US part comic book/part music magazine,
A Last Light Burns Brightly
Killing Joke's Rendezvous With Destiny
by David B. Livingston
Dateline: Summer 1979.
I'm driving through Traverse City, Michigan, at the time a fairly sylvan resort town in the wooded northwest corner of the state - the sort of town where everyone plays golf on Saturdays, goes to church on Sundays, goes to work the rest of the time and nothing ever happens. Everything is nice and clean; well-scrubbed tourists gawk at tacky souvenirs through shop windows. All is well in Normalville.
I'm on Front Street, stopped at a light on the block before Stacey's Diner and Flipside Records. The radio in my '68 Cadillac Sedan DeVille is barely picking up Northern Michigan College's station, WNMC. They've been playing pedestrian REM/Pylon type crud all morning and I'm bored. Then it happens: an evenly-placed staccato synthesizer rhythm, two notes an octave apart; a jagged, oddly-melodic guitar line, playing a three-chord signature; the intermittent boom of the hugest bass drum I've ever heard. And that voice: declarative, raw, scarred - half-singer, half-party dictator or commanding officer. This, as it turns out, is Killing Joke's "Requiem," off their eponymous debut. And almost immediately I'm paying rapt attention.
I park, the song finishes, I wait a few minutes in my car for the readback. Killing Joke. Down the narrow staircase into Flipside's cellar, where AC/DC's Back In Black is playing at deafening volume and incense is burning to cover the stink of pot. Do they have anything by Killing Joke? There's the debut, with its angry-looking black and white cover shot of some riot somewhere (Brixton) and, as it turns out, the brand new one, just got it in this week: What's This For, with its haunted-looking harlequin faces collaged onto brown buildings. Seriously cool. As antithetical to the Mayberry RFD scene outside as Hitler is to Fred Flintstone.
I buy both. Thus begins one of the only instances of abject fandom I've ever experienced in my life.
Killing Joke: At the time the sound was savage, raw, reckless, seemingly on the verge of being completely out of control. The NME and Melody Maker articles invariably portrayed them as dangerous, slightly unhinged, not at all friendly: "exceedingly, unpredictably violent" were the terms MM used, I believe, to describe bassist/producer Youth. It wasn't punk; punk was already a formula, and punk was already old. No, it was newer, more dangerous: more political, more paranoid, more technologically aware, more futuristic; the Clash may've been worried about a "White Riot" and the Anti-Nowhere League may have been lost in the "Streets of London." But Killing Joke were somewhere in the labyrinthine police state of the next century, the land of the perpetual Us vs. Them - the shadowy land of 1984 complete control, Ballardesque brutality, the land of the "Wardance." They were the tour guides to the brave new world.
There were others in similar thematic terrain: Most notably Throbbing Gristle (I picked up 20 Jazz Funk Greats that same summer: talk about damage in one's formative years...). But there was nobody around who'd found the right way to bring those huge, tribal rhythms, that savage guitar squall, the pulsing, impersonal synths, and the apocalyptic vision together, aside from Killing Joke. Joy Division had been on the cusp, but had gotten a bit too wrapped up in some people's personal problems (Ian Curtis' necktie party would officially end it all the following May). And though America at large - on the verge of electing Ronald Reagan, ready to embark on a decade of pathological narcissism and consumerism - didn't give a rat's ass about the apocalypse-to-be, kids on the margins everywhere were picking up on Killing Joke's heady death groove.
Well, the '80s preceded apace: REM became demigods, 10,000 Maniacs were canonized by college radio, and whatever was left of the original punk spirit of repudiation was gobbled up and vomited out in the form of plasticene garbage by the likes of ALL and SST Records. And back in the shadows, Killing Joke were still preaching doom and destructions from the sidelines: "Eighties/I'm living in the eighties/I have to push, I have to struggle..."
The band that always seemed to careen along the edge of the abyss of chaos was in danger of falling in; Youth had bailed out or been fired; Martin Atkins took over for Paul Ferguson, and Raven came in on bass. The "Love Like Blood" single made a minor dent in the radio charts, but MTV had taken over and was preparing to suffocate the planet beneath the weight of Michael Jackson. Daunted by prairie-flat sales and reputed interpersonal squabbles, Killing Joke soldiered along, their recorded output becoming more sporadic and more qualitatively dodgy. By the time Extremities, Dirt And Various Repressed Emotions and its accompanying tour rolled around, it seemed like the party was over: the record, while intermittently brilliant, had the highest proportion of dead weight to date. And on-stage, the band members seemed to be trying to stay as far away from each other as possible. It was hardly a surprise when they called it a day in 1991.
And the Jokers retreated to the far corners of the earth: Youth in London, Atkins in Chicago, Jaz in Australia, and Geordie to Detroit(!). Rumor had it that the Killing Joke resident visionary and ideological godhead Jaz Coleman had been confined somewhere for his own protection, or had gone new age.
Dateline: Summer 1994, Detroit, Michigan. I'm driving through the forbidding, abandoned industrial wasteland of the Murder City, USA; it's night and nobody's on the street except for a few gangbangers lurking in the shadows, a drunk here and there. Now and then somebody else who, like me, has to be out for one reason or another, driving with windows up and doors locked ... the radio in my Toyota is tuned to the cheesy commercial "alternative" station, 89X, which spits out an incessant stream of sad-sack Kurt Cobain wannabes... and then: "I can see tomorrow/I can see the world to come/I can see tomorrow/In the pandemonium..." Those huge, flesh-ripping guitars, that cannonade of percussion, that voice...
Like the proverbial phoenix, Killing Joke rise from the ashes, sounding for all the world like the apocalypse mongers of old, except maybe even a little more pissed this time (and a lot less paranoid ... considering that the nightmare police state they were so worried about has been old news around here for a while now). The Pandemonium disc in total is everything a Killing Joke can could ask for: pure fist-pumping, adrenaline-rush blunt force trauma, more raw savagery than a gross of hungry wolverines ... they're baa-aack, here to announce Apocalypse Now.
And, a year or so later, along comes the Democracy album. It's not quite the disc Pandemonium was; recorded semi-live in the studio, with apparently less time for fine-tuning, fewer noise-layers and relatively few of the cool quasi-subliminal samples which lent so much texture to Pandemonium. But it's still a hell of a disc: the opening cut, "Savage Freedom," pure vintage Killing Joke pummel; the anthemic "Lanterns" and the title cut "Sorry, democracy is changing...."
It's been a long road and there's been some blood shed. But the Killing Joke juggernaut steams on towards its rendezvous with dark destiny ... the end of everything, always coming, seems a bit nearer than before. And in the darkness, one brave voice, barking out dimly heard orders and warnings ... the soundtrack to the end of the world. And it rocks.