Killing Joke: For Beginners

Killing Joke
For Beginners

There are thousands of people who are Killing Joke fans, but aren’t even aware of it. When Metallica recorded their 1987 EP Garage Days Re-Revisited, fans marveled at that creepy little song midway through, called “The Wait”, that distinctive, staccato riff sounding so conducive to heavy metal, that anyone who heard Killing Joke’s music circa 1987 would not believe that this was the same band. Industrial rock pioneers such as Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, and KMFDM all based their harsh, jarring sounds on Killing Joke’s monumental debut album. The likes of Sisters of Mercy and later on, Type O Negative, would adopt a similarly bleak worldview in their gothic tones. Famed producer Steve Albini would employ the distinctive, stripped-down, muscular sound of the early Killing Joke albums on every single record he worked on. And the grunge messiah himself, Kurt Cobain, for all his Pixies adoration, couldn’t help but brilliantly swipe the main guitar riff from the great 1985 single “Eighties”, and use it as the basis for a highly successful single of his own, “Come as You Are”.

Emerging from the same post punk era that yielded such crucial bands as Wire, Bauhaus, and The Cure, Killing Joke didn’t possess the razor-sharp wit of Colin Newman, the theatrics of Peter Murphy, or the melancholy of Robert Smith; instead, the quartet’s music was vicious, feral almost. Guitarist Geordie tore out shards of distorted chords, bassist Youth delivered jarring, angular basslines, Paul Ferguson provided colossal, minimalist beats on drums, and singer Jaz Coleman alternated from an indignant punk wail, to a gravel-throated holler that dared to rival the rasp of Lemmy Kilminster, Coleman’s voice famously described by Ferguson as “the sound of the earth vomiting.” Throughout the 1980s, the band’s sound would evolve from the raw power of their first two albums, to a more slickly-produced, commercially accessible sound that didn’t compromise their integrity, and despite veering perilously close to self-parody in 1988, their sound was one all their own, vicious, brutal, and completely inimitable.

Still, to this day, Killing Joke remain rather underrated, loved dearly by fans and fellow musicians, but still unknown to many casual listeners. Despite heaps of classic singles that had a massive impact on punk, metal, industrial, and alternative rock, and not to mention a rather impressive 2003 comeback album (which featured famous Killing Joke fan Dave Grohl on drums), they’re a band who deserve much more attention. The 1992 compilation Laugh? I Nearly Bought One! was a decent enough anthology, but was still one that needed some improving, so twelve years later, Caroline Records (by way of EMI in the UK) have taken it upon themselves to put out a new collection, entitled For Beginners, a collection of standout tracks from 1981 to 1988. Unfortunately, as it turns out, For Beginners is hardly the best place for a novice listener to start.

What instantly hits people more familiar with Killing Joke is what’s not on this compilation. Only four tracks from the band’s crucial first two 1981 albums, Killing Joke and What’s THIS For…! are included, and early classic songs such as “Requiem” and “Wardance”, and have been completely ignored, not to mention infamous “Wardance” B-side “Pssyche”, and the 1981 single “Follow the Leaders”. Not only that, but the band’s two most well-known singles from the mid-80s, the great “Love Like Blood” and the aforementioned “Eighties”, are nowhere to be found, either.

That’s not to say For Beginners is a complete waste of time. After all, there are so many good Killing Joke songs, that it’d be difficult to put together a mix that would warrant the adjective “terrible”. And this CD does have its share of classic moments; there’s the phenomenal “The Wait”, with Ferguson’s tribal drumbeats, and the memorable staccato riffs by Geordie, which pre-dates mid-’80s thrash metal and the American punk of Agnostic Front. “Primitive”, also from the first album, is Killing Joke at their minimal best, Youth’s bobbing bassline adding a strong, contagious dance element to the muscular arrangement. “Butcher” is considerably more adventurous, the band employing sounds made famous by Joy Division (melodic upper-register basslines and atmospheric guitar solos), but they take the song into an entirely different, murky, pitch-black direction.

The stuttering “Chapter III”, from the Berlin-recorded Revelations album, echoes the band’s earlier, hard-edged output, as does 1983’s “Fun & Games”, but you start to sense the tinny, 80s style production beginning to take over, especially on the latter track. Meanwhile, “Tabazan” and “Night Time”, from the breakthrough 1985 album Night Time, have the band putting that commercial production style to good use, as Coleman starts tinkering with synthesizers, to great effect. The only troubling aspect of this compilation is the inclusion of two tracks from the disastrous 1988 release, Outside the Gate, originally intended to be a Jaz Coleman solo album, but released under the Killing Joke moniker instead. Both “My Love of This Land” and “Obsession” have no business being on this collection.

Of course, labels feel compelled to throw longtime fans a bone or two with compilations like this, and For Beginners has some interesting little nuggets, such as the potent live B-side version of “The Fall of Because” (originally from the “Let’s All Go (To the Fire Dances)” single in 1983), and alternate mixes of “We Have Joy” (from Revelations), “Harlequin” (from 1983’s Fire Dances), and “Victory” (from 1986’s Brighter Than a Thousand Suns). Most interesting is a previously unreleased mix of 1986’s “Rubicon”, which puts more emphasis on the guitars, marking a great improvement over the original.

Still, despite being a fun listen, the lack of new material makes this an album for Killing Joke completists only, and even worse, there’s no reason whatsoever for new listeners to begin here. For Beginners actually serves as a decent companion disc to the Laugh? I Nearly Bought One! collection, but if a Killing Joke newbie is going to buy two CDs to start off with, they might as well get the classic 1981 one-two punch of Killing Joke and What’s THIS For…!, and then go from there. Getting to know the albums by this great band, one by one, will ultimately prove more rewarding in the long run.