke asks me to write something nice about them for a change. I lie and say I will. These days expediency comes cheaper than integrity.