Clifford darling, please don’t live in the past: A Severed Heads primer

❉ Ahead of their return to the stage on 28 October, we present a primer for the cult Australian electronic pioneers Severed Heads.

I was first introduced to Severed Heads in a car bundling through the Leicestershire night. It was an incongruous but appropriate meeting. We were driving around country pubs, navigating the countryside largely at whim. The hills rolling by in the moonlight were soundtracked by something that persistently threatened to be a pop song yet, like ourselves opted instead for the road less travelled. The effect was potent, and like much of the best music it had enough interesting edges for me to grab hold of. I wasn’t an instant fan, but it was the start of a long and hugely enjoyable obsession.

If they’d know the name would last for decades they would probably have put some more thought into it. They’ve repeatedly said in interviews how much they hate the name. It’s just like our mothers told us – they pulled that face and the wind changed.

There’s nearly forty years of history behind the name Severed Heads. I don’t want to recount it all as there’s Wikipedia for that. They started in Sydney in 1979 with Richard Fielding and Andrew Wright under the deliberately difficult name Mr and Mrs No Smoking Sign. They were soon joined by Tom Ellard, who would become first the core of the group, and later the group itself. It was around this time that they changed their name to Severed Heads, ostensibly because they thought it would be funny to pretend to be an industrial band. If they’d know the name would last for decades they would probably have put some more thought into it. They’ve repeatedly said in interviews how much they hate the name. It’s just like our mothers told us – they pulled that face and the wind changed.

But enough history. Let’s jump forward to 1991’s ‘Cuisine (with Piscatorial)’, which is what I was listening to from the back seat of a Ford Fiesta en-route to a quaint pub in somewhere like Old Dalby. By this time the band’s output was mainly from Ellard, with long-serving video manipulator Stephen Jones taking a lesser role. It is, like every Severed Heads album before it, quite distinct from its predecessors and heavily coloured by the technology used to create it. It also marks a division in their catalogue. ‘Cuisine’ was the last Severed Heads album release on Canadian label Nettwerk Records. Later known for poppier acts such as Avril Lavigne, Nettwerk at that time was home to industrial heavyweights Skinny Puppy. Being on a label so closely associated with industrial music didn’t exactly help the band’s claim that the name Severed Heads had been chosen “to take the piss” out of industrial music. ‘Cuisine’s opener (on the original release) Pilot in Hell doesn’t fall far from the industrial tree, starting as it does with some fairly abrasive synth stabs. Listen further though and the differences become apparent. There’s melody, for one thing. Then there are Tom Ellard’s vocals. While they are sometimes treated, here they are quite natural, and even when distorted it isn’t to make them sound menacing or portentous in the industrial mode.

It is the album at length that reveals the band’s distinctive qualities however, and of all their albums I find Cuisine their most cohesive. This is perhaps because the equipment used (predominantly a Yamaha SY77, synth fans) is less obfuscated than it has previously been. Ordinarily I would say this is a bad thing as that obfuscation, the layering of sound to create something quite unique is part of the band’s attraction. And that’s certainly not to say there isn’t depth and texture to ‘Cuisine’. There is, but the songs have been allowed more space, giving a clearer idea of what it is about the band that I find so appealing.

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I find it hard to put my finger on exactly what that is, given the huge breadth of their output. Could it be the lyrics? They are certainly interesting. Pilot in Hell is about an air force pilot haunted by his memories and this is an anomaly in that it’s fairly literal. Others are less penetrable, with even their titles being often whimsical. Life in the Whale for example suggests a biblical allegory but I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s it’s actually about. As much as I enjoy fragments of them, the lyrics aren’t the magic ingredient that keeps me coming back.

Perhaps disappointingly, it turns out that what appeals about Severed Heads is what appeals about a lot of music –interesting songs with a good ear for a tune. But of course there’s more. The vocals while often quite plain have a peculiar edge to them. And the melodies, while undeniably sweet are often moderated by something not quite sour but subtly dissonant. It is a complementary effect. The structure of the songs in general is unconventional, frequently bursting into well-crafted but unexpected samples, bent and chopped beyond recognition of their source. This can be traced back to the band’s exploratory beginnings, which are more strongly represented by the ‘Piscatorial’ section of the album.

‘Piscatorial’ was originally intended to be a separate release not under the Severed Heads name, and as such it makes for a strange shift in tone. ‘Cuisine’ closes with, appropriately enough, the rather lush Goodbye (on the original release – curiously it’s moved to halfway through the running order on the current edition) and while ‘Piscatorial’s opener Her Teeth the Ally is a slight change in style, the track after that becomes quite unnerving. Titled Kangaroo Skippy Roo, it builds on a loop of the titular Australian children’s game. It starts off innocently enough but the tone becomes increasingly sinister, progressing through operatic-sounding samples into something brilliant and grand. This building of loops is characteristic of ‘Piscatorial’, and harks back to the band’s earliest work which used tape loops to similar effect. Indeed, Quest for Oom Pa Pa could almost be from that period.

After my drive-by introduction to Severed Heads I was keen to dive into their back catalogue, and it was there that I quickly discovered their more experimental origins. UK Label Ink records released their fourth and fifth albums, ‘Since the Accident’ (1983) and ‘City Slab Horror’ (1985). Long out of press by the time I came along, Nettwerk had reissued these on CD. Both filled out with tracks taken from their 1982 Cassette-only album ‘Blubberknife’ and 1985 compilation ‘Clifford Darling, Please Don’t Live in the Past’, they were repackaged under the banner ‘1983-1984 Parts 1 & 2’. This made the CDs a compendium of their early recordings although even pared back to their original tracks they are wildly uneven. Neither is anything you would call a cohesive album, but oh, what jewels there are within! I like to think there’s something there for everyone, even people who find the rest of it unlistenable. Your mileage may, as ever, vary but here are some recommendations for further listening: Houses Still Standing, Now, an Explosive New Movie, We Have Come to Bless the House, Power Circles, A Million Angels and  Gashing the Old Mae West.

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Of particular note is Dead Eyes Opened, a thoroughly pop hook supporting a recording of Edgar Lustgarten reading a story for radio. This track would become a pulse of the band’s popularity, being re-released a couple of times over the next decade, with the 1994 version reaching number 16 in the Australian charts. It’s also worth noting Goodbye Tonsils, which is impossible to discuss without mentioning Severed Heads’ video work. From their early days, video has been an important part of the band’s identity. Goodbye Tonsils’ video features loops of plane crash footage tightly edited and treated until it is almost unrecognisable as such. At times it resembles a scrap in a Loony Tunes cartoon. It is visually very striking and earned itself a desirable slot on Max Headroom, which was the in place to be seen at the time. In many respects Max Headroom’s eerie computer generated mediascape was the perfect outlet for the band’s music and visuals.

One of the video treatments used in the video is the much celebrated (amongst fans, and unheard of by almost everyone else) video synthesizer. The creation of video artist and Severed Heads member Stephen Jones, this was an analogue system which added synthesized patterns, motion and colour to a video signal. Compared to the modern digital toolbox it’s incredibly crude, but its output is original and compelling. That it helped smooth over the cracks in their on-screen budget didn’t hurt either. The video synthesizer went hand-in-hand with this period, and I steeped myself in it via a couple of VHS cassettes released by Ikon. These became my personal best-of compilations – the music and videos rightly united. The ambition and variety of these is immediately obvious. Hot with Fleas (a song which seems to be literally about being a dog) uses an Amiga home computer to make a foray into digital video effects. There is – by modern standards – crude CGI, and some surprisingly effective digital manipulation of sampled video. Even watching it in 1991 it looked remarkable. Now of course it has dated but some key parts of it, such as silhouetted stationery keyed over Ellard’s face still work some magic.

It is during this period (1986 – 1989) that the band produced some of their better known work. 1986’s Come Visit the Big Bigot was for a long time my favourite as it has what I thought of as the most Heads-y sound. Certainly it’s a high watermark for the amount of layering that went into their sound. Ellard has said that his tendency at the time was try to pile as many tracks as he could into the mix, whereas now the opposite is true. Come Visit the Big Bigot represents one extreme of those ideals and it’s a gorgeous contraption of an album. To my ears it’s the most accomplished of that era and bounces along like a springed beast. Everything is just slightly off-kilter, threatening to fall apart but always yielding just so far before returning to form. Highlights are the breezy pop of Twenty Deadly Diseases and Propeller, both of which featured on a 12” single. I also strongly recommend Harold and Cindy Hospital, which is perhaps the most bluntly Severed Heads song recorded. Its beginning is quite caustic and threatens to invoke the controversial industrial word again. Its lyrical subject matter catching bullets in teeth and split-brain research, and yet just when you think you have its measure it transforms into one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard. It’s thoroughly addictive. The album also features one of the band’s rare covers, in this case a quite startling version of Cream’s Strange Brew.

1987’s ‘Bad Mood Guy’ is reportedly an aptly named record. Disagreements with and interference from the label made for a patchy album. However for all the record’s faults, which are mostly that it feels more like a demo than a finished album, its release and that of 1989’s follow-up ‘Rotund for Success’ coincided with a popular surge of interest in house music. In 1988 the band released their Greater Reward 12”, the titular track featuring a piano refrain that has been sampled by many house records, a flattery that has been a source of great ire for the band. In those busy days when the racks in record shops were bursting with twelve inches, nobody gave much thought to crediting samples, and fewer still considered paying for them.

This is especially galling when the records in question are structured around Greater Reward’s hook – without it they’re unremarkable. Examples include Liberation’s Liberation 2 and Phlash’s Frantic Theme. Still, Greater Reward did enjoy some success of its own, and the band worked with producer Robert Racic to create more dance-friendly versions of their singles from this period. Big Car and All Saints Day benefited from this collaboration, and these were collected together on the ‘Retread’ compilation album in 1991. Outside of these appeals to the dance charts, ‘Rotund’s Bad Times Too and ‘Bad Mood Guy’s Dressed in Air are worthy of investigation by the curious.

Following ‘Cuisine’ the band began the shift into the current mode. Long-time collaborator Stephen Jones moved on and Nettwerk’s new musical focus became incompatible with Severed Heads, leaving Tom Ellard shopping for a new label on his own. This was eventually achieved with Volition Records in Australia (and Decibel in the US), who would release 1994’s ‘Gigapus’. This was promoted, even though it doesn’t feature on the album, with a remix of Dead Eyes Opened. It is this version that charted in Australia. The only single released from the album, Heart of the Party is perhaps their most unashamedly pop tune yet. However its refrain of “Who will tell my drunken friend that she will die and go to hell” was probably not what Australia’s clubbers wanted to hear. It didn’t bother the charts. It’s interesting to note that although the video for this falls into the same hole of retrospective mediocrity that all ‘90s computer graphics do, it makes Severed Heads’ recurrent visual blurring of the body and the machine clearer than usual. The face becoming just a mouth on the pinball scoreboard, the eyeball pinball.

‘Gigapus’ itself is a very accomplished record. Lusher in production than ‘Cuisine’, it manages to be both varied in tone and yet still feels like a solid piece of work. Tiny Wounded Bird and The Importance of Hair are particularly lovely. By rights the record should have enjoyed wider success, but the leading edge of the music industry was starting to hit the rocks, and Volition folded, leaving a chunk of the band’s back catalogue frustratingly tied up by Sony. This was a storm that was always coming, and in some ways being forced out of the traditional recording industry gave the band (by now just Tom Ellard) a head start in the brave new musical world we currently live in. The internet wasn’t necessarily the problem then, but it could possibly be the answer.

Severed Heads and the internet were no strangers. Fans (known as Cliffords, after the 1985 compilation double album ‘Clifford Darling, Please Don’t Live in the Past’) were already in contact with one another and the band via an email group. And well before that the band had issued a few booklets under the Severed Communications (sevcom to friends) banner. These featured technical details of their albums, recording tips and some humorous pieces. 1989’s ‘There is no Booklet but Booklet’ contains some prescient if mistimed ruminations on the coming of HDTV and interactive video.

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The Cliffords kept a sense of the band alive during this quiet period. They exchanged ideas. They collaborated musically despite being spread out across the globe. At one point they made an album of Severed Heads covers together. The band may not have found commercial success, but they had a steady and loyal cult following.

It seems logical then for the next step to be an album produced outside of the mainstream industry, but this is Severed Heads, and so instead they released a CD-ROM of the non-Sony-owned portion of their back catalogue compressed with an early precursor to the mp3 format. It’s safe to say that in 1995 this was well ahead of the curve, although the compression used did leave something to be desired sonically. That it was only available as a physically posted disc seems almost perverse, but domestic internet speeds – most people were still on dial-up – were not yet up to the task of downloading it wholesale. It did however lay the groundwork for what was to follow.

In the meantime there was at last a new album. Severed Communications had by then shifted from booklet form to the world wide web, and so in 1998 the sevcom.com site announced that ‘Haul Ass’ was available to purchase directly from the artist. Nowadays such arrangements are commonplace, but back then this was uncharted territory. The internet still wasn’t really fast enough for distribution, and the mp3 revolution while just around the corner hadn’t yet arrived. As such, the album was burned to CD (recordable CDs themselves were still something of a novelty) by Ellard himself and sent out in the post. I still remember the thrill of receiving new music all the way from Australia. It’s a great feeling, that connection between artist and audience, and one that many have tried to replicate in the broadband era with varying degrees of success.

The exercise wasn’t immediately profitable but it appeared to relight Ellard’s interest, and he took the opportunity to revisit the bulk of his catalogue not owned by Sony. Much of this material was very hard to find by then, especially in good fidelity. Its new availability was welcomed by fans, and he got busy remastering and recollating it. There was a reissue of ‘Clifford Darling’ and notably a revised version of ‘Bad Mood Guy’ which aimed to fix the problems with the original release.

I eagerly ordered everything and waited for them to ship halfway around the world to my little house in the East Midlands. They were fun times, but the internet was coming in all its giant-slaying, mp3-fueled glory. Unlike the record business in general, sevcom was quite ready for it. The opportunity to release music directly and instantly wasn’t wasted by Ellard, and he soon began a project he called ‘OP. In contrast to ‘Haul Ass’, which had been an eclectic mix of styles from Severed Heads’ compendious oeuvre, this was an album of more immediate, often simple tunes. Uniquely however it wasn’t intended to be a complete album. Instead Ellard occasionally expanded and remixed it with further releases such as OP 1.2, OP 2.0 and so on, using the convention for successive software versions. Each new version was an extension of the album. Free from the time limit dictated by CD, there was no reason for it ever to be complete. It’s quite a treasure trove and features some of my favourites of this period: Oblique Firefly Overlocker, We Choose Moon, The Symptom Symphony and Boombalah.

However, the ‘00s were to bring the end of the band, such as it was by then. Ellard released one more full album under the name Severed Heads in 2006. ‘Under Gail Succubus’, released with its companion piece ‘Over Barbara Island’, is a continuation of the Severed Heads sound last visited in full eight years previously with ‘Haul Ass’. That isn’t to say there hadn’t been progress. It still sounds more modern and accomplished than its predecessor. ‘Barbara Island’ is a very different beast. Based on a live set it’s entirely instrumental and not a million miles from the music released on ‘OP’. If I have to distinguish the two, I’d say ‘Barbara Island’ is a denser listen. It is also intended to work as a whole piece as opposed to OP’s role as a musical work in progress. Personal favourites on ‘Gail Succubus’ are Snuck and Takin’ Out the Surfin’ Bird.

In 2008 Ellard announced that he was retiring the Severed Heads name. He would continue to record and release music under his own name, but for the venerable Heads the last gasp would be one final update to the OP series. Long threatened by Ellard, there was an air of inevitability to it.

And there it should finish. Severed Heads were finally dead, strangled by an exasperated Ellard, a line heavily drawn beneath the corpse. Except it doesn’t. Instead, the internet came knocking once again. This time it was the fresh generation of young music obsessives. Armed with instant access to any genre you care to think of, they could pick their way through musical history with mercurial speed. Not for them the slow trawl of record shops, the tapes swapped through the post. They could go anywhere they wanted and so it was inevitable that some of them would find Severed Heads.

This spark of renewed interest has coaxed the band out of retirement, and they started playing gigs again in 2015. Now comprising Tom Ellard and Ex-Boxcar keyboardist Stewart Lawler, the band had played a few last hurrah gigs after their retirement but this was a more committed return to gigging. Now, in 2016 they are embarking on a tour which brings them to the UK for the first time in more than thirty years. I’m more than a little bit excited! Even when I first discovered them back in 1991 the idea that I would ever see them live seemed preposterously remote. They have also release their first new work since retirement, the epic ‘Beautiful Arabic Surface’. Severed for almost four decades, there’s life in these Heads yet.


❉ Severed Heads play The Glue Factory in Glasgow on Friday 28 October and Electrowerkz in London on Friday 4 November.

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