Formative years (1978–1982)
Paul Ferguson was the drummer in the band of Mataya Clifford (a.k.a. Mat Stagger) when he met Jaz Coleman (from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire) in Notting Hill, London. In October 1978, after Coleman was briefly the keyboard player in that band, he and Ferguson left to form Killing Joke. They placed an advertisement in Melody Maker, which attracted guitarist Geordie Walker and bassist Youth. Coleman said their manifesto at the time was to "define the exquisite beauty of the atomic age in terms of style, sound and form". Coleman gave an explanation concerning their name: "The killing joke is like when people watch something like Monty Python on the television and laugh, when really they're laughing at themselves. It's like a soldier in the first world war. He's in the trench, he knows his life is gone and that within the next ten minutes he's gonna be dead ... and then suddenly he realises that some cunt back in Westminster's got him sussed - 'What am I doing this for? I don't want to kill anyone, I'm just being controlled'." The band played their debut gig on 4 August 1979 at Cheltenham Roadmenders supporting the Ruts and the Selecter.
By September 1979, shortly before the release of their debut EP, Turn to Red, they started the Malicious Damage record label with graphic artist Mike Coles as a way to press and sell their music; Island Records distributed the records (and released their debut single "Nervous System"), until Malicious Damage switched to E.G. Records with distribution through Polydor from 1980. Killing Joke's early material "fused together elements of punk, funk and dub reggae". Turn to Red came to the attention of legendary DJ John Peel, who was keen to champion the band's urgent new sound and gave them extensive airplay. An NME concert review said that "their sound is a bit like early [Siouxsie and the] Banshees without the thrilling, amoral imagination". Concerning their live performances, it was said that "the only animation on stage is provided by Jaz who crouches behind his synthesizer, making forays like a Neanderthal man gripped by a gesturing, gibbering fury". The songs on the 1980 "Wardance/Pssyche" single were described as "heavy dance music" by the press. The band had changed their sound into something denser, more aggressive and more akin to heavy metal. Their debut album, Killing Joke, was released in October 1980; the band had considered calling it Tomorrow's World. The press started to criticize them for the lack of new material appearing on the B-sides of singles, which often featured different mixes. The group preferred to carry on working into the studio and released What's THIS For...! just eight months after Killing Joke, in June 1981. For this second album, they hired sound engineer Nick Launay, who had previously recorded with Public Image Ltd. They toured extensively throughout the UK during this time, and both fans of post-punk and heavy metal took interest in Killing Joke via singles such as "Follow the Leaders".
Killing Joke also became notorious largely due to the controversies that arose from their imagery. The images that appeared on their records and stage set were often bizarre and potentially shocking and inflammatory. Critics noted the band's black humour and the use of musical and visual shock tactics to create a reaction. The "Wardance" sleeve had already depicted Fred Astaire dancing in a war field. One promotional poster featured an original photo, erroneously believed to be of Pope Pius XI. The picture was of German abbot Alban Schachleiter walking among rows of Nazi soldiers offering Hitler salutes and appearing to return the salute; it was later used for the cover of the band's compilation album Laugh? I Nearly Bought One!.
Revelations was recorded in 1982 in Germany near Cologne with producer Conny Plank, who had previously worked for Neu! and Kraftwerk. The album was supported by a pair of performances on BBC Radio's "The John Peel Show" and a slot on UK TV show Top of the Pops for "Empire Song". It was the first time that one of their albums had entered the top 20 of the UK Albums Chart: Revelations peaked at No. 12 a few weeks after its release. Members of the band, especially Coleman, had become immersed in the occult, particularly the works of occultist Aleister Crowley. In February of that year, Coleman, with Walker following shortly after, moved to Iceland to survive the Apocalypse, which Coleman predicted was coming soon. While in Iceland, Coleman and Walker worked with musicians from the band Þeyr in the project Niceland. Youth, who had stayed in England, left the band after a few months. He then began the band Brilliant with Ferguson, but the latter defected and travelled to Iceland to rejoin Killing Joke with new bassist Paul Raven.
The new Killing Joke line-up soon recorded again with Plank, yielding the single "Birds of a Feather" and a six-track 10" EP Ha!, recorded live at Larry's Hideaway in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in August.
Commercial success (1983–1988)
The first album with Raven, 1983's Fire Dances, had an atmosphere of tribal celebration and a slightly more melodic and accessible sound (as prefaced by the "Birds of a Feather" single) without compromising any of the band's key elements. The change was most noticeable on the title track and sole single, "Let's All Go (To the Fire Dances)", and was taken even further on the subsequent non-album single "Me or You?", released in October. The former was also the first Killing Joke single to be promoted with a music video.
The following year brought more changes with the arrival of producer Chris Kimsey, who had previously worked with the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. The first fruits were the singles "Eighties" (April 1984) and "A New Day" (July 1984), the former once again promoted with a video. They achieved mainstream success in January 1985 with the single "Love Like Blood", which covered all the bases from goth and new wave to pop and dance rock; it peaked at No. 16 in the UK charts. In Europe, it reached the No. 5 position in the Netherlands and No. 8 in Belgium. The song, and the earlier single "Eighties", were both included on their fifth album, Night Time, released later that year. Retrospectively reviewed as "relentlessly catchy" and "anthemic", the album emphasized Coleman's increasingly melodic vocals and reached No. 11 in the UK album chart, their highest position to date. Night Time also became an international success, staying in the Dutch charts for nine weeks, reaching the top 10, and peaking at No. 8 in New Zealand during a 14 week stay. The band, still on the E.G. label, then quit their distribution deal with Polydor and signed a new one with Virgin Records.
The follow-up, the "flawed but likeable" Brighter than a Thousand Suns (1986), also produced by Kimsey, led to controversy. The label rejected Kimsey's original mixes and had the album re-mixed against the wishes of the band, in an attempt to achieve a more commercial sound. The results have been retrospectively described as synth-heavy, over-polished, buried in reverb and lacking in bite. Their efforts were in vain, however; the record was a commercial failure compared to Night Time, failing to even reach the top 50 in the UK charts. Its two singles fared little better: "Adorations" fractionally missed the UK Top 40 and "Sanity" peaked at number 70. Despite this, the band continued touring successfully until the end of the year. Chris Kimsey's original mixes for the album were finally restored on the 2008 re-release, resulting in much more favourable reviews than those from 1986.
In 1987, Coleman began recording a solo album, aided by Geordie. Costs soon mounted however, and the record label insisted that it had to become a Killing Joke project in order to recoup their investment. Raven and Ferguson were then asked to participate, but only as players; they were not invited to participate in the writing or production, leading to tension and acrimony in the studio. Ferguson recorded drums but, according to Coleman, was fired because he wasn't able to manage the precise timings required, a version of events which Raven later rejected. The latter stated: "I know Paul and when he does something he does it properly. If it wasn't right he would have stayed there 'til it was". Session player Jimmy Copley was brought in to record the drums, supplemented by percussionist Jeff Scantlebury. Raven quit shortly afterwards and asked for his name to be removed from the credits, calling Coleman and Walker "a pair of ego-strokers". Coleman then delivered a lecture at London's Courtauld Institute outlining the thinking behind the album, expounding on its origins in gematria and the occult, while Walker and Scantlebury provided a minimal acoustic musical backing. A recording of the event was later released as The Courtauld Talks.
The resulting album, Outside the Gate, was finally released the following June, and is Killing Joke's most controversial work to date due to its complex synth-led sonics, stylistic departures and widespread panning by critics and many fans. It entered the UK Albums Chart at number 92 and stayed for just one week. No gigs were played in support of the album and it was not even released in the USA. Virgin dropped the band two months later, by which time Coleman and Walker had become embroiled in a lengthy legal battle to extricate themselves from their contract with E.G.
Revised line-up (1989–1991)
Towards the end of 1988, Coleman and Walker decided to revive the band and began looking for full-time bass players and drummers. First on board was drummer Martin Atkins, who had gained notability in Public Image Ltd. A suitable bass player proved more difficult. Former Smiths member Andy Rourke was hired, then dismissed after only three days. Eventually the band settled on Welsh bass player Dave "Taif" Ball, and played their first gigs in almost two years in December 1988. Touring continued across the UK, Europe and the US until August 1989, when the band took a break to record new material in Germany and allow Coleman time to record Songs from the Victorious City with Anne Dudley of Art of Noise.
For reasons which remain unclear, the German sessions were shelved and bass player Taif left the band. He was replaced by former member Paul Raven and the revised line-up began recording again, this time in London. The result was Killing Joke's eighth album, Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions, released on the German Noise International label in 1990. It marked a return to a heavier sound, while incorporating elements of the previous two albums as well.
 "Money Is Not Our God" was the lead single. Once again, the band toured Europe and North America, but by the middle of 1991, the new line-up had imploded. Coleman emigrated to New Zealand to live on a remote Pacific island, and Killing Joke entered a hiatus period.
Atkins continued with Walker, Raven and the band's live keyboard player, John Bechdel, as the short-lived Murder, Inc., recruiting Scottish vocalist Chris Connelly and reuniting with Ferguson as second drummer.
Return of Youth (1992–1996)
A Killing Joke anthology, Laugh? I Nearly Bought One!, was released in 1992; during its production, Walker became reacquainted with Youth, who suggested that they reform the band with himself back on bass. That same year, two singles (on cassette and CD) appeared featuring the early songs "Change" and "Wardance" in several new versions remixed by Youth, who was by then a very successful producer.
Coleman produced the 1993 debut album Churn by the New Zealand band Shihad, and Shihad drummer Tom Larkin played on some of the songs on the next Killing Joke album, Pandemonium. Relations later soured between Coleman and Shihad due to a dispute over Coleman's production fee for Churn.
The reactivated Killing Joke released two strong and well-received albums on Youth's Butterfly Recordings label, Pandemonium and Democracy, which saw the band shifting to a more varied approach and employing young talent like Waxworth Industries for 12-inch remixes. The heavy, "trance-inducing" Pandemonium (1994) featured some of the Egyptian musicians that Coleman had previously worked with on Songs from the Victorious City, including percussionist Hossam Ramzy and violinist Aboud Abdel Al., and earned Killing Joke a memorable Top of the Pops appearance for the single "Millennium", which was a UK Top 40 hit (the album itself made the Top 20). The title track was also released as a single and made the UK Top 30. The album itself became Killing Joke's best-selling work.
In 1995, the band recorded the song "Hollywood Babylon" for the soundtrack of Paul Verhoeven's movie Showgirls.
Democracy (1996) was more introspective and optimistic, introducing acoustic guitar into the mix, and garnered mixed reviews ranging from "watered down" to "Killing Joke's best album in 11 years". The title track was again released as a single and made the UK Top 40. Much of Pandemonium and all of Democracy featured session drummer Geoff Dugmore. He also played live with the band throughout this era. Nick Holywell-Walker joined the band on keyboards and programming for 11 years from 1994 to 2005, notably on Democracy and XXV Gathering. Youth bowed out of live performance early in the Democracy tour and was replaced by Troy Gregory, previously of Prong.
After the Democracy tour, the band went on an extended hiatus. Coleman and Youth produced a string of well-received orchestral rock albums based on the music of classic rock artists such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Doors. Coleman became Composer in Residence for New Zealand and Czech symphony orchestras, and made his acting debut with the main role in the film Rok ďábla (Year of the Devil) by Czech filmmaker Petr Zelenka.
Reformation and the death of Raven (2002–2007)
In 2002, Coleman, Walker and Youth recorded their second self-titled album with special guest Dave Grohl on drums. Produced by Andy Gill and released to much acclaim in 2003, it was heralded as a powerful addition to their earlier classics. In 2003, the band played at the biggest open air festival in Europe - Przystanek Woodstock in Poland. The War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq were cited as major factors in their reforming, reflected in the lyrical content of much of the album, based on themes of war, government control and Armageddon. The album, which fell just short of the UK Top 40 and spawned two singles, "Loose Cannon" (a UK Top 25 hit) and "Seeing Red". The songs were all credited to Coleman/Walker/Youth/Gill, although Raven's name is also on the list of musicians on the liner notes, marking his return to the band after more than a decade. The album was accompanied by a tour of the United States, Europe and Australia in 2003-2004, with ex-Prong drummer Ted Parsons on board.
In February 2005, now with young drummer Ben Calvert (Twin Zero, Sack Trick), Killing Joke played two consecutive shows at London's Shepherds Bush Empire to commemorate their 25th anniversary. DVD and CD recordings from these concerts were released in the fall of the same year as XXV Gathering: The Band that Preys Together Stays Together. In June, remastered and expanded editions of Pandemonium and Democracy, were released by Cooking Vinyl. These were followed in July by remasters of their first four albums (Killing Joke to Ha!) on EMI, who by then owned the E.G. Records catalogue. The second batch of EMI remasters would not appear until January 2008. That year, Reza Udhin joined the band on keyboards when they supported Mötley Crüe's British tour; they then began work on their next album in Prague. Killing Joke's contribution to the world of rock was recognised when they were awarded the "Lifetime Achievement Award" at the 2005 Kerrang Awards. The band recorded the new album in "Hell", the basement rehearsal space of Studio Faust Records in Prague, opting for simplicity and raw energy through the use of live takes with a minimum of overdubs. The result was Hosannas from the Basements of Hell, released in April 2006, which made the UK Top 75.
During a European tour in April 2006, Raven abruptly departed after a few dates to tour with Ministry, and was temporarily replaced by Kneill Brown. In October, it was announced that Coleman had been chosen as Composer in Residence for the European Union, to be commissioned to write music for special occasions.
Early in 2007, Killing Joke released three archival collections. The first, Inside Extremities, was a double album of material taken from the band's preparations for the Extremities album, including rehearsals, rare mixes, previously unheard track "The Fanatic" and a full live show from the Extremities tour. This was followed by two volumes of Bootleg Vinyl Archive, each consisting of a 3-CD box set of live bootleg recordings originally released on vinyl in the 1980s, plus the Astoria gig from the Pandemonium tour (which was voted one of the greatest gigs of all time by Kerrang). The 1990 album Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions, which had long been out of print, was reissued in remastered form.
On 20 October, Raven died of heart failure prior to a recording session in Geneva, Switzerland. In his honour, Coleman composed the track "The Raven King", which appeared on the next album. In 2008, the second batch of albums, from Fire Dances to Outside the Gate, was reissued in remastered form with bonus tracks.
Reunion of the original line-up (2008–present)
Killing Joke plays live in Paris during the 2008 tour (Le Trabendo, 27 September 2008).
After the death of Raven, the original line-up of Coleman, Youth, Walker and Ferguson reunited. Coleman told Terrorizer magazine how the return of Ferguson came up after 20 years of absence:
"Everything came together when we all met at...Raven's funeral. It was funny the unifying effect it had on all of us. It made us realise our mortality and how important Killing Joke is to all of us."
They assembled in Granada, Spain, to prepare a world tour consisting of two nights in various capital cities of the world, playing a programme of four complete albums. Recordings of the rehearsals were later released as Duende - The Spanish Sessions. The first night was dedicated to their first two albums, Killing Joke and What's THIS For...!, while the second night featured large parts of Pandemonium plus some early Island singles. The world tour began in September in Tokyo and concluded in Chicago in October.
An album of radio session recordings, The Peel Sessions 1979–1981, was released in September 2008. This was the second time all 17 tracks were released in their live session form.
The band then appeared at several festivals, including All Tomorrow's Parties, Sonisphere Festival, and Rebellion Festival, headlining the latter. They also performed in the Big Top Tent at the 2009 Isle Of Wight Festival after being hand-picked by Tim Burgess, frontman for the Charlatans.
During October and November 2009, they recorded the album Absolute Dissent (2010), marking the band's 30th anniversary. It was preceded by the In Excelsis EP in June 2010. In November, the band received the "Innovator Award" at the 2010 Classic Rock Roll of Honour; the award was presented to Killing Joke by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, who stated, "I go back a long way with Jaz Coleman and the band. I used to go and see the band, and it was a band that really impressed me because Geordie's guitar sound was just really, really strong. And they were really tribal, the band, and it was really intense. It was just really good to hear something like that during the 80s, which sort of caved in a bit with haircuts and synthesizers". The band were also honoured by Metal Hammer at their annual awards, receiving the Album of the Year award for Absolute Dissent.
In 2012, the group released MMXII. It reached No. 44 upon its first week of release, the band's highest UK chart placement since their eponymous 2003 album of 2003, as well as charting across Europe.
In April 2015, two limited-edition Record Store Day double LPs, Live at the Hammersmith Apollo 16.10.2010 Volume 1 and Live at the Hammersmith Apollo 16.10.2010 Volume 2, were issued for independent record stores in the UK.
The band released their 15th studio album, Pylon, in October 2015. The deluxe edition contained five additional tracks. A nine-date British tour followed to promote the record. Pylon entered the UK albums chart at No. 16, becoming the band's first UK Top 20 album since 1994. In November 2016, the band played at the Brixton Academy in London, before embarking on a European tour, their longest to date. In 2018, the band did a worldwide tour to celebrate their 40th year anniversary.