tue 16/07/2024

Ether: Killing Joke, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Ether: Killing Joke, Royal Festival Hall

Ether: Killing Joke, Royal Festival Hall

Jaz Coleman's post-punk apocalypse continues on the South Bank

Killing Joke's Jaz Coleman: Unashamedly preposterous

Often at gigs by bands of a certain vintage, the fans can look like they're on a special awayday: like they've dug their T-shirts out of the back of the drawer and geared themselves up for one last canter round the paddock. Not so for Killing Joke. At the Royal Festival Hall last night, a very large section of the crowd had the look of still actively living very rock'n'roll lives, and of having done so for at least the last 30 years.

“How many times have you seen them?” asked a shaven-headed gent in the seat next to me. “This'll be my 46th Joke gig,” he continued with obvious pride. This is not a band to be trifled with.

SwimmingThe support band, Swimming (pictured right), all looked well under half the median age of the crowd. They gamely played their hearts out despite a sparsely populated auditorium, working up quite a sweat on stage and getting some warm applause by the end. Their synth-driven indie/prog rock was crisply arranged and frequently wandered into the territory occupied by Klaxons and even Muse; if Swimming don't have the distinctive character of either of these, their fresh faces show they've got plenty of time to develop.

It must have been daunting for them, because trying to get noticed next to the spectacle of Killing Joke was never going to be easy. Even the intro tape for the headliners put them in the shade: a video of a giant cross surrounded by totalitarian-looking tannoy speakers with a background of endlessly churning collaged explosions, soundtracked by Vangelis's Blade Runner music segueing into what sounds like a Russian Orthodox basso profundo chant. And if that sounds ridiculous to you, you'd be right and then some. It was one of the silliest things I've ever seen – but also slyly awe-inspiring.

And that is Killing Joke all over. They are the act for whom the word “preposterous” could have been invented, an LSD-drenched mess of lunacy and contradiction, but they also present a frankly irresistible spectacle. On stage, led by Jaz Coleman in a camouflaged boiler suit and heavy make-up, they appeared comfortable with the fact that (apart from keyboardist Reza Udhin, the only member not part of the original 1979 line-up) they are all men in their fifties. In particular bassist Martin “Youth” Glover in white linen looked every inch the louche millionaire he undoubtedly is thanks to his studio work with the likes of Paul McCartney, Dave Gilmour and U2. But from the very beginning of the 30-year-old track “Unspeakable”, for well over an hour they kicked up a furious noise that could make younger bands quake in their boots.

Killing_JokeWhile Youth, Udhin, guitarist Geordie Walker (pictured left with Coleman) and drummer Paul Ferguson hunkered down, casually blasting out dense riffs that hit like bulldozers, Coleman's theatrics never once let up. If indeed they were theatrics: his quaking, eye-rolling, gurning persona never has the knowing camp of, say, an Iggy Pop, and in fact his stage presence owes more to history's maddest despots than to anyone else in rock, so it's entirely possible that what we witnessed was simply an extension of his personality rather than rock persona. Whatever the truth, it works.

Again, Coleman's presence is entirely ludicrous, likewise his constant blunt pronouncements like, “The shit that's gone down in the Middle East is gonna start in the West,” (before a blistering “Change”) - after all, this is a man who has been proclaiming the immediate imminence of the apocalypse for three decades now, yet also finds times to compose Hollywood soundtracks – but it is backed up by stage presence and vocal delivery of such utter conviction that there is something genuinely stirring, even noble, in its madness.

Combined with the monstrous noise of his band and the constant barrage of images on the screen behind them (churning fire, war machines, panicked crowds, colliding planets, the terrifying kitsch of Maoist propaganda films), it was easy to see how such utter dedication is kept aflame in Killing Joke fans.

The set leant heavily towards early tracks like “Pssyche”, “Eighties” and a glorious “Wardance”, and the grinding heavy metal of last year's Absolute Dissent album (their first since the reformation of the original line-up, the cover of which provided the cross image for the intro visuals). Thankfully there was little of their mid-Eighties period where they ended up sounding like a more Gothic Duran Duran, although their huge 1985 hit “Love Like Blood” was delivered with full macho camp grandiosity and managed to fit well with the more aggressive material.

Killing_Joke_2If operating at full intensity for 80-odd minutes could get a bit wearing, the band certainly didn't show it, and through to the final encore of “Pandemonium” there were more peaks than plateaux in the set. And if Coleman's political ideas don't stand up to close examination, the songs nonetheless say something valuable about the sublime, about extremity of experience and the fragility of life. Killing Joke may be one of our most preposterous bands, but they are also one of our most influential, with everyone from Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana and Napalm Death to Franz Ferdinand proclaiming their dedication, and on last night's showing it was only too obvious why this is. This wasn't a nostalgia show, it was a band still at the height of their lunatic powers.

Trying to get noticed next to the spectacle of Killing Joke was never going to be easy

Share this article


Interesting review, I was also there last night and having seen KJ 9 times (first in 1980) I was surprised to see the reviewer commenting on Youth wearing a white suit? he wore a white, albeit grubby suit in the early days of KJ, hence the wearing of one today. So, it's hardly to look like a louche millionaire as you have so wrongly pointed out.

Point about Youth's white suit well made. Also a couple of other errors. The 3rd photo in the article is actually of Jaz with Youth (not Geordie as the author suggests). Also the song "Eighties" is mentioned as an "early" track alongside "Pssyche" and "Wardance" even though it appeared on their fifth studio album "Night Time" along with "Love Like Blood"

You're entirely right re "Eighties" and the photo caption, schoolboy errors for which I can only plead sleep deprivation - as with all theartsdesk's reviews, this was written on the same night. Oh, and the fact that I rarely listen to mid-80s KJ, but I know 'Eighties' well, so assumed it must be an earlier track ;) Re Youth's suit, though, you are misreading. It doesn't make any difference whether he's worn a similar suit before, the point is that NOW the way he looks is like a louche millionaire. Anyway, nitpicking aside, I hope you enjoyed the show and the review.

On 1.4.2011 at Royal Festival Hall I had my first taste of a Killing Joke gig. Never had the chance b4, also got hooked on KJ when they appeared on The Tube when they did Dominator, Frenzy then Eighties. I have got to say that they were awesome, I have seen a lot of punk bands over the years but this had to be the best. Every track left me wanting more and i do wish I had seen them b4. Every track was class but if I had to pick one then it would have to be 'The Great Cull'. Cant wait to see them again>

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters