LIVE REVIEW: Killing Joke live @ Royal Albert Hall (12/03/23)

Killing Joke take their chaotic post-punk magic into the heart of the establishment.

I’m constantly banging on about small grassroots venues being better than big venues, yet when Killing Joke announced they would be performing their first two albums in the Royal Albert Hall, we did not hesitate to snap up tickets.

Wanting to make a weekend of it, we looked around at hotels. We managed to find one nearby for the Sunday night at a price we could live with, but to stay the Saturday night in Kensington would cost a king’s ransom – and we weren’t going to play their games on principle. All the excuse we needed to go and stay with me brother a few miles north of the capital.

After a healthy Sunday brunch, we hopped on the train and an hour and a bit later we were checking in to the Premier Inn, a three-minute walk from Earl’s Court tube station. It soon became clear that this was the nearest ‘cheap’ hotel to the Albert Hall, because almost everyone we saw there was wearing a Killing Joke T-Shirt.

The walk to the Albert Hall was lined with grandiose buildings – various international embassies, imperial colleges and high-end hotels – all behind elegant facades, with pillars holding up canopies, adding a little gravitas to proceedings. There was a smell of ‘old money’ in the air. The Royal Albert Hall is not the only posh bit of this neck of the woods.

Sitting on the northern edge of South Kensington, opposite Hyde Park, The Albert Hall is one of the most iconic venues on the planet. And has been for over one hundred and fifty years. The listed building was constructed at a time when people still took pride in architectural design. This magnificent building is also multipurpose. It has hosted everything from proms, to tennis, to counterculture poetry readings, theatre and rock concerts. My only other visit was to see Santana back in 1982(ish), but I don’t really remember much about it, so it is effectively going to be a new experience.

We arrive early and grab a snack in the café before heading into the venue. The bar area, as you would expect of a venue like this, is opulent, resembling a hotel lounge rather than a gig venue, with the selection of wines available outnumbering the beer pumps. Despite being a sell-out, the bar staff are efficient and friendly, with no significant queues. We make ourselves at home and watch the world go by. We may be getting ready for a show by doyens of the post-punk scene, but there is nothing punk about this venue.

Formed in 1978, Killing Joke have pretty much been together ever since and never properly split up, although they have had the occasional hiatus and band members have wandered in and out over the intervening four and a half decades. Sometimes those hiatuses have been prolonged but unremarkable, sometimes they have been short and spectacularly bizarre.

They have all had lives outside of the band, most notably Jaz Coleman with his career writing and performing classical music and Youth, who has had an incredible career producing other artists and creating dub and trance under his own name. A second volume of Killing Joke dub mixes produced by Youth is due out soon.

In the run up to the gig several people asked me to name a Killing Joke song that they might have heard. I struggled to answer because they have never really troubled the top twenty hit parade. None the less, they have slowly but surely developed a loyal cult following. That following has included many musicians and it could be argued that Killing Joke’s legacy is bigger than the band itself. Some of the bands they have influenced have gone on to major success. No Killing Joke, no Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Nirvana, or Tribazik – or at least not with the sound that we know then for. Foo Fighter Dave Grohl even appeared on the band’s 2003 album, ‘Killing Joke’.

Their ground-breaking mix of funky/dubby bass lines and dark metallic guitars blazed a trail for a whole genre of danceable metal. Although no one has quite managed to equal their sound.

In 2008 the original line up met up at the funeral of bassist Paul Raven and decided it was time get back together, realising how important the band was to them all.

Fifteen albums in, the band still sound like artists with something to say, unlike many bands from forty years ago that are living on past glories. Having said that, that is exactly what they are going to do tonight, simply performing the first two albums.

Although it has a five thousand capacity, you are never an outrageous distance from the stage in the Albert Hall. Tonight the area in front of the stage is cleared for standing, but then the venue starts going up, with tiers of circular balconies, with the audience looking down on the band like some Roman amphitheater.

The Orb’s Alex Patterson (one time Killing Joke roadie) had been billed as a warm up, but had not made it, but the crowd were quite happy with James Lavelle (Unkle) on the decks. By the time the lights went down for the entry of Killing Joke, the hall was rammed and ready to rock.

As opening statements go, ‘Requiem’, track one side one of the first album, is a statement of intent – when followed by track two, ‘Wardance’, we are reminded what a beast of an album this was. The band then solidly work their way through eponymous debut album ‘Killing Joke’ (the first album by this name, bizarrely they recorded another album with the same title) then the second, ‘What’s this for?’ track by track, in the order they appear on the albums. Classics such as ‘The Wait, ‘The Fall of Because’ and the brilliant single, ‘Follow the Leaders’.

There is no banter between songs. This is serious music and they are putting in a serious performance. Above them is a huge screen showing appropriately dystopian images to go along with the music. This is the soundtrack to the apocalypse, Killing Joke taking on the role of Nero as Rome Burned. But even in the darkest time, we can find rhythms to dance along to. And as I stand in the main auditorium, I look up and see people dancing on the balconies and in the boxes.

Appropriately they finish with ‘Exit’, the last track on side two of the second album. They go off and the crowd demands more. But what else could they play? They have done what it said on the tin, performed the first two albums. The answer was obvious when they did it, they played a collection of B sides from the singles off the albums. And then it was over.

There is no doubt in my mind that the best way to experience Killing Joke is up close and personal in a dark sweaty club. But as a one off, as a ‘spectacular’, you can’t really fault the venue they chose. I certainly won’t moan about it. It will be a gig that I remember for a long time to come – far longer than that Santana gig I’ve forgotten about.

Read our 2015 Interview with Youth here