Christopher Owens delves into an 1981album he feels is the best of all time.
Let's get this out of the way early on.
This is the greatest album ever made.
Now, let me explain why.
Released in June 1981, Killing Joke's second album outdoes their s/t debut in terms of song writing, intensity and brilliance but also outdoes everything else released at that time. And 1981 was a brilliant year for music: Solid Gold, Flowers of Romance, Movement, Prayers on Fire, Deceit, Red Mecca, Mission of Dead Souls, Animal Now, Alles Ist Gut, Leather Bristle Studs and Acne, Slates and Insect & Individual Silenced all came out in 1981. All stone cold classics.
So to outdo all these is some feat.
But then Killing Joke always had confidence. They knew there was a power and mysticism that they could tap into to further their vision, as evident by this quote:
This band would not just be a pleasure principle, it would have a social function, rather than something you put on when you get home from work. I guarantee that if you do that with a Killing Joke record, you'll lose your job. We knew we were different - we were articulate and intelligent, yet we were portrayed as thugs, which admittedly there was an element of truth in.
The "intelligentsia masquerading as yobs or vice versa" debate blind sighted many at the time, leading them to ignore the rich musical and literary culture around the band. Evolving from the fractured UK punk scene at the end of the 70's, early Killing Joke blended disco and dub into their apocalyptic sound. Hence, fans of The Ruts and Chic could be found in the crowds of their early gigs, alongside the mohican brigade. Their first Peel Session captures this period perfectly.
By 1981, the sound had evolved into what one Village Voice critic described as "an ugly, overwhelming, heavy metal-disco fusion that might be the first real advance in HM since The Stooges..." Killing Joke were not impressed by this comment, and quite rightly so. Aside from it being too simplistic (and wrong), the use of the word 'disco' would have been anathema to certain Americans still high from Disco Demolition Night and would have led to the wrong impression of the band as Saturday Night Fever cast offs.
Which couldn't be any further removed from reality.
And reality was becoming a word open to subjective opinion in Killing Joke by this period.
Their interest in astrology and the occult arguably hit it's peak in 1981, with drummer Paul Ferguson commenting that:
There is a force behind each individual and the idea is to find these forces or powers and try to get them to work together. It's more than just star signs; it's a sub-conscious thing. There are four main elements; earth, water, air and fire, and when we started we tried to find a person from each element, to theoretically produce a more balanced and stronger whole.
Bear in mind that a seven pointed star used to be chalked on the floor when Killing Joke played live, followed by Dave 'The Wizard', who would breathe fire. You can see that Ferguson wasn't joking.
As well as this, bassist Youth was suffering from the after-effects of a bad LSD trip. Youth went mad, burning a collection of crisp five pound notes inside his bank …
I remember trying to get a bank loan and the bank manager said that I didn't know the value of money. I pulled out a £5 note, burned it and threw it on his desk. I said, 'Don't lecture me, that's what money is, it's just paper'. He threw me out...
… trying to break into the Freemasons headquarters and ended up in Chelsea police station wearing a kimono and swimming trunks. Unsurprisingly, he was placed in a mental home, leading to a tour being postponed. He later said:
Somebody slipped me the acid. I wouldn't have taken it myself if I'd known what would happen - but the mental home was great. I went crazy, sure, but then I began to see the funny side of life. I made a lot of friends in there, though it was really weird because I was in the ward for all the flashers. It was quite amusing.
It's not a flashy opener. Rather it's one that grabs your attention gradually, due to all four musicians battling it out for supremacy in the mix. When it does fully grab you, you find yourself feeling like you're descending into hell.
'Tension' does what it says, and does it through a chugging, staccato guitar riff that feels like a baseball bat landing on your head. The bizarre imagery in the lyrics ("Sitting in my armchair thinking again and again and again/Going round in a circle I can't get out") can suggest manys a thing: 9 to 5 conformity, LSD paranoia, mental disintegration. The free flowing imagery, combined with the stable music, is almost psychedelic in it's outcome, especially the guitar line during the chorus.
'Unspeakable' begins with a moody keyboard line, then Ferguson ups the ante by plummeting his drum kit with controlled violence. Youth's basswork during the chorus adds an extra layer of discomfort. Once again, the lyrics depict a world where "Facts and figures turn anti-clockwise/Many signposts leading to the same place", clearly predating 'alternative facts' and consumer driven lifestyle.
There's a real sense of paranoid and dread running through this song. The tribal patters on display during the drumming conjure up images of tribes people preparing themselves to hunt for food, while Geordie's chords make me envisage council estates on fire.
A staccato keyboard line holds 'Butcher' together, with Coleman's distorted vocals spewing venom about the rape of the land for oil and wealth. The most 'industrial' track on the album, the mechanised feel nicely contrasts with the environmental message.
Nearly eight minutes long, the krautrock leanings evident on 'Madness' capture the daily grind of modern life with precision. By utilising Coleman, Youth and Ferguson as vocalists for this one, the listener is barraged with contrasting vocals. One line sums up the bleak viewpoint of the entire album: "If this is today/Well what the fuck's tomorrow." Adding to the insanity, Walker's guitar is suitably metallic, but minimal.
'Who Told You How' is a short electro number with tribal percussion and sweeping guitar. A sound collage with a simple question, it's not a million miles away from what the likes of Cabaret Voltaire were doing at the time and acts as both a respite from the grind of 'Madness' and a change of pace.
The last song on the LP, 'Exit' may sound like a more traditional and conventionally 'punky' number, giving some the impression of ending the record on a somewhat optimistic note. But a closer inspection of the lyrics suggest otherwise: "Noise turns darker the moments pass/But the drums keep thundering in familiar way." Ending with a fade out of the drums furthers the point.
Cover wise, it may not be as iconic as the 'vandalised' Don McCullin photo that adorns the first LP, but it's another visually arresting piece of work from Mike Coles that encapsulates the paranoia and dread that pours out of 'What's This For...!'
A solitary figure, dressed in white, (whose gender is unidentified) is stuck in a Lynchian style setting where a traditional English street is populated by clowns are observing their prey. It could be argued that it's a comment on conformity, the seedy secrets that lie in suburbia, the struggle between good and evil, nuclear war paranoia, finding strength from within and even a joke on seaside postcards.
Whatever the true meaning, it's use of muted colours, exquisite detail and ambiguity mixed with evocative imagery make it a potent comment in it's own right.
At the time of release, UK unemployment was over 2 million, Nazi skinheads regularly clashed with anti fascists, rioting had broken out in South London and the country was still reeling from the Yorkshire Ripper murders. In the North of Ireland, republicans died on hunger strike (fully encouraged by their 'leaders' for political gain) and riots in nationalist areas were daily occurrences. And, while the album was being recorded, rioting broke out in Brixton (not far from the band's squat in Ladbroke Grove).
Harsh times like this require an album to soundtrack this chaos, and 'What's This For...!' perfectly captures this period by evoking imagery of subversion, suspicion and mayhem through the riffs and lyrics. But these are still harsh times, and it still sounds as potent nearly forty years on.
As Jaz Coleman said in 1990: "Killing Joke always have an important role to play in times of world tension" and this is still the case today.
The greatest album of all time. No question.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.