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Revisit: Killing Joke: What’s THIS For…!

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Revisit:

Killing Joke

What’s THIS For…!

1981

In a video easily found on YouTube, Killing Joke’s lead howler Jaz Coleman is interviewed on a German pop music show. Judging from the fashions, it appears to be the late ’80s, probably before the release of the English band’s disastrous, disowned Outside the Gate. Coleman appears tense, trying his best to keep a calm veneer on what seems to be some potent hatred inside him. When the German host mentions the United States, Coleman can’t hold back; he lets loose on how much he hates the country, finding it uninspiring and homogeneous. He says he resents its cultural influence on Europe, refuses to tour in the States ever again, and also will refuse any American money. As the host is in the middle of translating this screed to the viewers, Coleman interrupts, interjecting that “Germany is an occupied country.”

Coleman is there to perform a solo piece, dedicated to recently deceased producer Conrad Plank. He leaves before the Q&A segment is officially finished, wandering off-camera to his keyboard. Coleman begins his piece- a short bit of grating, ambient noise played via sustained chords. His face is contorted, as though reliving whatever inspired the piece is too much to take. His free hand gestures about, as though the sounds generated with his other hand were demons just conjured. A chord changes and suddenly this different pitch seems to bring a wave of resolution over his face; he is relieved, the piece is finished.

The six minute clip does bear a repeated viewing or two, after which nothing becomes clearer; this is a put-on, right?

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Killing Joke couldn’t have picked a better name. They’ve made bizarre moves throughout their career, beginning with mixing punk’s guitar aggression and danceable electronic music before becoming convinced of impending Armageddon in the early ’80s. The legend says that they intended to wait out the end of the world in Iceland. It never happened, so they returned to England to record once more, this time with a more melodic Goth-pop kind of bent. Scoring their highest charting hit with “Love Like Blood,” Killing Joke disintegrated in the late ’80s, during which Coleman was forced into branding his solo album as a KJ record to recoup production costs. Not long after this, The Courtyard Talks were released, a spoken word album in which Coleman lectured about numerology and Crowley over guitarist Geordie’s noodling. Since 1990, they’ve been in a constant state of reunion, playing songs similar to industrial genre they helped influence with Pandemonium and Democracy, then enlisting Dave Grohl to drum on 2003’s second self-titled record, an album’s worth of Iraqi invasion-inspired songs. 2007’s Hosannas From the Basement of Hell was filled with long, self-referential songs, harsher and more metallic than anything released in their career. Meanwhile, Coleman moved to New Zealand, helped bankroll independent, self-sustaining towns, arranged those goofy symphonic Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones records, and most recently, has been named the European Union’s Composer-in-Residence. You’re joking, right?

Killing Joke have long tread this fine line between resolute, deadly serious anger at the world around them and the sense that they have to know they’re completely and utterly ridiculous. If you can suspend disbelief, their powerful brand of sardonic resentment can be completely and utterly satisfying. In fact, during the days and hours six years ago when it was certain the invasion of Iraq was imminent, I remember finding that no music fit the zeitgeist quite like Killing Joke’s sophomore album, 1981’s What’s THIS for…!. Though the self-titled 1980 release tends to be the one bandied about by critics as their best, I feel like their dance pop tendencies were not reconciled effectively yet, pitting the weirdly cheerful instrumental “Bloodsport” next to a bleak dirge like “Tomorrow’s World.” Instead, What’s THIS for…! is, to me, Killing Joke’s quintessential record- a collection of songs that sounds most like the greedy, post-atomic Cold Warring world they were railing against.

Killing Joke’s lyrics are almost always incomplete thoughts that seem to thrive on the interplay of the listener’s imagination. Take the title for instance; I’ve never read any interviews or reviews that discuss its inspiration, yet I’d decided long ago it must refer to some fool almost pressing The Button. “The Fall of Because” doesn’t have much of a narrative in its verses, yet the idea that “because” as a concept has fallen puts an interesting spin on Killing Joke’s view that the world lacks reason. Elsewhere, on the sole single, “Follow the Leaders,” Coleman barks, “Taking the easy way out again/ Part of the process- same old story.” It’s anyone’s guess as to what he’s referring to in half of his verses, but the sheer authority with which the songs are presented makes every utterance a wholly justified dose of righteous anger. It’s an accomplishment that “Who Told You How?” has no lyrics apart from the four words of its title- repeated, as a sort of mantra that acts as a Rorschach test of indignation for the listener to put his or her hoarse voice on top of.

It should be noted that What’s THIS for…! is, above all else, a drum record. Paul Ferguson’s kit pounds and clatters at the front of the mix with the insistence and single-mindedness of a drum machine, while Youth (now working with Paul McCartney in The Fireman) approaches his bass as if it were a struggle to provide counterpoint over the drums. Geordie with his signature guitar tone- a hollowbody with enough chorus, distortion and echo to remove it from any kind of soulfulness, grinds and flashes in a mechanical fashion, sounding like some kind of automaton on an assembly line. Keyboards, handled live by Coleman, are almost always puncturing, buzzsawing sounds that can range from deep-seated, anxiety-inducing beds of sound to jarring sonic projectiles shot through the skull. Coleman himself, his voice buried under varying amounts of distortion and echo, barks vitriol as only British punks can, only his phrasing suggests a degree of education and not the background of a street kid. Yet despite its rhythmic singularity, What’s THIS for…! manages to evoke a bleak, moody atmosphere, specifically on “Butcher,” a condemnation of oligarchy that’s seems to take some of its spaciousness from dub, certainly a genre making inroads in England at that time.

Before the listener can think themselves drained by the relentlessness of the album, the final song, “Exit” appears, on which Ferguson truly shines. The thing seems built around his percussive explosions as a frenzied and paranoid Coleman tells of a world where diabolical agents of destruction are plotting against all that is good in the world. This wild-eyed performance by all members of Killing Joke is the perfect illustration of what Ferguson once told an interviewer, that the Jokers were “the sound of the Earth vomiting.” At the end of the final verse, Coleman proclaims, “Outside, the legions multiply/ By and by, I’m still alive” before giving a sarcastic “awww” during the fade-out. Is his mental state so twisted that he’s disappointed? Is he mocking the listener for lamenting the end of the record? What kind of joke is this?

by Chris Middleman

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