With only their debut, Killing Joke said more in one album than most bands say in their entire career. The production was dense, curating a sound that sounded like the beginning of World War III, but the melodies were infectious, informing listeners of the intent and integrity of the artists performing their instruments to the maximum of the volume.
As if pre-empting the beginnings of post-punk, Killing Joke were direct contemporaries of Joy Division, another British band who were determined to cloak their country with the essence and aestheticism of European art-pop. The band were cutting, gifting Killing Joke a sound that propelled them into the height of fame. The melodies were as reliant on Youth’s gravelly bass as they were on the pounding riffs and propulsive keyboard lines.
Killing Joke’s most fondly remembered single is ‘Eighties’, bolstered by a guitar riff that stands as one of the most inventive of 1980s rock. Instantly hummable, the tune seeps into the DNA, creating a newer, richer form of music that holds a vocal that rips into the psyche of the listener.
The band were respectful of their listener’s intelligence, offering them the chance to craft their realities on the story. And the story, rich with atmosphere, only grows more prescient in 2022 as countries change course, and declare their intentions on the other’s land. Like any great song, Killing Jokes’ material grows better with age.
Killing Joke’s six definitive songs:
‘Wardance’ – Killing Joke (1980)
The band’s second single was a powerful track and, in the eyes of vocalist Jaz Coleman, it’s the band’s best. The song typified the growing fear of nuclear armageddon, as many countries were arming themselves in the name of peace. The composition details the end of the earth, as companions dance themselves to refrain from falling into boredom.
The song was a popular one live, particularly because it boasts a frenzied bass line from Youth. Geordie Walker rises to the occasion to deliver a pounding guitar lick that laces itself around the song’s central melody hook, washing listeners in a cascade of hissing noises and reverb
‘The Wait’ – Killing Joke (1980)
Now, this is less about punk and more about the funk. The drums slap, the bass chugs along, and the band fill the missing spaces with a collection of breezily performed hooks. Coleman sounds elevated, singing as if capturing the animal energy of a live gig, his voice poised for success and sincerity. It’s one of his limber sounding vocals on the record, keenly capturing the nuances of the stage behind the microphone.
It gave the band contrast, cementing their debut record with a more bass-hungry tune that gave listeners something to jive to, rather than rock out to. As the songs grew more intricate, the band’s performances became livelier and livelier to watch. But Youth was finding it harder to work with Coleman, and left the band in 1982.
‘Eighties’ – Night Time (1985)
The comparisons between ‘Eighties’ and Nirvana song ‘Come As You Are’ are pretty damn glaring, and Walker remembered the ignominy of the occasion. “We were very pissed off about that,” Walker said, “but it’s obvious to everyone. We had two separate musicologists’ reports saying it was. Our publisher sent their publisher a letter saying it was and they went ‘Boo, never heard of ya!’, but the hysterical thing about Nirvana saying they’d never heard of us was that they’d already sent us a Christmas card!”
‘Eighties’ holds one of Paul Raven’s feistiest bass patterns, bouncing off Walker’s choppy, chiming guitar design, the tune fizzling on all cylinders. It’s a guitar-heavy rocker and one that sounded better live than it did on record, which might explain why Nirvana was so happy to nick it. And weirdly, it sounds nothing else from the 1980s.
‘Love Like Blood’ – Night Time (1985)
One of the closest things in the band’s canon to a romantic ballad, the track features an ominous, almost Wagnerian keyboard opening line that cements Coleman’s vocal. He doubled as keyboardist and frontman, frequently writing the majority of the lyrics to the melodies. And the power of the melody on this track is such that the band could never have replicated it, but for the strength of their commitment to the tune.
The song is scintillatingly produced, putting the focus on the yearning vocals, as the explosive instrumentation nestles in the backdrop, chiming away like busy bee workers putting the frames together of a building that will outlive all of them. And the same could be said for this song, which will continue to make radio playlists when everyone involved has gone.
‘My Love of This Land’ – Outside the Gate (1988)
This tune represents the beauty of England, offering Republican voters an alternative to the more hackneyed national anthem that celebrates the British hierarchy. And rather than focusing on the history of the land, Coleman chooses to focus on the geography, hailing the pastoral green that laces the land from which the band had grown up in. The tune works well as a poem, as well as a song, and the band wisely let the words do the heavy lifting.
Coleman sounds lively, espousing the virtues of the country that had gifted him great riches, both material and spiritual. But where the keyboardist sounds hopeful in his promises, the band sound more hesitant, as if stating that this is his song, not the bands. But if it’s a Coleman song in all but name, then it’s a Coleman song worth buying and learning off by heart.
‘Excorcism’ – Pandemonium (1994)
Sure, it failed to make the UK singles chart, but the band were beyond caring about chart places by the 1990s, and they play as their lives depend on every note, word and chord played. It carries a swampier production design to the work of the 1980s, so the guitars cut through the audio with almost knife-like precision.
It’s classic Killing Joke territory: the lyrics are haughty, the guitars are punchy and the band push through the recording, fuelled by the excitement and the chance to play in the studio. The band continue to let their creative endeavours inspire their work, and long may they prosper as artists.