With the death of their bassist, Paul Raven, in October 2007, the future of Killing Joke suddenly became crowded with question marks. Would the band split up? Or would they simply carry on with a new bassist? Killing Joke, of course, have operated with umpteen line-ups over the years - even Raven joined and left and joined again. We have become accustomed to seeing 'revised' versions of the band on the tour circuit, with a variety of new musicians joining the two originals, vocalist Jaz Coleman and guitarist Geordie Walker.
But I don't think anyone predicted what Killing Joke actually decided to do: reform the original line-up, with Paul Furguson on drums, and Youth on bass - the first, and many would say best, version of Killing Joke. This is the line-up that made the band's name in the post-punk years of the late 1970s, and which hasn't existed since 1982. Tonight, the band convene on a north London stage to give their early material - some of which dropped out of the live set years ago, and hasn't been heard since - a good thrashing. Speaking as an old-skool Joke-head myself, a veteran of early eighties London gigs at the Lyceum and Hammersmith Palais (and I still have scars to prove it) this one just has to be checked out.
What we're checking out right now is Selfish Cunt, unadvertised and unexpected, but gamely holding down the opening slot in front of a handful of early-doors punters and a vast expanse of empty floor. The band's racket hammers off every flat surface, undamped by the presence of a crowd. This makes for a cavernous, echoing sound that, strangely, doesn't sound particularly like Selfish Cunt. The band churns and thrashes, making the best of an awkward situation, and frontman Martin Tomlinson gives us choice selections from his repertoire of vogueing shapes, to the bemusement of the grizzled old punkers that are already staking out their moshpit places ready for the headliners. Still, there's a decent clatter of applause at the end of the set, so maybe Selfish Cunt win on points after all. But if ever I saw a band out of its natural habitat, that was it.
Sometimes, Treponem Pal sound like the Young Gods. This is a good thing. At other times, Treponem Pal sound like Metallica. This is not a good thing. Heavy, ton-of-bricks beats fight it out with extravagances of guitar, while a stentorian vocal sternly rumbles over the lot. When it's all kept down to a clipped, abrupt rhythm, slabs of sound chopped up as if by meat cleavers, it works well. But there are times when Treponem Pal kick it all up a bit and unleash some unrestrained metal guitar, and at these moments they sound dangerously close to any old stadium-status purveyors of heavy metal anthems. I have a theory that everything defaults to metal in the end, and maybe Treponem Pal are evidence of this. But it doesn't have to be this way, and the band are better when they keep their stadium-metal tendencies in check. Pull back from the brink, gentlemen - don't go there!
As it happens, Killing Joke are a pretty good example of my 'everything defaults to metal' theory, for the band's latter-day albums have veered increasingly towards mentalist end of metalnoize. While Killing Joke make pretty good rampaging rock anthems, and Jaz Coleman certainly cuts a suitably deranged figure as a hollering warrior of the heavy metal battlefield, that's not what the original incarnation of the band was like, and it's certainly not what turned us old-skoolers on to the band in the first place.
In their early days, Killing Joke were punk-funk monsters, and their songs were tight, economical, death disco workouts, each one a pulsating mass of energy under pressure. And tonight, the Jokers prove that they can still do it. Out go the apocalyptic metal moves, and in come the punk rock disco grooves. 'Wardance' is a taut, bass-heavy dancefloor bombing raid, with Youth barely able to supress his grins as he churns up the bottom end. 'Psyche' is the funky apocalypse it always was - but then again, not quite. It's interesting to note that somewhere in the last twenty-thirty years, Jaz Coleman has developed a strangely mellifluous singing voice, to the point where some of these early songs - originally delivered in a crazed, manic, bug-eyed bark - now sound bizarrely mature, as Jaz sings the lines he originally shouted. The rhythms snap and crackle like it's the Lyceum in 1980 all over again, but there's no doubt that Jaz isn't entirely the stroppy young punk he once was. These days, he's quite the crooner.
There's another difference between then and now, too. In the old days, Jaz played keyboards on stage, ranting us from behind his instrument like a mad professor in an electronics lab. Round about 'Love Like Blood' (which gets a rinse-out tonight) he switched to a more conventional frontman role - and this, in many ways, marked Killing Joke's transition from punk-funk weirdos to a relatively conventional rock band. Apparently unwilling to get back behind the keys again even for the sake of old-skool authenticity, Jaz prowls the stage tonight, a shaman in face paint, while Killing Joke's latter-day keyboard player, Reza Udhin, takes care of the electronic chores. This creates a rather awkward side effect. On instrumental tracks, such as 'Bloodsport', Jaz would originally hunch over his instrument, scowling like doom was in his very soul. Now, he simply throws shapes up front, hollering a few slogans along the way. This, frankly, looks a bit daft. It's impossible to conceal the fact that, having abandoned his instrumental role on stage, when vocals are not called for Jaz doesn't actually have anything to do.
But I quibble. It's a great performance, and how could it fail to be, with the band's first - and many would say, best - albums providing the set list? The stomp-and-crack rhythm of 'Follow The Leaders' threatens to bring down the chandeliers, 'Unspeakable' is a sudden dam-burst of a song, and 'Tension' is electricity in sound. Jaz pays tribute to Paul Raven, and Youth introduces the grand finale, 'Are You Receiving?' - 'The first thing we ever did together. And I nearly failed the audition!' The song itself is, of course, a thunderous bulldozer of a groove,and these days its apocalyptic lyrics sketching out a totalitarian future seem uncannily like a prediction in the process of coming true.
Killing Joke have had plenty of fine moments over the years, just as they've had plenty of line-ups. But this - Jaz, Geordie, Youth and Big Paul - is the band, and these are the songs. Back in the late 70s, Killing Joke frog-marched punk to the dance floor, shoved the funk up its wazoo, and in doing so created a body of work that resonates to this day. There was nothing like it then, and, when the Jokers light the tattered blue touch paper of their oldest songs and detonate them again, there's still nothing to touch it now.