(From The Face, UK pop culture magazine, May 1981)
A Matter of Laughs and Death
Funny hysterical: making the journey from Kings Cross to Shepherd's Bush with an earful of Killing Joke. I've just changed fifty albums I didn't need for one of the cheaper stereo cassette machines and am making my first earphone-muffed explorations of the outside world.
I've chosen Killing Joke's latest recordings for soundtracks, partly for pleasure, but also because I'm on my way to meet the group at Virgin's Town House studios.
Some 'prep'! People on the street are more monkey business than ever, and on the subway, emphasised by the wild noise of Killing Joke's "Madness", it's positively zoo time.
Killing Joke aren't everyone's cup of glee, and the above-mentioned title is a hint why. Here's another: the handbill for the group's recent tour: KILLING JOKE are in huge black letters at the top, ALBUM/TOUR at the bottom, and in between a smiling priest, huge crucifix around his neck, advancing through monochromed ranks of be-swastika'd brownshirts. Like everyone else, the priest has his right arm raised in Fascist salute. Ha-ha?
Killing Joke met America on New Year's Day in 1981. Result, according to the t-shirt still worn by their drummer, was the collapse of the home team: foreground shows the Statue Of Liberty thrashing helplessly about in an icy Atlantic. In the background skyscrapers topple in an everyway death dance. The lady has a bullet hole in her forehead and she's lost her torch. That's the killing joke.
And this: six p.m. monkey time on the Piccadilly Lane. Rewind. So this is Friday? Rewind. Rewind!
Tuesday. They take their time answering the door and live up the dark stairs of a no doubt once salubrious West London building: white front, steps, pillars, that sort of thing.
Inside, everything spells squat: the unlit stairs with their remnants of carpeting, the bundled mattresses cluttering the landing, and everywhere chipped paint.
The road to now is a familiar if still noble path - approved by ZigZag (at whose birthday party the group met their then biggest audience at the Music Machine last spring); independent recordings of a ten-inch four-track, later distributed by Island; divorce from Island celebrated by the "Wardance/Psyche" 45, Fred Astaire blithely (ignorantly) hopping over a field of sepia corpses, this time via Rough Trade; and thence to Roxy/Eno-foundationed EG, whence last winter's debut album. All of which were packaged in the stunning post-Heartfield graphics of friend Mike Coles.
Inside the wrapper, dense punk-metal-dub collisions of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, screech vocals; frenzied, rhythmic, at times unbearably physical noises; Gustav Holst's much-pilfered "Mars" on Panzer tracks; PiL meets "Paranoid" at the gates of Armageddon: "We got nothing at all/This is life in The Fall ... Are You Receiving?"
Me, I find this sort of shit intoxicating. And danceable, yes. Which is where it all starts and ends, as far as approval goes.
Not everyone likes Killing Joke. Some of the criticisms, those levelled at that uneven debut LP particularly, were well-founded. Others not so; you can always tell when popcrits are replying to the opinions of other popcrits rather than responding to the music they're supposed to be reviewing. This happens a lot with Killing Joke. It happens with everyone. It's the best reason for ignoring the pop weaklings altogether. Look at the pictures instead.
Everyone mythologises. Killing Joke are no exception. Hear them tell it, their genesis was a preordained alchemical wedding, like minds drawn together under the Killing Joke banner, a result as inevitable as physical decay.
"The Killing Joke!", the group's most regularly quotable mouth (affixed to singer/keyboard player Jaz) will tell you, a flurry of arms, flashing teeth. "That's what it all boils down to. And you either get it or you don't."
The Caribbean painting on one of the living room walls is a clue: Killing Joke like their Jamaican imports when it comes to recreation - dub on the speakers and, in the absence of anything to skin up, plenty of rum and grapefruit in everyone's cup.
Youth is the bassist, the one with the permanent graveside pallor and now fading resemblance to St. Sid but nothing else of the latter's deathwish tendencies - as anyone who's seen Pig Youth eat can confirm.
The most immediately affable one, the one whose sense of humour is most pronounced, Youth scrabbles around in his admirably chaotic bedroom (the bed covered with a dangerously tangled roof of bamboo, a kitsch Dracula ashtray on the coffee table, everywhere posters) and comes up with the roughs for a book he's working on.
"Virgin are thinking of publishing it," Youth enthuses, thrusting artwork forwards. A combined picture alphabet/address book, the emphasis on the former, pictures - in varying qualities, from impressively weird cartoons to obvious stoned doodles - by the untrained Youth himself.
Like Youth, the band's drummer [sic] has shed his christened name for the single barrel simplicity of Geordie. "He'd never played in a band before," Jaz will admit later, "he just came along. Like Youth - Youth told us he could play, but he couldn't." Then. Now, especially on the latest batch of recordings, the rhythm section carries the main thrust of the band's music.
The other old hand (Jaz himself had classical training from an early age, eventually becoming part of the National Youth Orchestra, lessons he's laboriously unlearned since) plays guitar: Paul Ferguson, phoney blonde, fine profile, still ribbed for having once been a Zal Cleminson fan.
Talky-talky, minus one. Jaz, having revealed his plans to send out raiding parties who'll curse the altars at both St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey on the morning of Charles and Di's wedding (prompting a "yeah, great" in bored tones from the quiff-topped Geordie) retires to the adjoining room and lies, supine and silent, on a mattress for the best part of an hour.
The group, it transpires, have been in the studios since Christmas, dividing their time between Virgin's Town House and a local eight-track, the latter used to make blueprints for what will happen in the studio proper.
"And Youth's been, er, working on other things," concludes Geordie, with a smirk in his voice.
The story of Youth's psychedelic cavort down the Kings Road wearing nowt but his birthday suit is happily confirmed to be the spot-on truth.
"I saw bombs," says Youth. "What did you see?"
But everyone else claims innocence, or abstinence at least.
The conversation shatters at this point. While Geordie's saying how dull two weeks in an eight-track can be, a background voice (Youth?) asks "D'you know the Rainbow's on a ley-line?"
Half a dozen gigs and a new 45 are imminent, the single most likely being "Follow The Leaders/Tension", both products of the Town House in collaboration with engineer Nick Launay, whose previous employers were PiL, surprise, surprise.
The mooted A-side was ready before Christmas, says Paul, giving first hint of a general malaise. "It's all fuckin' record company policy," Geordie continues. "You've got to have your single and your album and your tour to promote them ... which is sickening. But," he shrugs, "it's the only way we're gonna eat; we've found that we have to do these things."
But would they do otherwise? "No. We'd just take more time over things. Some of the stuff for the album that we did at Christmas I'd just like to have seen come out as singles. I'd like to see the material come out as soon as it's done. But you're just fighting for money all the time. And what is practical. You've got to have this plan..."
It's suggested that the delay in releasing "Follow The Leaders", for example, might lead to accusations of plagiarism. For Geordie and Paul the opposite is nearer the truth.
"I don't care about that," Youth's two penn'orth arrives. "I just rip off other bass players anyway."
Studio-wise, Killing Joke haven't exactly gone overboard with multiple-tracking and the like. There's only ever one drum-kit (the fact that it might sound otherwise being strictly down to Geordie's frequently awesome biceps power), and Jaz has deliberately restricted himself to his single Oberheim synth.
"You just use the studio to get a good live sound," declares Paul Ferguson. "Thirty-six mikes on the drum-kit and none on the guitar," he musician-jokes. "Because once you've got a sound it's real easy to do that live," he continues more soberly. But not for long: "Once you've got the ideas down - this is what we did in the eight-track, just put things down and discuss it all and so on - and then you can go in the 24-track and fuck it all up."
"Well," says Youth, "it's better than being Vienna boys." (What we in the trade call a sarcastic comment.)
Attempts to pick up the narrative's ragged thread at the Town House two nights later prove ultimately fruitless when, at past 4 a.m., the group grudgingly throw in the towel at engineer Nick Launay's request and declare themselves to be ready to rabbit. My mind's full of sheep of the countable variety, hence the Friday tryst we came in on.
Watching the group in the studio is a by no means fruitless travail, however, if only because it confirms how seriously they take their work. And how democratically said work is divided.
Jaz Coleman pots half a dozen stray pool-balls and finally gets lippy. "It's not pessimistic," he spits, immediately locking horns with the most popular anti-KJ criticism. "It's not. 'Wardance' is everybody's paranoia, whether they like it or not. And we've got it to an emotional level where people are celebrating the wardance. It's just like another part of your life. And a lot of people have been through that.
"Sometimes, like in New York, they're like that," says Jaz, clutching himself in tense frustration. "And then they've just exploded - and they've felt really good. And that is something that is not pessimistic at all. It confronts something that's inside us, it gets it out, and we have a laugh. And that's good.
"You see, I look at a lot of music and try and work out what it actually does in the long run. You get your Joy Divisions and your Public Image - and what it actually does in the long run is just depress you. And it doesn't motivate you to do anything. I mean, ego's not always such a bad thing; it can destroy you, or it can give you the will to get out of that depressed state of mind and to and actually achieve something.
"I see a lot of these new bands and all it seems to lead to is this decadent, acid state. I like tension," says Jaz, almost struggling to get the words out a la On The Waterfront Brando. "It inspires good things. And that I trust one hundred percent."
Would Killing Joke do Top Of The Pops if the chance arose - a likely possibility considering the undoubted commercial viability of the thumping "Follow The Leaders"?
"Love it," says Jaz, "love it."