It was almost 40 years ago that the founding members of Killing Joke staged a fire ritual that burnt down their London flat; an aptly chaotic birth for a band that would spend the next four decades tearing through conventions both musical and spiritual. It also provided one of the big laughs of Geordie's life in watching Jaz Coleman run down the street naked.
"We've used Killing Joke as one enormous experiment in manifesting each one of our personal dreams."
Eleven years in the making, already delayed by a year or so, The Death and Resurrection Show finally gets to see the light of day this summer, although it has been shown at the odd film festival, including Brighton's Cine City. But that was back in late 2014. I'm not sure why it's been delayed, beyond issues of finance, legal problems and notions of perfectionism but it'll be worth the long wait. Not only for Killing Joke fans in particular, but the wider public, who may in turn be repulsed and fascinated by this extraordinary story and the characters who inhabit it. It's an epic, clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours, a fairly thorough documentary of one of the greatest, most uncompromising bands of the post-punk era. A band unbelievably still going strong, who still feature the original four members, one who have only ever recorded one cover song in their whole history (Sex Pistols' 'Bodies'), and who musically have remained true to the paranoid/visionary outlook of Jaz Coleman, the main protagonist.
The Death and Resurrection Show (TDARS) goes some way to explaining their durability but, thankfully, it doesn't get too dewey-eyed. Like the fact Killing Joke have never written a love song, TDARS avoids asking too many questions about friendship, comradeship and love. But, it's obvious there is an uncommon bond between Jaz Coleman, 'Big' Paul Ferguson, Martin 'Youth' Glover and Kevin 'Geordie' Walker, one that has survived many disruptions as well as the heightened intensity as only being in a band can do. Their 2015 album Pylon was their third highest ever chart placing (16), and the first Top 20 since Pandemonium in 1994, such is their unlikely durability.
But despite their legendary status, they've always been a cult band, albeit one who had a brush with fame in the mid-80s with the hit single ‘Love Like Blood’. However, their sometimes ‘us and them’ outlook, antagonist posturing and their tribalistic bearing has had the effect of turning some people off, as has their uncompromising music (unlike, say, the similarly independently-minded, durable and politically savvy The Levellers, who were and still are a much more fan-friendly unit, musically and personality-wise), a music that fused the raw energy of punk with a metal sheen, and a funk-dance rhythm set off by the explosive drumming of Ferguson and the grungey-meets-metallic guitar work of Walker. Beautifully dark rhythmically for those who got it, demonically noisy for those who didn't. Moreover, on stage the tone was always set by Jaz, his dark features creasing with fury, that thousand yard stare looking for all the world like a man possessed. Frankly, it’s understandably not everyone's cup of tea.
But for those who got it, indeed rejoiced in it, Killing Joke became more than just a band, but a metaphor for the world, and all its growing problems, its alienating propensities, and its tendency to self-destruct.
Combining archive footage of Killing Joke with new and unseen footage of recent live tours, various trips to places like Iceland, Nazca and Iona, recording sessions including in the Great Pyramid itself and interview subjects that feature all current band members. Plus the likes of Jimmy Page, Peter Hook (who provides his inimitable comic relief – “I’m from Salford. Why would the devil scare me?”), Mike Coles (Killing Joke's long-time graphic artist and founder of E.G Records), Killing Joke management, Dave Grohl, The Orb's Alex Paterson, various journalists, long-time fans and witnesses to certain episodes, Killing Joke, UFOs, mysticism, religion and the end of the world are all discussed. Filmmaker and lifelong ‘gatherer’ (the band’s fans are known as ‘gatherers’) Shaun Pettigrew directed the film and according to him it's been a mammoth passion project, a more-than-a-decade-long process, involving 140 pieces of music, a lot of research and the tracking down and negotiations with rights of the owners.
"Just about everyone involved in Killing Joke has been sent mad, has been burnt by this fire," says Jaz towards the end of this exhaustive film. And Pettigrew has expertly captured this fire, the band's intensity, using cut-ups, close-ups, hallucinatory graphics and plenty of post-production editing and manipulation in creating a fascinating, if sometimes raw and claustrophobic, insight into a band who were not just musicians but also into mysticism, the occult, as well as being highly politicised, and a little crazy at times.
Indeed, the scene is set right from the beginning with a montage of news events, a mix of natural tragedy, corporate greed, political shenanigans and war, with the final ‘speaker’ asking: “Is it obvious why the world is so stressed and why humanity suffers as it does? Do we care, do we have a moral compass any more?” And from there, it’s Jaz, outlining the beginnings of the band, at least in his head. “I visualised Killing Joke before Killing Joke actually happened. There was a stage, an anonymous band emitting sounds of a primeval worth. But, there was no applause, only a dispersal. Musicians were like insects.” From there, the film operates on two levels; one describing the band itself, its histories and the seismic music they created, and still create; and on the other level, the beliefs of Coleman himself (plus contributions from other believers, primarily Ferguson and Walker, but not Glover, who comes across as having a more phlegmatic, laid-back disposition). Over the course of TDARS, the two aspects are inter-mingled, in the process creating what is both a largely sympathetic portrait of a band, but also of a band and their extra-circular beliefs, particularly that of Coleman.
So, we get plenty of stuff about ceremonial magic, the mystery traditions, the secret history of the world, the Kabbalah system, the occult, golden dawn and the end of the world. Of particular interest to Killing Joke fans is the infamous story of Coleman suddenly heading off to the supposedly safehouse environment of Iceland in 1982, on his birthday, without telling anyone but his mum, and where he was expecting the imminent end of the world, whilst indulging in his interest in mythologies and the mysteries of the world. "Apart from Geordie, no-one was really aware of my intentions. I honestly couldn't imagine sitting down with the band and management to explain why I wanted to study a range of subjects from Nordic mythologies, study of radiations emanating from holy sites, let alone the location of my holy guardian angel. So, I made plans in secret," as he says in the film. The apocalypse never materialised of course, but here, and with the help of some of the Icelanders (including the rather comically scary Guolauger Kristinn Ottarsson, guitarist with Icelandic new wavers Peyr, who themselves were interested in ancient wisdom, and even experimented with on-stage devices that aimed to subliminally persuade an audience), the at-times harrowing story is explained in detail for the first time. You really couldn’t make some of this stuff up. A truly larger-than-life character, there is a large dose of the Spinal Tap about Coleman: faintly ridiculous, one who is never afraid of espousing his philosophy and opening himself up to ridicule but who is equally inspiring, too. One who was prepared to go to the edge in pursuit of his truth and one who fired on all engines to actually do something, rather than idly pontificating. A true renaissance man. Yes, he has a huge ego. Yes, you get the distinct impression of a paranoid man, full of worry. And, yes, there’s a duality about him that can veer from the unpleasant/annoying to the funny and humanistic. All this plus his ‘100 quotes a minute’ tendencies, is it any wonder he and the band endured a love-hate relationship with the press?
“We will define the atomic sound before I am dead. People need this level of intensity, and we provide that.”
“People need something to resemble the struggle they have in trying to make a living today.”
“The only way to retain your integrity and dignity is to create a viable vacuum in which you can float untarnished by impure air.”
“Our music is not a pleasure principle, we see it as a therapy, a social necessity.”
“There’s a 50% chance of getting to the end of the century.”
“The male sperm count means we are becoming an extinct species. The elite are preparing.”
“Killing Joke is my insanity, my madness.”
All these are deadly serious quotes, and there are even more.
Yes, Killing Joke are a band first and foremost, but Jaz Coleman is undoubtedly the main attraction, the star turn. As the film amply demonstrates, he's passionate, articulate, forthright and seemingly honest, if bloody-minded, and perhaps just a little gullible when it comes to conspiracies and the like. Killing Joke has provided that vehicle with which to express himself, not only as a musician and artist, but as a preacher and educator. He has even gone so far as to say that Killing Joke is a supreme surrogate for war, the war impulse.
It's not all Coleman, though. Also of much interest to those who may not necessarily be Killing Joke fans are the scenes of Dave Grohl, seen here playing drums on Killing Joke’s 2003 album, but also explaining to Coleman how his band, Nirvana, would play a CD of Killing Joke songs before they went on the stage, so that they were sweating before they even got there. This elicits a sly old grin from Coleman, a recognition of the fact that Nirvana had consciously ripped off the 'Eighties' riff for their 'Come As You Are' song. Although no legal action was apparently ever taken, particularly in light of the death of Kurt Cobain, there was a simmering grumble about the situation. But with Grohl obviously being a long-time fan of the band, Coleman decided to call in a favour, as reported in the film. “Oi you cunt, you owe us! I want you to play drums”. And so he did.
Jimmy Page also appears a few times, due to the fact that Coleman arranged a number of Zep’s songs for the Kashmir: Symphonic Led Zepellin album. He also is very obviously a fan, describing the menace and danger they imparted live, something he fully appreciates with a devilish smile.
Another star turn is Coleman’s mum, Gloria. A funny, salt-of-the-earth northern lass who pops up here and there, giving some personal insights into the character of her son, a person with a big ego, but one who had to endure childhood racism due to the colour of his skin, and one who largely kept quiet during his upbringing as a very talented chorister, pianist and violinist. “He's a very gentle and reflective person inside,” she says. “(But) he worries. A lot. It's almost verging on paranoia in some ways. He has a deep fear of something and he manifests it in different ways. Right from the start he had this problem, he would be listening to different things, and he'd be scared outside that. He had fears and I wasn’t sure why.” She knew she had a very talented son, one who was going to make something of his life. “They said he was quite spiritual. He was so committed. He would get amazing reports from the Royal College of Church music who said he could sing and play like a dream. We knew he had talent.” His commitment and desire to learn is evident throughout TDARS; from his his early voice and classical training, to spending many years learning how to compose (to such a level that he became composer-in-residence for the Prague Symphony Orchestra and has just recently been given a mandate to create the United Nations chamber orchestra!), learning how to write Arabic music and immersing himself in the cultures and histories of other places such as the Middle East, Eastern Europe and New Zealand.
TDARS also extensively explores the band’s inner dynamics, founded on deep friendships and born of ritual between all, before it periodically gave way to acrimony, with Youth leaving in 1982, Walker walking out at one point and Ferguson departing during the making of the ill-fated Outside The Gates album of 1988. The much-missed Paul Raven came in on bass following the departure of Glover, only to leave and return on two further occasions. The band took an extended hiatus following 1996’s Democracy album, before returning with Raven on bass for the self-titled 2003 album. Raven, whose lifestyle and consumption habits are legendary, succumbed to a heart attack, aged just 46, whilst still the bassist with the band, having completed the apparently very intense and drink and drug-fuelled sessions for 2006’s Hosanna’s From the Basement of Hell album. As is often the way, death and tragedy had a way of bringing people together, as outlined by footage (of Raven’s wake) and interviews, with both Ferguson and Glover returning to the fold, the band in its original incarnation ever since. As the life-long fan and astrologer Angela Ward says in the film, “Geordie is earthy and fiery; Jaz is water and airy, the perfect alchemical marriage.” Certainly it’s not all easy, as Youth says about Coleman, “He’s a hot fish to handle, artistically, he's so passionate and uncompromising. He can be absolutely lovely, and a complete shit.”
Of course, without the music, it would all mean very little. And they knew something was working when they first played together in Jaz’s home town of Cheltenham at the time, deciding to rehearse up before they properly ventured into the world of gigging. As Youth says in the film, this was a shrewd move, because when they did make live appearances, it made a huge impact, so much so that in a matter of months they were releasing material, playing on John Peel sessions and signing big deals. From their first ever songs ‘Are You Receiving?’ (about the then recently-appointed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) and the nuclear-focussed ‘Turn to Red’, to the visceral, highly charged ‘I Am The Virus’ from their last album, Killing Joke have remained their uncompromising selves. As the film explains, there have been moments when the band have been maligned for their “arrogance and incomprehensible anger” and their music has been criticised – “it's the sound of an annihilating efficiency with a sheen of gratuitous noise-making”. Ever since their one and only dud period in the late eighties, they have released a stream of highly-acclaimed albums, full of fire, passion and intensity that is rare, the control of human beings at its philosophical core. “Mankind will have to change its ways or become extinct. Simple as that,” says Coleman, who has for the last 20 years or so made his main home in New Zealand, were he lives a kind of green collectivist idyll, whilst indulging in a new passion of his, preaching after finding God in the early 00s.
"Oh my God, there are parts of it I cannot watch. I suppose that's the good thing about a documentary; there are parts of it I find very difficult to watch, but I think it's sincere," Coleman had previously said in an interview with Brightonsfinest. "I gave Shaun Pettigrew free rein to include the sentient opinions of the I Hate Jaz Coleman Fanclub, and say what they want." For his part, Pettigrew says, "I didn’t have to make anything up, I don’t count that as sensationalism, as Jaz and the band’s rituals and chronological events were real."
So, what is the legacy of Killing Joke? What does this film ultimately tell us? "It'll be about self-education," says Jaz. "In the beginning Killing Joke represented having no control over your destiny, but over the years Killing Joke became the laughter of knowing that one has total control over one's destiny. I left school with nothing. Anything is possible! Youth and my colleagues have done even more, incredible things that blow me away. My philosophy is: dive in the deep end and start fucking swimming," he laughs another of those big cackling laughs.
The DVD also includes a booklet, an alternate ending, a 35-minute deleted sub-plot, an uncut 'Big Paul' Ferguson interview, trailers, photos and artwork.