Killing Joke – A Drummer’s Top 10.
What are the best ten Killing Joke songs? It’s subjects like this – alongside cat photos and unprovable conspiracy theories – that the internet was made for. Of course in the matter of Killing Joke there can be no definitive list, crammed as their harlequin history is with so many moments of epic inspiration, brutality and hairpin turns of direction. However, nothing is guaranteed to provoke more dispute and indignation than a personal top ten, so here is mine, based purely on drum excellence.
1 Unspeakable (1981)
The drums, which thunder out like a herd of brachiosaurs in rutting season, trampled my teenaged mind and left me destined to follow the drummer’s path myself, which has had its good and bad points down the years. Still, minor tinnitus and long-term poverty are small prices to pay for this slice of definitive KJ on all engines, a perfect slab of malevolent noise in every aspect. There’s the evil keyboard drone that introduces it, Geordie’s massive wall-of-noise guitar, Youth’s sinuous bass-line bubbling beneath and Jaz intoning a deadpan stream-of-consciousness banalities and making them sound like an incantation to invoke the end of the world. And yes, those incredible drums. Thank you Big Paul Ferguson.
2 Wilful Days (1983)
By 1982 Killing Joke had collapsed in a breakup which was the very stuff of myth – half the band departed to Iceland to await the apocalypse, so the legend goes, and if that wasn’t the case then we don’t want to know about any more mundane reality. When the chaotic game of musical chairs halted, only frazzled founding bassist Youth was left without a place. In stepped the buccaneering Paul Raven to carve himself an equally beloved niche. Nevertheless the band dynamic was unavoidably altered. The bass parts would become less fluid and inventive, replaced by an anchoring chug that would be no less effective at its best.
The next album, Fire Dances, is one which disappointed me. I recall John Peel playing the Let’s All Go (To The Fire Dances) single and drolly observing that “the trouble with Killing Joke now is that they’re starting to sound like the bands that sound like Killing Joke”. Still, Wilful Days – which didn’t even make it onto an album, stuck as it was on the b-side of the disappointing Me Or You single – was one of their best songs of the period, fueled by an furious dance groove and inventive drum fills.
3 The Death And Resurrection Show (2003)
The arrival of Dave Grohl, possibly the best drummer in rock – certainly one of the most high profile – brought fresh impetus to the band after yet another period of silence and replenishment. His stint in the band came about by the sort of convoluted chaos-logic that Killing Joke have specialised in. Being a drummer, Grohl was naturally a Joke fan, but while in Nirvana was behind the kit for the song Come As You Are which may, or may not have borne a teensy influence of KJ’s own Eighties. Of course, music is rife with influences both conscious and subconscious, but the upshot was that Nirvana waved the white flag and eventually introduced their formidable drummer to the band when, in 2003, one of their periodic unexpected re-spawnings occurred. Dormant since 1996’s modestly received Democracy, Coleman, Geordie and both Youth and Raven reconvened under the precise eye of producer Andy Gill, who constructed this fearsome new self-titled album from neatly assembled slices of performance (a process Geordie loathed). To match the machine power and accuracy, onboard came Grohl with the formidable precision and muscle that are his trademark. He’s possibly the best drummer ever to play with Killing Joke – but I’d argue firmly that Big Paul remains the best Killing Joke drummer. This, after all, is a band that thrives on chemistry (doubtless Jaz might argue instead for ‘alchemy’) and despite KJ2003’s enthusiatic reception, its tracks remain mostly unplayed live today.
4 Change (1980)
Another of the crucial aspects of early Killing Joke was the heavy influence of disco and funk, two genres that weren’t relevant to the first wave of punk but which took a central role in the second wave. Change was a song that you could seriously dance to, with Big Paul proving himself as adept on the hi-hats as he was on the tom-toms – but the song, it has be conceded, took more than a little of its direction from War’s My Baby Brother. But if you’re going to, er, appropriate then take it from the best.
5 The Wait (1980)
A brutal distillation of the Joke sound – Geordie’s repetitive, slashing guitar riff and Paul thumping tom-tom tribal rhythm. It had a punk-infused speed that would inspire later generations and genres – Metallica famously covered the song, but couldn’t improve on its heaviness.
Part 2 of Killing Joke’s – top great drum tracks is here