As innovative as Nirvana were, to hear some fans and music journalists laud the band for its combination of punk rock aggression and pop tunefulness, one would be forgiven for thinking the Seattle-based band existed in a vacuum and came out of nowhere. Of course, the men of Nirvana went out of their way to acknowledge influences that ranged from early-20th century folk musicians to punk and post-punk rock. Two songs from the band's landmark Nevermind, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Come As You Are," not only took influence, but lifted specific guitar riffs from older songs; the former's lick was recycled from Boston's "More Than a Feeling," sprinkled with a little Black Sabbath, and served with some spirit of the Pixies. "Come As You Are" took the main guitar riff from Killing Joke's anthem "Eighties" and merely slowed it down.
Sure, a riff does not make a song completely, but Killing Joke were playing aggressive pop/rock fueled with alienated lyrics ten years before Nirvana. One main, perhaps, crucial difference between the bands is that while Kurt Cobain practiced whisper-to-a-scream vocal dynamics, Killing Joke's Jaz Coleman was almost always full-on in his approach, with a terrifying growl of a voice that is similar to that of Motörhead's Lemmy. Night Time, from 1985, finds the band more than five years into its career, with Coleman singing -- as opposed to shout-singing -- for pretty much the first time. The song is like a chant, an incessant, pummeling assault that certainly resonated in the industrial rock that Big Black and Ministry practiced.
But while those latter bands used drum machines and sequencers for a mechanical sound, Killing Joke looped themselves, real-time, with drummer Paul Ferguson tribally pounding his drums with a four-on-the-floor, danceable beat. Guitarist Geordie Walker shines on "Eighties," playing cyclical and repetitive riffs, each one a variation or inversion of the song's main theme, and each one a hook unto itself. His tone is metallic, cold, raw, with the sort of shimmering chorused effect that Cobain later employed on many of Nirvana's recordings. Coleman sings in a call and response with the backing-vocal title chant: "Eighties -- I'm living in the eighties/Eighties -- I have to push, I have to struggle/Eighties -- get out of my way, I'm not for sale no more/Eighties -- let's kamikaze till we get there and we sang/You do it this way."
While "Eighties" unflinchingly displays the band's aggressive punk rock roots -- cold and hard to mirror the sociopolitical message -- it also embraces dance-music grooves and a certain sort of melodic sensibility. It was first released as a 12" single. On the website An Unofficial History of Killing Joke (http://music.dartmouth.edu/dupras/kj/d.history/harolds.kj.history.v2.fr.html), Ferguson notes, "It's aggressive music. It's not polite entertainment...we've got songs in the dance charts...as far as I'm concerned, Killing Joke is dance music. I'm not at all displeased with getting into the disco charts. I think it shows great hope for the world." But the drummer also once described the band's music as "the sound of the earth vomiting," and it is the balance of these two approaches that made Killing Joke ahead of its time.