Artist Spotlight: Killing Joke (or; How to Compose the Soundtrack to Every Apocalypse) [Part 1 of 7]

Back in the long-ago days when Industrial was starting to gain some traction in the mainstream, music magazines weren’t just content with articles on Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. The alternative magazines, and even the metal magazines, were doing these broad overviews of Industrial as a genre… Rip’s featured a whole lot of quotes from Foetus, which really is bizarre. One of the bands that kept coming up as a forefather of the genre was Killing Joke, yet none of these articles mentioned that Killing Joke was post-punk and not actually Industrial. These articles also didn’t really mention the connection that post-punk was the antecedent to Industrial, they just left us to figure that out for ourselves.

Killing Joke’s shadow looms large over punk, post-punk, goth, rock, industrial, and metal. Justin Broadrick’s (Godflesh) first band was named after a Killing Joke song. Foo Fighters, Metallica, Fear Factory, and Helmet are just a few of the many bands who have covered the group, and Faith No More’s early synched bass/drum stomp are lifted pretty much from Joke whole cloth.

So, sit back, draw a summoning circle, call your illuminati representative, and read on…


Bassist Martin “Youth” Glover stole his name from Jamaican DJ Big Youth, originally “Pig Youth” which was shortened, and that’s a shame. Youth got some experience touring with a punk band called The Rage, and then later joined up with 4” Be 2”, a group which featured John Lydon’s brother Jimmy, and his dad John. The song was a disco beat with banjos, which somehow made it “world music”.

“One of the Lads” made it into the top 40 charts, but most importantly, the single was produced by John Lydon (he reverted to his birth name because “Johnny Rotten” was tangled up in legal red tape with Sex Pistols puppet master Malcolm McLaren at that time), and while everyone else in the group was drinking and getting high, Youth parked himself at the console to learn as much about production as he could.

4” Be 2” was signed to Island Records on the same day as U2. During this time, Youth bore a striking resemblance to Sid Vicious, which Island Records and the band liked to play up, without ever explicitly saying Youth was not Sid Vicious. While U2 were playing one of their first gigs, Bono spotted Youth and thought he was Vicious. They invited Youth on stage, introduced him as Vicious, and they played two Sex Pistols songs together. No one ever told Bono the truth, and Youth states that even after meeting the band again in the 90s to do remixes, he still didn’t come clean because he was too embarrassed.

Youth became disillusion with the group, “It was a bit of a scam band. John Lydon’s brother and father, and I pretended to be Sid Vicious. John Lydon producing it and Jock McDonald managing it. It was like a punk scam group.” Jock McDonald threatened to cut off Youth’s fingers if he quit, which didn’t faze Youth in the slightest. Later, McDonald founded punk band The Bollock Brothers, and Youth contributed some bass to their early studio work, so I guess it’s a good thing he didn’t make good on his threat.

Meanwhile, singer/keyboardist Jaz Coleman makes a friend while waiting to sign in line to sign up for unemployment benefits. This friend was roommate of drummer Big Paul Ferguson. Coleman and Ferguson hit it off quickly, as both had moved to London to pursue music, and soon Ferguson invited Coleman to move in with him. Was the mutual friend out on the street? No one knows.

Anyway, the pair joined up together in the Matt Stagger Band, but soon quit together to do their own thing. “It was a good band,” Coleman said. “But It was his show, and toward the end it got sickly commercial and we just didn’t fit. It wasn’t being very honest, and when it comes down to playing, if you lie, it sounds like it.”

Prior to all of this, guitarist Geordie Walker spent five years practicing as loud as he could in his bedroom between the time he got home from school and his dad came from work every day.

Coleman and Ferguson had a shared interest in the occult, and allegedly, used literal magic to find the next two additions to their new group. The performed a dedication ritual, which set their apartment on fire. Make of that what you will. So, then they did the next best thing, and placed an ad in Melody Maker.

We mean it man.

Total exploitation, total publicity, total anonymity.

Bass and lead wanted.

It’s kind of hard to resist, right? Lots of other people thought so, too.

“We must’ve had about 90 people ringing up in the first week, we saw about 40 of them and they were all tossers, totally the wrong type of people… there was this guy who kept ringing called Geordie, and this guy kept ringing for about two or three weeks. So, we said ‘come round to the flat’.” Coleman said. “Later, I was looking in a dustbin for something I’d lost, and I was pulling all this shit from these dustbin bags when I heard a voice, ‘Looking for your breakfast, are you?’ As soon as we sat down, we had a good argument and I thought ‘this might be the guy’… it was his sarcasm that got me.”

So, with that, Killing Joke have their guitar player. Not only that, but then he moved into the apartment as well. But they still needed a bass player. As Walker tells it, “There’s this prick called Youth who keeps ringing and asking if he can join. Went through all of these bassists, they were all shit, and his was the last number. We were just about to pack it all in, so we phoned up and he said, ‘come round’.”

Turn to Red 7” (1979) / Almost Red 12” (1979) / “Nervous System” (1979)

The four of them got together and practiced for 10 months straight before they were ready to finally venture out into and play gigs. But even before they were officially playing out, they were gaining a lot of attention by people walking by, hearing the ruckus, wandering inside the rehearsal space to investigate, and then just not leaving. It was a regular occurrence for their rehearsal space to be filled with people by the time they finished playing.

During this time, the band constructed many songs that are fan favorites and hallmarks of their sound. “Change”, “The Wait”, “Psyche”, “Complications”, “Wardance”, and “Tomorrow’s World” would have to be set aside for later release, but “Are You Receiving” would make their first release. Other songs like “Nuclear Boy”, “Animal”, and “You’re Being Followed” were never recorded in the studio, but have crept up on live bootlegs, and were released in live version on 2003’s The Unperverted Pantomime.

The band borrowed money from Coleman’s then girlfriend Jasmine (Jaz and Jasmine, isn’t that precious? Well, it would be if they had stayed together, I suppose), and with graphic artist Mike Coles (who did all their early artwork) started their own label, Malicious Damage. The band recorded their debut 7” EP Turn To Red.

The EP is a far cry from what they would eventually become, and still pretty far from what they would be in the very next year. Some of it is danceable, they lean way harder into the dub reggae elements than they would later, but those elements are around for the first few albums. Walker’s guitar is (mostly) less prominent than it would be, and Youth’s bass is front and center.

The real standout is “Are You Receiving”, as it really predicts their direction. “It was a special kind of weird atmosphere,” Coleman said. “I remember when we first jammed that track. That was the first piece of music we ever wrote. When we finished jamming it there were loads of people in the rehearsal room, we all started laughing after and you could feel it was the destiny.”

After Killing Joke pressed their initial copies of Turn To Red, Ferguson took an advance copy to the BBC building in an attempt to get it to legendary DJ John Peel. He was unable to see Peel, but left a copy at the front desk for him. The following morning, the band discovered that Peel had been playing the EP on his show all night. Peel scheduled them to come in to do a Peel Session immediately. They recorded their first Peel Session 9 days before the EP was released, and the session aired 3 days after its release. Peel initially thought Killing Joke was an established band under a fake name, because they were so good. “I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me, even after all these years, to be able to bring you a session as good as this one,” Peel said, “particularly when it’s the band’s first session.”

A lot of buzz was generated, but Youth managed to use his pre-existing relationship with Island Records to sign a deal with them. In December, Island released the Almost Red 12” (sometimes also titled Turn To Red, which causes confusion). The only difference is that it has “Almost Red”, which is really the same as “Turn To Red”, but with less vocals and more keyboards up front. Island then also released “Nervous System” as a single. Why you would release a single from an EP, I have absolutely no idea.

Killing Joke (1980)

Before releasing their debut album, Killing Joke released a series of singles. The first being “Wardance” with the B-side “Pssyche”. Released in February, the single did not chart in the UK, but reached number 50 on the US dance charts. I will always always always think Killing Joke being on a dance chart is weird, almost as weird as all of the Wax Trax! bands charting there also. Anyway, ”Wardance” would be re-recorded for the upcoming debut, and this studio version of “Pssyche” is far from the definitive version.

In March, Killing Joke released a single for “Change” with the B-side “Tomorrow’s World”, both recorded at the band’s second Peel Session which was recorded on March 5, 1980. Two Peel Sessions and they didn’t even have a full album out yet! The single was never announced and sold only at gigs, and features a plain red label, with no text of any kind. This version of “Change” would be the B-side to the next single, but both tracks would appear on 2008’s The Peel Sessions 1978-1981.

The last single, recorded at the same time as the debut album but released ahead of it, was “Requiem”. It was released as a 7” and a 12”. The 12” had an additional B-side, a demo version of “Requiem”.

The band took about two weeks to record their debut, with no producer, only an engineer. Back then a lot of the post-punk bands were expected to self-produce, and wanted to self-produce, because the idea was that the bands should not accept any outside influence. After some struggles with mixing, Killing Joke was released October 5, 1980. The album was mostly not well received, but today is regarded as a masterpiece. As Coleman tells it, “It got slagged off by everybody and then eight years later we were told it was a ground breaking record. People are fickle and you have to stand by your own creations.”

Killing Joke is a meld of funk, punk, and cold, primitive drumming, bordering on metal… yet danceable? It’s immediate, it’s tense, and it gets directly into your bones. Not just yours, but everyone else’s as well. Metallica famously covered “The Wait” on their $5.98 EP – Garage Days Re-Revisited. It was actually the first Metallica I ever heard, and it accidentally made me a Killing Joke fan without even knowing who they were. While I like the Metallica version, the Killing Joke original gives the song more room to breathe, and it’s a little looser and maybe a little spookier, even.

The band’s live shows were something of a spectacle during this time. The had an honest to God wizard on stage who performed rituals on stage while they were playing. Their shows were also confrontational with the crowd more often than not. At a rally for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), in front of 80,000 people, Coleman told the crowd, “Margaret Thatcher has bought all these cruise missiles and all you can do is stand there with a fucking placard. You deserve what you are going to get.”  Coleman did elaborate on this later in the press, after explaining that private citizens need to threaten the government with personal nuclear bombs, “[Politicians are] interested in themselves. You’ve got to remember, people like Maggie Thatcher, why should they be concerned about 2,000 years onward from now. They’re only going to live another 10 years, what’s it to them past the year 2000?”