(From the NME, 27 February 1982)
Barney Hoskins attempts to unravel the riddle of Killing Joke, true psychos of subculture.
The killing thing about Killing Joke is they don't joke.
It slays you.
They know life is a hideous farce, and they don't even see the humour in it.
Here they are, for example, at nosh hour, after a long afternoon's knob-twiddling in Conny Plank's studio. At the other end of the huge, boomerang-shaped pine table are D.A.F., who've dropped in with some tapes. The two of them are laughing and enthusing, floating ideas. Their faces are alive.
At this end, Killing Joke are slumped over their food, groaning about money. Youth doesn't see why he should pay for his dope, because it's part of his inspiration. The others express similar discontents.
Fortunately, in Brian Taylor, the masochistic leprechaun who suffers under the supposed aegis of being their "manager", they have a human punchbag on whom they can take out their grievances whenever the mood takes them. Their torture of this patient individual takes the primary form of monotony: an endless stream of swearing intended to convey the similarly endless rippings-off they have endured.
The contrast between D.A.F.'s mirth and Joke's moans is, for an Englishman such as myself, salutary, and not a little embarrassing.
Being with Killing Joke, it's difficult to get the punchline.
Nothing of which, in my eyes, detracts from this group's essential stature. After all, the paradoxical essence of much of music's excitement lies in its monotony.
Killing Joke may affront the cerebral principles of pop's newly-acquired gentility, but even the most delightfully vacant of us knows that what we have here is a human sound machine of prodigious dimensions. How can we resist it? Good lord, what was more wonderful in our pollwinners' poll (apart from Siouxsie's vote for best new act) than the Bunnymen voting Geordie of Killing Joke the year's best guitarist at the same time as voting The Fall the year's best group? Very healthy in the extreme.
Killing Joke are our masters of doom, a damning downpour of tribal, elemental violence on an increasingly restrictive and impersonal society, and they have come to Conny Plank's studio, a kind of mountain retreat half an hour outside Cologne, to record their third album.
It was here that 'Vienna', that kitsch but irresistible North European Gothic elegy, was created, and here too that more than a few of Germany's own triumphs, notably D.A.F. and Holgar Czukay, have found their musical selves.
They key factor is that Conny Plank only works with artists he likes. A great Hemingwayesque bear of a man, greying and sagelike as he sits at the throne of his hand-built palace of sound, he is the kind of visionary - a visionary of sound! - that zealous neophytes trek through jungles to find.
Conny Plank is a professional magician. Joke once vowed they'd never use an outside producer, claiming that "if a band can't get the sound they want themselves they might as well give up." Conny, they tell me, is merely and engineer. Of course, where you choose to draw the line between engineering and production is up to you.
Killing Joke are a group that for some time has needed new action, new forms, a group whose self-promoted cult has fattened out their muscle and softened their threat. They want both to find themselves at a yet deeper level of life's inferno and to sell more records. Maybe Conny's Studio will work the necessary wonders.
The new songs are, to my mind, the best the group has written, easily surpassing the two highlights of 'What's THIS For …!', namely 'Follow The Leaders' and 'Unspeakable'.
"The rhythms on this new album are different, they're more intense than anything", says Jaz. "We were experimenting with fourths, because in conventional music, you're never allowed to use intervals of fourths, it produces an undesirable effect, just like in the litanies in church music, y'know, there was a ninth litany they used to use on All Soul's day, and they cut that out, 'cause it inspired naughty things - the actual tones of the notes …"
The songs, in particular 'The Hum', 'We Have Joy', 'Dregs', the probably next single, 'Empire Song', not only possess stronger rhythms and melodies than anything they've done before, they sound both rawer and cleaner. Conny Plank has sluiced out the system, extracting the spleen from the guts of the sound and ridding the apocalyptic stomp of its unnecessary military bombast. The drums have real cross-spread surface, as opposed to mere bottomless depth, and Geordie's guitar, rather than sounding simply multi-distorted, takes on incredible range, at times slicing across the beat with a lethal knife edge, at others, e.g. 'Dregs', approximating a mass volley of trumpets.
Though ostensibly playing no greater role of engineer, Plank is actually, as drummer Paul says, "interpreting the sound to the desk as it's recorded, before any actual production starts". And that is a fairly vital stage in the proceedings.
Jaz: "He just wanted to get the rawest sound possible, without any overdubs bar a couple of keyboards. Like, 'Dregs' is totally live, and we're gonna keep it really painfully raw and awful, coz it is the fuckin' dregs, simple as that."
Of course there's a contradiction here. 'Dregs' is one of the most powerful sounds ever attained in a studio, but in no sense is it "painfully raw and awful", because, above all, it is an immaculate control of power. The comment suggests Jaz's limited knowledge of pain and awfulness. If that is theoretically his ideal in sound, he should be listening to 'Kick Out The Jams', 'Metallic KO', 'Sister Ray', 'Totale's Turns', or the Meat Puppets EP. Killing Joke are now a steeled and shining European war machine, they are no rock'n'roll depravity.
The comment is even exemplary of Killing Joke's position. They have inherited rock's "stands" and turned them against rock itself, building themselves into the ultimate underground supergroup. It is only through the distortions of fame and egotism that their bizarre brand of Messianism has propelled punk's squandered street truths into a "movement". Killing Joke take "rock" for what it is, deluding themselves in all the innocence of their fanaticism that their punk following is somehow the first crusading step towards the salvation of the human race.
They talk about the "killing joke" as though the two words had come to signify some secret deity, both benign and malevolent, and justify this by claiming it is a universal concept when it is really only valid for them - since they somehow discovered it.
"What we stand for," says Jaz, pinning me to my seat with his slightly crazed eyes, "is a thing that I can still only find two words for, and that's Killin' Joke. That's all I can say: KILLIN' JOKE. The music is just a collective point where we can come together. We established the phrase 'Killing Joke', and we establish the mentality that goes with it. We don't ever want to preach, and we have no manifesto bar the words 'Killing Joke'. We just wanna get the environment right for us. There are people all over the world who use the phrase in normal conversation: 'It's a fucking killin' joke!' Right?"
Jaz is an unnervingly paranoid individual. On the defensive before I have so much as breathed a word of entreaty, his is perpetually in a state of self-interview. He writes and sings all of Killing Joke's lyrics; creates the whirlwind sequencer effects one hears, as it were, spirited like ghosts over the interlocking machinery of guitar, bass, and drums; and, hunched and grinning behind his keyboards like Ron Moody's Fagin, it the only member of the band to actually move on stage.
Yet he's too crazy to, in any sense, lead Killing Joke, one of whose undoubted strengths is their equal distribution of bloody-mindedness.
"We're not just another rock band, 'cause it's a way of life for us. We have principles and beliefs, and if we can sort something out between us, get something right on a small scale, what that implies is fantastic. Killing Joke are four people who were born to hate each other.
"People expected us to split up long ago, but it's become our life. If you look at Killing Joke as a group of animals making their own noise and exposing themselves, that's the way to take Killing Joke.
"The violence that Killin' Joke is about is not violence on the immediate level but the mass violence, the violence bubbling underneath your feet, the violence of nature throwing up … and we become that violence."
At least, in Paul Ferguson, Killing Joke have one sane, articulate spokesman, as well as one of the most exciting drummers around. He voice is deeper, more authoritative than the others', and when he takes up from Jaz, the direction of the conversation becomes a little more coherent. Geordie is too bitter, and Youth is a gone-to-seed Sid Vicious without the death wish. If anyone keeps Killing Joke together, it's Paul.
"This whole environment," says the deep voice calmly, without a trace of throwaway rhetoric, "has got to be destroyed, because it is an environment that caters for money and not soul. We are all four of us striving for that goal."
Isn't the "tribal" aspect of your following an obstruction to putting across that feeling or do you still relish it?
"I like the fact that it happens, that there is that tribal element, but what I would relish more is people realizing what it is that makes them want to do that, and to understand how to use it. To be mindless is nothing that I relish, nothing I want to see in any audience."
What is the much-vaunted "power" of Killing Joke?
"That power is something that is lacking in people's lives, a basic instinct of feeling that people can't release anymore, because of the social structures we've created. And that personally is my release. Why has primitive drumming ever existed? Because it was the first instrument. The difference between us and punk and heavy metal is that we don't resort to age-old archetypes of rock'n'roll music. Punk didn't have rhythm, it was basically just loud three-chord pop music. This is something far older, because drums were the basis of every civilisation.
"I felt a need to play the drums which went beyond the idea of being a rock band. It may have become our profession, but it's still something deep down in our natures. We're in the situation of a rock band, as a rock band, but it goes beyond that, beyond the business … and it goes beyond this time."
I believe him.
Nevertheless, Killing Joke have come to a watershed in their "career" as a rock band, and they know it. They "do what they want to do", believe they are destined to do more than anyone, and yet have to sell more records than they do. Every time they sit down with their manager, the talk centres on that problem. Can they reconcile the no-compromising attitude with the constant anxiety about the way they're being marketed?
Jaz: "Selling comes down to Killing Joke being visually exposed. And that comes down to the people who put money into us taking a gamble. Now EG, which is filthy rich, only picked us for its credibility, they could see from the beginning we weren't going to be their Duran Duran."
Paul: "These things are what we've always wanted to keep in control. Obviously at the moment there's friction between what we desire and what everyone else - EG, Polydor, Brian - desires, and obviously the two things have to be reconciled. But we are only going to do what we want. We're not going to go for the Hot Hit Single."
Youth: "At the moment, we're still getting away with what we want to do. It'd just be nice to sell more records, 'cause it would prove that we don't need an image."
Killing Joke, the band without an image. Is that still possible
"Everybody's got an image," agrees Paul, "It's just a question of whether it's an image you create."
But the messianic gaze is coming back into Jaz's eyes.
"If people can't see beyond the way one is presented to the public, well then that's their fuckin' lookout, isn't it? I'm concerned musically with reaching people whose will it is to be part of us. We get all this pressure on us about breaking into a new market, and, y'know, I don't want us to become a stereotype, I don't want us to appeal to fuckin' IDIOTS, but look, if people can only see Killing Joke as a band, then they're fools, 'cause it's becoming a statement, a frame of mind in itself, and it doesn't even require explanation. Just those two words, "Killing Joke", sum up that level of emotion. What I think is most important now if for people to find themselves, 'cause I think a lot of the feeling in our audience is that they won't get the chance to reproduce in their late twenties and thirties. What they must now do is locate their true wills, whatever they may be. Like I say in 'The Hum', "Bright-eyed young inherit all. Treading down upon the fallen/And they are drawn towards the hum/Plenty more where they come from …" I believe in destiny, I'm sensitive, I smell things …"
Humourlessness can be awesome, lack of irony can still the eddy of one's being. There are those amongst us who see through us, who see only change. Killing Joke are not of their number. Someone once described John Barth's dreadful Giles Goat-Boy as "the hoax that joke billed', and the phrase is appropriate to these psychos of subculture. The importance they attach to themselves is a joke they've unwittingly played on themselves, and one they won't ever get.
If Jaz Coleman really knew in his and in our blood of revolution - of the "day after the revolution" - one might meet the idiocy of his gaze with some repentant reflection.
Meanwhile, Killing Joke remain a great rock group, and their third album will prove to be the best thing they've done to date. When it's released grab a listen before it's too late. Killing Joke think the end of the world in nigh.