A Fun Night Out with the Severed Heads


A short pause then 8 track loop stockwhips + moving strobe/ film advance + 2 crows which scream ‘NO’ and something like ‘once more’ or ‘lets fuck’ or something  + bass and drums from ‘do you love me’ Brian Poole and the Tremeloes… as well as Brian’s solo ‘I can really shake em down’ + incredibly searing Kawai f100 scream + phaser feedback guitar + Ames brothers who sing ‘there you are’ through flanger… fades into…….

Tom Ellard, performance notes for the track Rocket Summer, Severed Heads live at Stranded 4/7/82

Max Ernst defined collage as “the meeting of two distant realities on a plane foreign to both.” Well I don’t know much about bones but this could easily describe the early music of the Severed Heads. Typically a combination of post-punk, neo-Dada (anti-music) noise, and “cut-up” audio montage.  A unique blend of tape loops, electronics (drum machines and synthesisers) and other devices (toy instruments, radios, kitchen utensils and things held together with cardboard and rubber bands).

The group (first called Mr and Mrs No Smoking Sign) which included Tom Ellard and Richard Fielding, recorded their first album (or half album) Earbitten in 1979. This vinyl LP was released on Ellard’s own label: Terse.  Terse was also a vehicle for the distribution of a large number of cassette releases, which were available in plastic bags for the equivalent price of a 7 inch single ($2.50), including the massive 3 x C90, five album equivalent, One Stop Shopping compilation.

Quite a few years before the arrival of the (affordable) sampling keyboard, the Severed Heads used magnetic tape cut and spliced into loops, in order to make musical use of appropriated sounds. Appropriated sounds were finding their way into the work of groups such as Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and Negativeland.  But the Severed Heads were the first to use tapeloops predominantly as the major structuring element of their compositions, a methodology which became much more common place with use of samplers in the late 80s and 90s.

By their second album: Clean, they had refined this style into a much more musical form of complex electronic sequencing, loops and montage, complimented by Simon Knuckey’s rich noise-guitar drones. With Blubberknife, the groups third album (released on cassette with television parts attached), a new sound begins to emerge. With a new 8-track studio, tapeloops began to be used as complete musical elements rather than repetitive textures. The Severed Heads had developed a unique sound that set them apart from other artists. Garry Bradbury (who had already collaborated on various bits of Mysterious Kitchens contributed his monumental electro-percussive thuds and crunches and Kawai f100 nastiness, honed in the charnel-house of Hiroshima Chair. Bradbury’s explosive dynamics coupled with Ellard’s simultaneously complex and childlike electronic sequences and dumb-arse synthetic basslines, and the tapeloop legacy imparted by the now departed Fielding (who went off to form ZGlutz and the Loop Orchestra), characterised the mature sound of the group. This sound stuck with the band well into the later years when Ellard continued solo with a much more commercial product.

The severed heads have always had a do-it-yourself attitude to video production.   When I first met Ellard he was bashing his Commodore 64 home computer with spurious code, forcing its poor little graphic display chip to spew out multicoloured geometric noise, instead of programming it to water his garden (as anyone else would). In 1982 he began working with Steven Jones who, had built his own video synthesiser, a few years earlier. The methods and tools which Jones used, to create abstract video art (video synthesis, oscilloscopes, video feedback, effects, etc.), had affinities with Ellard’s use of the sound studio as a musical instrument.

Petrol/ Lower than the Grave/ Nightsong trilogy (1983) utilises video synthesiser, multi-camera feedback, chroma key and colourisation. The clip captures a live performance but the performers (Ellard, Knuckey and Bradbury) are barely discernible under layers of patterns, noise, graphics and saturated colours. In Nightsong the clip reveals more and more of a colourised black and white video tapeloop which gradually degenerates as oxide clogs the heads (this process was assisted by Jones spreading peanut butter over the tape as it spooled).

A similar technique is used in Goodbye Tonsils (1984) to treat a loop of cut-up super-8 film of a crashing airliner shot off a television screen, and in We Have Come to Bless This House(1985which contains images taken from a longer work: Kato Gets the Girl (30 Min). Ellard with a movie camera, steps outdoors to film ferris wheels, revolving doors, fish and robots, all to be chopped up and thrown into a rich soup of video synthesiser, feedback and PCM data.

Hot with Fleas (1987) features the staccato audio editing of the late Robert Racic. This is the first clip to fully utilise the compositing and animation capabilities of the Commodore Amiga computer. Scissors, knives, guns and what have you career across the screen. The collage approach, which characterised the music, becomes fully integrated into the video production process.

In the late eighties Ellard worked with Richard Boulton, Bradury and Simeon Steel to produce clips which combine digital collage and animation with absurdist costumed buffoonery. In Canine (1987) Ellard wrestles a Hindu grand piano, and in Big Car Retread (1989) he is followed by a strange hamburger bhuto ritual.

The video work of the Severed Heads becomes progressively digital in the nineties. In 1993 Ellard worked with Jason Gee and Fincher Trist to produce 3D animation on the Amiga. In Twister (1993) and Greater Reward (1993) we see 3D which is aware of its own technical limitations. Instead of an attempt at realism we are presented with a kind of comic 3D. This contrasts markedly with the much more sophisticated 3D animation seen in All Saints Ballet (2002). Dollar X (1993) presents a consumerist media critique of fashion magazines with digital compositing techniques, and Animal (1993) explores the possibilities of morphing – eyes morph into teeth, Ellard morphs into a chicken.

A large proportion of the Severed Heads video work in the nineties was produced for live performance: multiple versions of clips, extended mixes, video wallpaper backgrounds, etc.
The tenth version of Dead Eyes Opened, however, was made primarily for broadcast television when the song hit the top twenty. It is more of an anti-music video with black and white alternate frames and grungy images. It’s more or less a challenge to the broadcasters “I’m so bored with this song by now – I dare you to play this.” They didn’t.