❉ Over Killing Joke’s forty year lifespan, the state of the world may not have got any better, but that’s good for us as it’s the fuel they still pour on their creative fire.
“Get off your fucking iphones! This is a virtual free zone… Turn round to the person behind you and say hello… This is a neutral space where we can enjoy ourselves!”
It’s an appropriately stern instruction from singer Jaz Coleman, a pleasing foregone conclusion that the Killing Joke front man would detest the socially isolating nature of modern personal technology. It’s anathema to the band’s philosophy of communal catharsis, in songs that turn modern angst into minor symphonies of industrial rock.
Dressed in a flight suit, eyes wide, face painted white, hair wild, Coleman twitches and jerks, like some US airforce pilot marooned in the jungles of South East Asia who’s undergone a shamanic conversion. He talks between songs about a “new Cold War”, SAS ‘advisers’ assisting the Cambodian regime in the 1970s and Barack Obama increasing the power of the surveillance state… Over Killing Joke’s forty year lifespan, the state of the world may not have got any better, but that’s good for us as it’s the fuel they still pour on their creative fire.
Mischievously billed as the Laugh at Your Peril 40th anniversary tour, the 2018 gigs feature all four original members, who were there at the start of Killing Joke’s unique sonic journey in 1978. As well as Coleman, present and correct are Paul Ferguson (drums), Youth (bass) and guitarist Geordie Walker, cranking out fractured power chords that sound like an electric guitar scowling over a hypnotic backing of tribal drumming and dubby bass. Early PiL is clearly in Killing Joke’s musical DNA, which may be part of the reason why their canon has lasted so well.
They’ve always been loud, but soon as the first song Unspeakable starts, my ear plugs (given out free at the bar) pop out and are on the floor. That’s impressive.
There’s a bias towards material from the first two albums, which is no problem as far as I’m concerned: The Wait, Pssyche, Requiem, Unspeakable and Butcher are as confrontational as ever, while the set ranges – as far as I can tell – to 2013’s The Death and Resurrection Show. Stand outs for me are the brutal dance beats of Follow the Leaders and the insistent military chant of Eighties (whose guitar riff was famously nicked by Nirvana and slowed down on Come As you Are).
Killing Joke have produced a lot of material over four decades together and at times their output has been tunelessly atonal. When that happens towards the end of the set for a couple of songs, my attention wanders and I take some time out at the bar.
A couple of pints later, I’m back down the front for an encore that opens with their commercial high point, Love Like Blood. Reaching number 16 in the UK charts when such things mattered, it was the Joke’s perfect synthesis of gloomy, existential lyrics and prowling indie rock that, more than any of their other songs, you can dance to. Two days later as I type this, the chorus is still on repeat in my head.
Your 54 year-old correspondent takes to the mosh pit for Wardance, throwing himself into other bodies and being thrown around like it was 1980. I used to be down here all the time at gigs, but time passes for all of us and one full-on mosh is all I can manage these days. I think it’s important to put in the effort for such an indie anthem like Wardance because, soberingly, at this stage of the game I don’t know whether they’ll ever play it again, or if I’ll see them play it again.
As the cacophony of the last song dies away, something wonderfully endearing happens: for the first time this evening, a broad grin illuminates Coleman’s face. Unlikely as it may seem for these merchants of doom, the band meet for a group hug at the edge of the stage. In just over an hour, Killing Joke have gone from condemning iphones to a group selfie, with the Norwich crowd pictured cheering and applauding jubilantly in the background.
The apocalypse may be nearer than ever, but in the hands of Killing Joke it’s still one of the best nights out around.
❉ Killing Joke are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year with their extensive and ambitious world tour, for more information or to book tickets visit https://www.killingjoke.co.uk/tour
❉ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/killingjokeofficial/
❉ Twitter: https://twitter.com/Killingjokeband
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.