A key influence on industrial rock, their early music was described by critics Stephen Thomas Erlewine and John Dougan as "quasi-metal ... dancing to a tune of doom and gloom," which gradually evolved over the years, incorporating elements of dance music, world music, gothic rock, though always emphasizing Coleman's "savagely strident vocals."
Finding modest commercial success, Killing Joke have influenced many later bands, such as Nirvana, Ministry, Amen, Nine Inch Nails, Napalm Death, Amebix, Big Black, Tool, Prong, Metallica, Primus, Jane's Addiction, Soundgarden, Foo Fighters, Faith No More and Korn, all of whom have at some point cited some debt of gratitude to Killing Joke.
In late 1979, they began the Malicious Damage record label with graphic artist Mike Coles as a way to press and sell their music; Island Records distributed the records, until Malicious Damage switched to E.G. Records in 1980. The songs on Killing Joke's early singles were primitive punk rock sometimes mixed with electronic ("Nervous System") and ("Turn to Red"). Their 'Nervous System/Turn To Red' EP came to the attention of legendary DJ John Peel, who was keen to champion the band's urgent new sound and gave them extensive airplay. They quickly progressed this sound into something denser, more aggressive, and more akin to heavy metal, as heard on their first two albums, Killing Joke (1980) and the more abrasive What's THIS For...! (1981). They toured extensively throughout the UK during this time, and both fans of post punk and heavy metal took interest in Killing Joke through singles such as "Follow the Leaders" (1981).
Killing Joke became notorious largely due to the controversies that arose from their imagery. Typically the images that appeared on their records and on-stage while performing live were bizarre and potentially shocking and inflammatory. One promotion poster featured a photo of a priest walking among rows of soldiers offering Fascist salutes, which was later used for the cover of the band's compilation album, Laugh? I Nearly Bought One!. Shortly afterwards, the band was banned from performing a concert in Glasgow, Scotland. At the same time, some journalists were suspicious about Killing Joke's image and wrote that "Killing Joke's music includes certain fascist tendencies...". This was a common misconception because, if anything, Killing Joke were politically apolitical or "meta-political" - with much of their disturbing imagery acting as ironic or cynical symbols for a world which they perceived was becoming ever more materialist, unjust and conservative. Killing Joke had various 'run-ins' with a number of music journalists at the time.
Killing Joke's third album, Revelations, produced by Conny Plank, was released in 1982, and supported by a pair of performances on The John Peel Show and by the singles "Chop-Chop" and "Empire Song". The LP reached #12 in the UK Top albums.
By 1982, members of Killing Joke, especially Coleman, had become immersed in the occult, particularly the works of occultist Aleister Crowley. In February of that year, Coleman, with Geordie and Youth following shortly after, moved to Iceland to survive the Apocalypse, which Coleman predicted was coming soon. While in Iceland, Coleman and Geordie worked with musicians from the band Þeyr in the project Niceland. After a few months, Youth decided there was no indication of the Apocalypse, and decided to move back to England. Youth then began the band Brilliant with Paul Ferguson, but the latter defected and travelled to Iceland to rejoin Killing Joke with new bassist Paul Raven (previously of Neon Hearts and the rock / glam band Kitsch) in tow. After spending some time in Iceland, Killing Joke returned to England and began touring and recording again.
The new lineup soon produced, again with Conny Plank, the single "Birds of a Feather / Sun Goes Down / Flock the B-Side" and Ha!, a six-track 10" EP of a live performance recorded in Toronto in August.
Mixing their sound with a slightly pop style, and with Coleman singing and not growling, Killing Joke had developed a variation of new wave on their fifth album, Night Time (1985). They achieved mainstream success with the single "Love Like Blood", which peaked at #16 in the UK. Night Time was also supported with singles for "Eighties" (1984), "Kings and Queens" (1985) and "Love Like Blood (Gestalt mix)" (1985), which all reached the UK Top 75. The album itself reached #11 in the UK.
The music on Killing Joke's sixth album, Brighter than a Thousand Suns (1986), was mostly similar in sound and mood to "Love like Blood". While no less aggressive and heavy than their older work, Brighter than a Thousand Suns diverged musically in ways that lead to controversy among listeners. In this case, disagreements between fans and critics alike included opinions on whether the band was conforming with pressures from EG Records to develop a more commercial sound, to whether the songs were relevant for those listeners more comfortable with their proto post-punk beginnings. Those who are strongly approving of the work consider it a milestone - and quite intense - progressive rock album, and their most consistent work to date. Two singles were released from the album - "Adorations" and "Sanity" - and the band continued touring successfully until the end of the year.
In 1987, Coleman began plans for a solo record of unusual music, and he made demos of his songs, on which he performed with Geordie's assistance. The project ran way over budget and so, despite Coleman's objections, the record company decided that the music would be released under the name "Killing Joke" in order to best recoup the costs. Attempts were made to include Killing Joke rhythm section members Raven and Ferguson, but it didn't work out, and tensions ultimately led to both being fired from the band. Session player Jimmy Copley was then brought in to provide the drumming on the songs, along with percussion player Jeff Scantlebury.
The resulting album, Outside the Gate (1988), is Killing Joke's most controversial album, with opinion ranging from admiration to total disgust, owing to its synth-led sonics (experimentally, and disagreement over the quality of the material. It is not signature-sound Killing Joke, being built around Coleman's orchestral keyboards instead of Geordie's distinctive guitar riffs. Had the album been released as "Coleman/Walker" (as the cover graphic implies) it might have been better received. Released as "Killing Joke" however, it was panned by confused critics and fans alike. Two singles, "America" and "My Love of This Land", were released from the album but did little to improve its fortunes. The video for the former features Coleman and Geordie with drummer Jimmy Copley and session bassist Jerome Rimson, who never actually recorded with the band. No live dates were played to support the album and the band spent much of 1988 in a legal battle as they tried to split from their management and record company, E.G. This struggle resulted in Coleman suffering a nervous breakdown.
On 19 September 1987 Coleman had delivered a lecture at London's Courtauld Institute outlining the thinking behind the then-unreleased Outside the Gate album, touching on numerology and the occult. Geordie and percussionist Jeff Scantlebury provided a minimal musical backing at the event. A recording of the lecture was eventually released under the title The Courtauld Talks on Martin Atkins' Invisible Records in 1989.
However, for reasons which remain unclear, the German Killing Joke sessions were scrapped and bass player Taif left the band to be replaced by old hand Paul Raven. The revised line up began recording again, this time in London, and the result was Killing Joke's eighth album, the ferocious Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions, released on the German Noise International label in 1990. It included some of the heaviest, noisiest and harshest music ever to appear on a Killing Joke record, although the progressive musical spirit of the previous two albums remained as well. The many highlights included "Solitude", "Slipstream", "Age of Greed," and the single "Money Is Not Our God". Once again, the band toured Europe and North America, but by the middle of 1991 this promising new line up had imploded. Coleman emigrated to New Zealand to live on a remote Pacific island, and it looked as though Killing Joke was over for good.
Geordie Walker, Martin Atkins, Paul Ferguson, Paul Raven and the band's live keyboard player John Bechdel (Ministry, Fear Factory, Prong, Pigface, Abstinence, False Icons, Ascension of the Watchers) added Scottish vocalist Chris Connelly (Finitribe, Revolting Cocks) and continued as the short-lived Murder, Inc., releasing a self-titled album in 1992.
Coleman had produced the 1993 debut album Churn by the New Zealand Band Shihad and Shihad drummer Tom Larkin played drums on some of the songs on Pandemonium. However, relations later soured between Coleman and Shihad due to a dispute over Coleman's production fee for Churn, and the fact that Shihad considered him a "megalomaniac". Shihad's second album, 1995's Killjoy, includes two songs about Coleman and the dispute: Bitter and You Again. Coleman has also made a number of disparaging remarks about Shihad in the media. Shihad singer and guitarist Jon Toogood says his band have put the dispute behind them, however a song was recorded by Shihad called "Killing Jaz".
Killing Joke also sued Nirvana during this phase, alleging that the riff for the latter's song "Come as You Are" was copied from the riff for their song "Eighties". The lawsuit was dropped after the sudden death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
The reactivated Killing Joke released two strong and well-received albums on Youth's Butterfly Recordings label, Pandemonium and Democracy, which saw the band shift back to the simpler arrangements of their early albums. Pandemonium (1994) wove a metallesque ritualistic sound with mosh beats and loops and provided Killing Joke with a memorable Top of the Pops performance for the single 'Millennium', which was a UK Top 30 hit. Democracy (1996) successfully introduced acoustic guitar into the mix, as well as adopting more of a "live band" sound again. Much of Pandemonium and all of Democracy featured session drummer Geoff Dugmore. He also played live with the band throughout this era. Nick Holywell-Walker joined the band on keyboards and programming for 11 years from 1994-2005, notably on Democracy and XXV Gathering (live). Youth bowed out of live performance early in the Democracy tour and was replaced by Troy Gregory, ex Prong.
After the Democracy tour, the band went on an extended hiatus. Jaz Coleman and Youth produced a string of well-received orchestral rock albums based on the music of legends such as Led Zeppelin and The Doors. Coleman became Composer-in-Residence for New Zealand and Czech symphony orchestras. He seems to have become something of a celebrity in the Czech Republic and made his acting debut with the main role in the film Rok ďábla (Year of the Devil) by Czech filmmaker Petr Zelenka (who later would direct the video for "Hosannas from the Basements of Hell").
In February 2005, now with young Twin Zero and Sack Trick drummer Ben Calvert, Killing Joke played two consecutive shows at London's Shepherds Bush Empire to commemorate their 25th anniversary. DVD and CD recordings from these concerts were released in on Cooking Vinyl in the fall of 2005 as XXV Gathering: The Band That Preys Together Stays Together.
In June 2005, remastered and expanded editions of their two 1990s Butterfly Recordings albums, Pandemonium and Democracy, were released by Cooking Vinyl. These were followed in July by their first four albums (Killing Joke to Ha!) on EMI, who by then owned the E.G. Records catalogue. (The second batch of EMI remasters would not appear until January 2008.)
In mid-2005, they supported the British leg of Mötley Crüe's world tour and then began work on their next album in Prague. It was at this time the contribution to the world of rock was recognised when they were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2005 Kerrang Awards.
Opting for simplicity and raw energy, the band recorded the new album in its basement rehearsal studio, going for live takes with the minimum of overdubs. The result was Hosannas from the Basements of Hell, released in April 2006 on Cooking Vinyl.
Killing Joke began a European tour in support of the album in April 2006. However, bass player Paul Raven abruptly departed after a few dates to tour with Ministry and was temporarily replaced by Kneill Brown. The tour included an appearance headlining the MySpace stage of the Download Festival on June 10 2006, which received four K's from Kerrang! magazine. Other highlights of the summer included a memorable set in Japan at the Fuji Rock festival where there were joined on stage by Orb frontman Alex Paterson (once a Killing Joke drum roadie) and headlining the Beautiful Days festival in the UK. The band's momentum suffered another blow however, when health problems caused the autumn leg of the tour to be cancelled.
Early in 2007, Killing Joke released three archival collections via Candlelight Records. The first, Inside Extremities, is a double CD of material taken from the band's preparations for the Extremities album: rehearsals, rare mixes, a previously unheard track, "The Fanatic," and a full live show from the Extremities tour. This was followed by Bootleg Vinyl Archive Volumes 1 & 2, each of which is a 3 CD box set of live-in-concert bootleg recordings originally released on vinyl in the 1980s, plus the Astoria gig from the Pandemonium tour which was voted one of the greatest gigs of all time by Kerrang.
In October 2007, the classic 1990 album Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions, which had long been out of print, was reissued in remastered form on Candlelight Records.
On October 20th, Paul Raven died of heart failure prior to a recording session in Geneva, Switzerland.
On January 28 2008 the albums Fire Dances, Night Time, Brighter than a Thousand Suns, and Outside the Gate were finally re-issued in remastered form with bonus tracks by EMI. Each of these carries the message "Dedicated to our brother Paul Vincent Raven 1961 - 2007".
A world tour started in September 2008, and is to be followed by their 13th studio recording sometime in spring 2009. The band reunited with their original lineup and played two nights per venue. The first nights are dedicated to their first two albums, Killing Joke and What's THIS For...!, while the second night features large parts of 'Pandemonium' plus some early singles released on Island records. The world tour began on September 11 in Tokyo and will conclude in Chicago on October 14.
Killing Joke will release an album of radio session recordings, "The Peel Sessions '79 - '81", on September 8th. 2008. It will be the first time all 17 tracks are released in their live session form.
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