(From Magnet, US music magazine, August/September 1994.)
This is a story about a band who came about during the halcyon days of the second (or was it third?) wave of the first British punk movement. In the fairytale land of punk rock, Killing Joke was the evil queen, the knocked-up-outta-wedlock princess and the ugliest witch all rolled into one. The band had a guy named Jaz Coleman who screamed a lot of lyrics about ultimate destruction, dictators and empires gone asunder, all through a voice processor; a guy named Geordie whose hair was wiry and his lone guitar sounded like a flight pattern over La Guardia Airport; and a guy named Martin Glover who went by the name Youth and played bass like it was literally "Disco Inferno." (Plus, of course, the tribal thundering of drummer Paul Ferguson.)
I get a phone call from Youth from a recording studio in London. I'm figuring he, Coleman and Geordie just put together their first album in a dozen years, Pandemonium, with the same sort of spirit, only wiser and lyrically more optimistic. Maybe there's a remix going on. Maybe Youth, who's now a consummate producer of people like Crowded House, The Orb and a collaborative effort with Paul McCartney (mmmm), might be remixing Killing Joke stuff right now. The voice that nearly bounds on the line is nasal and loopy, charming but goofily so. The information is even stranger.
"Hello!" Youth begins. "Yeah, I'm here working with Tom Jones. Yeah, we're cutting a few tracks, man. Yeah, the guy's in fine fettle. Yeah, it's going great; I've just written a couple of songs for him -- one's called 'Love Is On Our Side' and another's called 'I'm Ready'."
I'm not sure if I'm delighted because Jones is a hero to me or amazed that a guy who's now jiving with such high-profile acts started his production career with the now-infamous Philly outfit Executive Slacks.
"Oh my God! Executive Slacks! I had a great time with them. Yeah, that hasn't been mentioned in my production credits because in England they're a very obscure act. Are they still going?"
I have to answer no.
"They were well ahead of their time, that's for sure."
So how did Youth move from such brutal beginnings to popping the corks off codgers like Jones and McCartney?
"One of the great things about being a producer is people just ring you up and say, 'Do some tracks for us. We really like your work and we'd like you to work on some music with us.' Which is a great thrill because it's amazing to be asked to work with these people. I feel like I've only just begun and here they are asking me to help them out. I mean I'm happy to help them out!
"I love Tom Jones. When we were cutting the tracks, we were talking about his early hits in the '60s and how the musicians were guys like Jimmy Page, who actually played on all of his songs as a session musician. Well, Jimmy Page was in our same studio upstairs yesterday, and I didn't realize he was here until he left; otherwise we would have gotten him to do another guitar break. It's funny when you work with these people, the experience they have is overwhelming, the body of work, ohhh... like the McCartney thing."
The McCartney thing. The Firemen's Strawberry Fields is an intriguing and pleasant ambient dance disc. Covered only in a red sleeve, the record sort of snuck out into the market with nary a Beatles fan knowing it was there or that McCartney had now picked a far livelier collaboration than, say, John Lennon.
"Initially he approached me as a straightforward producer, commissioning me to do a remix of one of his tunes," says Youth. "When I went down and met him and listened to the tunes he wanted me to work on, I said that it may be more proper if we did something, you know, a little more abstract. I had this idea of doing something with him, some new stuff, something conceptual with the sounds from his record as sources. Make a new piece out of that. He loved that idea and when we finished it was he that was quite involved doing the mixes. He was really taken with it and decided he wanted to put it out as a collaboration. It was such a special couple of days that we did it he didn't want to change a thing about it. He just wanted to document that as it was, a low-profile album thing.
"I was very flattered to be on his, wow, team; the respect of being in a band with him and do it as a collaboration was a great privilege. I feel a little soporific here -- it was quite humbling, it was an inspirational experience in as much as the fact that that guy has as much enthusiasm as I have. And he's achieved far greater things than I'll ever hope to achieve and yet he still retains that enthusiasm. It's very inspiring."
It's refreshing to find Youth so ebullient and playful and humble, especially since the Killing Joke ideology/sound prior to the recent reunion - the band has stayed together with different bassists and drummers, most notably Martin Atkins - revolved around a bone-crushing ambience. The band's sound, made infamous on releases like "Turn To Red" or "Psyche" or "Wardance," contain great force, not the type you'd expect to hear intermingled on a guy from a Wings project or monkeying inside trance house records.
"Well, to me, I never considered Killing Joke music as being particularly brutal, certainly not a word I would use," says Youth. "I always found it had a balance of light and shade. The chords and the melodies and the sonic textures that were quite subtle and there's quite a bit of emotional curvature over them. It's not jut all sort of one texture. I think that's why we were so hard to pigeonhole in the early days because we'd have funk bass lines, we'd have black bass lines, reggae, Jamaican textures, dub things. We'd have pop format with really heavy delivery. We'd have a lot of contradictory elements in a single piece that somehow worked. You couldn't say whether it was rock or punk or whatever.
"To me we were quite confrontational an issue I think. And quite sincere, brutally sincere. That's where the brutality comes in. The honesty is frightening. Everyone in the band has such diverse views and tastes. I think I'm a very complex creature. What I listen to on Friday night at 11 o'clock is not what I want to listen to on Sunday morning - two completely diverse, different landscapes."
Normally, when an artist mentions a list of influences, a writer might think, "Geez, is he just rattling off names?" Relistening to my old Killing Joke albums, I think I can see his house from here. "I started off getting into Gary Glitter," he says. "Bubble gum stuff here, T-Rex, the whole glam thing. And then I graduated swiftly to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. I was quite into the Carpenters, though, and Andy Williams."
Like "Can't Get Over Losing You"?
"Made me cry, didn't it. After the rock phase, I got into black music and Bob Marley, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Commodores, James Brown, Fat Black Band, funk stuff. I came right out of that and right into the disco groove.
"Straight out of that I got into punk, which allowed me the sort of room to go back to my roots, get punk and sort of get involved with the tribal elements of the soul scene in London that were as traveling a freak show as was the punk scene. I never stopped listening to any one kind of music genre. I still listen to Dark Side of the Moon."
Since I just went to see Pink Floyd and am feeling the after effects, I can rationalize that selection. Listening to a lot of records now - Ministry, the whole shitload of the industrial revolution and especially an act like Green Day - I can see where they pick up on the vibes Killing Joke left in its wake.
"I never felt as if we were part of punk really," says Youth, "and I know that although people mention bands like Green Day or Nirvana, it's bands too like Metallica who cover our songs, and they're hardly what you'd call a punk group. Ministry says they're influenced by us and they too aren't necessarily punk. Soundgarden, Nirvana - they might be a little closer to what we're talking about, Rollins and Black Flag. It's more about the spirit of being honest, not denying aspects of your character, subjects like anger and repression. Addressing those issues were all about the spirit of what you'd loosely call punk.
"Punk for me was always a marketing term - loosely applied to that generation's actions and dreams. I mean, I feel like more of a contemporary with, say, Led Zeppelin, what we do is closer to that. It just goes back to the blues, man. We just take the same influences. My culture is encompassing of many cultures. When you see something culturally that you identify with, it becomes part of your culture. I grew up with that in the same way that Pete Townshend did or Jimmy Page did in the '60s - we grew up with the same things. They might not have come up with black people, which I certainly did, but the music was more a part of their heritage than anything else.
"I went to school with more black people than white people. I was immersed in the culture totally, especially in the Jamaican culture. I totally identify with that spirit, the vibe of it. I couldn't find it reflected in my Anglo school contemporaries, the younger ones. But it was reflected in the older ones - that's why I feel a kinship with the older musicians more. I see that as part of the folk tradition, the bardic tradition neatly exemplified by George Clinton and his clones of funk. You take what you like without qualms of guilt or questions of authorship. That's how you progress, that's how you express yourself. It's how you do it, sincerely. You don't intellectualize it, you live it."
Since the original Killing Joke lineup's demise, the alternative scene has become more homogenized, quickly beating down doors for reference points. There's an ongoing need to be nostalgic, and I'm pretty sure people are chasing me for my little pointy winkle-picking boots. Why force yourself to come back now to an inflated market, especially when the guy I'm talking to has a successful production career?
"I find there's been a lot of respect and a lot of emotion concerning Killing Joke's regrouping," he says. "Ever since we started the tour, we've been getting this whirlwind of support and out and out idolatry from old fans, new ones and people who used to follow the band from gig to gig even then. They were in tears to see us back. That was amazing, but to look at it as nostalgia - nah, I don't want to deal with that. I got more of a buzz from the fact they seemed to get more of a buzz from the new material. I think our old material is great but it's, uh, old. Yeah, I mean part of the reason we're doing this is because I thought we had a lot more to say - even more than what we had to say back then."
Any gobbing or chairs breaking?
"Nothing's changed. It was like being 18 again. I just went in and put the bass on and I started getting the same feelings I had then. It's a great opportunity for me because that extra 12 years or so of experience gave me insight on how to approach things or respond to things differently. We're all changing constantly, so much so you almost forget what you're doing. During the album we started off with some ideas and threw them away pretty quickly and just went off on our own tangents. It was pretty much the same uncompromising attitudes from everybody - just the same, but with a bit more integrity in terms of how we approached it, how we treated each other. It was everything and nothing really."
Youth then enters into the sunset of the recording studio, back to Tom Jones, and I'm left here, just humming "It's Not Unusual."
--by A.D. Amorosi