Severed Heads Retrospective
With the release of Electrospective – a new compilation celebrating electronic music from the 1950s until today – we thought it was prime time to reacquaint ourselves with the back catalogue of Australian industrial-electro pioneers Severed Heads. They’re a lot more than ‘Dead Eyes Opened’, you know, writes ANDREW P STREET.
It was a weird way to go out: two guys on stage at the Enmore Theatre, one dancing a bit at far stage left while doing the odd vocal, the other texting absently behind a synth-laptop combo while ancient-looking computer graphics played out on a screen rigged up in between them.
It was May 13 2011 and Severed Heads were opening for Gary Numan, doing the 30th anniversary tour for The Pleasure Principle. Dancing and singing was Tom Ellard; texting and clicking was Stewart Lawler, best know for his work with ’90s Austlectro combo Boxcar. And while the audience was appreciative throughout, it wasn't until the end of the set, when the voiceover started up for 'Dead Eyes Opened', that the place really exploded.
Given that Severed Heads began life as an experimental industrial combo working mainly with tape loops and found sounds, it's remarkable that they ever had a hit for people to recognise at all. But for those five minutes during what was to be their second-to-last hometown performance, Severed Heads absolutely owned it.
“It's remarkable that they ever had a hit for people to recognise at all.”
A crossover hit wasn't high on the band's minds in 1979 when they first convened as Mr & Mrs No Smoking Sign. It was founded by Richard Fielding (tape loops, drum machine) and Andrew Wright (keyboards), with Ellard joining the following year. They changed their name not long after – according to Ellard, “we wanted to fool people into thinking we were industrial” – and the joke name stuck, to the band’s enduring chagrin.
At this stage the band were definitely in the Skinny Puppy/Throbbing Gristle lo-fi industrial category with early albums Ear Bitten (1980) and Clean (1981) but by the time of 1983’s Blubberknife both Wright and Fielding had jumped ship, leaving Ellard the main creative force. Things began to move in a more pop-oriented direction with a concentration on four-on-the-floor beats and actual melodies, including Ellard’s thin vocals, which led to a deal with US label Nettwork and the release of their first label effort (and second release of 1983): Since the Accident.
It’s a transitional record, where the band’s experimental past sit uncomfortably beside some top-flight synth pop: ‘A Relic of the Empire’ and ‘Brassiere, In Rome’ are as odd as anything the band had done to date, slotted alongside melodic, catchy … well, pop songs: ‘A Million Angels’ sounds like an alien dancefloor classic (and a template perhaps for what Boards of Canada were to do decades later), and the album contained their first bona-fide hit in the aforementioned ‘Dead Eyes Opened’.
This became the basis of the bands’ direction from here on in – albums like 1985’s City Slab Horror and 1986’s Come Visit the Big Bigot saw the band leave the tape loops behind and move toward an all-synth template similar to what OMD and New Order were doing at the time. The other big change was the addition of Stephen Jones to the band: he’d come on board in 1982 and became Ellard’s right hand man – although he was principally responsible for working the “video synthesizers”, giving the band their distinctive visual identity.
International success seemed assured when the band released their most accessible album Rotund for Success in 1989. The key was Melbourne producer Robert Racic, who’d done a remix of ‘Greater Reward’ the year before that had become a surprise dancefloor hit in the US. However, despite some of the band’s best songs (‘Big Car’ and ‘All Saints Day’ were just as strong) the album was limply received and the much-hoped-for crossover didn’t appear.
Nettwork let the band go soon after and by the early ’90s Ellard was alone again – but he gave it a red hot go with 1994’s Gigapus. He took the ‘Heads to Australian (mainly) electro label Volition with fellow travelers like Racic (until his unexpected and too-early death from a brain virus in 1996), Single Gun Theory and Boxcar and ‘Heart of the Party’ was a minor hit (you know the song: it’s the one that begins “Who will tell my drunken friend that she will die and go to hell?”), as was a remix of ‘Dead Eyes Opened’, which Triple J got all over.
And that might have heralded an exciting new future, had Volition not fallen over in the mid-’90s, eventually having its assets bought up by Sony and leaving Ellard to spend precious months negotiating to get his band’s name and material back. Haul Ass appeared in 1998, but at this point Ellard seemed more interested in other projects – though he resurrected the Severed Heads name for the soundtrack to Australian indie film The Illustrated Family Doctor in 2005.
In 2010 Ellard and Lawler appeared at the Sydney Festival playing a 30th-anniversary show that was meant to act as an unofficial farewell, before being coaxed into the Numan tour – and that, Ellard insists, will be that. What’s more, he seems like he thinks more bands could stand to shut up too. "There's plenty to listen to out there and in a way its kind of immoral for bands to keep putting out new music when you could already spend a lifetime trying to hear everything that's available now," he said in 2011. “I don't think the world needs any more watered down Led Zeppelin cover bands."