Under the Volcano
A trembling Mick Mercer suffers a head-on collision with KILLING JOKE and is surprised to find himself still alive at closing time.
The condemned man ate a hearty breakfast and began slowly steering his two feet towards Putney with the self-same heart, that had been involved in so much searching, lodged uncomfortably in his mouth. A Killing Joke interview? Thank you so much.
It wasn't that I minded a confrontation, should it occur, as I'd been informed Killing Joke were quite open to a bit of argument and rational mental bartering. It was simply this: last year, during one interview and the singles reviews in Melody Maker, they contemptuously tossed off the opinion that "blacks" and "poofs" be swiftly relocated to some picturesque gas-chamber. Having been unmoved either way by their music for years, other than being chronically bored, these putrid comments raised my contempt for a band to hitherto unreached levels. Had they themselves met a grisly death, the drinks would have been on me.
Then the battle began in earnest when Killing Joke finally pulled out the big one, late last summer - "Eighties", undoubtedly a single that deserved to chart but didn't. Every Friday night I was to be found holed up in The Hope, a cosy Stanwell Moor hostelry where local bands of all types and ages careered shakily through their sets. The introduction to the pub of a video juke box led to serious neck problems for more than a handful and it became progressively harder to ignore the "Eighties" video simply because it was so good. I would be chafing people's ears for regarding it favourably, while being more than a touch impressed myself. Even so I steadfastly refused to buy the single until I'd met the band to discover how firm they stood on fascist stupidity. It's called peace of mind.
The new album, "Night Time", caught me like a scrum half on a tight rope. An intense but variable collection, clearly their best to date. It combines commercialism and power without chickening out in the face of Bruno Brookes, or other helmsmen of that ilk. But most of all it sheltered some strangely human songs, songs of uncertainty, sung with feeling, which surely ridiculed the cretinous outbursts that had cemented their already bad reputation. The chance to meet them didn't seem quite such a bad idea.
With that in mind I went to a rehearsal studio in Putney. The Joke's reputation is probably worse than even The Stranglers managed at their "height". The Killing Joke are Public Enemy Number One.
Bassist Raven shakes hands and smiles, and not a smirk either, then drags me kicking and screaming to the pub, where a drummer, Paul, joins us later with his girlfriend whose name I didn't catch. But here's the rub, possibly the nub. Not only were they rather jovial chaps but she actually knew Bruce Kalberg, the greatest living American (no, not another spurious excuse for a Cyndi Lauper mention) writer! This is the stuff.
Tell them sweetly you expect them to be arrogant bastards and they just shrug it off with a smile. They've only heard it three million times before. Were they aware, I asked while they toyed with the idea of some fur-lined "Pub Grub", that doing a Joke interview was known as "The Graveyard Shift"?
So how justified is the reputation? All these journalists crucified and left hanging on trees?
"It was never intentional really," said Paul mildly. "It got that they were waiting for it basically and baiting us for the traps. That's why they got it. We're just pranksters I suppose.
"It got out of hand, it really did. They're surprised when they don't get a battle, so surprised that they've thought we were winding them up, that we weren't being serious, just stringing them along with another prank. It's ridiculous."
Have you ever done a real Stranglers job and hit somebody?
"Oh yeah," says Paul breezily. "I'm a very physical person. I took up karate in the hope that I might find some discipline for it but it's got worse."
"Now he can just do it better," quips Raven with a truly crafty grin.
And what part of what they feel like at this time is having Pale Fountains as support. What I believe is known as extraordinary behaviour.
Raven: "They'll have a good time, I'm sure. It will be an experience, if nothing else."
Paul: "We thought they'd be quite entertaining, for us."
Raven: "Cannon fodder."
Pranking apart, I imagine this album has wiped out many of the criticisms of yore. Up until now I had hated Killing Joke.
"I think we were starting to hate Killing Joke as well," laughed Paul. "It was getting to the state where we were getting pressured from all angles to write something commercial or give up, y'know? We weren't succumbing to that but there was a constant pressure, and it was getting really tedious. The more pressure there was the angrier the music got! It came out in the music that we weren't happy.
"We said to everybody, look ... forget it this year, we're just gonna tour a couple of places and concentrate on writing stuff that we like. If it's not commercial or it's no good, drop us. We didn't concern ourselves with whether it would sell, we just made music that we were happy with and it turned out everyone else is happiest with it as well. I've had no bad reactions from anyone I've played the tape to."
Sidestepping for a moment, was it a thrill being on "The Tube" with Cliff Richard?
"He was having his make-up put on while I was having mine done," Paul recalls, poking at some decorative potato object. "I just listened to him. It just amazed me that the guy is like, everyone he speaks to he's still acting like he's on TV, the total professional. He doesn't relax for a minute, it's like a chat show all the time. Really horrible. And he's very Christian."
Raven has joined in this strange ritual of mastication that is ruining pubs in this country but suddenly slings a question at me.
"What happened to all this Sex Gang lot?"
Oh mumble, mutter...
"They got all their best ideas from us," sneers Paul.
So what consciously sets you apart from other bands?
"We mean it," says Raven, before the question is fully released. "It sounds like the real thing instead of like some two-bit jumped up Indian reservation stomping bullshit that they put out. None of them have lived, that's what it is."
How do you know?
"Because I know 'em."
But the new album doesn't reflect this "living" aspect, does it? It brings through a more human less demonstrative side than before.
"Yeah, it sounds like there's doubts in the songs," Paul admits, "but there always have been in the lyrics. This actually reflects more moodiness. There's more passion in it, explosions, peaks and troughs. It's mature. We've had five years of saying the same thing and we're still saying those things but we've learnt maybe there's different ways of going about it. Different ways of approaching it ... and that is living."
Now it's all been something of a shock to the system to find just how pleasant this duo are but let's get down to this fascist crap about the gas chamber "jokes". What was all that about?
"Listen," says Paul emphatically, something he does quite a lot. "We actually got put up in a hotel in the village of Dachau and we were going to do a gig in Munich. We all went round the concentration camp. I went round first with one of the roadies and Raven and by the time we were leaving the others turned up. Jaz and Geordie just couldn't stand it, they walked in the place and walked out again, they were that appalled. We were all devastated.
"We didn't make gas chamber jokes for ... oh, at least three days! It's very easy to become flippant about things and we're guilty of that. It's sarcasm and in no way is that humour. The reality of it all was too appalling. It is. Nobody could fail to be moved by something like that. Unfortunately we've got a very twisted sense of humour."
Raven: "We balance it with our sense of humour just so we could fucking live with it ourselves. It's not a very pleasant subject for a start but you see it, the whole operation and how it went down, and it's absolutely fucking sickening."
"There are still members of this species who should be wiped out," adds Paul cryptically. "They cause their own destruction. There are people who exist, naming no names, who don't do humanity any favours and do not further the cause of mankind. We know that and we become flippant."
I was going to ask about fat people (the trains were full of them). What sort of people annoy you most?
"Moral people," snaps Paul. "Christians. We have very loose morals, we like to feel we'll do anything if we feel we're likely to get something out of it. Anything to broaden our horizons and make our life a bit fuller. People like Bono of U2 make us sick and I can say 'us' in this, I don't usually talk of the band as a whole but he makes us sick."
"The whole Christian ethic of worshipping the suffering image," rants Raven, putting the Jesus boot in, "and be a good boy now and everything will be okay, you'll get your prize in the end, is pathetic. Totally nauseating."
I hose them down, dodging the scalding steam, and bring them back to the highly acclaimed title track from the album, with its mention of fear. Now I'd always had the impression that Killing Joke weren't scared of anything.
"That song points out," Paul explains, "that you have to face up to the evils of humanity. There are people out there who will stab you in the back. You can go out on the street and be scared shitless but you have to face up to these fears because these are nothing more than reflections of your own brain."
Unless my eyes deceived me, there were three different versions of the "Eighties" video, with the high spot being the chap on the official stairs (Raven as it turns out), letting loose with the assassin's gun.
Raven: "Bank of England!"
Paul: "No, we did it in front of St Paul's."
Raven: "Shows how much I know!"
"We tried it in front of the Bank of England," Paul reminds him, "and the police came along. Each video we've done, apart from the first one, we've done several versions. On the 'New Day' video there's one that has some vivisection scenes, a little monkey with plugs in its ears. It turns our stomachs just to see it. You see it on the news but when you see it in a pop promo, so to speak, taken out of the context of documentary, it becomes far more disturbing."
Can you honestly envisage the day when you have success on a scale similar to, say, The Thompson Twins?
Paul: "Listen, if I was honest, I'd say 'NO'...."
Raven: "But I'm not, so...."
Paul (undeterred): "But I think the music deserves it, put it that way. Because I think it has far more emotional content than the band you just quoted. I find our music very classical and timeless. It gives me shivers up my spine. I do find it hard, though, being popular on that level because people's mentalities are geared to something else."
And finally, there is a song on the album (which Paul describes as the tongue-in-cheek), entitled "Kings And Queens". What's it all about?
"We all manage to live quite well," Paul munches. "We've all lived in squats together but manage to live quite well because we don't mind using people. Don't mind using anything. We don't mind being used, as long as there's mutual advantage."
The current press release makes much of Jaz sharing Aleister Crowley's birthday, who was clearly a Killing Joke member ahead of his time. He was merciless in his use of people.
"Yeah, and so you should," says Paul. "That's not saying treading all over people. If people are there and willing to be trodden on, then tread on them. They're there to be used."
"I'm of the impression," states a vehement Raven, "and always have been, that the world owes you a living, and if you believe that you get things. People put themselves forward for it."
Who wouldn't you tread on? Your fans?
"Yes, we'd tread on them," says Paul cheerfully. "We tread on each other. I can't say we deliberately misuse people, we just take what we need from people and if they're prepared to part with it, there you go! Instant means of survival."
I presume that in any arguments you (Paul) have the advantage over the others?
"Yeah, I do, and I use it. People as a whole react more warily towards me. I can understand that. I would."
I pass up the idea of beating him to pulp and we part on good terms. Killing Joke decent chaps? Life is an unpredictable affair.