(From the New Musical Express, UK-based weekly music paper, 15 November 1980)
THE KILLING OF BROTHER PAUL
They think Paul Morley's a joke: they feel like killing him. But the same intrepid journalist ventures fearfully forth to let Killing Joke abuse him.
If I had heard how Jaz had let Youth know that I'd arrived I wouldn't have bothered with the interview.
Photographer Fray Stevenson told me later what was said, and said gleefully. "The entertainment has arrived!"
I wasn't looking forward to this interview.
They have a first floor flat in a large old house in Notting Hill Gate. We walk, through an echoey hall, up bare wooden stairs and into a small room, thick with a peculiar, scruffy kind of cosiness. There's also a sense of anticipation.
"So, who's Paul Morley?" questions Jaz, who reminds me of an evil Punch. He looks me and Stevenson up and down, licking his lips. I have to own up, and stick out a hand for shaking.
"You really don't like us, do you?" he growls, slumping into a shapeless cushion by the lop-sided door.
"No," I answer flatly.
The bedraggled Youth appears, more Menace than Vicious, still in pyjamas. He sits down on the other side of the door, leaning against the wall. He turns his nose up at me. The door is shut. Soft reggae forms some incongruous easy listening. The room seems very small and airless, and shut off.
The entertainment shivers slightly.
Killing Joke's publicist - they employ one, but don't enjoy the idea - had warmly convinced me that everything would be OK. After my deeply unimpressed review of their first LP, Killing Joke felt I had undermined their virtue and value and wanted to meet me. Just to talk!! It wouldn't matter if the result was printed or not.
"It was Paul and Geordie (the two members not present) that really wanted to meet you," smoulders Jaz. "Me and Youth aren't really that bothered."
His shining eyes show that's a lie. His body seems primed and alert.
The Joke's publicist, that soft-talking persuasive man who said he'd be there when I meet them on neutral ground (a pub) is not here. Stevenson kneels on the floor, preparing his equipment. Jaz starts chatting feverishly, so I crouch into a dirty two-seater sofa and switch on my equipment to emphasise the, er, business aspect of this Saturday afternoon confrontation.
Was I scared?
Yes. The last time I'd dismissed an LP in few and disgusted words, the group in question came so close to leaving fingerprint marks on my neck it's not worth thinking about.
"What is it," Jaz is moaning, "that you've got that you think can justify writing that sort of stuff ...? All you can say as a journalist, right, is that 'I personally don't like the album'. You can't shout out to the masses and say 'This is shit because I think so'. You can say I personally don't like it, right. Don't you think that's fair?"
I sigh. It's the old dilemma. Whenever I write anything it's obviously my opinion. It may reach lots of people, but it is not sacred. It just seems silly and dull to write every time 'This is my opinion' or 'in my opinion blah blah' ... It's one opinion. It goes without saying.
"It goes without saying," mimics Youth sarcastically.
"Yeah," continues Jaz, "but I think it's misinterpreted. We've seen some of your stuff, your praising of Sting's fucking transcendental fucking experiences in India, right. We've seen quite a few of your fucking articles and personally I don't think you've got any right to write like that. What I can see of your taste by the way you write, you don't fucking know what you're on about, do you?"
My own brain seizes up. What do you mean?
"Well, you're into pop, aren't you? You're into the traditional form of a band; that's the way I see it by the way you write, like the traditional form of a fucking rock band."
I stare at him passively. Youth will tell me later that Killing Joke are so anti-tradition and so far outside the business it's a major achievement. I think tradition is foul as well, but hardly to the stodgy and unglamorous extent Killing Joke do.
Meanwhile, Jaz has a Sting on his shoulder.
"I can see by the way you praise Sting, and all that kind of sugar-shit, it's nothing to do with our way of life. We live here, we play the music we want, right? Y'know? And a couple of journalists have decided to really put the boot in, because maybe they don't like us personally. I don't know why it is."
Youth takes over from his 'brother'.
"All we want is honesty. We don't demand anything but that, right? It's not the music you're criticising when you do your reviews, you're criticising the attitude, and if you don't know the people that made the music how can you begin to criticise their attitude? You can only make your mind up as to what those bloody attitudes are and where they've come from, right? And how the fuck do you know, cos you don't. Right?
It's one thing talking about a piece of plastic, you don't talk about that ... how do you justify that?"
I don't like your music. I said that.
"No. You didn't mention the music."
I did. I don't like the sound.
"I wouldn't have minded that."
It just turned me off.
"I can understand that," Jaz replies, having calmed down a bit. "We'd be right prats if we were journalists, I suppose."
Of course. Killing Joke hate a lot of things. They dismiss other groups and their hard work even more severely than I did them and theirs. But they can't accept a bad review in a major paper as opinion or bad luck. They object to the power of the Name Journalist; the firmness of the written word.
A function of rock criticism is to maintain perspective, to attack exploitation, to put pressure on idiots and the conceited and the deceitful. A lot of the faults of rock criticism can be its cynicism; a cynicism out of control that is usually the last word.
Rock journalists whose so-called reputation is based on a vivid cynicism, who fancily crush most of all they review, rarely venture out into the real world, to meet the people they patronise and dismiss, to see shows, to see natural audience reaction. No journalist is prepared to meet a group they've just laughed all over.
One reason is that when you meet faces and personalities, the new perspective throws new light onto the music, attitudes can be discovered that you felt were missing. You can be swayed - not to like the music, but maybe at least see a point of view. This is where the inevitable, unfortunate power of the Name Rock Writer is badly disciplined.
Journalists are cowards.
It's easy to wield the nasty pen in isolation, to exploit the inevitable bias, to evade the inherent hypocrisy of rock criticism.
The group that has been torn apart rarely has a chance to answer back without their words being tampered with. Perhaps it's my awareness of this cowardice - of my own especially - that is the something that prompts me into a room with Killing Joke for verbal punishment.
Their side of the story, fume Killing Joke, must be heard to even things up. But of course!
What made me scared of meeting Killing Joke was rooted in the same discomfort that made me slap their LP: Killing Joke have an edge of violence, although it could be crucial to their music. Their commitment, their music, even their art work has this undercurrent of violence which confuses and alarms.
"And from that impression the band is judged." Jaz shakes his head. "None of us are East Enders, and we don't go around beating up pigs. It's not our fucking way. We deserve a bit more than that. I think we deserve at least a bit of your time, to establish the facts.
"Killing Joke is an attitude," Jaz snaps. "Nothing more. It's not an excuse to beat people up!
"Journalists never ask us relative questions; they ask us absolutely stupid questions about where we're from, and what's the next single. We want some facts to come out.
"Our music gives you this tension. I don't know whether we've got it on the record, but live we capture that tension that everyone feels at the moment. If you're living in London, it's the way things are; We're tension music ... that's all it is. We use the music as a method to balance ourselves, as well as playing music that we like to play. What we write is what we see. We are fucking grossly misinterpreted!"
Jaz is almost shouting. He attempts to explain the Killing Joke attitude.
"The feeling of a guy in the first world war who's just about to run out of the trenches, right, and he knows his life is going to be gone in ten minutes and he thinks of that fucker back in Westminster who put him in that position. That's the feeling that we're trying to project ... the Killing Joke."
So Killing Joke are victims, violently venting their rage at those who refuse to let them shape their own fate? Saving themselves, if no one else.
Even by expecting that there might be some physical aggravation I was misinterpreting the group.
"If we were some other band," Jaz reasons, "we'd just y'know smash your face in, y'know?"
Perhaps it's just their assumed image I resent so much. Although their music doesn't inspire me, it's not the kind that I immediately reject. Some of their singles I've liked: 'Change', which Youth plays while we talk, has a great, full sound. But the way they present themselves live is so oppressive, even depressive.
"Why the fuck should I have to jump around to get the audience going?" Youth asks forcefully.
Jaz joins in. "We just play as we want. I just turn into what the music makes me and that's just the way it is. We just do it as it happens. Whether you like us or not, we believe in what we do."
Youth resumes: "What I got from you is that you said we were ripping off all these fantastic avant garde sort of hip bands like PiL ... or The Stranglers ... or Foreigner. Foreigner!"
I did mention Foreigner in the review; after all, I'm only human.
"Our music - right? - is not influenced by that at all. The thing I liked about PiL was their attitude of just Fuck It All, and then I just realised that that attitude was just because they couldn't do anything right.
"When it comes to rock'n'roll - to rock - I like an honest interpretation of that, right? I don't mean Elvis Presley or anything like that. I mean sheer bollocks! Fucking awesome power! There's only been a few bands who've been able to do that; none of the so called new wave or heavy metal bands ... I think AC/DC pull it off. Just because it's not hip to say that doesn't mean anything. It is possible to get into that and to get into this," he points a finger at the sound system where the reggae is coming from.
"I think I value a mind by how far it can be stretched not how far it can be closed up. You know what I mean? And that's what's wrong with a lot of things and I think your mind's getting like that.
So what do I say? I say nothing. Silence hums.
It's Jaz's turn.
"Putting us with The Cockney Rejects! I've never heard The Cockney Rejects, and if it's your form of relevance to palm us off with them ... it's an insult."
I'd reviewed their LP with The Cockney Rejects' new one. I'd done so because I sensed that groups like Killing Joke were attracting a hardcore punk following, maybe those moving into new areas after their fling with the Subs, the Rejects, the Ruts. Groups like Killing Joke seemed to dress up a punk darkness with a splash of mystery, a dash of modernity, but it seemed to have no more width or resonance than any typical punk group.
The whole thing seemed to be evil.
"The people who follow us," states Jaz, "I don't think they're anything like the people who follow Cockney Rejects."
But both have a bigoted, tribal following. Very committed.
Jaz asks, "So you agree that there must be something there that makes people committed."
I've never denied it. It's a fact. I'd like to talk to the people who are committed to you.
"You'd be quite surprised just how far people can be committed. We've got people who come from London that follow us about. On the last tour I was looking at the graffiti they were writing and, I can't remember it exactly but it really surprised me. It reflected the whole attitude of Killing Joke ... cos like I say, Killing Joke is an attitude to the way things are.
"Like that anti-nuclear demonstration the other week, and everyone was jubilant and high thinking they'd actually achieved something, y'know? And by now it'll be all forgotten about. We know there'll be no result. Killing Joke is an attitude to the way things are that you can relate to everything.
"Alright you don't like it, but a lot of fucking people do. We play for those people, and they're not Cockney Rejects fans. They've got a little bit more to them.
They also reject accusations of pessimism, don't seem bothered about the joylessness of their music. To me their music sounds defeated, to them it's appalled. They share nothing but selfishness and a certainty that this is the end; from that they even gain satisfaction.
"I know what bugs you, right?" Jaz sneers. "It's the atmosphere and attitude we give out - whether it's actually creating something that ... is it good for people? Is it positive? I think our attitude's honest. We write everything we see, all our experiences etc etc, and whether it's positive or not, I don't care. We're trying to be honest. We take pride in what we do.
Killing Joke don't want to hit me. They are just angry. Eventually they get tired of moaning and defending and attacking. The atmosphere is still tense, but, I know now that I'll be able to leave the room. In a final flourish of politeness, I ask Jaz what he feels needs stressing about Killing Joke.
"Just that attitude: Killing Joke. Looking forward after the overflow - you could call it an earthquake or a nuclear bomb, I call it the overflow; after that, coming out of that, that's the period of time I'm looking towards at the moment. What will come out of that? In that way we are very positive. It's reality. We play reality. If you don't like it, you don't like the way things are, right."
That's as much a simplistic attitude as the criticism they complain about. I'm not saying Killing Joke's attitude is wrong: I just don't agree with it, or the way it's presented and communicated.
Their publicist eventually arrives. Just as I am leaving.
I breathe a sigh of relief when I get out of that room, then out of the house, and pour my troubles out to poor Stevenson. Perhaps relief is exactly what Killing Joke don't want their audience to feel. More than anything they want to unsettle, disturb, ruin normal feelings of comfort. Ultimately they're playing to no one but themselves
I met them and listened to them but I still can't believe in them. I underestimated their faith in what they do, but I don't think I misjudged the content of their music. I present their words as plainly as I possibly can.
Maybe I'm just escaping what Killing Joke are confronting. Or maybe they're the naive ones, expecting an after, whilst I face my fate expecting a little glamour and excitement from my pop music in my final few months. I trust my instinct as much as Jaz told me he trusted his. It's an instinct that told me from the very beginning there was something inglorious and unedifying about Killing Joke. As entertainers, Killing Joke are awful: In My Opinion.
But the whole point of this piece is balance. My own faith, my own insecurity, my own commitment to what I see as honesty, in away my own realisation and respect of that unfortunate journalistic power, has contaminated this piece enough to dislodge the balance very much against Killing Joke. Perhaps that's a kind of Killing Joke.
Youth has the last, accurate word - as much that is possible.
"Listen, anything we say to you, we can just say 'and', and that can be misinterpreted. 'It', 'but', it's just the way you write it."
The End. Is that clear enough?