THE second time I ever saw the amazing Severed Heads they were playing to the usual half-empty room of dedicated adventurers and deadbeats in their usual venue, the Sydney Trade Club, located in the typical leafy inner city suburb of Surry Hills. The usual pairs of eyes were fixed to the banks of television sets on either side of the stage which were unleashing the usual rapid blitz of Technicolor brain-jolts. The usual pairs of ears were being into the usual state of excitation that occurs whenever the Heads set their bravura modern dance trance from Mars into interstellar overdrive. The usual small gathering of Oz-rockers and surfies were standing at the back trying to figure out how these characters had the nerve to scuttle around on stage adjusting electronic equipment like engineers when they could have been whipping out guitars, tossing groins towards the rafters and boogie-ing like groups are meant to. Hang it, if this modern rubbish wasnt an insult to the intelligence.
One of them approached me.
“D’you actually like this?”
The question had already been answered by my enthusiastically shaking foot before it had even left his mouth.
“But what is it you see in this? Can you explain it?”
Indeed. The Severed Heads, a combo led by a genial and puckish boffin called Tom Ellard, are hardly like any other group you may have experienced before. Besides contributing to the creation of a new musical genre based heavily on the creation of insistent rhythmic pulsations and nagging melodic fragments from cut-ups of everyday sounds, they contain the world’s first ever video synthesizer player.
Their approach to on-stage performance is revolutionary in that they have successfully harnessed the technology of the new video age to posit the idea that conventional notions of stage presence are obsolete. They write tunes that drive me wild with desire, make me
want to dance the night away, and send anybody who is at all attuned to them into an ecstatic trance.
“WE did a show at the Trade Union Club once which was no music, we just played TV sets.” Tom Ellard has just sauntered through the front door as if, wandering past entrance to someone else’s dream, he has decided to pop in to make some suggestions.
Dream on, Tom . ..
“We did a similar show at the Graphic Arts Club which was really ‘good’ because people actually got incredibly aggressive – ‘TURN THAT FUCKING TELEVlSlON OFF YER CUNT.’ And when you didn’t turn that fucking television off yer cunt they would come up and turn it off for you. It even got to the stage where somebody built a bonfire under the video recorder when we weren’t looking and set fire to it. One other woman came up and started physically pulling bits off the television. That really distressed me. . . I had to shut down the whole thing and get out of there before they ruined the equipment.’
Tom shakes his head ruefully. Only slightly ruefully, mind. He has a sense of humour. “All in all the shows are real desperate. They’re the sort of thing where if we didn’t have to do them then we wouldn’t do them. They’re some tortuous ritual that has to be borne – which is really pathetic. Because if I’m not doing a live show I sometimes get the illusion that people actually like us, and then when you get up on stage all the illusions disappear.”
Poor old Tom. He has a great talent for coming out with sentences like “music at the moment is like when you see dogs sniffing each others arseholes and l feel we’re a very small dachshund,” but behind the humour there lies a genuine sense of disappointment and a truly pessimistic outlook that is based on four rotten years of experience of the Sydney music scene. Whatever, the Heads fortunes are soon likely to change due to the imminent release of their LP, “Since The Accident”, on Dave Kitson’s new Ink label in England. It’s the first time any of their music has ever found its way onto record – previous LPs have been in cassette form. “Since The Accident” was recorded
nearly two years ago and has already been issued in Australia as tape containing some additional, more esoteric, experimental tracks.
When it came to promoting themselves abroad Ellard obviously saw the more left-field stuff as expendable, what’s left finds echoes in
Kraftwerk, Chrome and the prettier side of Throbbing Gristle, as well as the cut-ups of Holger Hiller and Trevor Horns Art Of Noise. “We are children of our time,” says Ellard seriously, before turning to an exaggeratedly mischievous mode of speech: “We’ve also Dave Kitson to think about, he would dearly love to make lots of money, so l’m quite prepared to churn out 10,000 copies of “Dead Eyes Opened”(the new 12-inch single), I’ll do it for him because he’s Big Bwana.
“But no, seriously, there is nothing more turgid than experimental music that just sort of dribbles on. I have a partner and his name is Paul Deering, and Paul and I have certain things we believe in and one of them is that it’s gotta kick arse. At the moment this is the sort of language people are talking”
What, bad language (ha ha)?
“Well, who listens to difficult music except difficult people? I can only talk for myself, l do not like Collapsing New Underpants, Paul likes them a lot, and thats his business.
“I think you might find the music’s becoming more ‘Wagnerian’. it’s to do with Paul’s behaviour patterns, which tend towards Beethoven. He likes stirring music. It’s also technology based, in that we have this thing called a Choir Control, which is turning up on a lot of our songs.”
THE Severed Heads have a whole pile of gadgets to play around with. One of the most endearing aspects of their exploration is that they use the most primitive techniques to obtain quite startling results, delving into music shops to lift ancient early model synthesizers off of the scrap heap, and achieving much of their hypnotic power from the simple manipulation of cassette tapes. A true boffin, is Tom. The first time I met him, some nine months ago, he talked non-stop about equipment, as if practicing an interview for One. . . Two . . . Testing, and generally displayed an intense, nervous demeanour. In the meantime he appears to have undergone a personality transplant. His speech patterns follow the contours of a non-stop rant, like some Oz equivalent of Magnus Pike. Often it’s difficult to tell just how many of his statements are the result of his amiable eccentricity – the Wizard Of Oz touch – or the side of him that enjoys playing the comedian. For instance. hen he describes the Severed Heads as “sleeve-note music”.
“It’s the sort of record you buy not for the music but just to turn it over and see ‘Oh yes, they ran a cat vomiting backwards through a fuzz box’.”
Tom points out a section of their next album – unfinished tracks are playing in the background – that features a Liberace glissando played straight, reversed and repeated. “Each album we put out from now on will have a technical manual you can write off for, so you really do get told everything. lt’s just a lot more interesting than actually listening to the record, although I feel we’ve actually achieved a fairly entertaining complex of noise.”
Entertaining indeed. Doesn’t he worry that this kind of talk will give them an image of being excessively egg-headed?
“I’d say people who use big expensive units to do normal noises are the egg~headed people. The way these sounds come along is anything but egg-headed. You just stumble across things and they suggest things to you. It’s the old Buddhist idea of letting go of yourself and the world will drive you.
“Certain sounds are Adolf Hitlers, the moment you heard this Liberace record you knew Liberace was boss and you were the slave. Liberace wins out – what he does is so profound, so wonderful, you have to obey what the sound says to you. When he runs his fingers down the piano I just think ‘Yes Master, I obey’ get down on the floor, cow-tow three times. And then get up and get the record and spin backwards and forwards and fill up a cassette with it. About the only creative thing about the whole thing is when you come to see how you’re going to assemble these 100 cassettes of funny noises into a record, which is quite difficult sometimes.’
THE Severed Heads’ much vaunted video synth is, far from being some cheap gimmick, an extremely sophisticated item of technology. Its operative, Steve Jones, is an engineer working for the Fairlight company, manufacturers of the world’s most advanced computer-linked synthesizers who are based in Sydney. Don’t ask me how the machine works and don’t expect me to explain everything it does. What I can say is that when it reaches the marketplace* – which is rumoured to happen in about a years time – it will revolutionise on-stage performance and the manufacture of videos.
Watching Severed Heads I found the screens completely hypnotic. Colours can be mixed in the same manner that sound can be mixed at a mixing desk, images can be self-generated or derived from the conventional use of a video camera. They have the ability to make eyeballs stand out on springs like old Tom and Jerry cartoons (I speak metaphorically) and are the microchips answer to LSD.
Hold on to your braincells!
“Having a video synth player is one of the few steps forward we might have achieved,” muses Ellard, “That’s all Stephen does, and he does it with all the sort of care that we put into our music. As far as I know he’s the only on-stage video synthesizer player in the world. He makes sure I keep mentioning this because he’s quite proud of himself. I mean fuck films!
Will the world ever catch up with Tom Ellard?
“No. Of course not. My prediction for 1984 is a little pipsqueak noise behind the couch which is the release of one or two albums and then
that’ll be the end of it, and then I’ll go to a job shovelling shit or behind a desk at a bank. There’s just no hope, there really isn’t. What’ll happen with us is that we’ll put out our thing and Collapsing New Underpants will put out their thing and they’ll all fold and someone who’s been around for aeons will pick up the bits and pieces, put ‘em all together and make a lot of money out of it.’ Tom Ellard has a persecution complex — if you think of Woody Allen’s self-satirising monologues you’ll be getting close – but then he is a psychology graduate, And how would you feel if you’d been ignored by so many for so long?
Little surprise that when Tom Ellard is asked if he thinks that in five years time people will be digging the Heads records from junk stores and telling their friends they were into them all along, he murmurs: “I think people are more likely to dig a grave four feet deep and dump us in with all our records and then seal it up and put concrete all over it.”
Ellard wanders out to his station wagon to drive back to where his father – a prominent psychiatrist – and mother live on Sydney’s
Salubrious Northern Shore. Sydney is a very nature- conscious city and the Severed Heads somehow don’t seem to fit into it. But then Tom doesn’t really fit in anywhere. Most places are just too conventional and slow-witted to worry about having to deal with such a playful brain.
Toms final request: he would like former member Garry Bradbury to be included in their group shot because it would be nice to acknowledge his contribution.
Long live the Heads and all who sail in them.
* As noted before, a common confusion between the Fairlight CVI and Stephen’s own DVS. The DVS did not go to market.