Severed Heads – My Role In Their Downfall Pt 1

Sometime back in ’84 or ’85 I was rudely awakened from a suburban torpor – the soundtrack of which had been provided by a steady diet of Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre and any other ‘cosmic’ music I could get my hands on. The awakening happened when my best friend returned from his visit to the far away city of Sydney with wild and shocking stories; prostitutes in Kings Cross, squats in Newtown, and a gig he went to that blew his mind so much he went out and bought the record the next day despite already having nothing to eat but slices of white bread for the whole week.

The gig was by a band called Severed Heads, he said, and it was to promote their new album Since The Accident. He loved this new “Industrial” kind of music, which involved a lot of onstage fiddling about with tape recorders and machines – but, he said in a strangely prescient moment – the audience didn’t really get into it until the ‘hit’ song came on and everyone got up to dance[1].

So he returned home with a copy of Since the Accident, and it rocked our tiny suburban world. It was music of a kind that swept away all my previous notions of the divide between pop and experimental music, because it was simultaneously both, and greater than the sum of its parts because of it. I knew the work of Cage, Stockhausen, Reich and so on, but it never really connected on an emotional level like, say, a good Abba or Zeppelin song could. (Alphabet pun there, folks)

Severed Heads was different. Clangourous, discordant, often arrhythmic, but with a peculiar pop sensibility that would put a jauntily hummable tune on top of what the parents might’ve justifiably called a “god-awful racket” – it was unlike nothing I’d ever heard before, and yet already familiar enough to easily draw me into their strange, surrealist world.

I still vividly remember the time I got to the end of side 1 and the track Golden Boy. There I was, headphones on, drifting into semi-consciousness listening to the complex interplay of harmonics and tonalities going on inside the track as it slowly devolved into a complex loop pattern. Hypnotic rhythms coalesce into a structure that constantly shifts and turns and reveals new angles and barbs. How many overlapping tape loops were producing this noise, I wondered..

Except that, after half an hour or so of this, when I wrenched myself back from semi-catatonia I realised that it was actually just one single loop – the groove on the end of the record was ‘locked’ so that it would keep playing indefinitely. I had been listening to the same few seconds of sound over and over. But that’s not what I’d heard.. What kind of anarchy was this? Have they no respect? (I might’ve fallen asleep and ruined my needle!)

Fast-forward a few years to 1989, when Bulkhead became part of the soundtrack of my troubled youth. Along with New Order, Pet Shop Boys and The Smiths, The Heads were the disturbed cousin of my pop pantheon, but I loved them no less. My colleagues in the control room next door probably weren’t all that impressed with me playing it as loud as I could on the studio monitors where I worked at the time. But it was strangely uplifting, and a good hangover cure to boot[2].

Then in 1990 I moved to Sydney and found, among other delights of the big smoke, found the System-X BBS – an “on-line” active community of local electronic musicians, one of whom happened to be Tom Ellard. I can still remember nervously composing my first electronic message[3] to him on the 80×25 character screen[4].. asking him some lame question about the chord sound that always tickled my eardrums in the Bulkhead remix of Greater Reward. I’m pretty sure he didn’t answer the question, but he wrote back and eventually – via another long story – we became friends over far too many coffees at RooBar.

I mention the chord sound in Greater Reward because the question came up again this year while I was preparing to tour with Tom for the Definitely Last Ever Australian Performance of Severed Heads[5].

But I’ll save that for part 2…

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. That song of course was Dead Eyes Opened, and it became a familiar pattern with audiences over the years, to the point of being one of the bands worst kept in-jokes, and an albatross..)
  2. If I’d only known then, that in a few short years I’d be getting a blowback from Robert Racic in another recording studio hundreds of kilometres away that would end up being one of my favourite fanboy memories – in other words it does get better..
  3. I don’t think the word ’email’ existed yet.
  4. Something like that – I can’t remember the exact dimensions now. Also, we didn’t have pixels in those days either.
  5. I still don’t know what the original sound is, it’s some sort of choir with a phaser on it – probably an Eventide in the original judging by the sweetness of that comb filter and the fact that it was mixed at 301. Yes, I can spot trains with the best of them