see all photos from this concert review here

Killing Joke
Alex Paterson
Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
Thursday February 24 2005
~review and photos by Uncle Nemesis

OK, all you punk rock mathematicians, riddle me this. Killing Joke released their first single, the very fine ‘Nervous System/Turn To Red’ in 1979. I know this because a copy of that classic waxing sits on my record shelf to this very day. If we assume from this that ‘79 represents Killing Joke’s year zero - the point at which it all began - why, then, is this gig billed as the band’s 25th anniversary show? From 1979 to 2005 is 27 years, so if Killing Joke really are celebrating their silver jubilee, they’re a couple of years too late. Nevertheless, the band’s two nights (of which this is the first) at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire are being filmed for an anniversary DVD, and the old-skool fans have turned out in force. It’s a slight surprise to see the venue packed with grizzled veterans of the post-punk wars - for Killing Joke released a new album in 2003, and for a while looked set to re-invent themselves as a contemporary, if more than usually stroppy, rock act. But if they did win any current-scene kudos during this episode, it seems to have evaporated. The vast majority of tonight’s crowd look like they’ve been in on the Joke for years. That’s not a bad thing, of course: indeed, it’s the presence of this loyal fanbase that has stuck with the band since the early days that has enabled Killing Joke to continue for 25 (or 27) years. But I can’t help wishing the gig looked a little less like a retro event, and a bit more like the current music scene.

Alex Paterson, the main man from The Orb, and a Killing Joke roadie before he sold his soul for ambient space-techno, fills the support slot with a DJ set. Perhaps aware of the crowd he’s playing to, he steers clear of ambient space-techno in favour of vintage punk (Clash, pre-pop star Adam And The Ants), post-punk obscurities (Jah Wobble), and plenty of warm, loping, dub reggae. This in itself is a bit of a throwback, for reggae was almost always the between-bands music in ye old punk days and after. The assembled old-skoolers seem happy enough with his selections, but it’s Killing Joke everyone really wants - and, at length, it’s Killing Joke that we get.

The band strolls on stage - no fuss or intro tapes. Suddenly, they’re just there. Who’s in the line-up this time? We get a random drummer, and the usual hired-hand keyboard player discreetly tucked into the side of the stage. There’s latter-day bassist Paul Raven, sporting his lunkhead rocker look in a beanie hat, and the two originals - Geordie, as ever lean and reserved, toting his old semi-acoustic guitar, and, up front, bug-eyed, face-painted, and brandishing the microphone like a shamanistic totem, Jaz Coleman himself - vocalist, ranter, and all-purpose prophet of the apocalypse. The rhythm cranks up, a big, rumbling monster of a noise, the bass thudding like doom, the drums forcing everything forward. Geordie’s guitar breaks over the top like surf, while Jazz saucers his eyes and lets rip. It’s the classic Killing Joke sound, and - it’s quickly apparent - we’re in for a set which pulls all sorts of obscure tunes out of the band’s repertoire. ‘Bloodsport’ allows Jazz to deliver a brief polemic on the subject at hand (bloodsports are a bad thing, essentially) before the tune - it’s an instrumental, with interludes of shouting - kicks in. ‘Primitive’ is a thing of glory, all stark, minimal drums, the guitar ebbing and flowing like tides. ‘Psyche’ is a frantic rush, and - a rare nod to the newer songs, this - ‘Asteroid’ is a crazed moment of anthemic singalong glory. The mosh kicks off like it’s 1982 and we’re all laying waste to the Lyceum, stage-divers passing overhead like DM-booted shooting stars.

As always when I’ve caught any of the post-Youth Killing Joke line-ups, I find myself missing the nimble, agile basslines of Joke’s original four-string man. Raven can always be relied upon to give it loads in the bottom end, but when all’s said and done he’s a rock player. You’d never call his playing funky. And that was always Killing Joke’s unique schtick: their gritty, funky, tautly rhythmic take on post-punk rock. The band we see before us tonight is definitely Killing Joke wearing their more mainstream rock band identity, and while I’m enjoying this set, I allow myself a twinge of regret that it’s not the classic early line-up on stage.  But then it’s encore time. By now Jaz is in an oddly relaxed mood. He drops his seething shaman persona sufficiently to chat in amiable tones to the crowd, introducing the drummer - ‘Ben, and he’s only twenty-two!’ - and asking if anyone has any requests. The other Jokers stand around casually, letting Jaz rabbit away. I get the impression that the band are using this first gig of their two-nighter as a warm-up for the main video shoot tomorrow - when, I suspect, they will be sternly in effect throughout, the set will be far more ‘greatest hits’, and Jaz’s matey chats with the audience will definitely not be forthcoming. They pull ‘The Pandys Are Coming’ out of the bag (‘We haven’t played this one for about nineteen years!’ chortles Jaz) and hurtle through a storming ‘Are You Receiving?’, one of those classic Killing Joke anthems of doom which, in these times of disintegrating civil liberties, are starting to sound uncannily like prophecies come true. We even have detention without trial in the UK now, just like the song says. Maybe dear old Jaz wasn’t so paranoid as he always seemed, back in those early days.

Almost unexpectedly - there’s no sense that the set is coming to any kind of climax - it’s the end of the show. The band take a bow, another curiously untypical piece of showboating, and they’re gone. That was...well, quite an odd performance, in a way. Odd to see Killing Joke so relaxed and informal; odd to see Jaz, normally implacable, stern and taciturn throughout, in such a friendly, easy-going mood. In a sense, it’s good to know that after 25 (or 27) years, Killing Joke can still surprise me. But I never thought they’d catch me out simply by being nice.

see all photos from this concert review here

Killing Joke:

The Orb:

Shepherd's Bush Empire:

Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: