It was released in June 1981 – the second album from Killing Joke outdoing their self titled debut in terms of song writing, intensity and brilliance. It also outdoes everything else around at that time.
But they always knew this, as evidenced by this quote:
“This band would not just be a pleasure principle, it would have a social function, rather than something you put on when you get home from work. I guarantee that if you do that with a Killing Joke record, you’ll lose your job.
We knew we were different – we were articulate and intelligent, yet we were portrayed as thugs, which admittedly there was an element of truth in.”
Evolving from the fractured UK punk scene at the end of the 70’s, early Killing Joke blended disco and dub into their apocalyptic sound. Hence, fans of The Ruts and Chic could be found in the crowds of their early gigs, alongside the mohican brigade. Their first Peel Session captures this period perfectly.
By 1981, the sound had evolved into what one Village Voice critic described as “an ugly, overwhelming, heavy metal-disco fusion that might be the first real advance in HM since The Stooges…” (KJ were not impressed by this comment), and the outbreak of rioting in Brixton (not far from the band’s squat in Ladbroke Grove) simply complimented the album.
A simple but sinister drum beat opens ‘The Fall of Because’ before Geordie Walker comes in with a riff that sounds like the gates of hell opening up. Drummer Paul Ferguson and bassist Youth play a tight, but inventive rhythm based on dub reggae and Celtic beats. Vocalist Jaz Coleman sings a set of lyrics influenced by noted British occultist Alistair Crowley.
‘Tension’ does what it says, and does it through a chugging guitar riff that sounds like a baseball bat landing on your head. ‘Unspeakable’ begins with a moody keyboard line, then Ferguson ups the ante by plummeting his drum kit with controlled violence. Youth’s basswork during the chorus adds an extra layer of discomfort.
A staccato keyboard line holds ‘Butcher’ together, with Coleman’s distorted vocals spewing venom about the rape of the land for oil and wealth. Coleman then uses ‘Follow The Leaders’ to lambast the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, as well as the lemmings who’ll follow anyone with a stronger personality than them.
The krautrock leanings evident on ‘Madness’ captures the daily grind of modern life and contains a lyric that sums up the viewpoint of the entire album “If this is today/Well what the fuck’s tomorrow.” By utilising Coleman, Youth and Ferguson as vocalists for this one, the listener is barraged with contrasting vocals. Adding to the insanity, Walker’s guitar is suitably metallic, but minimal.
‘Who Told You How’ is a short electro number with tribal percussion and sweeping guitar. ‘Exit’ is the most traditional “punky” number on here and may appear to end the LP on a somewhat optimistic note. But a closer inspection of the lyrics suggest otherwise: ” Noise turns darker the moments pass/But the drums keep thundering in familiar way.” Ending with a fade out of the drums furthers the point.
At the time of release, UK unemployment was over 2 million, Nazi skinheads regularly clashed with anti fascists, rioting had broken out in South London and the country was still reeling from the Yorkshire Ripper murders. In Northern Ireland, IRA members died on hunger strike and riots in nationalist areas were daily occurrences.
Harsh times like this require an album to soundtrack this chaos, and ‘What’s THIS For…!’ captures this period by evoking imagery of dread and mayhem through the riffs and lyrics. But these are still harsh times, and it still sounds as potent over thirty years on.
As Jaz Coleman said in 1990: “Killing Joke always have an important role to play in times of world tension” and this is still the case today.
The greatest album of all time. No question.
– Christopher Owens ::: 04/10/14