Emerging during the last years of the Cold War, Killing Joke produced a modern style of music by combining sonic elements of punk, heavy metal, and disco with lyrics that delved into issues beyond romance. A description on iMusic.com stated that “Killing Joke was miles ahead of its time with the use of synthesizers and lyrics foretelling of societal decay. The music was fierce, yet a beautifully executed conglomeration of exotic music, tribal rhythms, chimey, heavy guitars, sampled noises and throaty vocals. A primitive, ritualistic vibe as mesmerizing as it is hypnotic.” Recording and performing over a period of more than 16 years, Killing Joke created the foundation of a genre upon which many rock bands of the 1990s continued to build. Bands such as Metallica, Ministry, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails further developed and refined various elements of Killing Joke’s musical expression. A unique sound, frontman Jaz Coleman’s spirituality, and persistence in recording music were the major components of the success of Killing Joke as pioneering musicians.
Killing Joke formed in 1978 as the London, England, punk scene faded. Trendy Notting Hill Gate was the reactor where the group achieved critical mass. Original members included Jaz Coleman at vocals and
Members include Martín Atkins, drums; Big Paul (born Paul Ferguson), drums; Jaz Coleman, vocals, keyboards; Geordie (born Geordie Walker), guitar, synth; Guy Pratt, bass; Paul Raven, bass; Andy Rourke, bass; Tafff, bass; Youth (born Martin Glover Youth), bass, vocals.
Formed in 1978 in London, England; played out of Notting Hill Gate district; abrasive guitars and thumping rhythm combined punk and disco for a unique sound; Coleman moved to Iceland in Killing Joke’s early career; Youth was a desirable producer of dance bands after several Killing Joke album releases; released albums as a band for more than 16 years including Turn to Red, 1979; Killing Joke, 1981; Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, 1987; Outside the Gate, 1988; Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions, 1990; Pandemonium, 1994; and Democracy, 1996.
keyboards, Geordie (Walker) on guitar, Youth (Martin Glover Youth) on bass, and Big Paul (Ferguson) on drums. Coleman met Ferguson while playing in the Matt Stagger Band. Soon after meeting, Coleman and Ferguson broke away to form Killing Joke. Youth came from the punk group Rage, and Geordie joined as the final member in the initial lineup.
The group’s early sound combined the noisy, harsh guitar of punk and the prominent low end rhythm of disco. It was similar to bands such as Public Image Ltd (PiL), whose lead singer was Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols, and brooding dance band Joy Division. Guitarist Geordie implemented a unique tuning that was lower in key than standard tunings. Guitarist recognized that the lower key provided distinction to the group’s sound, and Geordie told the magazine that he enjoyed the sound of the alternative tuning more than the traditional.
Killing Joke’s fusion of sound was juxtaposed to issues addressed in song. Lyrics often focused on an eminent breakdown of society, a certain destruction that would occur if nuclear fission was not stopped, and an utter doom for humans if they did not get in touch with the truth of the world around them. Much of the group’s lyrical content came from Coleman’s own spiritual beliefs. He had been a church member who had become disillusioned over the seemingly manipulative doctrine. Seeking truth, he delved into astrology and the scientific or natural causes of religion. Killing Joke reflected Coleman’s belief that many people were out of touch with reality. His music stood as a wake-up to the masses. Coleman put faith in cycles and held a belief that the current society would return to tribalism. He recognized the similarity between his assessment of society and the classic literature where the hero died, but the joker survived because he knew the truth. In a 1995 interview with SBQ about Killing Joke’s art, Coleman stated “music, generally speaking, is used to create a more desirable reality and historically, our tradition in Killing Joke is catharsis and exorcism and, obviously, hard realism—aspects of the life that we all have to encounter.”
As many bands have done, Killing Joke first made their music available to listeners through performance and by self-recording. Listeners were attracted to the band because Killing Joke played high intensity concerts and captured their energy on recordings. An EP titled Turn to Red was financed with money Coleman borrowed from his girlfriend. The band sold three recordings to Island Records in 1979 to enhance distribution and publicity. “Wardance,” their debut single, was released through Island. At the same time, they began their own label, Malicious Damage. Killing Joke was first noticed while opening for Joy Division in London. The group’s career made a significant jump when they caught the attention of famous British Broadcasting Company (BBC) radio disc jockey John Peel. By appearing on Peel’s popular radio show, Killing Joke’s status as a legitimate popular rock band was confirmed.
Despite Coleman’s distaste for what he described as selfish behavior by the music industry, the group signed with EG in 1980 and released their label debut, Killing Joke. The band quickly created a confrontational reputation while touring, a reputation reinforced by the album’s artwork. They were banned from performing in Glasgow, Scotland, after a concert poster depicted Pope Pius XII blessing two groups of Nazi soldiers.
What’s This For?, the band’s second LP, was released in 1981. The album was an intense sonic attack throughout. Revelations, released in 1982, was the third LP from the group. Just after its release, Coleman left the group to travel to Iceland. He departed under concern that an apocalypse was near. Geordie followed Coleman and recorded with an Icelandic band called Peyr. Youth spent a short time in Iceland, but returned to England and worked with Ferguson in a band called Brilliant. While Coleman was away, the group back in England went as far as performing on television with a mannequin standing at the microphone. Ferguson finally went to Iceland, taking with him bass player Paul Raven (who replaced Youth for Killing Joke’s 1982 European and North American tour), where recording was done for a live EP, Ha!, Killing Joke Live. Later the new group returned to England.
During Killing Joke’s hiatus, Youth nurtured his interest in dance music with Brilliant. He followed the group’s efforts in tribal rhythms to become a highly respected dance genre producer. His diverse background provided him the knowledge and experience record companies desired and led him to work on projects with Fine Young Cannibals, James, Bananarama, Crowded House, The Orb, Polly Jean Harvey, Nick Cave, and U2.
Fire Dances, a calmer sounding album, was released in 1983. Marketed through Polydor, it appeared to be an effort to increase record sales. It was remarkable in that it was the first album which included a photo of the band in the artwork. The 1985 release, Night Time, contained one of Killing Joke’s biggest hits,” Love Like Blood,” which reached number 16 on the charts in the United Kingdom. Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, referring to the notion of nuclear fission, was released in 1987 with a mostly keyboard-driven sound.
Outside the Gate was released in 1988 and contained a progressive rock sound. Controversy arose with this release as Coleman quickly recorded it so that it would hit the market before a label-fabricated Killing Joke album came out. Eventually a lawsuit occurred over the album’s release. Killing Joke were without a record contract after Outside the Gate. In order to earn some money and get back on their feet, they embarked on a short American tour and held a few spoken word shows, one of which was recorded by MTV’s 120 Minutes. Some of the spoken word acts were captured by the band and released in a recording called The Courtland Talks. Killing Joke signed to Noise Entertainment for a one album deal, and in 1990 released Extremities, Dirt and Various Repressed Emotions. Geordie was back on guitar and Martin Atkins, ex-PiL drummer, replaced Ferguson.
The group loosened again in the early 1990s with each member doing something of their own. Coleman ventured into Egyptian popular music and symphonic music, and Geordie moved to Detroit, Michigan, with his wife. Raven joined Prong, and Atkins put energy into Pigface. However, the group rejoined, and Coleman, Geordie, and Youth put out Pandemonium in 1994. Unique to the release were vocals recorded in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Coleman’s connections from previous recordings in Egypt made the Great Pyramid session possible. Perhaps revealing their music’s connection of life, death, and spirituality, Geordie described Killing Joke’s music in a 1994 interview with Guitarist as “basically a trance, that’s what we were about and still are about.” Pandemonium turned out to be the most commercially successful album so far for the group. By this time, Killing Joke was recognized as highly influential in the United States’ hardcore, industrial, and grunge scene. Some critics noted an extreme similarity between Killing Joke’s “Eighties” and Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.”
After Pandemonium, Coleman retreated to Sedona, Arizona, where the initial ideas for Killing Joke’s next album sprouted. Democracy was released in 1996 and was closer to the mainstream than previous work. It was recorded after extensive time writing the album so that it would sound like a live performance. A few years later a remix album was released called War Dance.
After Democracy, Coleman continued writing classical music for orchestras. While residing in New Zealand, he composed for the state orchestra of New Zealand, as well as nurtured ideas for an opera. Youth produced records in addition to running his own British indie label, Butterfly. He has to his credit Tom Jones, The Orb, Paul McCartney, and Heather Nova. Coleman and Youth collaborated on two symphonic albums—Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones released in 1994, and most recently Us and Them: Symphonic Music of Pink Floyd. Geordie was also involved in other projects such as the band Murder, Inc.
Turn to Red, self released, 1979.
Killing Joke, EG, 1981.
What’s This For?, EG, 1981.
Revelations, EG, 1982.
Ha! Killing Joke Live, Malicious Damage, 1982.
Fire Dances, EG, 1983.
Night Time, EG, 1985.
Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, Virgin, 1987.
Outside the Gate, EG, 1988.
The Courtland Talks, Invisible, 1989.
Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions, Noise/RCA, 1990.
Laugh? I Nearly Bought One!, Plan 9/Caroline, 1992.
Pandemonium, Butterfly/Big Life/Zoo, 1994.
Democracy, Zoo, 1996.
Buckley, Jonathan and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, 1999.
Graff, Gary and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock, The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Romanowski, Patricia, Holly George-Warren, and Jon Pareles, editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Fireside, Simon and Schuster, 1995.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 2000).
iMusic.com, http://imusic.com/showcase/rock/killingjoke.html (July 2000).
MTV Online, http://www.mtv.com (May 10, 2000).
"Joke, Killing." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/joke-killing
"Joke, Killing." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/joke-killing