DB HOF NO. 76
The making of Killing Joke’s “Killing Joke”
label: E.G. Records
England 1979. As dim as it was, the country’s primary city, London, was teeming with young, angry musicians and erudite thinkers. High unemployment, rising taxes, the widening gap between haves and have-nots, and the Cold War—the palpable threat of nuclear war between the West and then-Soviet Union—created the perfect recipe for the instrumentally-inclined and politically-motivated to band together and bang out their frustrations. Actually, that was happening all along, with the likes of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and Crass, but when punk’s initial blast failed to keep imaginations alight, something else had to emerge. It did in post-punk, a term applied to describe that which was rooted in punk, but came after. The music still had teeth, but was informed by a broader spectrum of sound. Post-punk also had brains. It wasn’t just a reactionary middle finger to the establishment. Bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd, Adam and the Ants, and Joy Division—as diverse as they were—had a proactive, if somewhat cynical, outlook. It is from this scene that London’s Killing Joke emerged.
Conceived by frontman Jeremy “Jaz” Coleman and drummer Paul Ferguson, Killing Joke were soon joined by bassist Martin “Youth” Glover and guitarist Kevin “Geordie” Walker. The four of them came from different backgrounds—Coleman was a classically-trained violinist, Walker a Grade A cellist, Ferguson a former art student, and Glover a self-taught musician and self-proclaimed juggler—but shared a common interest in music. The then-nascent Killing Joke quickly assembled songs, recorded them and pressed them onto EP [Turn to Red], using their own label, Malicious Damage, as the business construct. Clever business maneuvering by Glover found Killing Joke signed to Island Records imprint E.G. Records, but not before underground music bellwether and DJ John Peel discovered the Notting Hill-based quartet. His radio airplay, and a ringing endorsement by Public Image Ltd vocalist John Lydon, earned Killing Joke instant darling status both in the media and with would-be fans. When Killing Joke’s eponymous debut album landed in summer 1980, it had a Top 40 chart position on the U.K. albums chart. Led by three singles, “Wardance,” “Change” and “Requiem,” Killing Joke was unexpectedly current, yet forward in its purpose. Moored by American funk and disco, reggae, dub, krautrock and the individual members’ sonic predilections, Killing Joke was more than the sum of its parts. It was a scene unto itself.
So influential was Killing Joke, it’s been cited as a pivotal, must-own release in the industrial music scene (Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, etc. have appropriated heavily) and for heavy metallers (Metallica famously covered “The Wait” on 1987’s The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited). Although it turns 31 this year, Killing Joke’s debut album remains as relevant as ever. Ironically, Killing Joke’s prophetic, near-paranoid expulsions then are mirrored today. Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Welcome to the Hall of Fame, Killing Joke.
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