Artist Spotlight: Killing Joke (or; How to Compose the Soundtrack to Every Apocalypse) [Part 3 of 7]

Part 1 here. Part 2 here.

“Birds of a Feather” (1982) / Ha! EP (1982)

After the return to the UK of vocalist/keyboardist Jaz Coleman and guitarist Geordie Walker, the duo was set to put Killing Joke back together. Drummer Paul Ferguson was invited back to the band and he accepted. Bassist Martin “Youth” Glover was also invited back, but Youth declined. Youth had his own troubles at the time with ongoing acid experiments and was headed for a very serious nervous breakdown. Coleman, who never misses a chance to speak out, said in the press that Youth’s only contributions to the group were “a couple of basslines” and that the band “frightened him and now he’s decided to make some money playing music.” I’m not exactly sure what Coleman is on about regarding money, as Youth’s main focus, Brilliant, didn’t even put out an album until 1986… and considering what Killing Joke ends up sounding like in 1986, Coleman shouldn’t be throwing stones.

Killing Joke drafted new bassist Paul Raven from British punk band Neon Hearts. Now that the band was fully re-formed, they went out on their first North American tour… which was largely a disaster. The US shows were poorly attended, and the crowd didn’t know what to do at their shows. At one show in particular, members of the band got different set lists printed out, so throughout the show the members were often playing different songs at the same time, and ended with Ferguson throwing a drum stick at Coleman while he was trying to sing “Complications”.

By the end of the tour, however, the band was a finely tuned machine and recorded a show of two nights at Larry’s Hideaway in Toronto. The band felt the need to document their live show, and also put something out quickly so that people knew they were back.

Prior to the release of their new live document, the band entered the studio and recorded the non-album single “Birds of a Feather”. The single was released in October 1982 in a 7” and 12” version. Both included “Flock the B-Side”, which is a dub version of the title track, and the 12” included “Sun Goes Down” also.

In November, the band’s Toronto show was released as a 6-song EP, titled Ha! The band is really on fire here, but most importantly, it has the definitive version of “Pssyche”.

No word on if their Wizard friend was in attendance. I would assume he stayed home because of visa troubles.

Fire Dances (1983) / “Me Or You?” (non-album; 1983)

Killing Joke entered Basing Street Studios in London to record their first full length album with Raven. Coleman was drawing inspiration from geomancy, which is the study of terraforming the land to take advantage of the natural forces inherent within it. Coleman studied daily with his plan to uncover the lost secrets of the Earth and harmony of the land. He went on to say, “We study the great places. We study the parallels between cultures. Recorded history maintains that these people wore skins, were savages. But my studies, Paul’s and Geordie’s especially, found that these so-called apes from 5, 6, 7, 8,000 BC were brilliant at geometry, equivalent to our A-level standard syllabus. I find our whole historical concept of man totally up the creek, bullshit. I think that our species, man, is much older than given credit for, and Killing Joke is awakening that element within people, that very primal element within us.”

… Sure. Do you ever get the impression that Jaz Coleman is the author of those Time/Life books about unexplained phenomenon?

Further, when asked about the process of recording Fire Dances, Coleman reflected in 2019: “We had some interesting ways in Killing Joke, different from now. In terms of our devotional and spiritual activities we always celebrated the Full Moon. Which is funny – I still do that now! We always used to do this. Fire Dances was basically our pagan kind of spirituality. We’ve always said in Killing Joke that we’re ruled by ancestral forces. And I’m serious when I’m saying this – this is the truth. We’re a band that are completely UNMANAGABLE. For instance, in music, there is always a strange force that seems to provide everything for us because, it’s my personal opinion that Killing Joke has the most holy mission AHEAD of it, never mind the past. There is always an ‘ancestral spirit’ as we call it. You can hear it on songs like ‘Song and Dance’ which is really about invoking the ancestral spirit. When we’re talking about it, we’d talk about ancestral spirit but the first thing that comes to mind is my Dad (laughs)! I’ve been in the band so long… we watched all our fathers dying, going to the next world. But as he believed – consciousness survives death. Our fathers all would get together managing us. To govern and shape what’s happening in this world. So, in terms of ancestral spirit…it’s still what we’re doing up to this day.”

I think that’s as clear as this is going to get.

Fire Dances was released in July 1983, and received mostly favorable reviews. Despite the lineup change, the album has more in common with the prior three records than any sort of sea change in the band’s sound. However, the original mix suffers from the band’s extreme substance abuse during this time, which originally made the album sound tinny and buried the guitar in the mix (this was fixed on the 2008 reissue).

The label only released one single from the album, “Let’s All Go (To the Fire Dances)”, which seems a little odd, especially considering it was selling well. Instead, Killing Joke and EG Records moved forward with a non-album single, “Me or You?”, which was definitely more pop oriented than anything they’d done before, and was a bit of foreshadowing. It was also pretty divisive among their fans. The single was release as a 7”, a double 7”, and a 12”. The B-Side, “Willful Days” was a much more tribal stomp more in line with their classic sound, but also kind of overly repetitive.

Night Time (1985) / “A New Day” (non-album; 1984)

In May 1984, the band flew to The Hit Factory in New York, and recorded the non-album single “A New Day”. Why they flew all the way to New York to record a single, I don’t know. Then, in August, the band went to Hansa Ton Studio in West Berlin (where Bowie recorded Low and ”Heroes”) to begin work on the next album.

Killing Joke started out with an eye to getting more radio and television exposure. Instead of releasing the album to the press for reviews, they wanted people to hear it for themselves. They wanted people to hear the album instead of hearing about the album. But there were some label pressures happening at the same time. The label was trying to force the idea of the band that they should be on the cover, and they relented realizing they could be on the cover, but still be distorted.

The album mas mixed purposely to be more accessible, but it still had some of the uneasy sounds buried in the album. Raven and friend Alex Paterson (later co-founder of The Orb) recorded some ambient noise intros and backgrounds. The duo would set up microphones in traffic tunnels like they were setting up for drums, and also would put one in a bucket and then drop large steel plates on top of them.

The band meshed post-punk, pop, goth, and new wave into something completely new, but still Killing Joke, and for once Coleman actually sings. He sounds pretty good, too! Night Time was an instant international success. The first single, “Eighties”, only reached #60 on the UK singles chart, but the song still turns up now and then in movies and TV shows. You probably don’t remember the uproar when a little known band called Nirvana (featuring Sweet 75 bassist Krist Novoselic and Probot drummer Dave Grohl) was accused of plagiarizing “Eighties”. A lawsuit was filed, but was dropped after an unfortunate incident of April 1994.

Further, some say that “Eighties” is a rip off of The Damned’s “Life Goes On” from their 1982 album Strawberries. What do you think?

Then, for reasons that have never been explained, Killing Joke released a non-album single between the first and second Night Time singles. “A New Day” was released in July 1984, and dare I say it’s… uplifting? It’s kind of like Paula Abdul’s “The Promise of a New Day”, but, y’know, listenable.

Continuing with the theme of doing things for reasons unknown, they released “Love Like Blood”, but waited until January 1985. This was their highest charting and highest selling single ever. It’s pretty much a straight up goth rock song with a new wave sheen, and it’s fucking rad. Of course, it was a double edge sword, because the band would be continually pressured to repeat this success for the entirety of their career.

I didn’t hear the album until probably 2002 or 2003. I found a copy of it used at a record store (remember those?). I had a few albums, but not a lot, but this was very different than the releases I had heard. Even though they’re post-punk, this is the album that cemented them with the goth crowd. It was re-released in 2008 with a BBC Session, “A New Day”, and some remixes from the singles.

Brighter Than A Thousand Suns (1986)

In October of 1985, the band returned to Berlin to record the follow up to Night Time. All songs were produced by the band with Chris Kimsey, but they also recorded the song which was going to be their lead single, with American producer Stewart Levine. Levine was a pop and R&B producer, most famous at that time for producing Jennifer Warnes and Joe Cocker’s “Up Where We Belong”, from the film An Officer and a Gentleman, which was a #1 pop hit (in case you’re too young to remember).  Clearly, the band was making a play for mainstream appeal. The first single, “Adorations”, was only released in Spain, UK, and France, and did respectably.

The evolution from cult to mainstream was also reflected in the album artwork. Initially, you never saw the band, then with Night Time you get a cover with a band photo, and they didn’t really wear anything special for it. Now, you have a giant, close up of Coleman’s face in black and white. Originally, they were going to print four different covers, with each member’s face as the front, but it was deemed too cost prohibitive by the label. Instead, they released the album as a gatefold so the entire band was represented equally.

Before the release of the album, EG Records had the entire thing remixed by Julian Mendelsohn, who was best known for producing The Pet Shop Boys. The label was looking for something with commercial appeal, and allegedly the band didn’t know until it was released. However, the band moved away from using Mike Coles, who had done all of their prior artwork, and moved to using an actual marketing company.

Brighter Than A Thousand Suns was released November 10, 1985. The album was named for a Sanskrit writing that describes what many people think was the first nuclear explosion… back in 7,000BC. Sure. The album alienated large swaths of their original fans. The synths and vocals are pushed way to the front, and everything else is buried in the background. The 2008 reissue fixes some of these problems (it reinstates the original mix), and there are some hooks. It’s not their worst album (stay tuned), but the album isn’t really what I want from Killing Joke.

However, Coleman’s antics were growing more erratic. Coleman went to UK publisher that issued music magazine Melody Maker, seeking to chew out someone who printed an unfavorable article. When speaking with the receptionist, who tells him she doesn’t know who the author of the article was, he dumps a bucket of maggots on her desk. He then took a handful of cut up liver and slapped down on top of the maggots and stormed out., but not before declaring an order that the writer calls him within 12 hours and apologizes. The security personnel and all bystanders were frozen in shock.

The writer of the article apologized later that afternoon.

Outside the Gate (1988)

If the band hadn’t noticed the increase in Coleman’s ego since Brighter Than A Thousand Suns, they certainly weren’t paying attention. 1988’s Outside the Gate is a complete disaster.

Coleman went into the studio in July 1987 to record what was supposed to be his first solo album. He had a very specific vision of what he wanted to do, and told the members they could either be a part of it, or not. For the band’s part, the members did try to make a go of it. Some sources state that Killing Joke had already broken up prior to this album, and then they were invited to take part in the sessions.

Both Ferguson and Raven were very unhappy with the arrangement. According to Ferguson, Coleman and Walker recorded their parts first, and then Ferguson went to record his drums for the album. Coleman wasn’t present, so Walker was producing Ferguson in the studio. Ferguson found Coleman’s keyboards unlistenable, so he recorded his drums only with Walker’s guitar in the mix. Later, when the whole thing was reassembled, the drums were all over the place and didn’t fit. When Ferguson suggested Coleman redo the keyboards, Coleman suggested that they should get a new drummer instead. It came to a head when Ferguson was told that he not only would have to pay for the studio time to re-record his drums, he was going to have to pay for his original recording session, which he refused to do.

Coleman and Walker replaced Ferguson with drummer Jimmy Copley from Go West (“King of Wishful Thinking”). Coleman said in 1988, “[Copley] did the drums perfectly in two days and the guy emanates a very good atmosphere so I thought it was time for a change.” Copley went on to work with many other artists, including Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, Tears For Fears, The Pretenders, and many others. Additional percussion was performed by Jeff Scantlebury, who went on to work with Boy George, Neneh Cherry, Eddy Grant, and Terrence Trent D’Arby.

Coleman was in full on megalomaniac mode. He was writing music based on holy alphanumeric codes, which I assume means he was trying to write based on some hokum like The Bible Code. He screamed words of encouragement at Copley, and got frustrated when he wasn’t getting it. The album was the sound of a man having a nervous breakdown (but it doesn’t sound as cool as that, really).

Raven had decided to play bass on the album, but only because Ferguson decided to play drums. Raven is uncredited on the album, but Coleman said back then that Raven was wiped and new bass lines were recorded by Walker. Coleman said he wanted trained musicians, “I don’t want a punk rhythm section for the rest of my life,” and that rhythm sections like that are “10 a penny.”

Outside the Gate was finally released on June 27, 1988, and was universally panned. It spent one week on the UK charts at 92 and then disappeared forever. The album wasn’t released in the United States at all back then, despite the first single being “America”.

Walker doesn’t have anything good to say about it. Looking back in 2015 he said, “I think there are a couple of really fucking weak ones. I think we’ve been really consistent. Outside the Gate, well what can you say about that? We accidentally had a hit and were given lots of money. It’s lucky we’re still alive to be honest. Outside the Gate cost £380,000 and I knew it was shit when I started it. You just have that, ‘oh, it’s going up its own fucking arse’. Forty-eight fucking track studio, crates of fucking wine. Eight days per track to mix. Three hundred and eighty fucking grand.”

It’s awful. It’s dreck. Anyone who says otherwise is a contrarian.

Coleman and Walker then disbanded Killing Joke while getting trapped in a legal battle with their record label.

Meanwhile, Ferguson went and joined New York City’s alternative metal band Warrior Soul, but left in 1991. Ferguson also worked on sculpting and became an art restorer, specializing in ancient sculptures. Raven continued playing music, but didn’t do anything of note for a few years.