That Primitive Feeling
"We are the ONLY honest band" say Killing Joke.
Phil Sutcliffe goes Searching For The Young Surl Rebels.
I met Killing Joke in one of the hellhole dressing rooms at the Music Machine. I introduced myself to various people who weren't in the band until a swarthy guy overheard me, sprang up from his seat in the corner and came to me snarling "You're from Sounds? I want to talk to your."
This was Jaz, singer and keyboard player. He looked as though he would have started throwing punches if only he'd had a couple of minutes before he was due on stage to perform for the benefit of the one-parent families of Camden Town. I had no idea what he was so steamed up about. I arranged to see them the next day at the flat Jaz shares with Youth, the bassist, in the Ladbroke Grove area.
This turned out to be a modest corner of a massive Georgian terraced house. It has a peculiar shape because of the haphazard conversion probably done decades ago. Bedrooms, kitchen and a small sun lounge with a balcony were all bright with natural light, but Jaz ushered me to a central living-room I area which I could be rendered gloomy as twilight by closing enough doors and curtains, which he did.
He waved me to a pile of cushions, gave me a glass of water, drummer Paul and guitarist Geordie arrived (bassist Youth never made it) and Jaz said suddenly "What sign were you born under?" Cancer. "Where do you live?" Streatham. "Nice little pad is it? I knew you had to be a home-loving type. Yeah, a Cancer. Look at that crabby grin."
The others examined me and I tried to stop grinning crabbily. Realising that I didn't know how a crab does grin only put me to a greater disadvantage.
But as it happens I've got rather inured to that sort of thing recently. A week previously in a radio interview Kevin Rowland of Dexy's Midnight Runners (a group of people I know quite well and like) had come out with the same sort of probing assault on my home and lifestyle (about which neither he nor Jar know a light). And that was just the start.
The similarities between the two rang like a peal of bells, much more significant than the huge difference in their musical styles.
Shortly Jaz was echoing Kevin again, almost word for word: "we are the only honest band. You try to find another band that's got true, honest feeling. Not fashion, girls, things that are going to get them in the Top Ten. That's rubbish, all of it. Our motives are to become as much ourselves as we possibly can."
There has to be something in this, no coincidence. I feel it's because British rebels of any stripe, 'young soul' or otherwise, find that beating at the walls of our system/society/culture is like trying to knock holes in an inflatable - it gives way, bobbles up again behind you and leaves you floundering. So the only way to retain your integrity (and dignity) is to create a viable vacuum in which you can float untarnished by impure air.
If I understood them Killing Joke do this quite consciously. They refer to 'alienation' a lot in their conversation and lyrics. They have reached the point of accepting it as the modern status quo and using it. Jaz: "We try to get off on that, try to get as much out of it as we can." Paul: "Four people with different destinations, but all going up the same flight of stairs."
To achieve their positive isolation Killing Joke (and Dexy's) have to put in an awful lot of negative to clarify their position to themselves, often artificially to my mind They slot people into categories, such as 'Cancerian' or 'old hippie' (or Kevin's favourite, 'brown ricers') and believe that they are the only ones who can transcend such labels - when I mentioned to Killing Joke that Dexy's were making the same speeches they said they didn't like the Brummies' music and doubted that it could come out of 'the way they live' as truly as their own.
They also have to believe they are getting dirty deal from the press. They simply couldn't be darlings of the media and retain their self-esteem. This presents a problem because, as lively and interesting new bands, they tend to get written about quite favourably. However, a little reading between the lines to spot the underlying malice or condescension soon sorts that out.
Thus, Dexy's famously are refusing press interviews and Killing Joke, lower on the career parabola, thought about giving me a hard time before their basic good nature won through, but then cut up cantankerous with Virginia Turbett (Jaz hiding from the camera and the others refusing to work for her at all - sure they're not obliged to, yet if you read on you may find some interesting comparisons between Killing Joke's response to a photographer and what they demand of their own audience).
And what Jaz wanted to berate Sounds about was some false impressions we had apparently conveyed about Youth's involvement with the 4 Be 2s. "It's over!" they insisted and I agreed readily, having no idea why this was reckoned a controversial issue.
Finally, the rebels of the necessary vacuum will make only the vaguest commitments about their future conduct, although they imply it will be radical. Dexy's argue that all promises sound hollow until they are fulfilled and so will say nothing in detail about their plans.
This avoids pretentiousness all right, but gives people very little to cling to, Killing Joke said: "When we get the capital we're going to create our own environment." They refused to be more specific.
So, like Dexy's, all they are offering with certainty is their music. Despite the tortured logic of their journey they are a good band and it is worth getting there. After all John Peel does say Killing Joke's session is the most requested one he's had on his show.
They play a dark, looming, heavy funk/punk which bends the knee to no-one when it comes to raw power. To me their peak to date is 'Change', the all-but-instrumental on their Rough Trade single, which comes at you like a juggernaut in the night, a kind of crushing dance music.
The complete words are: 'You see/You feel/React/You know/You're Waiting/Change!'
It gives full rein to Paul's extremely loud and precise drumming. Geordie's jagged razor-blade guitar and Youth's possibly incompetent but totally hot bass: a formidable sound.
On stage the tone is set by Jaz, a performer who knows no bounds of polite restraint. His dark features crease with fury. He points and shakes his fists. At time he cuts through all the barriers that stand between you and real emotion in a setting like the Music Machine to set fear shivering up your spine - possibly just from recognising that anger.
At others he tumbles over into farce, his rage reminding me of the Incredible Hulk or Windsor Davies. While he's spilling his guts Youth jogs beside him with a green sun visor pushing his hair back and making him look uncannily like Eric Idle.
Careful listening to their tapes and some gap-filling by the band reveal that their preoccupations are with future holocausts (either nuclear or natural like Mount St Helens) and the tightening screw of oppression (there's a military or police presence in many of their songs).
They aren't 'political' in any dogmatic way but our Prime Minister has managed to get under their skin - they brought her name up repeatedly and although she's never mentioned in their songs last summer she inspired the first Killing Joke composition, 'Are You Receiving'.
It says: 'We got nothing at all/This is life in the fall/We keep searching for the positive/We're using everything'.
'Tomorrow's World' will probably be the title-track of the album they're recording now for release on their own Malicious Damage label. It would be appropriate because it's about an example of what the band mean by a 'killing joke'. It portrays the 'sci-fi lie ... the spangled new age' and then into this complacency drops the just-for-you image of a call-up letter on the doorstep: chaos rules, always.
Judging from occasional outbursts in our letters column there are those amongst you who will now be denouncing Killing Joke as 'Commies'. Save your sweat. Part of their game-plan for this interview was trying to winkle out what kind of a Lefty I am, so they could needle me ("Own up, you're a Trot!" Sorry, don't know how). They're too far into alienation for anything as friendly as socialism.
In fact, they've been misinterpreted more often as some kind of degenerate neo-Nazis. Their Island track 'Turn To Red' is fairly evidently about a nuclear explosion ('The sky is turning red with bodies'), but a reviewer fingered it as a piece of Lefty bashing. Resignedly Paul points out that red is still a primary colour after all: "When you get to the traffic lights they don't turn Communist do they?"
The nearest thing to a Killing Joke manifesto on these matters may be the creation of the Hammer horror all-purpose gauleiter in 'Psyche': 'Look at the Controller/A nazi with a social degree/A middle-class hero/A rapist with your eyes on me/You beast for masturbation/A priest for the nuns you fuck/You'd wipe out spastics if you had the chance/But Jesus wouldn't like it, no!'
They're bitter all right. Roaring fierce. And if Jaz is the extroverted mood of the band, he makes no secret of where the feeling come from. "The thing is he's a wog," cut in Paul as Jaz drew breath for his story. He'd hit the salient point all right.
Jaz comes from Cheltenham, the son of two teachers, his mother half Indian. He watched her being turned down for promotion for 20 years. He caught enough racist stick himself to want to get away and merge into London, whence came his strength in anonymous isolation:
"I'm a complete mixture. I have no culture that's my own. I don't relate to anybody and I'm really proud of that."
Of course London also led him into bands. He got together with Paul in Matt Stagger who they left in late '78 to gradually piece Killing Joke together. When Geordie answered their ad he was lodging incognito with his girffriend in the women's hall of residence at Trent College in Barnet. He was born in County Durham and moved down via a 'cardboard estate' in Milton Keynes where his father's work as a carpenter had taken him.
"I came to meet them," said Geordie, "and there was this shithole of a flat with this oily rag of a human (Jaz) rummaging in a dustbin outside. I had an argument with him immediately and he seemed to like my sarcasm. There was no money but the personalities appealed."
Then it was actually Geordie who enlisted Youth when the other two had given up on him. Somehow he liked the way he found the lad lying in bed at three in the afternoon, deeply inert: "I realised he was the man." Together they worked up the riff of 'Are you Receiving' and the founding duo were won over.
Since then Killing Joke had survived: abject poverty when their dole was stopped for refusing to accept work; a raid on Jaz's flat by the anti-terrorist squad when a neighbour reported seeing him with a gun (it was an air pistol) in the back yard; a session in the cells in Hamburg; a fire which gutted a previous flat (and gave Geordie an all-time great laugh when he stumbled out of the smoke and flames to see Jaz haring down the road stark naked).
They've argued with Island and with Virgin and they've come back to the complete independence they vow they will maintain for the rest of Killing Joke's life. Jaz as a faithful student of the natural sciences puts it down to having two fires signs in the band. They were born for conflagrations of one kind or another and they still take that flat blaze as a symbolic turning point.
It could equally express the volatile relationship they choose to have with their audiences. By the end of their set at the Music Machine they were putting across blatant scorn and contempt to the paying, but subdued, customers. No apologies. They meant it.
Jaz: "You can always tell what it's going to be like as soon as you go on. If it doesn't go 'Bang!' you might as well leave. If they don't react immediately we don't give a fuck all night."
I asked whether it might not be an idea to put in some effort to change the response rather than giving up so quickly.
Jaz: "What do you think we are? Entertainment? (This wasn't a joke.) Go on at ten o'clock and switch on just like the record? We're human beings. We play as we feel. Tough fuckin' nana. We don't give a fuck about the bourgeois cunts (equals 'posers', not a Marxist analysis) at the back.
"The people we really play for are the ones who follow us to every gig good or bad. That primitive feeling, there's something we've got that they need."
Something fierce, there's something too hot to handle for the majority of people they've known. It's an exclusive spot, inside that vacuum.
Paul: "We've lost all our friends. We're the only ones we've got left."
Geordie: "Everyone thinks we're cunts, but we're not."
Paul: "It's because we're honest!"
They all laughed amongst themselves at the killing joke.