Sunday, 21 February 2010

SEVERED HEADS - Dead Eyes Opened 12" + Sevs In Space + live ABC Rock Arena 1986

Severed Heads live Beck's Festival Bar, Hyde Park Barracks Sydney, 14 January 2010. Pic by Zoltan Blazer.

Of all the electro-geniuses (genii?) out there twiddling their knobs in basements and attics, Australian Tom Ellard stands (like many, largely unrecognised outside a hardcore of appreciators) at the top of the tree. He has ploughed a singular furrow welding together experimental and melodic electronics and quirky visuals since the late 70s in Sydney when he joined an anti-commercial 'band' called Mr & Mrs No-Smoking Sign. When original members Richard Fielding & Andrew Wright left, Ellard continued as Severed Heads. The early music was almost beyond labelling, incorporating elements of 'industrial' noise-generation, tape cutting & looping, early sampling of found sounds and electronic sound synthesis. As the project developed it became more 'conventional', employing song-structures and vocals in a more-or-less recognisable mutant electro pop style. Over the years he has been assisted by several fellow electro-travellers including Garry Bradbury, Paul Deering, Stephen R. Jones, inventor of one of the first video-synthesizers, and the late Simon (Insect-O-Cutor) Knuckey and Robert Racic.

For a long time Ellard has had a notoriously spiky, up and down relationship with his musical alter-ego, the music business and a fair few of his fans. The Heads supposedly signed off with a spectacular Sydney show in January but on the website Ellard pronounces the project as '...born 1979, died 2008.' In truth, he's viewed the Heads as an albatross and railed against the dying of the light for quite a while. He has accused certain post-punk new wave bands like New Order and Depeche Mode of continuing well past what he sees as their their sell-by date while at the same time bemoaning the critical establishment's failure to notice Severed Heads' activities since 1985. He frustratedly refers to fans and critics who prefer early Heads material as 'Cliffords' (the 79-85 compilation album was called Clifford Darling, Please Don't Live In the Past) whom he sees as burying their, er, heads in the sand and refusing to open up to the later, less abstract stuff. Seems like a case of having cake and eating it, but that is one of the most refreshing things about Tom Ellard: he speaks his mind whatever is on it and wears his heart on his sleeve. He now lectures at the University of New South Wales and, reading his blog, even this seems to have as many cons as pros. Perhaps he's just a frustrated rock star ;) or more likely, one of those people (like me, for sure) who never really found out what they wanted to do after they left school.

A major reason I and many Heads fans love the band so much is that for the best part of 30 years they forged a unique identity with heart, spleen and ideology, produced some of the most amazing electronic music ever heard (for me Ellard is THE master electro melodician; his trademark off-kilter basslines are the nuts and his minor-key harmonies are almost overwhelmingly beautiful) and continued through the wasteland of the late 80s/entire 90s into the noughties when doing so must have felt like banging their, er, heads against a bigger, harder wall each year. So I can certainly forgive his spikiness, I just wish he'd try to see it from a wider point of view. People's likes and dislikes are usually hardwired into them for very complex reasons and if anyone out there loves even one part of your oeuvre so much, it's a job well done in my book. Would that many of us had the talent and perseverance to produce something half as good...

From the very early days of the shared (with Rhythmyx Chymx) Ear Bitten album in 1980, through Terse Tapes cassette releases like Clean (1981), Blubberknife (1982) and Since the Accident (1983), Severed Heads did their own experimental thing like no-one else, with a determinedly DIY aesthetic. One track that Ellard created to fill space on Since the Accident became a double-edged sword: Dead Eyes Opened, featuring simple but killer interweaving sequences cradling Edgar Lustgarten's macabre spoken vocal from a cassette audiobook, has been the band's most consistently-loved cut ever since. This fuelled Ellard's frustration with the fandom and marketing side of making music - but quality is quality is quality. I'm guessing he's not a subscriber to the death of the author principle...

Subsequent releases opened the band up to international critical attention. City Slab Horror was released by UK label Ink Records in 1985 and live UK appearances followed, at London's ICA and Everyman Cinema. They went on a fraught tour in Canada and at home, but some good did emerge: Volition Records signed a deal for domestic releases and Nettwerk took on North American distribution. Clifford, Darling... and The Big Bigot soon appeared, followed in 1987 by Bad Mood Guy and 1989's Rotund For Success.

The 90s proved traumatic, with record company indifference and financial difficulties to the fore. 1991's Cuisine included an experimental suite entitled Piscatorial, outlining schizophrenic tensions of trying to align & market the band's diverse musical styles. Nothing else appeared until 1994's (96 in the US) Gigapus album, which was a commercial disappointment. Ellard had long been interested in video technology and the album was reissued as Metapus, a limited 2 disc package with one disc a CD-ROM of video work. This ushered in a new era of embracing developments in internet and digital technology. Sick of trying to forge new deals, Ellard released 1998's Haul Ass album as a self-issued CD-R, ordered direct from the sevcom website. In the early 2000s a series of cd releases entitled Op (v1.0, v2.0 etc.) became available and he also issued DVD-Rs of new video material like Robot Peepshow. A film soundtrack (Illustrated Family Doctor) in 2004 was followed by a deal with James Nice at LTM to reissue Rotund For Success with remixes and extra tracks. The soundtrack even earned a record industry award - the first recognition of its kind.

In December 2005 I was fortunate enough to see Severed Heads live for the first (and, I guess, last) time at the BIMFest (Belgian Independent Music Festival) at Hof Ter Lo in Antwerp. I went over with a good friend who was lucky enough to have been at the Everyman Cinema gig in 85, the bastard - I couldn't go. Ellard was on great dry form that day and he and Alison Cole played a terrific set augmented by his surreal and blackly humorous video animations. Ellard's first words on stage were "And now, the comic relief"- he even got in a spike to start with. He followed this with "We're called 'Frank Sinatra.'"
Severed Heads live Antwerp BIMFest 2005. Pics by Man On Wire.

I have a good quality audio file of the gig which I found on the sickness-abounds blog a few months ago. I notice the blog has been removed and a smaller version has replaced it - see my blog list - but the file is no longer there. If it is not forthcoming I'll upload it to a server myself for a future post.

Some of the live tracks did appear on LTM's Viva Heads! cd in 2006. The same year, Sevcom released Under Gail Succubus packaged with Over Barbara Island, a round-up of new material. The 2cd remix compilation ComMerz appeared from LTM in 2007, and in 2008 Ellard released the mammoth 5-album vinyl early/rarities retrospective Adenoids, which has just appeared as a cd set available from sevcom.

This list is not exhaustive, and doesn't include side projects like Co Kla Coma, nor does it cover Ellard's occasional production roles for bands like Skinny Puppy and Single Gun Theory. It's been a 30 year career of pioneering music and video work so please do it justice by researching it further at and - also go to LTM's Severed Heads catalogue page HERE and bio page written by Bernie Krause HERE.

Courtesy of Pop Will Eat My Blog, here's a link to download Severed Heads' Dead Eyes Opened EP, Nettwerk, 1986.

Tom Ellard has his own YouTube channel (of course), where you'll find some of his superb, unique home-made video gems. If he were Czech or similar his animations would have been enough to forge a cult career in their own right. The latest video additions are in HD - 720p max at the moment - paving the way for a mooted Blu-ray disc. This track, Sevs In Space, from the phenomenal Haul Ass album, is a glorious fusion of music & visuals. Velvet Numanesque chorus melodies and a crazy narrative concept based on a monumental flying head (yep, a homage to John Boorman's 1974 sf curio Zardoz) will do it for me every time.

Lastly, here are a couple of archival must-watches thanks to YouTuber 'QRhuggies': Severed Heads live in the studio on ABC's Rock Arena TV show from October 1986. The first video is 13 minutes and features the tracks Petrol, A Million Angels and Bless The House. The second clocks in at 15 minutes and features Big Blue Is Back, Harold & Cindy Hospital, Propellor and Halo. I defy any true fan of electronic music to watch these videos and listen to a Sevs album without getting hooked and diving head first into the whole shebang.

I've loved the Heads since Since the Accident and especially City Slab Horror, duly conforming to the Clifford stereotype by loving that album perhaps the most of all the band's output. I've lost count of the people I've introduced to Severed Heads down the years who wondered how come they'd never heard them before and bought their product. I hope the blogosphere serves to increase profiles and sales of artists like Szajner, Ellard and others featured on eclectic music blogs - even I'm not cynical enough to think that everyone who comes across the material is only destined to download it for free wherever they can find it. As Ellard himself put it a long time ago on an album sleevenote:
'Remember - no-one lost their job buying Severed Heads.'


  1. you´ve done a great tribute!

    Severed Heads had an incredible impact on me. From their early pioneering days with audio/video wizardry and later on also in managing to create catchy, infectuous but still highly unconventional harmonies, genius! There´s always something new to pick up the next time you listen to any of their tracks between all those layers, cut-ups and odd basslines.

    Viva Tom Ellard!


  2. Such a good review about one of my long time admired bands! thanks! Me, a lucky owner of almost everything they released in the good old times of vinyl. Your post just made me picking them up and replaying them again on the Technics... Best

    btw: was there any 7" single release of them?

    1. --There were 7" of "DEO" in both the UK (Red Flame/Virgin promo) and Spain in '87 (featuring a "Spook Remix").
      --Volition released a "Petrol" 7", which includes five lock grooves (a playing of that side is easily found on Yoo Toob).
      --Volition also did a while label promo 7" of "Greater Reward."