The Strange World Of... Severed Heads
, October 17th, 2016 08:34
A crack squad of Severed Heads fans select ten points of entry into the bewilderingly large back catalogue of Tom Ellard - the core of the long-running, cult Australian electronic project. Introduction by Becky Marshall and selections by JD Twitch, the So Low crew and Stuart McLean from The Dark Outside
“We should never ever pre-organise ourselves into categories that fit nicely in museums, journals and repositories. That’s like pinning yourself into a display case.”
Tom Ellard, Severed Heads
Minimal electronic, synth pop, EBM. These are all terms which describe the music of Severed Heads but none of the terms are truly adequate. Essentially the life project of sole core member, Tom Ellard, Severed Heads is not a band but more a representation of what a truly creative life can be (although Ellard himself refuses to be referred to as an artist.)
Ellard began making music as a teenager in Sydney’s suburbs in late 1970s, messing around with school friends Richard Fielding and Andrew Wright. Cutting and pasting together tape loops, sampling TV themes, melting records - they used whatever they could to make new and interesting sounds. It was a necessary distraction from the monotony of teenage life. As Ellard describes it - they were merely doing what was necessary for their happiness.
In late-1979 this messing around was given it’s first serious recognition, when Australian broadcaster Peter Doyle played a full hour tape recording on his 2JJ radio show. Around the same time Ellard started Terse Tapes, and began distributing cassettes around his local record shops. In retrospect, you can see a political dimension to this move - circumventing main stream record companies in favour of self-releasing - but at the time is was merely the quickest and cheapest way to get the bands’ music out into the world.
By 1983 Severed Heads had developed a steady following in their native Australia, playing on bills with the likes of SPK. Moving image manipulator Stephen Jones joined the ever changing line up, creating pioneering video work alongside the bands’ musical creations. At the time, Australian bands were causing a stir internationally, prompting the owner of British label Ink, David Kitson, to fly over on a scouting mission. During the trip, Severed Heads’ latest cassette release Since The Accident found its way into his hands. A last minute addition to tape - a more melodic piece entitled 'Dead Eyes Open', put together by Ellard in a single short recording session - caught Kitson’s attention and he immediately signed the band to Ink (formerly Red Flame). Although Kitson would release the full tape in the UK and Europe, it was 'Dead Eyes Open' that grabbed the attention of a wider audience.
The history of Severed Heads from this point onwards clearly illustrates Ellard’s mentality as an artist. Ink were absorbed by Virgin, and suddenly Ellard found himself on a major label. With 'Dead Eyes Open', mainstream success became a real possibility. In 1985, Ink flew the band to the UK for their first international gigs. A crowd gathered expecting to hear dance-floor friendly synth pop, and instead Ellard and co. treated them to a 30 minute ambient trance piece, 'Kato Gets The Girl'. The reception was mixed, to say the least. But what could be seen as self-sabotage is really just an encapsulation of what makes Ellard a true artist. 'Dead Eyes Open' no longer represented the music he wanted to make, and just because it was popular did not mean he would alter his creative process.
This is not to say that Severed Heads stopped producing, at times, perfect pop music with definite commercial potential. 1987’s Bad Mood Guy features a number of tracks that are as eurphorically melancholic as anything produced by, say, New Order. 1988’s Greater Reward is acid house perfection.
This is perhaps what makes Severed Heads such a fascinating band. Ellard’s unwillingness to be defined, his restless creativity, has meant that Severed Heads is a project that can mean many different things to many different people. To prove this, I asked two 30-year devotees and two young worshipers to offer up their Severed Heads related highlights. I’ve added a few of my own for good measure. Here’s to doing what is necessary for your happiness.
Harold And Cindy Hospital
New Year’s Eve 1986. I peaked a little early and dozed off at about 10pm at my girlfriend’s house. I woke up right around midnight to find her and my friends had headed out and I had no idea where they had gone, so I sat around waiting for them to come back and put on Come Visit The Big Bigot which I had bought earlier that day with some Christmas money. I got to 'Harold And Cindy Hospital' near the end of side two and was totally transfixed by it so kept on playing it over and over and over. It is short. Just under three minutes. I was probably still a little merry. Around 6am my girlfriend came back and I was still playing it so must have been on around my 100th play. The next afternoon when I woke up again her mum and dad who had been “asleep” next door were both walking round the house looking a little tired and grumpy while humming the melody. The album closer that comes after it, 'Legion' is almost as good but it took several further weeks of 'Harold And Cindy' fixation before I finally got to hear it.
I think this era of Severed Heads is perhaps the most under appreciated but when I listen to this song I endlessly wonder why Severed Heads never crossed over to the mainstream. Was it the name? Was it Mr Ellard’s vocal stylings? Was it just sheer bad fortune? Whatever, 'Nation' opens with what to my ears is one of the most exquisite melodies in all of electronic music. As engaging and memorable as anything say New Order ever came up with (superior to my ears), it still feels life affirming to me every time I hear it. Combined with trademark singular Ellard drum programming, inspired, ahead of the then state of the art vocal sample usage and plain old fantastic songwriting this was to me the zenith of very advanced pop music. Here in the UK where Severed Heads fans were seemingly as rare as the Sumatran Rhino, when their paths collided they herded together and never let go of each other: everyone I knew from this era who was into Severed Heads remains a good friend of mine to this day.
“We were never in the 'classical' camp where old and supposedly 'authentic' making is the rule.”
I recently contacted Tom Ellard to have a chat about Severed Heads' video works, which are interlinked and laced with the music; these are videos which are as pioneering as their songs. Never ones to repeat, to copy and perpetuate an aesthetic which in large part is due to the Severed Heads themselves (alongside others such as Psychic TV, Clock DVA, 23 Skidoo) and which has become synonymous with that of industrial music; the scuzzed up edges of the early video synthesisers shining out through a CRT set with the uneasy, uneven, hectic, glitch and disjointed images that mimics and colours the moxie of the music. Severed Heads have chosen to revise, remake, evolve and update their aesthetic and sonic output.
The first version of the ‘Greater Reward’ video which was hand animated and put through an analogue video synthesiser was made in 1988 and has since been revised every three years or so. Ellard refers to it as his ‘test case’ in new technology. It’s a bonkers adventure into the mind of Severed Heads… a trip into the Easter Bunnies and Duchamp’s Large Glass; whirling images, haunting, taunting bodies in mutated forms masked and set against another world from an alien landscape. Maybe it's our own? In its current incarnation it has been designed to be viewed through the Occulus VR Gear; have it wired straight into your brain. If you’ve ever wanted to walk around in a SH world, now you can.
My favourite is a heart-wrenching, beautiful, bittersweet piece which just coshes me over the head to leave me smiling is ‘A Million Angels’. The Original video sees a preacher (until my recent message from Ellard I had thought him to be a Vegas performer or other American archetype) scrolling and falling through an animated backdrop of geometric and architectural structures (a recurring emblem in SH’s work) while crosses fall from the sky. The updated version is a fusion of the 1983 raw footage which Stephen Jones recently unearthed and sent to Ellard to remake in a higher definition with current technology. It’s fervently new. It’s not pop art from art pop. It’s subversive, abstract yet strangely political; in the simplest terms it’s amongst the weirdest bits of art I’ve ever seen. Built to unnerve, Severed Heads have written their own language. It's a total art of no greater reward and it leaves me totally enthralled.
Having been a longtime fan of Severed Heads I was really really really excited to drop the stylus on the reissue of main man Tom Ellard’s early solo work. Once only available on the exorbitantly priced rare cassettes via eBay, Josh Cheeon brought the music of ‘80s Cheesecake’ back to the masses via his always excellent imprint Dark Entries. The music moves from experimental pieces to propulsive dancefloor gems leaving me thrilled! My first favourite is 'Touch', three minutes of weird slow/fast emotional electronic dance bliss. Getting this record coincided with my first ever outing as DJ, playing at our So Low night and I was psyched to play it out. Being a novice I had planned out my whole set so it would flow with the night and so that I could practice my mixing pretty thoroughly, fail to prepare, prepare to fail & all that… This was definitely the hardest track to mix both in and out of in my set of records, with quite a fast bpm for a strangely slow sounding track, and it was so so short, making for an intense three minutes behind the decks.
303B The East is Red
My second favourite track from the LP is '303B The East Is Red'. It sounds like some sort of free jazz washing machine, redolent of Larry Heard, Silver Apples and ImpLOG. It's an ultra-modern sounding experimental dancefloor-igniting slayer of a track, exactly what you want to hear on a night out but so rarely do. Come to So Low and you just might though.
Edge Of The Wedge, On Australian TV
My day job is as an archive researcher in the TV industry, so when I come across vintage TV appearance from my favourite bands, it tends to make me overly excited. This appearance from Tom Ellard and Stephen Jones on Australian TV in 1986 is a great snapshot of of Severed Heads' music and video production techniques. Featuring great shots of Ellard melting records, looping tapes, and smashing watermelons, the video feels like a small window into their world at the time. It also captures the humour at the heart of the project. Never ones to be taken too seriously, Ellard appears as the jovial prankster - a role which has always come naturally to him. I wish there was more TV like this now.
ABC Rock Arena, On Australian TV
If I had been alive in 1986, and seen this on national television, I’m not sure what I would have done. From the opening chords of Petrol, this is an amazing exhibition of screwed synth pop accompanied by ground-breaking live video synthesis. This performance came off the back of a major US tour, and watching it I can’t help question why Severed Heads never quite gained the success they deserved. Perhaps they didn’t need to, because their influence can certainly still be felt.
They are technological Pioneers.
Tom Ellard Online
I can think of few people that have been as relentlessly creative and innovative as Tom Ellard, and a large part of this has come down to the extent to which he embraces new technology. This is obvious in the bands’ music and video work, but also in more surprising ways, such as SevCom. True to his nature, Ellard was an early internet pioneer. From as early as 1992, Ellard had a bulletin system online, which eventually developed into the infamous website (confusingly designed by another Stephen Jones). Sevcom became a strong community, with an active forum in which individuals from across the world traded secrets on music and video production. Ellard also figured out that he could distribute his music online - an idea which seems obvious now, by that was as uncommon in 1998, as his means of cassette distribution was in 1978. He bought a CD burner and would take fax orders, making minuscule profits on each CD he distributed.
Hauntology House or H.H. is a musical world, designed by Tom Ellard for the Adelaide Festival. It's an album where you walk around inside and operate some of the music yourself. It might be the most perfect expression of Allard’s vision. As he said - "Here, music is the living space rather than the walls, and in that space lives a collection of machines, animals and tunnels - the ghosts of my musical ideals.”
Exploring The Secrets Of Treating Deaf Mutes
When Twitch asked me to choose two Severed Heads tracks to write something about my first thought was, 'Two? ONLY TWO ? But…'
You see, people have their Bowie, their Beatles, their Zeppelin, their Kanye and what have you. I have Severed Heads. From the initial WTF moment when Max Headroom aired 'Goodbye Tonsils' it was love at first listen. Even my old leather jacket had the words “Heat Seeking Susan” on the back. I could go on but I’d bore you. Probably. 'Exploring The Secrets Of Treating Deaf Mutes' (from Since The Accident) isn't just a catchy title; this is joy for the ears. It has a tune, it has noises galore, it has some marvellously shouty Garry Bradbury lyrics:
"Under the bridge tonight
Squeezing a wormy horn
I played with Simon Brooks
exploring the secrets of treating deaf mutes
Olio globular foetid Louisa pizza
Who wants to buy a pimple fat squeezer
From Chris Marshall's Organ Warehouse?"
This also features a recording of what is apparently Tom Ellard’s mother and Simon Insectocutor (Simon Knuckey, from the Wet Taxis) on guitar. From the snare drum over on the right to the tape “scratching” ( yes, you heard me), this also has one of my favourite synth lines ever. It’s not quite pop.
Not everyone approved of Tom Ellard’s forays into pop music during the 90s and his production of tunes you could actually whistle along to. Under Gail Succubus has some of the catchiest tunes and lyrics they’ve ever made. 'Snuck' sounds like it could have easily been released anytime between Stretcher and Cuisine. There’s a whole lot going on even before the first words of “Itchy itchy itchy itchy itchy itchy fore-head” kick in. It could be argued that Severed Heads are the best pop band you’ve never heard of. You really should do something about that. Stick around with me long enough and you’ll either hate them or demand to know why I never let you hear them earlier. So how would I describe Severed Heads? There are several replies to that question but the simplest one is, “Imagine if you stuck Throbbing Gristle and Erasure in a blender with a lot of beer.” Exactly.
John Doran interviews Tom Ellard live on stage at Unsound on Thursday October 27, Krakow Poland; Severed Heads make their Scottish live debut at So Low on Friday October 28 at the Glue Factory, Glasgow