We talk to Death and Resurrection Show film-maker Shaun Pettigrew
Much more than a band, always an enigma and for many a way of life; Killing Joke have, for approaching 40 years, maintained an often menacing detachment from the musical mainstream. Genre defining rather than following, Killing Joke are a musical phenomenon.
Despite the unbreakable bond that exists between the band and the fans, the inner-workings of Killing Joke have remained suitably mysterious. Jaz Coleman once stated that no one would ever get close enough to the band to write a biography and it would be a brave person who attempted to do so from a distance.
However, long-time fan, and close friend of Jaz, Shaun Pettigrew has for the last few years been working on a film that not only chronicles the emergence and development of Killing Joke, but also places their career firmly in context of the occult influences that surround the band. It also sheds a disturbing new light on Jaz’s decision to move to Iceland in 1982. The film that emerges is quite stunning in its intensity and, in addition to being an outstanding musical biography, is also an emotional roller-coaster in a way that has to be seen to be understood. Creating a work of such significance and impact was a labour of love for Pettigrew, and a huge investment of time and energy and what emerges is a remarkable account of the making of the film.
LTW: Tell us about your early interest in Killing Joke; why they appealed and live performances you witnessed. What set the band apart from their contemporaries in your view?
Shaun Pettigrew: My first chance to see the Joke was a year after I’d heard about them from friends and word of mouth in 1980, they lived close by to a squat I used to hang out in, called the ‘Apocalypse Hotel’, just off Latimer Road in Frestonia. The Squat was a landmark in the area at the time and they’d come over to parties. I finally saw them play in early 1981, at the Kilburn National Theatre and it was a mind blowing experience in that I’d never seen a band create such a powerful sound before. What stood out from the normal gigs in those days, when you’d get fans at the stage and a general lack of interest from crowds in the back by bars, etc. This crowd were completely engaged with the band. The Ramones, 999 started their gigs in the same way but the Joke took it to a new level. For me the over-riding feeling that you get from listening to their music is one of time travel, as if its creators have called upon historical research or even past life experiences to paint vivid pictures of empires repeatedly collapsing, new cultures dawning, civilisations falling in their graves and cycles of eternal renewal… the resurrection of nature.
What is your background in film-making, what other projects have you been involved with? Can you explain your usual processes when planning a project?
To date I’ve been a Photographer/cinematography mixed Director, making TV commercials and ads, short films and music orientated programs for Clients and TV networks. My usual process on getting booked for a commission is just to sit down and discuss what they want to achieve. I’d then come up with a plan, setting out the story and then what happens next is pretty much standard for all film makers, story, budgetary limits, shoot production and post. You have a set plan, duration and you know where you’re going. Of course that didn’t happen with the Death and Resurrection Show.
Let’ talk about the initial idea of making a KJ documentary. Was it a long-held ambition, a sudden decision, along process of stalking the band? Or were the band on board from the word go? Was it even their idea?
As a film maker it was a great story to tell and primarily I liked their music but I’m not sure the rest of the Band even knew I was making this film. ILC Productions began as a film production company set up between Jaz and myself in 1989, a loose agreement to film all of his classical and rock life. Through ILC, we made all the promotional films for his classical works, such as the rearrangements of Symphonic Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ and the Doors Concerto, with virtuoso violinist Nigel Kennedy. The second part was to complete a detailed study on the hidden workings of Killing Joke. Jaz would just talk – I’d listen and what became a series of intense, early filming sessions with Jaz in his different reflective states, evolved into The Death and Resurrection Show.
What were you initial aims (and maybe fears) on starting out with the project?
You don’t start these sorts of films frivolously, without some kind of intention. The storyline is intense by any stretch of the mind. Both the subject matter, a numerical equation to explain the esoteric process of purification and rebirth that Jaz and the Band went through since their inception in 1979. By retracing Jaz’s footsteps over a 30 year period, we painstakingly put together a ribcage structure of completed shots, into an order to make sense of this four dimensional ritual experiment. A big concern was sourcing all the material while living in NZ, as I knew I’d have to find a way to travel, film and cover costs. In the end I was lucky and used other work to cover the basics.
Jaz initially didn’t want the rest of the band in the film and would often tell me that ‘great work is left unfinished…’ so my main fear was of not finishing the project and being left on the Joke’s roadside of destruction, this was a huge concern. After four years of filming the initial conversations with Jaz in far flung places, I realised I need to quantify what it was I was attempting and get the rest of the band involved… Put an end to the paranoia and hearsay, so I rang up Geordie and asked for his blessing as I was concerned the rest of the Band would not be into the idea. Raven was still alive, Youth & Big Paul was still to re-join and eventually my request to make a film was secure.
How did you originally see the film working in terms of timescale and content?
Timescale was always going to be a long haul project, I micro managed what I could and then just let events happen and try to prioritise. The reason this film has taken so long is twofold the initial idea was just immense and secondly the mechanics of the music business. In respects to content I’ve put two films onto the DVD, the main film ‘The Death and Resurrection Show’ and a 35 minute cut down story called ‘Let success be your proof’ – A truly interesting film about Sex Magick, ‘The White Heat’, esoteric numerology, alien intervention, an island called ‘Cythera’, dodecahedron shaped sanctuaries and the synchronistic. The parallels between the two films is there to see. There were many occasions… when I had to check my own sanity at the door, before returning to the story. It became an ever changing process and by the end, faced with a long 13 year project – the party had to stop and it had to finish. The way I look at it now is I’ve been extremely lucky, as a filmmaker to have caught a short glimpse of what it is that the ‘White Heat’ energy can do. I have great respect for this unequivocally real entity, it’s microcosmically beautiful and geometric in all its glorious detail.
In ‘Let success be your proof’. You get what you wish for and without being a tad frivolous I’ll try and explain the content as initially we had the additional character of the Initiate Journalist ‘Jana’. I say initiate as the film’s original draft story was based around a series of immaculate coincidences and a ritual of purification where by the initiate’s un-opened mind is placed into different locations, retracing what it was that Jaz went through. Through Jana’s initial research it is suggested when Coleman fled to Iceland in 1982 from a prophetic world apocalyptic vision, he was misunderstood.
Press cuttings and research leads her to a disturbing but secretive incident in Iceland in 1982 when two women, Vivan Ottis’ Dottir and Sarah Parkinson eventually died after some mystical occult ritual attended by Coleman and Killing Joke band mate Geordie. It becomes clear that the Iceland affair was indeed misunderstood, Iceland or rather the ‘island’ as perceived by the Band had a much deeper significance than just a geophysical reality, it was a thought-form that they charged regularly through ritual catharsis. These rituals opened portals to these worlds. In Jaz’s mind these were powerful archetypes that represented a symbolic sanctuary which from time to time actually became real.
Jaz explained that the Iceland experiment was an attempt at this, where several of the ritual participants found each other on an island outside the current dimensions of time and unfortunately they never quite recovered from the excruciating beauty that they all experienced. Jana contacts the remaining members of the ritual in Iceland to interview and it soon becomes clear that Coleman’s persona reveals him as more than an old rocker – he’s either psychotic or an occult genius… and as Jana would soon experience, the Island certainly exists in a parallel time which was and remains every bit as real as Coleman says it did.
We discover that since 1978, Jaz had kept records in the form of a ‘magickal’ diary. Consequently, after twenty-eight years, the volumes of unpublished work encompassing not just the science of religion but the orchestra, architecture, sacred geometry, geomancy (the science of shaping the land to express its natural properties), permaculture, visions of the future, and so much more. Quite literally a personalised renaissance. This was to become Jaz’s published autobiography in his book ’Letters to Cythera’.
From music to architecture, there appeared to be reoccurring patterns expressed through words, numbers and shapes. Every letter represents a number, every number represents a pattern of growth. Coleman further explains the ritual experiments that where practiced in IONA, GLASTONBURY TOR and NAZCA PERU, where he received a single word followed by a series of writings and numbers. Each word that is uttered in the three holy places are as follows: Iona – ‘icha‘, the numerical value of which is 19, which is Eve, or ‘to show forth’; Glastonbury – ‘hraachmaa‘, the value of which is 256, and means quite literally ‘the spirit of the mother’ (which Sir Laurence Gardner says quite clearly at the Tor); Nazca at the spider the word uttered is ‘tomenga‘, the numerical value of which is 178, its meaning ‘quicksilver’, or the mercurial key to the mysteries. Near the end of the film at the hot-pool on the Island, the gateway is opened again by the repetition of these three words, their combined value being 453, the masque of the madman, harlequin, or fool the key to survival when the gateway to other dimensions appears in the pool’s reflection.
Towards the end of winter Jana is still in Prague, the coming 30th world tour and the chance to talk with the band drives Jana on. However she is increasingly feeling a sense that something sinister has entered her life and realises that Coleman’s geographical movements over the last 30 years – Cairo, Iona, Glastonbury, Nazca, Peru and finally to an island of the coast of New Zealand hold the key to the Killing Joke enigma. She reaches a block in her investigations as it becomes clear she must leave Prague without a moment to loose and travels to Cairo still completely unaware that motions have been started that she has no control over and that she is already part of what she has been investigating – a master mathematical plan spanning decades, in which chance is carefully arranged – by Coleman.
The film was to use more news based archive footage with interviews, current and past Joke EPKs. Increasingly from more Egyptian sources in a CNN styled KJ news breaking stories. Musician, ‘Amir Abdel Magid’ and the noted Music Producer ‘Tarek’, who suggest Coleman is about to consider becoming a muslim convert sets the scene as Jana arrives in Cairo. Coleman instructs Jana to meet and interview a music producer called ‘Sammy’ at her hotel, (Sammy was the original Egyptian sound engineer who worked on the ‘Pandemonium’ Killing Joke recordings), She waits in the hotel bar watching footage on her laptop that shows Coleman’s penchant for mystical grandeur when on a trip to Egypt. Coleman is caught on camera as he explains to the camera that “this is probably the most dangerous time to be at the Pyramids”. Jana talks with Sammy about his experiences when the band were performing an intense spiritualistic ritual in the heart of the Giza pyramid, glimpsed in crackling old film footage, this bizarre and chilling event is still a taboo subject among band members and for Sammy who is haunted by alien eyes that chased him out of the tomb, still today it is an event he will never forget.
On the sand dunes above Giza overlooking the great Pyramid she has another “chance” encounter with another of Coleman associates, a Music Producer and Author called ‘Tony Assassin’, who swings swords and speaks of aliens, but whose ideas disturbingly make sense. Jaz explained to us that, You will meet a lithe, active figure, he holds a sword upright in both hands, while in the act of swift walking” – he will expose what is hidden by explaining the significance of ‘the City of the Pyramids’. This, the first communication containing numerology which activates the unconscious mind of the Journalist, while she cries herself to sleep in her hotel room – her second nightmare comes as she is bombarded with eyes in a 3D multi-coloured faceted cosmic game of chess, one that resonates psychedelic colours becoming more frenzied and complex.
The Film’s commentary on the Band’s music continues to unfold with various interviews with Jimmy Page, Mike Coles, Guðlaugur Kristinn Óttarsson, Neil Perry, Mat Smith, Dave Grohl as they discuss the Band’s sense of timing, when they play and when it’s ‘right’ to play. With footage of current world events in the Middle East, rioting, human suffering survival and the The 30th Anniversary album promises to be no different. Under this a sense of urgency as Jana arrives in Scotland and the isle of Mull where she meets with a Pub landlord, Franciscan Monk and whose candid prophecies about the end of mankind explains the mysteries of Iona. Coleman’s classical music sets the scene for her epic journey. Arriving by boat to the Isle of Mull, a little confused and looking for directions to the Abbey at Iona she sets out across hills and glens arriving in the Abbey grounds. Entering the Abbey in the middle of a service, she walks to a smaller chapel to the side and finds another ‘letter’ from Coleman. The letter instructs her to walk to the top of ‘Duni’ the highest mound on the island. When she reaches the Stone cairn and collapse on her knees, we see the band playing in slow motion with time-lapse footage of the isle… the word ‘Icha’ is repeated as the band footage reaches its climax.
Onwards to Peru where Jana visits the Nazca lines, again repeating Coleman’s original journey to the ‘Island’ over 25 years ago. She discovers the ‘Spider’ campsite after traveling via Hot air balloon and again at night, in her hotel bed has another nightmare. An explanation of this piece of Coleman’s original journey is left for her in the Camp site in the form of a letter. These contain instructions on how to travel to the ‘Island’. This journey to the ‘island is epic, we see her climb waterfalls, traverses across prehistoric swamps, swims across Lakes and enter caves slowly closing in to the point of origin (Jaz Coleman slowly sinking into the bubbling waters at the Hotpool. True or false it becomes clearer with Coleman’s final explanation of the film, Jana’s journey’s end where she is purified and gives birth to a Star child. So there it was… the original idea and something we attempted…Er yeah???? Denis Wheatley eat your heart out!, something kept us going… the Da Vinci Code on acid meets Spinal Tap (which I think is a great film by the way…) But can you imagine what a head fuck this was going to be to explain… film and edit? In the end I had to kill off the ‘jana’ character and become the journalist myself. Much easier – hahaha!
Was there a stage early in the process where you sensed things may not work as planned?
The film has a lot of early footage, it’s great to know there is stuff like this in existence. Is there much of an archive of film and other material connected to the band?
Yes there’s a lot and after 30 years you’d expect to find a lot. But apart from what I’d already shot on Killing Joke’s ‘Pandemonium’ and ‘Democracy’ tours, rehearsals, and recordings etc… that was it! We had to find the right archive footage to support the storyline & really what began as a process of directed consciousness, became lucky plus some very helpful Gatherers. Brent ‘Hobe’ Abelson (Jaz’s and my mutual friend) and who was my other cameraman. We spent many years and travels, filming all the band performances and Jaz content. Hobe went on tours when I couldn’t, and gradually we built up more archive interviews and footage.
There’s a quote from Jimmy Page where he says that through the music, Jaz is either playing with magic, or the magic is playing with him. The supernatural element is very strong throughout, with Big Paul referencing the importance it played in getting the band together. Basically, how important is this to the band?
I didn’t want to ostracise potential viewers by being glib about the band’s spiritual side so I didn’t go there. Paul talks about his influences but really I only had to let Jaz’s story take that line in the movie. Suggestion is a much more powerful thought process.
There are a number of testimonies of strange incidents around Jaz and the band, UFO’s lightning strikes, the Reading gig experience. You interviewed the witnesses – how credible do you find these accounts?
The interviewees all shared their thoughts on what they had seen or experienced. I just put their case forward and a viewer would perhaps ask more searching questions. Did I believe them? Yes.
These issues are very powerful, did you find yourself getting immersed in them or could you maintain an independent stance as a film-maker?
I’ve experienced my own issues like this so I can sort of understand but I remained independent as a film-maker and just let the cameras roll.
Big Paul calls Jaz a “reluctant frontman”; I get what he’s saying in context of the band’s history, but how do you view Jaz as a performer?
Jaz is a consummate artist that gives his all on stage. I know from the years that I’ve seen Killing Joke perform, he has to call on his guardian and puts on the mask of the Jester to perform. This is what makes this band a stella group, their live gigs are rituals, the musicians and fans in the audience are players in these rituals.
We all know about the guitar genius of Geordie, but I feel you still do a brilliant job of showing why he is so good. Can you give us your insight of his skills?
Thank you. It wasn’t easy getting Geordie to open up. Timing and just sticking a camera in his face worked and sometimes it didn’t. Geordie’s abilities are immense and really there’s no point in talking about his music and we should just shut the fuck up and listen to it. There’s a quote I really enjoyed after knowing Geordie for all these years… “How can I fly like an Eagle, when I’m surrounded by Turkeys”… fucking brilliant!
How well do you think the film captures the changing dynamics as a result of Raven’s sad passing and reforming of the original line-up?
After the initial shock of Paul’s death there was a sense of outpouring from fans that expressed what the rest of the band were thinking… that the music carries on. Paul’s death and the Band’s resurrection were never in the film’s script. I’d be a fucking arse being glib about this or run a story line that was not true. Paul died and the band reformed all I ever had to do was be respectful.
Jaz has said no one would ever get close enough to the band to write a book, how close did you get and at what cost to you?
Well to be truthful I kind of got in via the back door. Band as a whole are very protective of each other, and their work, however I think most of the time they we’re just ‘oh he’s Jaz’s mate …sort him out’, and we were generally accepted. Probably more importantly they didn’t think anything would come of it. Fuck I know I did …on lots of occasions.
How far did your view of the band, and/or members of it change for better or worse during the making of the film?
I have known them all now for over 20 years or so, all of them welcomed me, Jaz and I are close on lots of levels & it’s been an extremely productive and creative relationship. Big Paul is a total gentleman and we’ve really only just meet since his interview. I’ve got no idea what Geordie thinks of the film. Youth makes me laugh. When Raven was still alive, we had mutual friends. My intention was never a tall tale story about the bull-shit, the behind scene partying, etc. I wanted to make a film that was about a remarkable Band, that’s inspired so many others.
Now the film is complete, is there feeling of satisfaction/pride etc, or has the process left you with other feelings?
It’s been a herculean effort to finish a project like this and I’m proud I’ve done my job and still standing, if a little wobbly after all these years. If there’s a band to make a music documentary and be proud about it, then these guys are it. I was in London during the BFI screening and I met up with some other film Directors… they just looked aghast when I told them what I’d achieved. Probably didn’t believe it… but the film’s not an urban myth…anymore! And crucially there’s not another band like them or film like this…and it’s unlikely there ever will be.
Where do you think KJ fit in the story of popular music and how well do you feel that is reflected in the film?
The band are a collective of immensely talented individuals that are constantly adapting their music. The guiding power that they produce is in itself produced by the respect they have for a higher energy source that guides us all. I made this film for both my own humour & also to pay homage to the band and their fiercely loyal fan base. If you’re not a KJ fan then don’t worry… this film ticks all the boxes. It’s got the entertainment factor, a huge soundtrack, a mad bio-pic of a fascinating, quirky, perhaps manic personality that becomes more believable by the minute. Then there’s the huge potential when you’ve got other musicians quoting this band as the ‘blue-print’ for all bands. Without doubt Killing Joke have influenced a lot of people so I hope anyone who is interested in rock music, the merciless tenacity of the industry, and this band’s uniqueness is going to get this film. But fundamentally its all true which makes it an interesting feature film to produce & contemplate, but I hope it carries the impression that the film’s unique documentary approach, hits without overloading people who don’t care with artistic concepts, Occult or Ritual Magick.
What do you think the future holds, for KJ and for your future projects?
We have exceeded all of our planetary boundaries and we have psychopaths at the helm of our sinking ship, armed to the teeth. They will fight to the bitter end. Nowhere on the planet do I see a political party planning for the collapse of society and our biosphere. Perhaps… a new party called ‘the extinction Party’ I have an activist friend whose considering this… But when it happens we’ll go into collapse leader-less, with thousands of nuclear weapons on a hair trigger. If we face a future where the growth economy grows itself to death, which seems to be the most likely scenario, then building up local resilience and self-sufficiency now will prove to be time and energy well spent.
“Earth sinks in the sea, the sun burns black,
Cast down from heaven are the hot stars,
Fumes reek, into flames burst,
The sky itself is scorched with fire.
I see Earth rising a second time,
Out of the foam, fair and green;
Down from the fells, fish to capture,
Wings the eagle; waters flow.”
(Völuspá-The Song of the Sybil)
Future film plans… hmmm, there’s a few plans… I’d definitely do another music film but it would have to be a fucking amazing story and a band I respected… AND crucially their management who were totally supportive and knew what they were doing… I had to laugh when Youth said to me at a particularly low point in production, ‘that the business is full of thieves and scoundrels’, the Show certainly had it’s fair share and for my own sanity, after a period of cleansing and re appraising of my priorities… I’m setting up an organic farm 900 meters above sea-level just off the Great Divide Range in Queensland. It’s important to plan for what’s going to come and food production is going to be important.
In terms of the Band, I would imagine that the Joke will continue until they drop.
Thanks to Shaun for use of photographs from his collection.
In order they are – The Apocalypse Hotel; Jaz Coleman; Jaz preparing for ritual; Shaun holding the original picture of the ‘spider’ camp with Jaz in the distance revisiting the actual site; the original advert for bassist and guitarist and Jaz driving up to the Pyramids.
Enjoy Shaun’s favourite Killing Joke track