Perhaps Killing Joke’s frontman Jaz Coleman said it best. The guitar playing of his lifelong foil Geordie Walker – who died in November after a stroke at the age of 64 – was “like a fire from heaven”.
From the late ’70s, when Walker first took the stage as co-founder of the seminal British post-punk band, the results could be pulverising, shaking your bones, a seismic strain of the heaviest metal.
But in the same breath – even the same bar – his guitar work could be a melodic, mellifluous cascade, mobilising pan-generational players in genres from grunge and shoegaze to disco and dub. As Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses wrote: “Geordie was a true inventor of a massive sound that has influenced so damn many of us.”
Surely, no sensible musician would have answered the ‘guitarist wanted’ advert placed by a proto-Killing Joke in Melody Maker (inauspiciously, it offered the successful applicant “total publicity, total anonymity, total exploitation”). But Walker was a square peg, too.
Born in 1958, in County Durham (the source of his nickname when he moved down south), the guitarist reportedly turned up at Coleman’s door and refused to leave, insisting that his abject inexperience was no barrier.
“This guy kept calling saying, ‘Hi, I’ve never been in a band before, I’ve only ever played in my mum’s bedroom, but I’m the best guitarist ever,’” reflected Coleman. “Geordie moved in three weeks before I actually heard him play.”
When Walker did finally put his musicianship where his mouth was – for Killing Joke’s nihilistic self-titled debut album of 1980 – his vast soundscapes were unlike anything else on the post-punk scene, and he soon dialled in his signature sound using the unlikely tool of a 1952 Gibson ES-295 with heavy-gauge strings, tuned down to DGCFAD and often paired with a Burman amp and Memory Man.
“When you find something that you express yourself through the best, something that is completely your sound,” he said in 2016, “why would you use anything else?”
It would be reductive to define Walker’s career entirely by his work with Killing Joke. The band’s occasional hiatuses in the ’90s gave the guitarist time to form star-studded outfits like Murder, Inc and The Damage Manual (he might even have successfully auditioned for Faith No More, said the US alt-rockers’ bassist Billy Gould, were it not for “a personality so strong that he dwarfed us”).
But most of Walker’s standout moments came within the band with whom he recorded 15 studio albums. Requiem – the opener of Killing Joke’s debut – instantly pricked up ears, its trashy-toned intro nodding to traditional rock ’n’ roll shapes but scratching them out with its off-kilter note choices.
Fast-forward to the post-millennium and the feedback-trailed groove on 2010’s The Great Cull seemed too big for the speakers. Even on (relative) commercial high-point Love Like Blood – a Top 20 single from 1985’s Night Time – his delay-soaked riff sounded like a lonely transmission beamed from a dying planet.
All the while, important ears were listening. It’s no coincidence at all that Nirvana’s Come As You Are sounds remarkably close to Killing Joke’s Eighties (in fact, fanboy Dave Grohl would guest on the band’s 2003 Killing Joke studio album), while Metallica acknowledged the debt in 1987 with a cover of thrash-metal forerunner The Wait. “Geordie was a huge influence on me, the way he played that Gibson ES-295,” wrote Kirk Hammett.
And while the British music press usually sniffed at Killing Joke, Walker made his mark on both higher-profile sonic wranglers such as My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields (“This effortless playing producing a monstrous sound”) and the old masters. When Classic Rock’s Roll Of Honour presented Coleman and co with the Innovator Award in 2010, it was Walker’s long-term admirer Jimmy Page who handed over the gong (the Zeppelin man deeming his guitar tone “really strong, really intense”).
Among the guitarists who left us in 2023 – from Jeff Beck and Tom Verlaine to David Crosby – Walker’s death in his adopted hometown of Prague might seem like a footnote, his lifetime sales barely touching the sides of CSN&Y’s Déjà Vu.
Yet commercial success is not everything, and for those who happened across his bleak, beautiful, utterly uncompromising guitar work, his passing marks the loss of a voice every bit as vital.