The 1980’s was an interesting decade for many reasons, not least because I was a teenager and I had terrible hair. And dress sense. But not, fortunately, a terrible taste in music I like to think. To be fair, there was so much to enjoy in post-punk, electronica infused Britain, that cultivating a poor taste in music for me was like repeatedly failing to hit a barn door with a banjo.
Britain churned out PIL, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, The Smiths, The Monochrome Set, Siouxsie & The Banshee’s, Joy Division, the Two Tone movement, a new electronica movement lead by Gary Numan and the Human League, Vince Clark – even U2 and Simple Minds were good in the early 1980’s.
America threw up a host of interesting fare too; SST label bands like Husker Du, Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, Black Flag, thrash metal, hip hop, new wave and left-of-normal artists like Talking Heads and Prince – it was all terribly exciting. It’s fair to say then, there was more good stuff bumbling about the airwaves than you could lob a brick at.
Killing Joke however, seemed to slip rather splendidly under everyone’s radar, and it’s not hard to see why. To start with it’s nearly impossible to know how to categorise them, and if as a band you want to be known and lauded, you need to fit neatly into a genre so that a certain clique can champion you. Killing Joke sit very firmly in the ‘je ne sais pas’ section. Siouxsie had her goth cohort, the Bunnymen the early 80’s version of emo’s, except in the 1980’s the emo’s were harder and had cooler hair and smiled, Human League had it’s earnest post Kraftwerk electro pop setters with mild Bowie crushes. Killing Joke had a sniff of the punks about them, but also used synths so were slightly electronic, but had the power at times of an industrial band, the guitar work of a no-wave experimenter and vocals that could scream bloody murder one second, and by the chorus were popping around your house for cuppa and a pleasant chat with your grandma. All very confusing. By 1986 Killing Joke were producing music that could only be described as ‘pop-tabulous.’
The opening track of the debut album, Requiem, sets the tone really for the rest of Killing Joke’s career – it starts with synth, melts into new wave metal guitar, then goes a bit Tubeway Army, before settling into a sort of fist fight between Phil Oakey, Gary Numan and bizarrely Peter Hammill. Your ears just don’t know what to tell your brain, other than, “good this, innit??!”
Killing Joke’s career throughout the 1980’s was characterised by uneasy shifts in tone and style. With each album release the band foraged the musical landscape in a slightly different direction – by the time we arrive in1986 with Brighter Than A Thousand Suns, we are firmly in pop territory. And that’s not a bad thing because Killing Joke do it well. OK, there is a touch of the China Crises about some of the tracks, but the opener Adorations is a magnificient slice of intelligent pop pie. The album was panned by the fans and the media at the time, and there was talk of ‘selling out’. Ridiculous really.
If you want to seek out Killing Joke and you want two representative albums of what the band embody, then buy Night Time (1985) and the debut. Both sound vital and fresh now, even to my jaded, knackered ears, and there are moments on both LP’s that sound better, sharper, more incisive than most new bands produce now. Love Like Blood from Night Time still makes grown men of my age cry, and Tabazan’s bridge and chorus time change induced a exclaimative “fuck me” the first time I heard it, and not many songs have managed that. Despite their sometimes hard edged approach to music at times, Killing Joke have always been capable within a song to change the mood on a sixpence that at times leaves you wondering if you are still listening to the same song. It’s wonderful. This is exemplified in Jaz Coleman’s vocals which can go from screwdriver in the face to fluffy bunnykins in the space of a chorus.
Killing Joke are still going, and still producing great riffs. They were always a very good riff band, but have now settled very much into a sludgy post-metal industrial sort of sound. Jaz Coleman is still angry at the world, and quite rightly too, it’s a shitstorm of stupidity most of the time, and Jaz has lost none of his ire as a result. I find them less interesting now however than I did in the 1980’s, and perhaps that’s the way of all bands that have long recording careers. I love the Rolling Stones, but only between 1964 and 1969. Everything else, to me, is pony. But the 1960’s stuff is pure gold. Killing Joke’s period was very firmly the 1980’s, and for me, they remain one of the most interesting, diverse, challenging and truly great bands of that period. Go and treat yourself to some killer riffs.