Divinity and Absence: My Failed Quest to See Killing Joke
One would be hard-pressed to name a more innovative and provocative guitar-based band from the early post-punk landscape than Killing Joke. The group has managed to transcend genre conventions since its inception in 1978, skirting everything from peace-punk to heavy metal, from dub to pop, all the while refining a sound and aesthetic that is uniquely their own. Jaz Coleman, Killing Joke’s apocalyptic harbinger of a frontman, once described the band’s mission as an attempt “to achieve the atomic sound,” while founding drummer "Big" Paul Ferguson called their music "the sound of the earth vomiting."
Legend has it that Killing Joke began when Coleman and Ferguson were introduced by a mutual friend after a chance run-in on the unemployment line. The two instantly knew that they were destined to play together, and used a combination of magic ritual and an ad in NME that proclaimed "Want to Be Part of the Killing Joke? Total Publicity - Total Anonymity - Total Exploitation" as a means to recruit like-minded musicians. Quickly, Kevin "Geordie" Walker and Martin "Youth" Glover signed on to fill guitar and bass duties, respectively, and the original lineup was forged. (Whether the ritual or the ad ultimately brought them all together is up for debate, but the combination of methods didn't hurt.) Given the band’s penchant for the occult and general thesis that primitive man will be reborn once humanity self-destructs, it’s easy to see why Killing Joke's ballads of Armageddon have connected sonically and spiritually with a fanatical base of people who see little hope in a broken society, and know at their very core that it can all be over at the push of a button. It is a terrifying world, and Killing Joke effortlessly articulate those fears in a way that seems nothing short of divinely inspired.
Something that you need to accept as a Killing Joke fan is that the band can be erratic on a good day, combustible and volatile on a bad. The linchpin to the explosion is more often than not Coleman. They have toured frequently since the beginning, but scheduled runs of shows will frequently wind up canceled with little to no explanation. We find out later that someone has taken ill, or that there was a family emergency, or that Coleman has run off on a quest dictated to him through a Golden Dawn ritual. In a notorious 1982 incident, the group was forced to cancel a world tour because Coleman absconded to Iceland in order to wait out the impending nuclear war. Walker followed, and for a brief time they teamed up with members of the band Peyr to make music and perform ceremonies. Back home, Ferguson and Glover started the band Brilliant, and both Killing Joke camps traded jabs in the press for a while. Ferguson quit Brilliant after a short period of time, and when the world didn't end, Coleman and Walker went back to England. Killing Joke started again, without Glover.
I am reminded of the time in 2003 that my best friend and I snuck into a Killing Joke show at Philadelphia’s Theatre of Living Arts, bursting with excitement at finally getting a chance to see them play. See, we were a little too young to catch them during the Pandemonium tour with Stabbing Westward at the Trocadero on Halloween in ’94, and they cancelled the Democracy tour in ’95 before breaking up for seven years, so this event was in many ways to be the realization of a childhood dream that we never thought could come true. We managed to sneak backstage, and although everyone was friendly to us, an ominous air hung thick. We went back to the main room and sat through the local opener (some dog dick-awful nu-metal band who replaced Amen, the dog dick-awful touring nu-metal band that were supposed to play, but mysteriously canceled without warning). We got up to the front of the stage and waited … and waited … and waited some more. After over an hour, it looked like the band was about to emerge, but a few moments later, a man sidestepped them and took the microphone. “We’re sorry, but Killing Joke will not be performing tonight. Jaz has come down with a case of strep throat and is unable to sing. The band will play a make-up show as soon as possible.” Heartbroken and a bit confused, we left. I’m pretty sure the make-up date never happened.
Fast-forward to 2011. Another chance to see Killing Joke arrived when they were scheduled to play Chaos in Tejas on the same show as my band. It’s hard to describe the thrill and honor I felt seeing our name listed along with theirs. In that fucked-up, basic existential crisis kinda way, this felt like the confirmation that I hadn’t wasted my life playing in bullshit punk bands. Maybe there was no money and maybe there was no future, and my family might subtly shake their heads in disappointment when they saw me, but none of that mattered, because I got to play with Killing Joke. However, it wasn’t to be. Two weeks before the fest, Killing Joke canceled their entire tour, again citing illness. They were replaced by the Cro-Mags in the end, and it was still one of the best shows I’ve ever gotten to play, but the predictable unpredictability of Killing Joke’s cancellation felt like a shitty cliche.
Coleman went missing yet again in 2012. After it was announced that an upcoming tour with the Cult and the Mission had been downgraded to smaller clubs, Coleman made a scornful post on Killing Joke's blog regarding the other bands, stating that it “gives me great pleasure to announce the cancellation of the upcoming gigs with the Cult and the Mission. Frankly, playing at a gig with the Cult never appealed to me in the first place. The only reason we allowed ourselves to be talked into it was to blow both bands off the stage and to steal their respective audiences ... all their songs suck! They clearly have no integrity." Promptly after the post went up, he disappeared. In a statement, the remaining members expressed their deep embarrassment at Coleman's outburst (which was made without the band's knowledge) and wrote that it “was agreed by all of the band that we would do these shows. Jaz is now AWOL and has not contacted any of his bandmates ... We are doing everything we can to make this tour happen and locate our missing singer." Coleman resurfaced in the Western Sahara Desert two weeks later, asking "What's all the fuss about then?" on his Facebook page. He explained that he was working on a solo record, a book and a TV score. As for his comments about the Cult and the Mission, Coleman claimed that he had nothing to do with it, that those words were penned by an impostor.
I had already flamed out on the prospect of ever seeing Killing Joke by the time they announced their 2013 tour (fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me three times and you’d better be my long-lost parent who caught me at a particularly needy moment, because otherwise I’m just a fucking idiot). Fully expecting not to see them, I slept on buying tickets. The day of the show came around and I still refused to allow myself to think that they’d actually show up. I sat it out and, much to my chagrin, Killing Joke did show up, and from all accounts delivered a pitch-perfect, damn near life-altering performance while I sat at home watching Law & Order reruns. (As much as I admire the paternal charm of Jerry Orbach, he's no Jaz Coleman. Fuck it, though — at least Orbach is consistent).
When it was announced that Killing Joke would be touring with the Soft Moon in early 2016 in support of the band’s stunning new record, Pylon, I felt a renewed sense of optimism and believed that my prospects for finally catching them were high. However, it was not fucking to be. Citing health issues (which appeared to be legitimate, as drummer Jimmy Copley was battling leukemia at the time), Killing Joke had to pull out of their whole North American tour just a couple of weeks before it started. The Soft Moon, having traveled from Berlin and Italy, were already in the U.S., and decided to do the tour without them. Their impossibly dedicated booking agent, Carly James, had to scramble to get everything sorted at the last minute, and hit up my band to support them at a couple of the gigs. We love the Soft Moon, so it wasn’t a problem, but I had to shake my fucking head so hard that it almost fell off — because Killing Joke bailed, we were playing some shows. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh. That kinda shit feels almost cosmic to me at this point.
A few months back, my ever-patient-and-handsome editor Fred Pessaro got me access to The Death and Resurrection Show, Shaun Pettigrew’s remarkably detailed documentary on Killing Joke. Clocking in at two and a half hours and spilling over with a ton of jaw-dropping rare footage, it leaves almost no stone unturned when chronicling the collective career and individual lives of a brilliant, volatile band. It is remarkable in scope and focus, paying laborious detailed attention to just about every facet of the group. Meticulous and fascinating, the film will hopefully see a proper stateside release soon, as it is essential viewing for all Killing Joke fans. However, one significant criticism of the movie is that, even within all of the microscopic and obsessive chronicling, there isn’t enough in the way of discussion regarding the routine concert and tour cancellations. As a lifelong fan and someone who had been on the receiving end of that experience more than once, that's what I really wanted to hear about. See, to be a Killing Joke fan means taking hefty doses of bad with the good. With every brilliant record comes the tour announcement. And with every tour announcement comes the anticipation and dread. Are you gonna see them this time or are they gonna bail? If they bail, is it gonna be because of health issues or because of a sudden spiritual mission that Coleman has to go on (with or without telling anyone)?
It's a cliche to suggest that brilliance and madness go hand in hand, that they're often one and the same. Killing Joke carry these qualities in droves, and are longstanding objects of reverence because of it. Part of the emotional contract inherent in following the art of volatile individuals is that they often behave in a volatile manner. We, as fans, have to accept that. After all, a large part of what drew many of us to Killing Joke to begin with is their pure, unmitigated fury. There is not an ounce of posturing when they speak of the abyss and the end of days. Doesn’t it make a degree of sense that the followers of genuine harbingers of doom should follow on the harbingers' terms? Yes, these are career musicians who make records and tour for a living, but they are also complicated human beings who are just trying to navigate through their complicated lives. Erratic tendencies aside, these are still people in their mid-50s with families, health concerns and personal responsibilities outside of our entertainment. We should be understanding of these circumstances ... or we should walk away.
I choose to be understanding.
Maybe I will never see Killing Joke, but I choose to remain cautiously optimistic at the prospect. Considering all personal testimonials of friends, plus countless hours of live footage spanning the better part of four decades, it appears to be worth the wait. I can say with a sad confidence, though, that if I never see them, it will not be for a lack of trying — that’s for fucking sure. The next time Killing Joke announce a tour, I will do what I always do: purchase a ticket with great trepidation, hold my breath and hope for the best. What else can you do? It’s Killing Joke.