How this post-punk masterpiece spoke to a generation of kids waiting for nuclear war
“There is a mounting national recognition that the future can and must be planned, that unless there is a deliberate choice, change will result in chaos.” – Zbigniew Brzezinski, Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era (1976)
Fears of nuclear war (or a meltdown) were inescapable in the 1970’s–twin existential threats that commonly led to protests – and protest songs. One culmination of this was the September 1979 No Nukes concert in New York City and the subsequent live triple-album that came out that November. Featuring songs like the drippy “Power,” which plaintively implored the government to “keep all your atomic poison power away,” much of it was a wheezing, whining memorial to 1960’s activism with a hint of the 1980’s boomer smugness to come. Though the hearts of the performers were in the right place, musically speaking No Nukes was a dead end.
Arising in the Notting Hill section of London in 1978, Killing Joke had quite a different idea about what the future may hold. Instead of protesting the possibility of nuclear devastation, they would provide a soundtrack for it. “Turn To Red,” their debut single in 1979, is a perfect example, with lyrics like “The sky is turning grey/Bodies…” and a chorus of “Four minute warning/Turn to red/Turn to red…” The song also provided a bit of a manifesto for what what was to come when their first album arrived 40 years ago this month: “Everyday/Put on my stereo/Metallic sound.”
The music was also surprising, an insouciant beat by Big Paul Ferguson that was equal parts dub and disco, Youth’s bass line an insidious loop and Geordie’s guitar a series of scrubbing patterns adjacent to what John McKay was doing on early Siouxsie and the Banshees recordings, or Keith Levene’s work with PiL, but with an aggression all his own. The apocalyptic lyrics were delivered by Jaz Coleman in a harsh bark that was on the edge of hysteria. John Lydon, for one, took immediate notice, remarking in a December 1979 Melody Maker interview that Killing Joke were, “very determined, into themselves in a proper way: people doing what they want for a change, instead of slavishly following patterns.” In the first album’s blazing burst of originality, all these elements would be polished, perfected, and accentuated.
That first single also attracted the attention of influential BBC DJ John Peel, and in the months before Killing Joke was released, the band made several appearances on his show, giving a window into their new sound with furious versions of “Wardance,” “Tomorrow’s World,” and “Complications.” Besides fears of obliteration or the chaos of having to rebuild on the rubble of a destroyed society, the band also brought into London’s Marquee Studios such influences as President Eisenhower’s speech warning of the military-industrial complex, Brzezinski’s book about a new technocratic era, and copious amounts of hash.
The album was heralded by the September 1980 release of a single containing the songs “Requiem” and “Change.” Dropping the needle elicited a sound from Coleman’s synth that was like a warning to take cover, soon joined by Geordie’s guitar, sounding more like a combination of chiming bells and lightning inscribing granite. Ferguson establishes the stately tempo with an echoing floor tom and Coleman enters with the opening lyrics, his staccato rasp sounding more powerful than before: “Man watching video/The clock keeps on ticking/He doesn’t know why/He’s just cattle for slaughter!” On the last word, a tumbling drum roll leads into the chorus, synth tones swirling, Geordie reduced down to a serrated chug, as Coleman yells: “The! Requiem!” There is a brutal minimalism to the song, which makes brilliant details, like the drum pattern Ferguson inserts against the rhythm in the third verse, stand out ever more starkly.
The b-side, “Change,” which also appeared on the American version of Killing Joke, is an exercise in lethally stripped down funk with a liberal debt owed to “Me And Baby Brother,” a Top 20 single for War in 1974. But where War establish a warm groove, Killing Joke assemble into more of a projectile, with Coleman’s synth hitting a squirrelly chord that seems to slip through the mix, and Youth’s bass occasionally inserting a twangy raised eyebrow at the proceedings. But perhaps the strongest statement comes from Geordie’s guitar. In place of a solo, he first hits long sustained chords that edge toward feedback before spraying off needly shards of prismatic glass, activating the surface of the song in crystalline fashion. In an August 1980 interview, Phil Sutcliffe made note of the song, “which comes at you like a juggernaut in the night, a kind of crushing dance music. The complete words are: “You see/You feel/React/You know/You’re waiting/Change!” It gives full rein to Paul’s extremely loud and precise drumming, Geordie’s jagged razor-blade guitar and Youth’s possibly incompetent but totally hot bass: a formidable sound.” All true.
Sutcliffe also mentions what’s coming: “Tomorrow’s World” will probably be the title-track of the album they’re recording now for release on their own Malicious Damage label. It would be appropriate because it’s about an example of what the band mean by a “killing joke”. It portrays the “sci-fi lie … the spangled new age” and then into this complacency drops the just-for-you image of a call-up letter on the doorstep: chaos rules, always.” When the album did arrive, however, it was self-titled, wrapped in a grimly distorted photo by Don McCullin depicting riots during the Irish “troubles,” with band’s name added seamlessly as graffiti on the wall. “Requiem” started it off, followed by the coughing and shattered glass that launch into “Wardance,” Coleman’s voice thrust through a fuzz pedal to sound totally deranged, done, he said recently, “just because I hate the sound of my own voice.” The tribal rhythm, guttural bass, and white-noise synth (reminiscent of what Allen Ravenstine was doing in Pere Ubu a few years earlier), with THAT vocal tone, serves to not only create a fantastic song, but also incept an entire genre: industrial rock.
The standard set, Killing Joke sets forth further amendments to what is essentially a constitution for this newly birthed genre, from the fragmented, spacious “Tomorrow’s World,” to the death disco of “Bloodsport,” an instrumental save for the howls and shrieks of oncoming marauders – and that’s just side one! “The Wait,” a chunky stomp with Geordie hammering away at two chords and Coleman’s synth squealing on the chorus, melds with “Complications,” a dystopian anthem if there ever was one, in a devastating one-two punch that many bands would use to open an album. Take the lyrics of the latter: “See the sun turn green/From my penthouse window/It’s different now/Because you got no shelter/Alienation…by experimentation/Enjoy yourself/This is the new age!” Bring that to a Netflix pitch meeting and you might just find yourself getting the green light for the next sci-fi binge-fest. Just make sure to give credit where it’s due.
The original album ends with “S.O.36,” a dark, implacable track inspired by stoned visions of a Berlin neighborhood, and “Primitive,” a jackbooted march through the rubble that proclaims we are “Getting closer/To the primitive day.” If the “primitive way” sounds this good, bring it on, I say! Others were less impressed, such as Paul Morley, who wrote in NME in October 1980: “Killing Joke are parasites sucking all the goodness out of musics. Graceless. A poor joke.” Undeterred, Killing Joke edged its way in the UK Top 40 and has had an ever-rippling influence ever since, from Metallica and Ministry to Helmet and Nine Inch Nails. They also attracted the attention of no less of a bastion of the musical establishment than Jimmy Page, who presented them with an Innovator Award in 2010, remarking “It was really good to hear something like that in the 80’s, which sort of caved in a bit with haircuts and synthesizers.”
The message and method of Killing Joke, also made it firmly into America’s heartland – Sedalia, MO, to be exact – where it excited future Under Neath What guitarist Andrew Berenyi to the extent that he carried it with him to SUNY Purchase, where we met and founded our band Silly/Hate in 1985. We covered “Wardance” and also took to heart their approach, well-described by Ferguson in the Sutcliffe interview as “Four people with different destinations, but all going up the same flight of stairs.” I’ve been a fan ever since, marveling at their remarkable career, which now spans four decades and finds the original quartet together again. And it all started here, on an album of molecular intensity that has continually fissioned into contemporary relevance ever since it emerged. If we can’t have peace and love, at least we’ll always have the proper noise to accompany current realities: the glorious noise of Killing Joke.