Interview: Killing Joke’s seminal debut revisited
Few albums have influenced generations of musicians as much as Killing Joke’s eponymous debut. Released in 1980, it emerged in the midst of the post-punk era with a sound that would help shape the next three decades of heavy music. Nirvana, Metallica, Godflesh, Faith No More – you’d be hard pressed to find a band, mainstream or underground, that doesn’t owe something to the group’s classic first long-player. Bassist, producer, and all-around legend Youth looks back on the album’s legacy.
What do you remember of the writing process of Killing Joke?
“We actually spent ten months rehearsing and writing in Cheltenham, living at Jaz’s mother’s house, getting the material ready before we did any gigs or anything. The way we used to write was to jam on other riffs until something came out of that, or just jam. Or someone would bring a riff to the table. The first elements were really Geordie’s guitar riffs. ‘Bloodsport’, for example, was definitely Geordie’s guitar riffs and bass line, and then we kind of jammed into the choruses. ‘Wardance’ was Geordie’s guitar riffs. My contribution on those tracks, and ‘Complications’ and things like that, were the choruses – the two-chord choruses which are simple and repetitive. ‘Requiem’, that came out of a jam, and that’s just one riff repeated endlessly. We were also referencing a lot of stuff, a lot of soul music from the ‘60s, weirdly enough, and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and early Adam And The Ants, and bringing all these sorts of colours and aesthetics into a kind of post-punk terrain. So even though some of the sources were quite old, we were very conscious about making them sound fresh.”
How much of the album developed during the actual recording?
“We had all the songs written, we didn’t jam anything in the studio. It was simply a matter of going in and recording them as we’ve rehearsed them. We found a good engineer, Phil Harding, and boldly went in to produce ourselves. We only had about two or three weeks to lay it down. But it was fairly straightforward, we ended up actually not doing that many live performances. We’d start off with drums and bass, and then overdub the guitars and other things. I kind of thought we’d have more performances in there but we didn’t really do that so much.”
How much of a learning curve was it for the band?
“It was a massive learning curve. It was our first album, but we were in good hands with Phil Harding and he managed to make our chaos sound quite focused. And also I think our writing was fairly simplistic then, the songs all had choruses, it’s all quite simple. The arrangements were quite straightforward. On the second album we started playing around with that but I do like that aspect of the first album, it’s quite pop in a weird way. We didn’t experiment that much, it was really just kind of functional – lay down the parts, and then mix it. We were disappointed, actually, with ‘Wardance’. We recorded that as a single before we had this distorted vocal and we weren’t happy with the way that sounded so we re-recorded it for the album and I was even less happy with that version. Yet, now people say that’s a big, influential track for singers and stuff, so… I don’t know.”
“The arrangements were quite straightforward – I like that aspect of the first album, it’s quite pop in a weird way”
What do you remember of the post-punk at the time? How did Killing Joke fit into the whole scene?
“It was early post-punk, ’78-’79, so we were just beginning to listen to things like Joy Division. It wasn’t like 1981-‘82 where you were getting the more punk-funk stuff that started happening with Gang Of Four and things like that, it was still fairly punk. But I think what we were doing was adding in dance elements with the grooves and tribal elements with the drums, and that was different. But there were also proto-metal influences in there – industrial metal – atmospheres and guitars. Really, we wanted it to sound like AC/DC meets Alex Harvey meets Adam And The Ants. We were into AC/DC – really into the hypnotic, simple riffs.”
How much importance did lyrics have versus the music?
“Half and half. The lyrics have become more important as time has gone on, they were a bit prophetic, but they were there as sounds as well. The lyrics definitely came last. We’d get the tracks together and then fit lyrics around them. Paul and Jaz wrote a lot of the lyrics. My angle on the lyrics was what they sounded like.”
“We wanted it to sound like AC/DC meets Alex Harvey meets Adam And The Ants”
How did that iconic sleeve come about?
“That was our designer, Mike Coles, and he managed to collage, Xerox, some photography in the 70s. He treated them as kind of heavy, Xeroxy-type prints, and then he added his photomontage and graffiti and stuff like that. It was entirely his direction and vision and we loved it. We didn’t really have that much input in it. He worked closely with us as a band from the beginning, he definitely shared the philosophy and the aesthetic we were putting out, so it was a big part of it.”
The album actually charted in the UK upon its release. Was chart success ever an issue for you?
“It wasn’t really on our agenda, because we were doing well live and we were making enough – we had our own label, we had our own management. We were a very self-contained unit. We tried to work as self-sufficiently within the system as we could, but we signed to a major label and stuff so we could get exposure and reach a bigger audience, sure. We were certainly ambitious.”
The full interview with Youth originally ran in Rock-A-Rolla issue 32, Jun/Jul 2011 – limited copies are available to order from: www.rock-a-rolla.com/backissues.htm