Following last week’s Pepper-y article, it is time, as they say, for something completely different.
I will readily admit that there are a number of experiences whose attractions I simply do not understand. These include horror films, rollercoasters, and anything else which involves deliberately paying money for an unpleasant time. In a similar vein, if I buy an album, I am not generally keen on being shouted at for 45 minutes.
As such, Killing Joke’s eponymous debut album is more or less my very first exposure to the post-punk genre, which embraces the hard-edged, stripped-down snappiness of punk rock but in a more unconventional, experimental form. Through its broadening of the existing genres, it was in many ways a precursor to alternative rock; the influence of this groups is felt on bands such as Nirvana and Foo Fighters (who covered Killing Joke’s Requiem as a B-side to their 1997 single Everlong), but also heavy metal bands, particularly Metallica.
The band was originally formed by singer Jeremy “Jaz” Coleman and drummer “Big” Paul Ferguson when they were both in the band of Mataya Clifford (a.k.a. Mat Stagger) in 1979, and guitarist Kevin “Geordie” Walker and bassist Martin “Youth” Glover were recruited to complete the line-up. Coleman later said that the band’s manifesto had been to “define the exquisite beauty of the atomic age in terms of style, sound and form.” Their first EP, Turn To Red, was recorded using money borrowed from Coleman’s then girlfriend, but it was sufficient to attract the attention of DJ John Peel, who offered the group a session on his BBC show. By the end of 1979, the band had signed with Island Records and set up their own label, Malicious Damage, on which the debut album was released in 1980 (although they had, by this time, switched allegiances to E.G. Records).
I approached this album with some trepidation; it is described in my 1001 Albums book as “the aural equivalent of having thumbs pushed through your eyes while being told the end is nigh.” Coleman’s lyrics certainly have a very unsubtle apocalyptic tone to them; in 1982, when he believed Armageddon was fast approaching, he moved to Iceland to avoid it, followed by Geordie and Youth. On this album, he expresses opinions on a variety of topics, including politics and human nature. Not being a very experienced listener to this sort of thing, I found the lyrics initially somewhat difficult to listen to; but on inspection (i.e. looking them up on the internet), they are punchy, powerful, and graphic.
And indeed, I found the entire album to be more intriguing than off-putting. The underlying instrumental sound is incredibly rhythmic and drives every song forwards; the guitar riffs, in particular, are brilliantly precise throughout, and nowhere more than on Bloodsport, an entirely instrumental track that is a good blend of repetition and variation. At times, the vocals feel like they’ve been dropped onto the rest of the music like an electronically-enhanced tonne of bricks, particularly in Wardance, which, to me, feels just a bit overdone.
The album, and indeed the band, achieved only moderate commercial success; this record topped at number 39 in the UK chart. But they were certainly respected both critically and by other artists; the number of later musicians who cite Killing Joke among their influences serves as testament to this. AllMusic described the album as an “underground classic,” saying that it “deserves better than its relative unknown status,” and pointing out that although the type of sound found here became relatively commonplace in later years, it certainly wasn’t in 1980. This is an album that sets the tone for the music of a very socially troubled decade and whilst aggressiveness in music isn’t generally to my taste, this is no more than a product of its time, and I still appreciate a lot of this album for its artistry in arrangement and performance. It is bleak and depressing, but at its best, beautiful.
You can listen to Requiem, Bloodsport and Primitive, along with songs from the other albums I’ve listened to so far, on the Spotify playlist here.