I’m old enough to remember, unfortunately, that sad little marketing campaign that dubbed The Clash “the only band that matters.” In a testament to the one-born-every-minute phenomenon, some actually incorporated it into their belief systems. Amazing, really.
So how’s that working out 36 years on from the halcyon days of ’77? Not so well, I don’t think. Joe Strummer’s dead; Paul Simonon and Mick Jones don’t seem able to muster a worthwhile idea between them – I tried, I really did, to like Carbon/Silicon (…wha…?) and Havana 3AM, to no avail – and Topper Headon…can only assume that the less said, the better. And despite the sheer brilliance of most of their output (there are exceptions: “Rock The Casbah” might as well be a KKK campfire song by contemporary standards), they aren’t exactly a daily staple of many people’s musical diet anymore. “Career Opportunities” may be more relevant than ever, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people care. ”Mattering” has turned out not to matter much at all.
But then there are their old Notting Hill neighbors and aesthetic antitheses, Killing Joke. Definitely, a pale horse of a different color. Thirty-five years on from their debut, they’re still at it, and they’ve still got it. Who’d've thunk? Sure, they’re touring to flog a voluminous box set of singles – usually the mark of a band surely past its sell-by date, and made more suspect by virtue of the fact that this isn’t the first such greatest hitsish offering. But they also just kicked out the massive, monumentally cool MMXII, as hard-hitting an album as almost anything else in their ouevre. This, preceded by the equally blunt and beautiful Absolute Dissent, the pretty-damn-good Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell, and the career-defining 2003 Killing Joke. And then there’s the live show.
What a show it is. Still is. Or, still is again. Because I can remember some thoroughly tepid late 80s – mid 90s appearances at which, even through the prism of ardent fandom, still looked like a band that was fractured, tired, and seemingly rudderless onstage – an impression that wasn’t helped by the likes of Brighter Than A Thousand Suns. The mixture of mania and merciless drive that had made “Requiem,” “Wardance,” and “Follow The Leader” had seemed to have been reduced to formula; even the sinister smoothness that underpinned “Love Like Blood” seemed to have devolved into plain poptone. Killing Joke, it had seemed, were destined to follow a path laid down by countless bands before them: A blinding flash of initial greatness, slowly suffocated beneath a tide of curdled repetition, indecision, compromise.
To be fair, it just wasn’t their era. The bland early Clinton/Blair years, with their general triviality and hollowness and overarching tedium, weren’t fertile ground for four would-be apocolyptic horsemen. In some ways, KJ seemed like a band out of their element and out of their time. To show their finest form, they needed sterner stuff to push against, and slowly the culture began to oblige; The magnificent Pandemonium release, with its still-breathtaking title track and companion piece “Millennium,” began a sharp qualitative ascent that leveled off – but didn’t sink – with Democracy. And then began the barbarous Bush era, met with the clarion call of the second eponymous Killing Joke CD, and an unbroken chain of excellence that continues to this day.
Which brings us to the Empty Bottle on April 27. Not the most auspicatory venue: Just another divey rock and roll bar with a tiny stage, reasonably ok sound, and crappy sightlines. No room for the dramatic lighting, huge banners, or grand gestures. Killing Joke’s second set of the evening, unbelievably enough. And they killed it. Killed it with more energy than most bands of half their ages (or younger); killed it with the finesse that only seasoned veterans would have the skill for. It was a cavalcade of classics culled from every KJ era: “Turn To Red,” from their debut EP, dusted off just nicely, as did staples such as “Requiem” and “Eighties.” For almost an hour and a half, a nonstop sturm-und-drang skitter across four decades and however many albums. “The Great Cull,” and ”Asteroid,” in particular, stood out as especially deadly, but really there wasn’t a hint of a dull moment. This was a band in top form. Would’ve been nice to have had a cut or two off of Democracy, and the latest outing, MMXII, went sorely neglected – No “Fema Camp”! – but as they say, you can’t have everything, and Killing Joke surely offered up almost everything short of that.
And what’s weird: They actually looked like they were having fun. Everyone other than Geordie, anyway. Not generally the spirit that KJ typically exude, but damn nice to see: A band operating at the peak of its powers, realizing it, and actually enjoying it.
So, here we are in the age of marathon bombings, indefinite detention, drone strikes, colony collapse disorder, economic deprivation, and media-induced soul death: This is Killing Joke’s era. The Reagan/Thatcher years and the Bush II epoch evidently were just the warm-up: The rage, the anxiety that fuel Coleman & Co.’s creative furnaces are being stoked at full bore, and great nights like this one are the payoff.