Band of the Week: Severed Heads

Resident sound-nerd thumbs through reams of musty vinyl so you don’t have to. Here are his weekly recommendations…

#6: Severed Heads

Who: Tom Ellard, Richard Fielding, Andrew Wright, Garry Bradbury, Paul Deering, Stephen Jones.

When: 1970’s-2000’s.

Where: Australia.

Why: The beaches and barbeques of Oz might seem an unlikely home for some of the most twisted and surreal industrial dance music ever created. But it was here that Sydney natives Richard Fielding and Andrew Wright first decided to unleash their unholy communion of tape loops, left-field samples, modulating synths and martial drum machine beats. Swiftly joined by Tom Ellard, (who would go on to become the group’s only consistent member) the trio, under the name of Severed Heads, were fortunate to garner airplay from a DJ who was into Throbbing Gristle, and were herded from art spaces and lofts into clubs by new recruit Garry Bradbury, feeling they would stand out far more in a pop spectrum.

The collective’s sound would evolve into an imbalanced fusion of avant-garde tendencies and danceable pop, as they managed to get an unlikely hit single from 1983’s ‘Dead Eyes Opened’, which, slowed down to 33rpm and pitched up to +8, became one of the sparks that ignited the Belgian New Beat craze. While Ellard was adept at creating pioneering sounds that alchemically fused Psychic TV’s dark acid house with Detroit techno, he was similarly distracted with forging dystopian, industrial soundscapes and making his listeners’ skin crawl with cryptic tape experimentation. For example, ‘Brassiere in Rome’, the penultimate track of Ink Records debut Since the Accident is built on the eerie foundation of a tape loop of the Pope speaking backwards merged with a choral sample. Ellard’s prodigious techno-necromancy must have seared fear deep into the hearts of his consorts, as they fled the project by the time 1984’s Orwellian City Slab Horror was unleashed.

Touring as a duo, with Ellard as the musical mastermind and fan-turned-collaborator Stephen Jones using home-made video synthesizers to discombobulate the audience, the now multimedia project was more concise and powerful. Indeed, audio/visual technology was something the band approached with an ADHD-ridden child’s enthusiasm; for instance Ellard plugging audio signals into televisions to create patterns or building a guitar with a tape drive in it just so he could smash it like The Who. Eventually of course, the ease of digital technology and more convenient recording techniques allowed the band, now producing cleaner synth-pop sounds, to gain a U.S. alternative chart hit in 1989 with ‘Greater Reward’, while ‘Dead Eyes Opened’ being remixed by Robert Racic brought them a Top 40 hit in the 90’s. With the blogosphere currently caught in a love/hate relationship with the hydra-headed ‘witchhouse’ movement, here’s a group that really put horror into electronic pop – and they did it back in the 80’s with only a 4-track, a Kawai 100F and a MiniPops drum machine at their disposal.

Influences: Kraftwerk, Telex, Chrome, The Residents, Throbbing Gristle.

Influenced: Orbital, Aphex Twin, Skinny Puppy, A Split-Second, Cold Cave.

Sample Lyric: ‘I’m in love with the Italian presidente / I feel his leg under the table’.

Which Record: Come Visit The Big Bigot With Dead Eyes Opened (Nettwork, 1987)

One comment

  1. I have seen Severed Heads live many times in the 80’s and 90’s. They are strange people, very strange people. There music, whilst brilliant, is about the manic minds searching for something strange

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