Another week, another belligerent, outspoken Northerner. Sunday night it was rubbing shoulders with Mark E. Smith backstage at the Ace venue in Brixton. Today it’s Arthur Scargill holding court in the canteen at work in Sheffield. While I’m excited that The Box has released our debut album to largely positive critical acclaim, and we are playing a lot more live gigs than we ever managed as part of DVA, I’m still not ready to sacrifice the security of the monthly pay packet from the National Coal Board. Ava and I are planning to jump the broom next year, and there is a seemingly bottomless hope chest of first-home stuff to try and fill.
The National Union of Mineworkers’ president has dropped in after visiting their new offices on Vicar Lane, just a pit pony’s progress away from where I work in the NCB building on Queen Street. Scargill the antagonist is having a day off, King Arthur The Affable - features by Gerald Scarfe, hair by the Charlton brothers - is drinking tea and telling stories. Apparently he’s just back from some international energy conference and was on a discussion panel regarding the relative merits of coal and nuclear energy.
“I told ‘em when I was down the pit and a bit dehydrated, I’d pop a little bit of wet coal under my tongue to make a bit of spit. I said to the bloke from nuclear, “Let’s see you try that with your isotope!”
We all smile for the president. Clerical drones like us are in the Colliery Officials and Staffs Area branch of the NUM, or COSA for short. A docile Russ Conway riding side-saddle miles away from the red-hot Jerry Lee Lewis piano-wreckers at the coal faces of Yorkshire and South Wales. The nearest any of us has been to the pithead is seeing The Grimethorpe Colliery Band on the telly. Yet, remarkably, we white collar staff enjoy a small but nonetheless very welcome proportion of the bonuses the miners generate from their hard graft at the seam. They risk black lung disease, silicosis and pulmonary disease, we risk paper cuts. Still, that bottom drawer ain’t gonna fill itself.
Beneath the Brooke Bond bonhomie, you can sense the militancy crackling. No fan of the Tories, he’s disgusted that Thatcher has just been re-elected with a massive majority. Greater disdain is dealt out to Ian MacGregor, recently appointed by the Conservatives to be the new chairman of the National Coal Board. The big bad wolf has blown down British Steel in a three-year tenure as top dog; there aren’t enough UK steelworkers to fill Wembley stadium now. Scargill swirls the dregs of his cuppa. The tea leaves suggest there is a storm brewing.
Jaz Coleman also believes things are about to go ballistic. The Notting Hill Nostradamus has been predicting the imminent end of days since someone first plonked a microphone in front of the Killing Joke frontman back in 1979. Indeed, his urgent desire to escape the impending apocalypse was one of several reasons given for his abrupt and sensational disappearance from the band in March 1982.
Jaz resurfaced in Reykjavik, with each member of the band eventually following their leader to the frozen north. This Icelandic saga played out in the music weeklies throughout the spring and summer of last year. A gripping tale of escape, exile, brotherhood and betrayal, like Puzo with puffins. When the volcanic dust settled, only bass player Youth remained in the UK; he has since embarked on a new career with dub-pop trio Brilliant.
This sojourn in northern latitudes aside, Killing Joke are a band in a hurry. Jaz has seen Conquest, Famine, War and top-weight Death in the parade ring at Cheltenham, and has a lot to say about the state of the world before we all perish in flames. Four albums and a live EP since 1980.
In The Box, Paul, Charlie and myself have previous experience with Killing Joke. As members of Clock DVA, we spent a couple of dispiriting days on the road with them, opening shows in both Birmingham and London in 1980. There appeared to be an ongoing internecine feud among the band, with road-crew double-jobbing as minders and peacekeepers, while their fans just wanted to get drunk and then gleefully pulverised by Killing Joke’s admittedly impressive Berserker assault.
Because of this, there is some umming and ahhing in Sheffield when the offer comes in, as our recent gigs with The Fall at the Ace and Shriekback at Heaven in London having felt like a more natural fit for The Box. We’re more at home playing for speccy, four-eyed chin-strokers; the only thing they’re likely to throw at us is a thoughtfully barbed brickbat. In the end, Mammon makes the decision for us. A cash bonus on top of our usual London support fee on the night, if the gig is a sell-out. As The Pop Group sang: “We are all prostitutes, everyone has their price.”
We arrive in West London on a sunny Sunday afternoon. This is my first visit to Hammersmith Palais, made famous for my generation by The Clash. Joe Strummer being just one of a number of famous white men – including Joe Loss, Roger Daltrey et al, Bill Haley and all his Comets - who have graced this famous old Palais des Danse down the years.
The bright summer light is immediately snuffed out by the immense, brooding sound of Killing Joke guitarist Geordie, who is soundchecking up on stage. A reverberating choke hold which threatens to pin you to the back wall of the ballroom. And I think, “Hello darkness, my old friend.”
Not much appears to have changed in the Killing Joke camp since I last saw them up close - growl and scowl are still the prevailing moods. The new bass player’s name, Raven, fits in perfectly with Jaz, Geordie and Big Paul – a dysfunctional gang of four awaiting comic book canonization. Jaz stands stony-faced behind his keyboard, Rommel-like atop his Panzer, looking out across new lands to be conquered. The Russians tested another nuclear bomb on Thursday, time is running out.
Our sound check complete, we wander around the corner to The Swan.
“I’ll buy you a pint if you call him Jeremy.”
“Is that Jaz’s real name? Fuckin’ hell, he’d probably have me killed.”
Thirst slaked, we amble back to the Palais. We’ve missed the opening band, Sex Beat, but witness some of Play Dead’s set. Four lads from Oxfordshire, Play Dead have been the main support for the other dates on Killing Joke’s ‘Fire Dances’ tour, and I can see why. Thundering drums, squalling guitars and booming vocals, they hold the attention of the gathering Killing Joke fans. A soupy stew before the main course of blood and offal.
What the salivating fans get next is The Box’s wavy gravy. We’re about a minute into our opening song when the first missile hits the stage. Guitarist Paul reckons that the high arc of the plastic pint pot from about halfway back is nothing to worry about. If you’ve got your wits about you, you can normally pick these incoming objects up on your early warning radar and take the appropriate evasive action. It’s the short-range, half-pint glass, or its lethal next-generation iteration, the lager can, that you need to worry about. Coming in fast from the first half-a-dozen rows of hardcore fans, rearing up off the lip of the stage or the fold-back monitors, an unplayable Malcolm Marshall bouncer in liquid form.
Avoidance tactics are all very well for Paul and the rest of the lads upfront, but for me, stuck behind the drum kit, all I can do is tilt my cymbals to an extreme angle - a make-shift Zildjian shield - and hope for the best. You must really hate us to waste the price of a pint of snake-bite by launching it at the stage. At least I hope it's snake-bite.
The faster the projectiles rain down from the dissident mob, the quicker we play. This is a support band as a hapless Fedex delivery bloke. We’ve arrived at the appointed time and place and tried to deliver the package. However, the customer in situ is pointedly, nay vehemently complaining that this is not what they ordered. Our forty-minute set is wrapped up in half-an-hour. Let’s call it a no score draw.
“You got off lightly.” We’re chatting to Mike H, a live agent and friend of the band, as we wipe down the speaker cabinets and drum kit backstage. Mike elaborates: “Killing Joke always request a band they know their fans are gonna hate to be special guests at their London show, to get them really riled up before they finally come on. Nah, that could have been much worse. I mean, you should see what they did to Aztec Camera.”
The pennies drop like a Skegness Pleasure Beach coin pusher. So that’s why they offered us the extra money. We were prime South Yorkshire leg of lamb, to be fed to the slavering Killing Joke wolf pack. Beefheart is for old farts you Sheffield Box-blokes! I don’t know whether to be proud that we stood our ground in the face of such hostility or annoyed that we allowed ourselves to be talked into the gig in the first place. We really do need a manager.
Sure enough, Hammersmith Palais is packed and primed by the time Killing Joke takes to the stage. They start with a crunching new song that has the relentless rhythm of ten thousand pissed-off Space Invaders, which churns the dance floor into a writhing Medusa mosh. Cropped black tees, a dose of Doc Martens, studded belts and more knackered drain pipes than an Arbourthorne council estate, both audience and band are dressed alike. The torn-off shirt sleeves reveal Killing Joke’s taut, sinewy arms, which play appropriately tense, muscular music.
Drummer Big Paul brings the big beat from Burundi, while Geordie - cool and detached, with cheekbones you could hang Christmas baubles on - uses his guitar as both sword and shield. His powerful sound scythes through the melee, while at the same time armouring himself from the madness a few feet ahead. Jaz, in eye-smudging warpaint, looks like Anthony Newley auditioning for the role of Baron Samedi in the West End 007 adaptation no-one is waiting to see: Live And Let Die - The Musical.
Seeking our fee, Paul and Terry head off in search of the promoter, the formidable and forthright John Curd - the face that launched a thousand gigs. Once of Straight Music, he now operates as Head Music.
Paul takes up the story…
We found him in a rather plush room away from the remorseless din of the Joke. John Curd, a heavily set figure with black crinkly hair, was sitting behind a large wooden desk with piles of cash stacked up in front of him. "What you want?" he growled. On explaining who we were he went all Bob Hoskins in “The Long Good Friday” on us. "Oh you've come for your money 'ave you? Well, well - we'd better pay you then, hadn't we?" He counted out the notes and pushed them towards me. Sensing my hesitation he breezily added, "Right, you got yer money, now fuck off". "Er, we were promised an extra £150 if the gig sold out". Hoskins returned. "Oh - were you now? Well then - we'd better pay you that too then, hadn't we?" he seethed. Grabbing the extra cash we headed briskly for the door without waiting for a second invitation to fuck off. Stepping outside, the demonic groan of Killing Joke came as a welcome relief. Terry seemed utterly shocked. It's a murky old world.
Perhaps Curd is short for curdle, which is what happens to your blood when you ask him for money? We leave Killing Joke and their devoted fans to their fire dances. I’m back at work tomorrow, sleepy at my pen-pushing outpost in King Arthur’s Camelot of quick-burning carbon and slow-burning discontent. He’s going to have us all hopping on hot coals in the not too distant future.
With thanks to Paul Widger and my editor Nigel Floyd.
I found the Jaz Coleman live shot on Jill Webb's Kindred Spirit blog - https://kindredspiritfanzine.blogspot.com/
Here's a playlist to take you back to the alternative rock, goth and indie sounds of the summer of 1983: