It began in a dole office in West London. Jaz Coleman was a gifted violinist who belatedly discovered the “liberating power of rock” and hitched from Cheltenham to find a band. In the queue to sign on, he got chatting to a friend of Paul Ferguson, a drummer who had recently moved to Holland Park from Wycombe. Ferguson had played drums in his school’s Combined Cadet Force band until he was kicked out for protesting the Vietnam War. He was now playing in a roots rock combo, but was itching for something different. Coleman and Ferguson were introduced, and immediately found common ground. “Jaz says we took an instant dislike to each other, but there was a magnetism,” says the quiet, intense Ferguson. “We weren’t on the same wavelength musically, our interests were more philosophical, mystical and political. We had a vision of a band that would be important. It had to reflect our beliefs. We decided the band should be anonymous, and we didn’t want a frontman – Jaz and I would take turns singing. It was a way of making it bigger than ourselves, a mask to hide behind, to manipulate. When we advertised, we said we wanted ‘to tell the Killing Joke’.”
The name came from a friend, an acid head who worked for the government. “It was his task to project what would happen when certain decisions were made, to rationalise the consequences,” says Ferguson. “This freaked him out and he called it ‘the killing joke’. It had an instant appeal, a deep cynicism, and a licence to never land on any one dial too heavily.” An advert in Melody Maker promised “total publicity, total anonymity, total exploitation”. But that wasn’t enough. Ferguson and Coleman were devoted to Aleister Crowley and would walk miles across London to visit esoteric bookshops near the British Museum. “We wanted to find two people who had a revolutionary musical style and were open to magical principles,” says Coleman. “It was a tall order, so we took an irrational approach. We held a ritual.”
The pair conducted a ceremony, using candles and a magic circle. Days later, Kevin ‘Geordie’ Walker answered the MM ad. “I met Jaz and we clicked,” says Geordie, still with the trace of a north-eastern accent. “I hated everything he listened to, he hated what I listened to, but we both liked fishing so we talked about that for three hours.” Ferguson was impressed. “He had a ginger shaggy afro, teddy boy jeans and brothel creepers,” he says. “I didn’t care what he sounded like, he looked amazing. But then he plugged in and started chugging Alex Harvey riffs. I worshipped Harvey and that was it.”
Geordie had moved to Milton Keynes in his teens, where he acquired a Gibson Les Paul and was taught classic guitar by the son of Lord Cadman, on his mother’s insistence. His style was unorthodox, heavily distorted. Shortly after Geordie moved into the band’s flat in Battersea, catastrophe struck. “Jaz burnt the place down,” says Geordie. “Candles on a plastic table. The whole place went up. Jaz was running around naked with a face covered in soot. Afterwards, one of the fireman said, ‘What’s this?’ Where the carpet had been, there was a magic circle. That’s when I twigged.” Ferguson admits, “We may have got our cardinal points mixed up. We were invoking fire and we got it.”
The trio decamped to Cheltenham, still short of a bassist. Martin ‘Youth’ Glover had applied, but Ferguson and Coleman weren’t impressed, despite his strong credentials. Youth had already been in two bands: The Rage had toured with The Adverts, while 4” Be 2” had recorded a choppy single, “One Of The Lads”, with John Lydon’s little brother, Jimmy. “They thought he sounded thick,” says Geordie. “He’d put on a punk accent to try and fit in. I went to see him at this gay brothel in Earls Court, where he was sharing a room with Alex Paterson.” Geordie invited Youth to an audition in Cheltenham, which started badly. “Youth was all over the place,” says Coleman. “Me and Paul gave up and went to the pub, where we met some friends who wanted to see the band. Everybody piled back and there was Youth and Geordie just playing one note, I went behind the keyboard, Paul started drumming and we went into the most savage jam. The universe opened.”
The four shared little ground musically. “We all liked Alex Harvey, the Ramones, bits of punk, Geordie was a grebo rocker and Paul more rockabilly and metal,” says Youth. “Jaz liked progressive rock. His favourite band was Seventh Wave. When he was young, he only listened to classical music. Then his girlfriend got him stoned and played him Can. He traded in his violin for a synthesiser and started wearing black. He’s an extreme cat.”
As the band began squatting around West London, they listened to the predominant music of the area. “The only music we’d listen to without arguing was dub,” says Geordie. They also shared an affection for disco. “Disco brought us together,” says Youth. “Especially Chic’s writing, rhythm and production values.” The band “wanted to ‘create a musical renaissance via a strict musical form’,” says Coleman. “That’s what I wrote in my diary in 1979. No guitar solos, no blues except in parody, no Americanisms. We talked endlessly about things like, what is an English rhythm? We didn’t have a folk tradition to draw from. Killing Joke was rediscovering the tradition.”
All this went into the mix, and out came KJ’s danceable dissonant dub-heavy punk; repetitive, threatening but with a groove. Their vibe came together on a tour of Germany with punk-reggae band Basement 5. “We had an extended period in the back of a VW van – sitting on our gear, driving around Germany, getting stoned, listening to Joy Division,” says Ferguson. “We looked at the landscape and we’d grown up with the memory of WWII and that gave us a framework.”
Musically, the band’s unorthodoxy partly came to the unusual rhythm section. “Youth and I are on very different wavelengths,” says Ferguson. “I play to Geordie. And Youth has this incredible amorphic feel that just fits right in. Nobody quite knows what he does, but Youth has something else, it’s very clever.” Youth’s friend Alex Paterson signed up as roadie. He still has a Killing Joke tattoo. “It’s on my back, where I don’t have to see it,” he laughs.
Ferguson and Coleman collaborated on lyrics, writing about politics, fear and liberation. “Fluoride in the water and Maggie Thatcher,” says Ferguson. The band spent several months rehearsing, honing their sound, before releasing a debut EP, “Turn To Red”, in 1979. “It was on 10-inch, because we had to be different,” says Ferguson. “We stayed up all night with soldering irons, a hot knife and a ruler, shortening 12-inch bags to fit.” After a debut gig supporting The Ruts and The Selecter in Cheltenham in 1979, they rapidly built a following, thanks to three strokes of luck: supporting Joy Division on tour, getting their EP on John Peel and being namechecked by John Lydon.
While Lydon’s support came through Youth’s friendship with his younger brother, Peel’s approval was hard won. “Our managers, Adam Morris and Brian Taylor, parked outside the BBC every day for days waiting for him, then thrust it under his nose,” says Ferguson. “It got us going to a very large extent. The radio goes beyond a handful of people in a pub.”
Their shows featured a turn by The Wizard, one of the characters who shared their squat. “He had tattoos all over his face and said he was a fire-eater,” says Geordie. “He demonstrated and it was very impressive, flames licking the walls, so we took him on tour.” Paterson would also chip in. “For the first six months they didn’t have enough material, so as an encore I did ‘Bodies’ or ‘No Fun’,” he recalls.
There were also hiccups, the tone being set at their first gig in Cheltenham when the dressing room was raided by police. In May 1980, the band’s squat in Maida Vale – dubbed Malicious Mansions – was raided by armed police after Coleman was spotted in the garden brandishing an air pistol. “He’d run out of money for cat food,” says Geordie. “He was trying to shoot a bird. It was the week of the Iranian Embassy siege and a neighbour called the police. There were helicopters and Black Marias everywhere. They said if they’d seen him with the gun, they’d have shot him.”
The band still pursued magical interests, whether it was drumming by night at standing stones or performing rituals in their squat’s makeshift temple. Geordie was swiftly introduced to the mystical gradation and found it compelling. “Everything you see is man-made and if you can control that on the ethereal plane, that space, you can make things happen,” he says. “But only in relation to the calendar. You have to know the right day, the moon. On Wednesday, a waxing moon means communication, but a waning moon is deception. They were quite adept and I was interested.” While Paterson says some of the esoteric literature recommended by Ferguson “expanded my horizons, it wasn’t something I was really into. It turned me into a vegetarian more than anything else: pigs’ heads on the stairs and buckets of blood around the place during certain phases of the moon.”
A self-titled album came out in 1980, featuring electrifying singles “Wardance” and “Requiem”, as well as the thunderous “The Wait”, later covered by Metallica. The music was intense, the themes apocalyptic, and Killing Joke gained a reputation for being rather terrifying. Coleman admits, “We were intimidating. When you are in Killing Joke you think everybody is like that. Outside it, people are often terrified by our deregulated humour.” Things were particularly ugly where the press was concerned. “We had spies at every music paper,” says Coleman. “If we knew they were sending a hostile journalist we were ready and gave them hell. On several occasions, we’d find the journalist’s girlfriend, seduce her and then drop that bombshell during the interview. At other times, we’d send them downstairs where Big Paul beheaded wax figures. Half an hour there would liven them up. We were horrible people.”
When Coleman was unflatteringly photographed sitting by a swimming pool in LA by Melody Maker, he took memorable revenge. “I picked up some maggots at a fishing shop and liver at a butcher then went to their offices,” he laughs. “They locked all the doors. I threw the maggots everywhere, everybody was terrified. It was hysterical, I was bored. It was pantomime and it showed how stupid the press was, as I got 15 years of people talking crap about that moment.”