OUT OF TIME: The Joke Was On Me

Out Of Time (OOT) is a column that blithely ignores consumer dictates and release schedules. This time, Gary Steel explains why he can hardly stand to listen to Killing Joke.

KILLING JOKE-FONDA-MAY 5, 2013-130IN JANUARY OF 2013, I interviewed Jaz Coleman for Metro magazine. Or should I say, he talked at me, I recorded his rants, and excerpted some of the best bits for a piece on the eccentric part-time New Zealander, in promotional preparation (from his point of view) for the first-ever NZ concert by his group, Killing Joke.
If my memory isn’t playing tricks, it was the fifth time since 1988 that I’ve sat in a room and had Coleman haunt me. He’s mellowed considerably over the years: the first time, I likened him to Charles Manson, or some apocalyptic would-be cult leader, and after the interview, I had disturbingly lucid nightmares for weeks.
I kept on coming back for more because a lot of what Coleman says makes sense, even if some of it sails pretty close to what would conventionally be categorised as out of the mouth of madness. He’s got a ferocious intellect, and will always entertain with his theories about humanity, politics and culture.
The year before, suffering the rage and the fury of commuting back and forth from a particularly odious temporary assignment in the city, I had reacquainted myself with the Killing Joke catalogue, and found it to be the perfect soundtrack for what I was experiencing on the daily grind of voluntary slavery.
kill1So much rock music is about nothing in particular: teen lust through to geriatric lust (if you’re in The Rolling Stones), falling out of lust, horny loneliness. Oh, and drugs. And if you’re The Rolling Stones, you also get to write about the joy of rock and roll. [How many crappy self-celebrating songs are there, anyway, and what’s the point?]
In Killing Joke, on the other hand, Jaz Coleman writes about stuff that actually matters. There’s no time for the vain self-searching of the sensitive singer-songwriter, or the nihilistic self-loathing of the grunge band, or the poetry of love that occupies the middle ground of mundane pop/rock craft. No, Coleman does the apocalypse, and what happens after. But unlike the common or garden death metal band, he does it in a giant sandpapery roar of a voice, not a cookie monster, and he’s not talking about the apocalypse as a fantasy embedded in a computer console, but a reality – a reality wrought by the avarice of mankind. Killing Joke is angry music, but for a reason, and there are songs going back to the 1980s exploring the new politics of seed control, enslaving worldwide business agreements, corporate nightmares, and other matters that have become environmentally and politically pressing in the 21st Century. We should be angry about this stuff, and I’d rather hear Coleman and his heavy torrents of rage than some “protest singer” strumming weakly and chanting nasal slogans.
So, to prepare myself for the gig, which was to take place on June 13 of 2013, I purchased the then newly released triple CD set called The Singles Collection 1979-2012. By this time I was no longer on the toxic roundabout of commuter hell, so I was able to soak up this monumental slice of Killing Joke history in my own home, on my own stereo. And I can report: it really does sound better in the car, this kind of music.
2v2jyomThe Singles Collection is a very nicely-priced package, and it’s probably essential for everyone from fairly enthusiastic fans through to completists. The first CD covers the years 1979 to 1988, so it’s got the really harsh rock/electronic/dub-hybrid tracks from their first album, right through to their biggest hit, ‘Love Like Blood’, where Killing Joke had almost morphed into a threatening version of a New Romantic band. Still, if this disc proves anything, it’s that while Coleman smoothed out his voice for some of those more pop-oriented tracks in the mid-to-late ‘80s, he certainly had the voice to do it with, and the “softer” material never seriously compromised them.
The second CD covers the years 1990 to 2012, and the pickings are a little less rich, mainly because for a period of time, the band was legally at each others’ throats, and was therefore inactive. The holes in this era are covered by new edits and mixes and a few exclusives, and again, it’s impressive seeing the way the group osmosed into a kind of metal trance act in the late ‘90s, and then back into a hard-edged powerhouse of angry spew in the 21st century.
Disc 3 is the rarities disc, and contains tracks that were used on game sountracks and movies, as well as new mixes and demos. And again, it’s surprising how good most of it is.
killingjoke1I was planning to review this set, but then I went to Killing Joke’s NZ concert. It’s not really the group’s fault that they played in a lousy venue, which spoiled my night and prevented me from enjoying the gig, and leaving early, but the whole experience made me not want to listen to (or even think about) Killing Joke for a very long time. I reported on that unhappy night here, and then the NZ Herald picked up on my Witchdoctor piece and ran their own piece reporting my experience. Consequently, I was bullied by mosh pit fans who thought I was just being a big girl’s blouse, and even harassed by people connected to the venue.
The vociferous attacks from some segments of Killing Joke’s audience got me thinking: for all the group’s bounteous good points, there is an element to their music that reminds me of those lunkhead “oi-oi” bootboys that populated gigs and parties in the early 1980s – skinheads who carried knives and couldn’t tell the difference between bands like Killing Joke and The Clash whose music had a social conscience and actually meant something, and all those Nazi-sympathisers who just wanted to make a big noise and smash it all up.
In reality, there were many members of the audience who felt ripped off, and unhappy about the crowd crush, and the lack of crowd management.
But coming back to the album, which I can once again assess without the negative impact of that gig: It’s not one for the KJ initiate, but anyone who did hear the group for the first time here couldn’t help but be impressed.
The thing sounds like it’s been carefully mastered and those early tracks like ‘Wardance’ and ‘Requiem’ sound incredible. While the group have never carried through on the suggestions of experimentation on that first album, hearing selections from their whole discography together in one place shows just how consistent they’ve been, despite the different influences that have become dominant over time. Killing Joke’s work this century is a little too metal-bound for my tastes, and there’s not even a hint of the late ‘70s melting pot that led to the group incorporating dub and electronics into their sound, but it’s still a fearfully impressive form of hard rock that sounds a little like Motorhead with heavy lyrics. Well, sort of.
Yeah, I still rate them. I just hope they choose a better venue next time. GARY STEEL

Killing Joke – The Singles Collection 1979-2012

Music Rating = 3.5/5
Sonic Rating = 3.5/5

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