Punishing post-punk miscreants Killing Joke have a long catalogue of challenging, cathartic music behind them, with excursions into styles ranging from goth to new wave to punishing industrial metal, defied categorisation
Though they’ve often flown under the radar in America, famous fans such as Dave Grohl and Metallica have endorsed the London-based four-piece unique portrayal of atomic age angst, their blunt, pulverising music echoing the rage and cynicism expressed in the songs making them somewhat of an anomaly.
Killing Joke were formed in Notting Hill in 1978, and often found themselves lumped in with the rest of the diverse, burgeoning alternative acts at the time. Their first album was a lethal landmark in subculture, and then as the 1980s progressed the quartet hauled themselves steadily overground. 1984’s Eighties unflinchingly displays the band’s aggressive punk roots wedded to dance-based grooves. Just as David Bowie’s Oh, You Pretty Things had done in the Seventies, Eighties was inspired by and namechecks the 1871 novel, The Coming Race, by the English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Warning: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher appear in the video, as themselves.
But it wasn’t Jaz Coleman’s wordplay that would become the most talked about element of Eighties. That would be Geordie Walker’s memorably menacing guitar riff. Nivana’s Come as You Are (1991) is fuelled by a slowed-down version of that riff. Although incensed, Killing Joke stated they opted not to file a copyright infringement lawsuit “for personal and financial reasons.” So the riff being remarkably similar to The Damned’s 1982 deep cut Life Goes On had nothing to do with it then.
Nirvana’s then-manager Danny Goldberg later copped to the similarity between the two songs. In the 2000 book, Eyewitness Nirvana: The Day-By-Day Chronicle, Goldberg said, “We met to discuss what Nevermind‘s second single would be. We couldn’t decide between Come as You Are and In Bloom. Kurt was nervous about Come as You Are because it was too similar to a Killing Joke song, but we all thought it was still the better song to go with. And, he was right, Killing Joke later did complain about it.”
Killing Joke’s move into the mainstream, however brief, culminated in the unleashing of a Love Like Blood in January 1985; a pivotal moment that showed off a blistering, anthemic rhythm propelled by an insistent melodic sensibility. It was to be the first Killing Joke single I bought. And the last.
In the days before satellite dishes and smart TVs, Milton Keynes, Swindon, Telford and one or two other new towns, were the earliest cable-connected places in Britain, all set up to receive the fledging broadcasts of a new player on the television broadcast market. With a cut of a ribbon, Kate Bush opened the new single-station Sky TV network in Swindon and all of a sudden we had virtually free cable access to what was then called Sky Channel, Rupert Murdoch’s pan-European version of BBC1.
Sky Channel’s main music show was Sky Trax, hosted by a plethora of Radio 1 DJs like Peter Powell and (ooh) Gary Davies and non BBC presenters such as Amanda Reddington, Pat Sharp, and in his first TV role in Britain, Phillip Schofield.
For a telly programme with a limited audience, Sky Trax could certainly boast a few exclusives when they wanted to. They’d play things like the early, slightly dodgy version of a-Ha’s Take On Me (the one without the famous video) a good year before it was transformed into the era-defining hit everyone knows. The first version of Pet Shop Boys’ Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money) was also aired. In fact the the first time I saw PSB on TV was the duo being interviewed on Sky Trax months to promote the single before West End Girls was released.
Mr Mullet himself, the loathsome Pat Sharp, got to quiz Adam Ant and Eurythmics (not together, although that would have been fun), and it was fun/excruciating/embarrassing to witness both Adam and Annie Lennox barely hiding their displeasure at his inane presenting style. (To be fair, Sharp hardly hid his distaste at having to interview the chief Ant either).
Whereas Pat Sharp could antagonise (just one swish of his hair was often enough), Amanda Reddington was a breath of fresh air with her Sky Trax Magazine show. My sister and I would make a point of watching it as soon as we came from from school.
In early January 1985, Reddington had Killing Joke on, gently probing all four members in the tiny studio in London’s West End. I’d not seen them on TV before but they were interesting if a little sullen. Oh, how we laughed when Geordie, the slightly shy blond axeman who, it has to be said, was the only band member who was even remotely easy on the eye, started speaking.
Geordie said he’d lived in Milton Keynes for a while, and he didn’t look too happy about it either. Upon further investigation, I discovered it was in MK that he acquired his nickname due to his northeastern “Geordie” accent (which he has subsequently lost), and that his family had moved to the monstrous, monolithic Lakes Estate in Bletchley when he was 14, and I would have been four. A “cardboard estate” he later described it.
In other words, he moved to Milton Keynes in the 1970s a year after me. We were almost neighbours, and if I wanted to visit Bunces newsagent I’d often make the trip through the underground tunnel that connected our Water Eaton private housing to the Lakes, the Greater London Council’s first estate built outside of the capital (dubbed London Overspill for obvious reasons). Had we not moved from Bletchley in 1979 I’d have gone to Leon, the same secondary school this tall, lithe blond bombshell attended. Wisely, he made the big move to the big smoke in his 20s, as did I. Concrete cows everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Of course, telly’s national network, the British Broadcasting Corporation, had their own all-important promotional device for new and popular music: the legendary, long-running Top Of The Pops. A hugely significant part of British popular culture, TOTP at the BBC was transmitted weekly, at a coveted early evening slot for young potential record buyers and their family.
With regular viewing figures of 15 million plus, the programme was far and away the most influential and result-orientated marketing tool in the UK’s record industry. Usually, once a single had reached the Top 40 it was considered for exposure by the show’s producers.
On Valentine’s Night, 14 February 1985, Dead Or Alive opened Top of the Pops with their first television performance of You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), featuring my pop idol of the moment Pete Burns. It was a pretty remarkable moment for the band, who’d seen the single hover outside the Top 40 for over three months until only the previous week.
Like the A-ha and Pet Shop Boys 45s, Spin Me was in pretty heavy rotation on Sky Trax, but it had taken a short excerpt of the video in TOTP’s ‘Breakers’ section the week before to propel the song into the Top 20. Burns was in his element, and the Top 20 for the very first time.
Morrissey (who was on the show with The Smiths) was so impressed he applauded Burns’ performance as ‘demonic’. But if their startling performance three songs later was anything to go by, Killing Joke were the friends of Lucifer. And how.
As the cavernous sound of Love Like Blood’s menacing, industrially distorted guitars revved up, drummer Paul Ferguson plants a steady four-on-the-floor dance beat, along with Raven’s funky bass line. But the tone on stage is set immediately by swarthy frontman Jaz Coleman. This is a performer who knows no bounds of polite restraint. His short, dark features crease with fury. He points and shakes his fists. At times he cuts through all the barriers that stand between you and real emotion in a studio setting like the BBC Television Centre to set fear shivering up your spine – possibly just from recognising that anger.
While he’s spilling his guts in full bloom, Jaz gives off the vibe of someone who could start throwing punches at any moment, his Napoleon Complex corkscrew-haired rage making him look uncannily like a cross between an evil Alain Prost and a Spanish werewolf. I guess trimmers weren’t his God, either.
It was one of those moments when you felt annoyed with yourself for thinking ‘Christ, he’s got a face only his mother could love,’ and then, bizarrely my own mum caught sight of him and piped up, “God, what a face!” She looked like she might be in for a restless night.
At that precise moment I decided this surging, threatening juggernaut was worthy of my pocket money and that I’d be paying a visit to my usual record haunt, Virgin in Central Milton Keynes shopping centre, as soon as funds allowed.
Love Like Blood hit a peak of No.16 a fortnight later, giving the band their biggest hit and an audience that extended past the band’s death cult following. In fact I ended up going one better, and opted for both 12-inch editions; one of which was an extremely limited Gestalt Mix, both featuring variations of an anonymous tall and muscular man bearing and baring arms. Obviously not Jaz then. Perhaps it was the man who sold the world?
Somehow managing to be raw, refined and radio-friendly all at once, Love Like Blood and Eighties perfected a bridge between antagonism and accessibility, spawns of the parent album that soon followed. Recorded in Berlin’s hallowed Hansa Studios (David Bowie and Brian Eno, Depeche Mode, U2), fifth studio album Night Time was a polished, refined production that opened the floodgates to the band’s wider appeal yet managed to retain that ominous, unsettling quality that only Killing Joke could pull off.
That constant give and take is palpable between the cold paranoia of Eastern Europe and the flamboyant, outgoing style of the West. The songs are relentlessly catchy, but that sense of nervous doom and gloom pervades the entire record. Its dance influence is undeniable, but this is the kind of dance music that would only befit a party on the eve of the Apocalypse. Or in the case of the band members, hunkered down literally in the shadow of the Berlin Wall at the peak of the Cold War.
Guess what? It’s aged better than Milton Keynes too. As you were.