(From Record Collector, UK music magazine, December 2004.)
Chris Mugan charts the return of Killing Joke
There's a famous tale from German folklore. It predicts that, when the country is facing its most critical moment, Babarossa, the talismanic 12th-century emperor, will return from his cave under the Kyffhaüser Mountain. Killing Joke might appreciate the comparison. With the Iraq situation mutating out of control last year, they returned from the wilderness with an album of devastating savagery whose main point seemed to be to remind us that everything is effulent.
Chaos For Breakfast, an excellent five-CD boxed set compiled from the band's early years (including 30 black-and-white pictures of the band and other assorted images), capitalises on their heightened public profile. The first four CDs smack you around the head with such confrontational classics as Turn To Red, Requiem, Change and Follow The Leaders (there's also a version with the original lyrics). Mostly familiar stuff but a mordant delight to hear again anyway.
Joke fanatics, however, will home in on the fifth CD. As well as demos of many of those singles and B-sides, there's a spacey 19-minute studio jam. More of that later.
The band's guitarist, Geordie Walker, the man responsible for so many spleen-shredding riffs, casts his mind back. "I didn't remember doing that many tracks but we were in Roundhouse Studios in Chalk Farm for maybe a week or so before we did the first album. It was probably just before we signed to EG."
As many of these songs approach their 25th birthday (a milestone not lost on Walker, who says there will be live activity in the run-up to Christmas to coincide with the anniversary), it is clear immediately that age has not withered them. Quite the opposite.
"I kind of think that, especially with the one-riffers, there's a trance kind of feel that we started. It's an approach you could call timeless. They just don't date."
"They've got an attitude to them, especially Wardance and Psyche," says Malicious Damage's Mike Coles, boxed-set architect and also responsible over the years for much of the band's memorably unsettling cover artwork.
With old an new material complementing each other almost perfectly, Walker cites the across-the-spectrum age range at Joke gigs as evidence that "younger kids are getting into real rock bands again for the first time in ages."
This development doesn't surprise Walker, attributing it to "the shit they get shoved down their throats otherwise."
In the Joke world, points are put across with this sort of face-to-face menace. You'll wait for a long time if you expect any sign of backing down, any indicator of weakness. Killing Joke don't blink.
The aforementioned Killer on the last CD of Chaos For Breakfast is a good example of this: nearly 20 minutes of Joke amusing themselves in the studio by sending everyone else insane.
"There's this heavy bass line which, just as it's starting to drive you mad, disappears for a few bars and then it comes back and gets you again," says Mike Coles. "There's all this stuff behind it, this weird synth noises, drumming with loads of echo. Very dubby."
"That was what we used to do for recreation," laughs Geordie as he recalls a track reckoned to have been played live only in some obscure German and French gigs.
After so long away, the making up of lost time is a priority. There's a remastering and reissuing of the back catalogue in the pipeline, with Geordie paying special attention to the band's fourth studio LP, Fire Dances ("We were partying too much. It sounds too tinny"). The band are also on the point of decamping to Prague -- base of vocalist and madman-in-chief Jaz Coleman -- to record their new album. Geordie says he has around 10 guitar tracks "on the go".
"As long as those one-riffers keep turning up, you're laughing." And with a cackle, he's gone.
Chaos For Breakfast was a labour of love, claims compiler Mike Coles, with the accent as much on the labour as the love. It won't shock the seasoned Joke observer that the projects gestation was long and arduous; it may surprise them, however, to find out that it touches on washing baskets, broken glass and Deep Purple.
"It started off as something vaguely along the lines as a reissue of some of the early stuff," says Coles. "Then I thought I could do Wardance and Psyche but I knew I'd have to licence them. Then Alex Paterson [in pre-Orb days, a Joke roadie] found all these old cassettes [in the aforementioned washing basket] with demos and stuff. And then a box of old 1/4-inch tapes came to light.
"Coincidentally, EMI asked me to design the sleeve for Killing Joke For Beginners [a forthcoming CD acting as an introduction to the band]. I agreed to do it but told them I'd been trying to get hold of their licensing people for the past four months. And this guy just put it through straight away. I though then we could do a boxes-set thing."
What other dusty goodies lie in wait in the Joke vaults?
"There's this dub stuff. Alex Paterson and [original drummer] Paul Ferguson are doing the percussion on broken glass, smashing glasses for the drumbeat. Youth took it away and speeded it up, added voices. Totally mad."
Sadly, there is one Joke gem that won't be seeing the light of day on Chaos For Breakfast. Coles thought he had stumbled across material from a 1980 soundcheck with Geordie, in most atypical Joke fashion, running through a selection of rock standards.
"There's AC/DC, 'Smoke On The Water', stuff like that. But he [Geordie] said it was [bassist] Youth."
Any suspicions of a smokescreen here?
"This is when Youth could barely play bass guitar," claims Coles.