Fun & Games: Killing Joke in the mid-’80s

Killing Joke
Fire Dances

As Motorhead occupied a space outside rock ‘n’ roll, punk, and heavy metal in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Killing Joke similarly defied categorization during the same period. The London four-piece were lumped in with the rest of the diverse, burgeoning post punk acts at the time, but were considerably less edgy than their peers, their blunt, pulverizing music echoing the rage and cynicism expressed in the songs making them somewhat of an anomaly.

At the same time, as metal’s new wave was exploding in Great Britain, with young hotshot bands reaching new levels of energy, flair, and technical ability, Killing Joke’s minimalist approach wasn’t exactly perceived as being cool from the kids on that side of the fence. Although there would be times when the band would flirt with mainstream success, to this day Killing Joke has thrived in the role of the outsider, their intensely loyal fanbase with them every step of the way during what has been a tumultuous, but never dull, 28-year ride.

While 1980’s seminal self-titled debut and its equally abrasive follow-up What’s THIS For…! are almost universally regarded as the most logical places to start one’s Killing Joke education, if you dig a little deeper into the back catalog, even more riches will surface, even if it means unearthing up the odd dud or two along the way. In fact, the latest series in the band’s ongoing reissue project chronicles the five year period during which Killing Joke reached both their creative zenith and nadir.

The musical evolution that vocalist Jaz Coleman, guitarist Geordie Walker, drummer Paul Ferguson, and bassist Paul Raven underwent from 1983 to 1988 continues to be fascinating today, not only because it yielded two superb albums and one underrated disc, but also because of how Coleman’s ambition ultimately got the best of him, he and what was left of the band flying arrogantly close to the sun, resulting in a spectacular flame-out, leaving the band in tatters.

After the band’s third album, 1982’s Revelations, Killing Joke’s future was uncertain. Original bassist Youth quit the band, while Coleman went missing altogether, eventually surfacing in Iceland, where he famously declared he had planned to “survive the apocalypse”. With no apocalypse in sight, Coleman eventually rejoined his mates, and with new bassist Raven along for the ride, the band hunkered down to record a new album, the superb Fire Dances.

“Dominator”, The Tube, 1983

Released in mid-1983, Fire Dances turned out to be just as punishing as the previous three albums, Ferguson’s tribal drumming style offsetting Walker’s more fluid yet equally vicious, slashing guitar style, but the music had started to open up a bit more, almost openly defiant of the more suffocating style Killing Joke displayed on such breakthrough singles as “Wardance” and “Follow the Leaders”. More room was made for melody, whether it was from Walker’s guitar, Coleman’s more refined singing style, or Raven’s fluid basslines, yet at the same time, the minimalist approach was still there, thanks to a mix that downplayed the drums and guitar just enough to make it seem like every member on the band was on equal footing. Although Walker’s guitar is mixed a little lower than usual, his tone is arguably his best ever on record, deftly alternating between discordant riffs and more textured, chiming tones, best exemplified on the bracing track “Harlequin”. Meanwhile, Raven proves to be a crucial addition to the band on the standout “Dominator”, his dub-infused basslines propelling the song, freeing Walker to venture into more improvisational territory.

Coleman has always been fascinated with the sense of communality between his band and their audience, and the theme is especially strong on the album, as “us versus them” lyrics and pub-style chants dominate such songs as “The Gathering”, “Fun & Games”, and “Feast of Blaze”. However, the best of the lot remains the rambunctious “Let’s All Go (To the Fire Dances)”. Centered on a fabulous descending riff by Walker and driven by Ferguson’s taut percussion, the song has Coleman shifting his gaze from the cathartic to the celebratory, his chorus upbeat and welcoming instead of confrontational. This new focus on the song’s actual hooks (check out Geordie’s glorious ascending breakdown two minutes in) would eventually pave the way for even more experimentation on subsequent releases.

The reissue’s remastering is subtle, but significant, as Walker’s guitar is made just prominent enough to add more punch to the overall sound, but without taking anything away from the drums, bass, and vocals. In addition, the disc’s bonus tracks are outstanding, ranging from the excellent (and initially divisive among fans) “Me or You”/”Wilful Days” single, to an original version of “The Gathering”, to a scorching four-song Peel Session from December of 1983, during which the quartet tears through “Dominator”, “Frenzy”, “Wilful Days”, and “Harlequin”.

Nearly two years later Killing Joke’s balance between antagonism and accessibility was not only perfected on the Night Time album, but it found an audience that extended past the band’s cult following, thanks primarily to the single “Love Like Blood”, which peaked at number 16 on the UK charts. Compared to the rather thin-sounding Fire Dances, this album, recorded in Berlin when Berlin couldn’t be any more grim and depressing, sounds ferocious, as a constant give and take is palpable on this album 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.

“Love Like Blood” (1985)

The band is simply on fire on this record. Having ditched his trademark bark, Coleman’s singing voice is especially strong, Raven’s bass tones sound rich, Ferguson’s usual precise, furious drumming is complemented by hi-hat accents and stuttering electronic drum beats, and Walker’s guitar work, again, is incredible, opting for a much tighter, tetchy feel, his sawing chords slashing away viciously, only to be followed by gorgeous arpeggios. “Night Time” is both celebratory and ominous, Geordie’s guitar right up front in the mix, while the arrangement on “Darkness Before Dawn” suits the title, going for a more murky mood during the verses, only to explode with an unrelenting chorus that’s so effective, no lead vocals are needed. Led by a slithering lead riff by Geordie, the upbeat “Kings and Queens” gives way to the disturbing “Tabazan”, with its jarring, discordant central riff, while the album ends on a nervous note, first with the condemnation of “Europe” and then the brilliant, perceptive “Eighties”, whose main riff was famously swiped by a guy named Cobain on Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” (something he eventually admitted to).

The album’s defining moment, however, is the beautiful “Love Like Blood”. An absolutely perfect encapsulation of the sound the band was going for at the time, aided greatly by Coleman’s subtle synth notes and piano stabs in the background, Geordie’s guitar mirrors Raven’s stuttering bassline during the verses, only to launch into spectacular bursts of spacious chords during the choruses. It’s Coleman who dominates the track, though; always a talented lyricist, this song represents his best work, impassioned, contemplative, primal, and tender at the same time:

We must play our lives like soldiers in the field

But life is short I’m running faster all the time

Strength and beauty destined to decay

So cut the rose in full bloom

‘Til the fearless come and the act is done

A love like blood, a love like blood

Punk, goth, new wave, dance, pop, “Love Like Blood” covers all that ground with astonishing grace (a word many would never have associated with the band in years prior), and to this day it remains Killing Joke’s defining moment, their signature song. Unfortunately, though, the success of that particular single would push Coleman’s songwriting into an even more mainstream-oriented direction, and if the next album wouldn’t alienate fans, the one after that would sure as hell make sure it did.

Just like on Fire Dances, the nine bonus tracks that append Night Time deliver in a huge way. Oft-bootlegged but never officially released, the band’s famous 1984 session for BBC’s Kid Jensen program, highlighted by a pulsating run-through of “Eighties” and the excellent “Blue Feather”. The original seven-inch version of “A Nee Day” and its B-side “The Madding Crowd” will please completists, while remixes of “Love Like Blood” and “Kings and Queens” cap off an embarrassment of riches.

Without question, 1986’s brighter Than a Thousand Suns marked a sharp decline in quality, many viewing it as a complete betrayal of Killing Joke’s signature sound, but more than 20 years later, it’s surprising how well parts of the album hold up. In fact, like Rush’s 1984 album Grace Under Pressure, the similarly streamlined and synth-heavy Brighter has gotten a bit of a raw deal. No question, much of the record sounds as if Coleman had been commissioned to score the latest John Hughes movie, a shallow, pandering blend of Depeche Mode and Simple Minds, but like on Night Time the hooks are undeniable. “Adorations”, “Sanity”, and the goth-tinged “Wintergardens” delve into (then) contemporary pop with as much reckless abandon as they did on their debut six years earlier, and while it wasn’t the most original idea, the songs work well. The same cannot be said for the syrupy “A Southern Sky” and the horribly dated (for even then) “Victory”, which simply come off as trite.

“Adorations” (1986)

While Walker’s role has been reduced to pedestrian ’80s Brit rock wankery and Ferguson’s to a bland imitation of a drum machine, we do get a little glimpse of a lingering fire in the band’s eyes. The insistent “Chessboards” comes close to equaling the overall feel of Night Time, while “Rubicon” is inspired, the band finally gelling after eight tracks of comparatively dicking around, the only time that Walker’s guitar tone has any kind of bite and the only instant Coleman exhibits the kind of passion that makes him such a magnetic frontman. Most noteworthy about this reissue, though, more than the scant bonus tracks, is the restored original mix by Chris Kimsey, which blows the old, overpolished mix out of the water, Coleman’s voice not drenched in reverb this time, and the instrumental tracks more prominent. A vastly improved mix can’t remove the already glaring weak spots on an album, but it can definitely make it more tolerable, and the flawed but likeable Brighter Than a Thousand Suns benefits greatly.

There’s nothing any studio whiz can do to improve the 1988 abomination Outside the Gate, though. A disaster from day one, it remains one of the biggest artistic failures by an esteemed band ever to see the light of day. Where to begin? The occultist Coleman was becoming so obsessed with Cabalistic Numerology that he used it as a songwriting tool, measuring each song’s beats per minute rate and then writing lyrics based on whatever that number signified. Which, I might add, is no excuse for the ham-fisted social commentary of the laughable “America”. Walker simply phones in his guitar work, whatever there is of it we can hear under the overbearing synths and severely gated drums. Ferguson’s drumming was replaced altogether by session musician Jimmy Copley, while Raven was so embarrassed to be part of the dismal project that he had his name removed from the album credits. Plus, when you hear a guy like Coleman rapping, as he does on “Stay One Jump Ahead”, you know something’s wrong.

The most optimistic music critic can find at least one positive thing about any crappy album, but not when it comes to Outside the Gate. There are no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Even though Coleman claimed this was merely a solo album that was released under the Killing Joke name by the record company, that’s still no excuse for such a vapid exercise in New Romantic synth pop to have ever been released in the first place. Consequently, and to no one’s surprise, the album flopped and band quickly went on hiatus, their fans crushed, Killing Joke’s once-sterling reputation in tatters. Mercifully, this low point would be fleeting, as the band would rebound, first with 1990’s Extremeties, Dirt, and Other Repressed Emotions, and then with 1994’s excellent Pandemonium.

While a wildly uneven string of albums, these four reissues nevertheless capture Killing Joke at their most ambitious, and save for one disc which will only appeal to those completists who absolutely need to own everything, the band has done a superb job putting it all together. With well-researched liner notes by Tony Raven (no relation to Paul), and with the good taste to dedicate each disc (even Outside the Gate) to the memory of Paul Raven, who passed away late last year, fans and new listeners alike finally have been given the definitive versions of some good, at times great, pieces of work. Just remember which one to avoid.

RATING 8 / 10