Sunday, July 08, 2012
For some reason, you remember the little things. When I was 12 years old during the Xmas of 1984, my brother and I had a bit of a collective boner for the Killing Joke track, "Eighties". It's not like I was a boffin for UK post-punk at the time: I was a fairly clueless new waver who had a few post-Levene/Wobble PiL 12"s and a bunch of new romantic twaddle I don't care to list in public. That Killing Joke track in question was a minor hit at the time, and to my ears it sounded "punk". I wanted to get into punk; I wanted to be punk. For me, "Eighties" was good enough. I asked my mum to buy me a Killing Joke t-shirt for Xmas, and that she did. My brother got a Dead Kennedys one. A few months later, my brother bought their Night Time LP, w/ the track in question. The rest of the album struck us as rather bogus and our brief flirtation w/ the band was exactly that: brief. I continued to wear the t-shirt, however, for a few years thereafter.
Between the years 1985 - 2012, I gave Killing Joke little to no attention whatsoever. For myself, they developed into a frighteningly dull goth-rock band, full of hamfisted demagoguery, cheesecloth lyricism and just the kind of thoroughly non-rock musical delivery the Brits excelled at during that woeful musical decade (woeful for limeys; pretty damn good for others). They were so off the map, they weren't swimming around my brain enough to even warrant my disgust. The band have been recording and releasing albums at a fairly regular frequency the past decade, even touring Down Under a couple of years ago (some friends saw them and swore by their manic, muscular and thoroughly metallic delivery of all their works), and I'm aware of the fact that their influence, regardless of what I think of them, is large and wide on 3 generations of punk, metal and "industrial" practitioners of music. So... where am I going with this?
That's right: I'm here to say how fuggin' marvelous their debut, self-titled LP from 1980 is. That's right. Earlier in the year, an American buddy of mine posted the live clip from 1981 shown below on Facebook and my curiosity got the better of me: the song, the clip, the performance: blew me the fuck away. I remarked to an older friend - one who'd been a big fan of the band since the release of their debut in 1980 and swore by, at the very least, their first two LPs - that I was impressed by the clip: it was the uber-aggressive punk/metal Killing Joke I'd heard about yet never really "heard". He implored for me to give them a chance. I stayed at his country pad for a night over the Easter break to recouperate and get out of the house, and he played me the records late in the evening over a cordial as we discussed the state of the universe and beyond. Oh yes, I would buy them...
The racket Killing Joke were making early in their career was an odd beast indeed. Some have hailed them as the world's first "punk/metal" crossover act, and others have said kinder things. The music certainly was unique for its time, for it was steeped in two seemingly disparate forms of music: post-punk and heavy metal. The rhythm section of Martin "Youth" Glover on bass and Paul Ferguson on drums is knee-deep in PiL-damaged post-punk, yet much of the guitar work from Kevin "Geordie" Walker contains the intricate and unmistakable riffing of heavy metal, and as Byron Coley once said in regards to himself trying to get his head around the speed-metal shredding so prevalent on a vaguely similar record from the same period, MX-80 Sound's Out Of The Tunnel, there was nothing post-punk hipsters hated more in 1980 than heavy metal. But a record such as Killing Joke, just like Out Of The Tunnel or Chrome's 2nd and 3rd long-players (do I need to name 'em?), surely helps to redefine and/or expand the parameters of what one could identify as "heavy metal". Killing Joke were (and likely still are) a band totally influenced by the punk (Pistols, Damned) and post-punk (PiL, Joy Division), music scenes its members had experienced and heard, yet their blustery approach, Jaz Coleman's shouted, anthemic vocals and gloomy, 'Sabbath-gothic lyrical concerns, all death and darkness in a Paranoid/Master Of Reality state of mind, and few concessions to the puritan, anti-rock hipsterism so prevalent in the UK at the time, points to a different direction altogether. Regardless of genres, of name-calling, the question remains: does Killing Joke rock and should you waste minutes of your precious life giving it a listen?
The answers are yes and yes. Prior to de-rocking themselves as they eyeballed the pop charts on their latter platters, they made a rather awesome low-end rumble which sounds at times like it's a musical mash-up of artists such as the Birthday Party, Amebix, Voivod, King Snake Roost, Australia's X, MX-80, Can, Hawkwind, et al. Not a roll-call you'd sneeze at in this lifetime. Youth's bass work anchors the sound in a Tracey Pew-style grind; Paul Ferguson's drumming is all tribal snare/toms workouts with little in the way of standard rock & roll snare/kick/hi-hat aktion; and Walker's guitar alternates between PiL-like textures, such as on the opening "Requiem" to the metaloid riffery of tracks like "Wardance" and "The Wait" (the latter having been covered by those dunderheads, Metallica, back in the day). There's also the vaguely *cough* "funky" instrumental track, "Bloodsport", which combines a Moroder-ish synth line w/ a semi-tribal/disco beat, though it remains a number which is a whole lot more listenable than my miserable (and unappealing) description. And the closer, "Primitive", sounds a whole lot like 'Ubu's "Final Solution": metronomic mid-tempo bass/drum pulses delivering a knockout. There are only 8 tracks, and it never outstays its welcome.
The band followed their debut w/ 1981's What's This For...!, a record which saw the guitar toned down a tad in the mix whilst the "tribalistic" elements of their sound were accented. "Tension", the track played at the '81 Philadelphia clip posted above, is actually from that album, although unfortunately the sheer meatiness of that live rendition was slightly neutered in the studio. What's... still has much to recommend it; however, that's another post which may or may not eventuate. For the record, for now, I will state this: 32 years after its release, Killing Joke's debut makes belated sense to me. There's a remastered CD reissue via Virgin, it's dirt-cheap, packed w/ bonus cuts and will cost you a pittance. You could do a whole lot worse.