Killing Joke: The Weird, Wild Story of One of Rock's Most Revered, Uncompromising Cult Bands | Revolver

Killing Joke: The Weird, Wild Story of One of Rock's Most Revered, Uncompromising Cult Bands

Metallica covered them. Nirvana ripped them off. Nine Inch Nails remixed them. Inside industrial-metal pioneers Killing Joke.
Killing Joke, Shaun Pettigrew
photograph by Shaun Pettigrew

"Don't go all nostalgic on me," Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman warns Revolver, when we reach him on a rare moment that he's in London. "I don't look back upon 1979 and 1980 and think, Wow, they were the days. They weren't. They fucking sucked, man."

For the past three and a half decades or so, Killing Joke have been at the vanguard of industrial, post-punk, and metal. Their aggressive-sounding, hard-edged screeds have influenced countless trailblazing, and top-selling, artists including Metallica, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails. But despite this, they've struggled through the years to get widespread attention, having come out of London's rough-and-tumble punk scene. "We were pretty violent and vulnerable in the early days," Coleman says in a jovial manner he keeps up throughout the interview, despite the dark stories he tells. "It was quite nasty being in Killing Joke."

But somehow the band has survived through it all, and with the release of its latest record, MMXII, the original lineup of the group—vocalist-keyboardist Coleman, guitarist Kevin "Geordie" Walker, bassist Martin "Youth" Glover, and drummer Big Paul Ferguson—has created an album that's bleak and compelling, the latest in a long line of career highs. "Most of Killing Joke has been a lesson in, 'First you dream it, then it happens,'" Coleman says. "It's been magical."

Many of those magical experiences are chronicled in a forthcoming documentary on his band titled The Death and Resurrection Show, which is due for release in 2013. Many are also recounted in the story that follows. When Revolver asks Coleman to recall the weird and wild adventures that got him and his bandmates to this point—including recording in an Egyptian pyramid and gigging with a fire-breathing cannibal—he minces no words. "I can remember exactly what it was like," he says. "It was a different kind of shit, mate."

Killing Joke came together as teenagers in the late '70s around the London neighborhood of Notting Hill. Today, the area has served as the setting for the eponymous Hugh Grant romcom and is populated by what Coleman derisively refers to as "Hooray Henrys"—the sort of privileged upper-class society types Monty Python mercilessly parodied. Three-bedroom apartments go for anywhere from £1,200 to £2,500 a month (U.S. $1,500 – $3,000), but when Killing Joke formed, Coleman was paying £28 a month for the same space. "This was the most undesirable area to be in, back in '78," the frontman says. "A lot of artists went there because it was kind of bohemian and there were a lot of rehearsal studios. Everyone from Hendrix to some of the Stones to Pink Floyd would all go there to rehearse."

"We were all squatting," says Youth in a genteel, almost matter-of-fact way. "We used to get picked up by the police three to four times a day, because it was a black area and a frontline for drugs. Me and Jaz lived next to a café where most of the action was. At the time, if you were white, you were there only to get drugs. We were just poor."

The first members to play together were Coleman and Big Paul in August 1978. Geordie came aboard next, followed by Youth, who'd answered an ad he'd seen in one of the weekly music magazines in the spring of '79. He'd previously played in a few bands, including one with Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten's brother, but his bass skills didn't wow Killing Joke. "Jaz and Paul walked out," Youth recalls of his audition. "They were much more academically trained than me, so they were less than impressed with my musical ability." Luckily, Youth had something more than hot licks: He had feeling. While Coleman and Big Paul were plotting how to tell him he didn't get the gig, the bassist started a "one-note jam" with Geordie that caught the other guys' ears. "That ended up being our first song," Youth says. "Then I kind of just got in."

With its lineup in place, the band moved quickly to issue its debut, an EP titled Turn to Red, financed by Coleman's then-girlfriend. Its three tracks owe an equal debt to disco, the echoey form of reggae music known as dub, and the throbbing sounds of London's post-punk scene, which was spearheaded by bands like Wire, This Heat, and Johnny Rotten's post-Pistols group Public Image Ltd. One song that made the cut was the jam Youth concocted with Geordie, "Are You Receiving." That track, more than the others, foreshadowed the direction Killing Joke would take in the coming years, because of its crunchy, almost mechanized guitar attack, Coleman's gruff antiestablishment-themed vocal, and a driving tempo that plowed along like a steamroller. It's a sound they would tighten up and make much harder in the coming years.

At that point, though, their focus was on touring and surviving. Living in and practicing in the gritty setting of Notting Hill influenced them greatly at that point, as it enabled them to meet all sorts of characters. One such rogue was a man who went by the name Dave the Wizard; he had a tattooed face and lived on the top floor of the squat they were staying in. He invited Coleman and their roadie at the time, Alex Paterson (who would go on to form the celebrated techno group The Orb), up to his apartment. "He lived in a pretty primitive state," Coleman recalls. "There were just bones and old pieces of fur strewn about. And he had this big magic circle painted on the floor with a seven-pointed star in it, and just skulls of dead animals." Dave offered to show the pair his "fire ritual" and then proceeded to astound the Killing Joke frontman by blowing what Coleman insists was a 14-foot flame. "I've never seen a flame as long as that," the singer says. "I said, 'You have to come to a gig with us.'" From there, Dave and his fire ritual became a staple of the band's concerts, and he would also go on to influence two of the songs, "S.O. 36" and "Bloodsport," on Killing Joke's self-titled full-length, which the group released in August 1980.

"We had invited Dave for a Sunday roast dinner with these other people we knew," Coleman says. "The host was serving roasted potatoes and roast pork with applesauce. I don't know how the subject came up, but somehow we got on the subject of cannibalism. And then Dave said one of the best one-liners I've ever heard: 'I've eaten human flesh.'" The host went on to ask about the circumstances under which Dave the Wizard would have eaten a person, and "he finished with the fact that it tastes very much like pork." The singer recalls the food didn't go down very well after that. As for what the Wizard had eaten, Coleman says, "It was an aborted fetus. He hadn't killed anyone. He explained he was completely within the law."

The band was reminded of the incident months later, while dining in a Berlin beer hall. "All these blue-eyed guys were eating loads of pork and we all got the horrors," Coleman says. "This bled into 'Bloodsport' and especially 'S.O. 36.' That one's about sort of taboo areas."

The band members continued writing songs for the album upon returning to Notting Hill in a rehearsal studio they shared with two other fast-rising groups, Motörhead and The Clash. "We were definitely influenced by both bands to a degree," Youth says. "The Clash were starting to use dub influences at the same time we were but in a different way, and we always wanted to sound louder than Motörhead."

One of the songs Killing Joke wrote while in that rehearsal space was a guitar-driven barnburner called "The Wait." "I started seeing keyboards in Killing Joke as atmospheres as opposed to keyboard parts around that time," Coleman says. "That track was really the beginning of getting the sound of Killing Joke." The oblique lyrics, he says, were a bit of reportage from one of the band's tours. The line, "I look at the river, white foam flows down," was something the band had seen. "I don't know how, but detergent had gotten into the whole river where we were and it was just foam. It destroyed everything and there were all these dead fish everywhere," the singer recalls. "It was the most depressing thing we've ever seen." The song was meant to be a summary of the "hopelessness of the human condition" and the fatalism of the Cold War. "It was pretty profound stuff for someone who's just out of his teens," Coleman says.

Years later, when Metallica were getting back on their feet after the 1986 death of bassist Cliff Burton, they decided to record some cover songs to break in their new bassist, Jason Newsted. When they were rehearsing the song "White Lightning" by a New Wave of British Heavy Metal group called Paralex, they weren't quite getting it right. So guitarist Kirk Hammett started in on "The Wait," which the band knew from one of Burton's mixtapes. The rest of Metallica kicked into it, gave it a bit more of a metal guitar crunch, and decided to record that instead of "White Lightning" for what would become their 1987 release, The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited.

"I thought it was great," Youth says of the Metallica's version. "They captured the spirit of the song."

"I'll never forget their cover because I didn't know who the fuck they were," Coleman comments. "I don't really go out of my way to find out what bands are happening, and while the other guys are into metal, I'm not.

"I'm not sure they got all the lyrics right, but we never printed the lyrics of the first album," the singer adds. "It really makes me laugh when these people think you've been singing one thing all these years and of course you haven't. They've gone and misconstrued the lyrics."

Inscrutable as its lyrics may be, Killing Joke's self-titled full-length has become a classic. Much more of a rock record than Turn to Red, the group jettisoned much of its dub influences for nasty riffs and Coleman's alternatingly open-throated and gravely vocals. Songs like the bass-heavy "Wardance" and the atmospheric opener "Requiem"—which Foo Fighters would later cover—have since become some of the band's most celebrated numbers. But at the time of the album's release, Youth felt disappointed in it, he says. "'Requiem' had started off as a dub-type track, but we ironed it out and made it more of a rock-esque anthem," he explains. "In a way, I felt like we hadn't represented ourselves properly on the first album because it was more of a direct rock album."

Having released its first full-length a year after their EP, Killing Joke would continue putting out a record a year through the early part of the '80s. Youth felt more comfortable with their sophomore release, 1981's What's THIS for…!, because they made Big Paul's drums sound bigger and tracks like "Madness" had the dub element he felt was missing on the self-titled album. Unfortunately, he would feel disengaged from the production of 1982's darker, heavier, and more all-around rock-oriented Revelations, after he suffered an acid meltdown.

"I was taking a lot of LSD at the time," he recalls, adding that he recorded the second album while tripping. "I narrowly managed to drag myself out of a psychedelic soup. I was very lucky to escape being institutionalized. My drug of choice at the time was amphetamines. We were never heavy drinkers. Amphetamines gave us the edge and psychedelics gave us the cosmic side. I just kind of got into it too much and ended up melting down."

As if the drugs weren't doing enough damage to the group, after the release and tour for Revelations, Coleman moved to Iceland on a whim without telling his bandmates. "I wanted to invoke my holy guardian angel," the singer explains, comparing the experience to what psychologist Carl Jung called "Individuation." "It was like finding your hidden genius. I knew there was a part of me I hadn't found yet and it wasn't just expressed through Killing Joke." Coleman can cite the exact date he had his breakthrough, February 26, 1982, when he concluded that he needed to become a classical composer in addition to playing in Killing Joke. It's a quest he'd embark on in the years to come, and the symphony he wrote while in Iceland would eventually be performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra a decade later. In the '90s, he arranged a number of Rolling Stones songs to be performed by the London Symphony Orchestra for a release called Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones, which Youth produced, as well as similar albums with the music of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

While it was a life-changing trip for Coleman, the other Killing Joke members felt left behind. "We didn't know he left," Youth says. "We read about it in the [British music magazine] N.M.E. We thought, OK, we'll audition different singers, but after a few weeks of rehearsal, Geordie disappeared to Iceland. And then me and Paul said, 'Maybe we should start a new group.'" The band the pair formed was Brilliant, a dance-oriented rock band, but Paul departed for Iceland a week later.

"The band left me," Youth says. "Later I realized it was not personal, but I was sharing a flat with Jaz and he hadn't told me. I was quite angry. I felt betrayed, and to have the rest of the band follow suit? I felt, Well, what loyalty?" The trio eventually returned from Iceland and invited Youth to tour Germany with them, but he declined, choosing to focus on Brilliant and working with other artists in the studio. From that point up until the present, Youth has produced, engineered, and remixed works for a who's who of pop-culture names: U2, the Cult, the Verve, and Marilyn Manson, among others. In 1993, he formed a new band called the Fireman that writes "edgy and challenging" music with a Liverpudlian bloke named Paul McCartney. He describes that experience as "an absolute privilege," but even so, with these successes in his years away, he still kept an eye on his former band.

When Youth declined his place in Killing Joke, they hired a like-minded spirit from England's Midlands named Paul Raven as their bassist. In July 1983, they released Fire Dances, which marked somewhat of a departure, musically, as they emphasized the tribal percussive elements of Big Paul's drums, pushing Geordie's guitar back in the mix. After that, though, the group made a departure from playing heavy music seemingly altogether.

Their fifth album, 1985's Night Time, reflected much more of post-punk and even new-wave sensibility than their earlier albums, which was perfect for the time. The single, "Love Like Blood," with its shimmery guitar and Coleman's almost Robert Smith–like vocal delivery, became their biggest hit, and artists ranging from the Australian synthpop group Icehouse to the metal band Sybreed have covered it. "I was gutted when they did 'Love Like Blood,'" Youth recalls. "I thought it was a great song. I felt like I had really missed out and made a big mistake by not being into the band."

The most referenced track from Night Time these days, though, is its murky closer, "Eighties," which is basically a summary of all the shitty things about living in the Thatcher-Reagan era. The group had written the song while living in Switzerland, and as soon as Geordie played the main riff, they knew they were onto something. "We premiered it at a private gig in a nuclear fallout shelter in Geneva," Coleman says. "People usually just stand and listen when you play a new song, but the whole place went crazy." Then he deadpans, "Who would have thought that it would go on to be 'Come as You Are' by Nirvana?"

Indeed, the riff in "Eighties" and the one on the Nevermind cut sound nearly identical. The notes Kurt Cobain played are in mostly the same order and are almost the same pitch, just slowed down. In the past decade, Nirvana's manager at the time, Danny Goldberg, has acknowledged the similarity between the songs. Recalling how they picked "Come as You Are" to be a single, as told in the book Eyewitness Nirvana: The Day-by-Day Chronicle, the manager said, "We couldn't decide between 'Come as You Are' and 'In Bloom.' Kurt was nervous about 'Come as You Are' because it was too similar to a Killing Joke song, but we all thought it was still the better song to go with. And he was right: Killing Joke later did complain about it."

Actually, Killing Joke did more than just complain; they filed a copyright suit against Nirvana. When Revolver asks Coleman what he thought when he first heard "Come as You Are," he says bluntly, "Guilty. I'll summarize where we stand: Who would you rather be, us or Kurt Cobain?" Sometime after the singer's suicide, though, they dropped the lawsuit. "Money is just not that important," Coleman responds simply when asked why the band decided to let the legal case go the way of the Nirvana frontman. "It has nothing to do with Killing Joke."

The group continued to release albums throughout the rest of the decade, but none measured up to the success of Night Time. Their follow-up, 1986's Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, seemed to fall in line with the Top 40 synth-pop of the time, albeit through Killing Joke's dark lens. Big Paul left, and Coleman, Geordie, and new members released the disappointing synth-heavy 1988 album, Outside the Gate, and a 66-minute lecture about the occult—a favorite subject of Coleman's—set to Geordie's guitar and percussion, dubbed The Courtauld Talks. But they seemed to find their footing again by the release of 1990's Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions, which found them dabbling in heavier territory again.

Sometime after that, and after a decade of not speaking to one another, Coleman and Youth reconnected. "After the Iceland thing, he took it pretty hard," the singer says. "But we became friends again, so in the '90s we brought him back after I fell out with Raven." The latter bassist would go on to play with the industrial acts Ministry, Pigface, and Prong, as well as the group Murder, Inc., which also featured Geordie and Big Paul. Killing Joke, meanwhile, began work on a new album with Youth playing bass and co-producing.

Making 1994's Pandemonium, proved to be its own adventure. Among the places they recorded parts of the album were New Zealand, London, and Cairo, which included a stop to record in the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza. "We bribed our way in," Coleman says. "Egypt is a very corrupt country. We spoke to three Egyptologists and they introduced us to the Minister of Antiquities. We paid him $3,000 U.S. to record for three days."

Once they were inside the pyramid, not all went smoothly. On the first day, every time the band brought batteries into the King's Chamber, they died within 10 minutes and had to be recharged. Their second day was luckier. "We had a whole team bring in batteries, and that's when the magic really kicked in," Coleman says. "It was hysterical, these three female Egyptologists turned up to the recording dressed like [Egyptians mythological goddesses] Isis and Hathor and all. I kind of recognized it, but Youth didn't and he goes, 'Hey Jaz, who are these three weird birds standing in the back?' I was laughing my head off. Our engineer Sam was falling asleep then he woke up and suddenly ran out screaming. When we left the pyramid, there must have been 500 to 600 tribesmen outside all chanting and playing drums. It was like a Hollywood set." In the end, the group was able to track parts of the songs "Exorcism" and "Millennium."

The album went on to become one of the group's best sellers, thanks to hitting the crest of interest in industrial music, and they followed it up two years later with Democracy. The band was beginning to reach a critical mass, in terms of interest, and fan and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor even remixed the album's title track. Despite these successes, all was not well within the fold. "There was an imbalance in the band dynamics," Youth says. "Even though I produced Pandemonium and charged them a completely modest fee compared to what I was commanding as a producer, it was still more than the rest of them, which rubbed them the wrong way. Everything in Killing Joke has to be an equal split. You can't underestimate the amount of sibling rivalry in so many years of being in a band together."

With equality restored, Killing Joke regrouped again in the early 2000s to record a second self-titled album, which they refer to these days by the year it came out. From the rigid industrial metal of "The Death & Resurrection Show" to the screed-like "Asteroid" to the punk-metal steamroller "Seeing Red," it was the most vital album the band recorded in years. "'2003' is almost all of our favorite album," Youth says. "It has elements of dub and metal and it's fairly focused." Part of the album's directness, though, has to do with the drummer who played on it: Dave Grohl.

Having been in the lurch with drummers, the band decided to lean on some of their famous fans for 2003's Killing Joke. They even tracked four songs with System of a Down's John Dolmayan and had intended to record some with Tool's Danny Carey, but decided in the end that Grohl should do the whole album. The former Nirvana drummer allegedly refused to be paid for his work. Which isn't to say that Killing Joke let him entirely off the hook for the "Come as Your Are" debacle.

"You'll see where I'm wrestling Dave Grohl to the ground and taking a confession, as it were," Coleman says, referring to a scene in the documentary The Death and Resurrection Show. "But let's be honest. Dave doesn't have publishing on that song anyway."

"We were all blown away by his contribution," Youth says of Grohl's playing on the 2003 album. "I thought the direction we took was very electronic and quite cyber and techy, brutal, and fierce. It came out great."

Since then, the band has been on a winning streak, in terms of releasing heavy, industrial-sounding records. In 2006, they put out Hosannas From the Basement of Hell, which received rave reviews from the metal press. But it proved to be a bittersweet entry in the band's catalog as it turned out to be Killing Joke's last with Raven. He would go on to record albums with Ministry and other bands, but on October 20, 2007, he died of a heart attack.

When pressed for a fond memory of Raven, Coleman doesn't bat an eye. "Of course I have fond memories," he says. "This one night at a bar, this disgusting woman, she goes to Raven and says, 'I want you to fuck me up the ass until I bleed and beat me up.' He said to her, 'Yeah, but I might not stop.'"

After Raven's death, the four original members of Killing Joke regrouped. In 2008, they commenced on a tour that included playing two nights in several cities, performing the 1980 Killing Joke and What's THIS For…! one night and Democracy and Pandemonium the next. Rather than make it simply a nostalgia trip, they wrote a couple of songs while on the tour. Before long, they were planning on recording again. "We were determined that it had to be a contemporary record," Youth says. "It could be a nod to our legacy, but we had to make a new record."

In 2010, they released Absolute Dissent, an album that showcases both Coleman's orchestral sensibilities on songs like the title cut, as well as the band's emotionally heavy side on tracks like "The Raven King," which pays tribute to the deceased bassist.

The reunion experience paid off in full, though, on their most recent offering, MMXII. "The direction we took on that album was quite dark," Youth says. "It has a lot more keyboards but also a bit more of a dense metal sound. The uncompromising antidote to pop and pop rock, à la Nickelback, is becoming more commercially viable, so we were quite influenced by that aspect. The album has a more serious gravitas to its sound because it's the times we live in." And of course, as the record's title suggests, there's the tie-ins with Mayan apocalypses and what Coleman cites as similar prophecies by the Egyptians, Masons, Incans, Hopi, and Maori peoples over the years.

But so far, the only 2012 catastrophe that has befallen Killing Joke occurred in July when Coleman went on another one of his unannounced sojourns, as he had done when he offed to Iceland so many years ago. At the time, the group was working on a forthcoming collection of dub versions of its songs and planning a tour with the Cult and the Mission U.K., but it had to cancel its plans. Instead the band members took to Facebook and wrote, "We are all concerned about our missing singer's welfare." They also said, "We are doing everything we can to make this tour happen and locate our missing singer." In August, the group announced that he had turned up in the Western Sahara, and, other than the tour, Killing Joke resumed their plans.

"I just go off," Coleman explains. "I don't use mobile phones or computers. It's difficult to stay in touch. I was close to the border of the Western Sahara, and this hippie comes up to me and says, 'They're all looking for you, man.'" Then he laughs.

"Oh, we're getting used to that now," Youth jokes. "We are all challenging people to work with. Jaz is a very individually unique character that does crazy things quite frequently. As much as it can be frustrating and embarrassing at times, I'm sure it's the same for what I get up to sometimes. Often in hindsight, it all works out for the best."

Coleman feels much the same way. When the singer looks back on his career, he has no regrets. After three-and-a-half decades in the rock-and-roll game, he knows the score. "I've got no mercy for young bands today," he concludes. "I couldn't get paid for a gig until 1990. The harder it gets, the harder I feel."