Going against the grain of the Dunedin sound that dominated the Flying Nun Records roster at the time, Headless Chickens made extensive use of electronic instruments in their music. Formed in 1985 (initially as `International Headless Chickens') as a special project to perform at the multi-media event The Nitpickers Picnic. The initial line-up was Children's Hour members Chris Matthews, Johnny Pierce and Michael Lawry. The project became permanent following the end of This Kind of Punishment and their first release was a track on the 1986 student radio compilation album Outnumbered By Sheep. Also in 1986 they released a self-titled EP that was well received both in NZ and overseas.
They were one of the first bands in NZ to experiment with 'abused' technology: samplers, drum machines and synthesizers. "The Headless Chickens steal the best bits from everything: a heavy dose of morbid surrealism, nursery rhymes, surf pop, the aforementioned psychedelia and lotsa brutal noise. . .
Hedge Song's opening being a psychedelic mess of backwards tapes and voices, tumbling into a whine of violins and voices screaming, cackling `here it comes. . .'. .
. It culminates in Chris Matthews' `cinematic' lyrical technique, a gallery of mostly grotesque characters, lurching up to leer at the camera/listener, before turning back to resume their tasks at hand. . .
It's a carnival and a house of horrors, claustrophobic, life, maybe art, maybe that psychedelia I was talking about." (Rip It Up, April '87). They toured NZ as support act to Nico before the untimely suicide of Johnny Pierce in August 1986, which forced them to find a new bass player. In June 1987 Grant Fell, formerly of Childrens Hour and NRA, joined them as bass player and soon after they also took on ex-Bird Nest Roys player Rupert Taylor. Fortune came when they entered the 1987 Rheineck Rock Award and won, which proved to be very controversial but meant the band was able to record an album and promote a national tour with the $60,000 prize money.
Up until then they had been performing without a drummer, using drum machines or recordings instead, and former Childrens Hour and NRA drummer Bevan Sweeney joined the band to give the album the `feel' of a real drummer. Stunt Clown was recorded in early 1988 and when released sold well and received positive critical response. "Stunt Clown is overflowing with innovation, while still accessible and slickly produced." (Rip It Up, July '88). The material on the album is quite diverse, though lacking in direction, and was at the time quite different to the `typical' NZ music sound. Do The Headless Chicken is described as "an epic featuring at least two scintillating guitar riffs and ending with a drum machine that's almost terrifying." Star At Night was also a highlight with its cynicism and sarcasm evident in the line "Hip hooray, hip hooray, here comes another day." The first single off the album was Donka which remains a favourite with audiences.
A tour of Australia was undertaken in late 1988. In early 1989 keyboardist/guitarist/bass player Anthony Nevison was added to the band following the release of the Expecting To Fly single, described as being "on its way to becoming a NZ classic" (RAD Magazine, December '88). The band then recorded the 12" Gaskrankinstation, a powerful song about a tale of moral despair which in a review received the comment "This song gathers momentum like an articulated lorry left on a slope with the brakes off." (Rip It Up, May '90). In 1990 they signed a four-album record deal with Flying Nun and Mushroom.
In the same year Nevison and producer at Incubator Studios, Angus McNaughton, recorded the soundtrack for the movie Postscript. Headless Chickens had trouble being accepted and promoted because they did not have the `normal' (ie `Dunedin') sound of a NZ band, an attitude they obviously didn't like. Their extensive use of technology and samples was seen as an "easy way to make music" and supposedly not exciting to play, but Grant Fell of the band disagreed, "I find it a lot more satisfying. As a band we're continually finding new ground and the way to do that is to go into technology." (Rip It Up interview, July '90).
During early 1991 a second album, Body Blow, was recorded and the first single off that was Cruise Control which featured new member Fiona McDonald on vocals, and was quite a change from their previous material. The song did incredibly well, spending some weeks in the Top Ten, being only the second Flying Nun single to do so, and although losing them fans it gained them a lot more. Although the voice of Fiona McDonald gives it a happy feel, the whole album has a dark undercurrent throughout. Million $ Dream makes a harsh comment on TV game shows which promise big money for everybody.
"Everybody would like to think they can win Lotto one day, have instant money. It's probably more of a poor, working class approach to wanting money than anything." (Rip It Up interview, October '91). Body Blow was well received, described by one critic as "striking, ambitious and some way short of perfect, but it will more than stand up internationally. There's a continuity and confidence about it that wasn't there on the debut, Stunt Clown" (Rip It Up, October '91).
"This is neither a rock band with some gee-whizz samples or a bunch of art-boffins making whoopee with guitars. . . Body Blow sounds like no one else on earth." (Rip It Up, November '91).
The album did mark a big change for the band towards a more produced and some would say `mainstream' sound, but giving it a label is difficult, "The well-muscled eclecticism of Body Blow makes it harder than ever to put a tag on the Chickens' own style. Chris will kill anyone who calls them an `industrial dance' band and they all shy away from that awful, empty phrase `alternative band'" (Rip It Up, October '91). Donde Esta La Pollo was the second single released off the album as a number of different remixes, the Cock Rock mix described as "Catchy as hell, a real foot-stomping, blow out of a track." (Rip It Up, May '92). Later in 1992 the single Juice was released with extra tracks Choppers, Choppers (Helibator mix) and an odd collection of conversation and radio sound bites entitled Play It Again Kiri.
Juice was described in a review as, "a downcast, synth driven showcase for Fiona McDonald's voice", whereas there was a bit more enthusiasm for Choppers, "sure to drive 'em wild in the city's more flamboyant dance establishments, all boom-boom beats and crazy sax scribble." (Rip It Up, February '93). In early 1993 Anthony Nevison suffered a back injury which, along with tinnitus, led to recurring health problems, and meant he was unable to play in the band for some time. A new single released mid-1993 was Mr Moon, receiving the comment, "Eeek! Chris Matthews sounds just like that dude from Sisters of Mercy doing a dance track, his vocals drip with portent and foreboding, at least until chirpy Fiona chips in for the chorus" (Rip It Up, July '93). In early 1993 a rehashed version of Body Blow was released less a couple of tracks, but with remixes of the old ones, and the new singles Mr Moon and Juice, the latter written by McDonald and Strawpeople.
The reason for this was that the Body Blow album had never been released in Australia where the band had a good following so the old album was spruced up for the occasion. In June 1994 a vinyl only 12" remix of Juice was released through Flying Nun Europe in Britain, clearing the way for Headless Chickens' imminent assault on Europe. They toured in October, playing over three weeks in England, Germany, Holland and Belgium on Pop Will Eat Itself's Amalgamation tour. Following their return to New Zealand McDonald and Lawry both announced they would be leaving the band and their last gig was at the Big Day Out in late-January 1995.
McDonald embarked on a solo career, along with playing a lead role in a stage version of Peter Jackson's movie Braindead. At the 1995 NZ Music Awards in April they were voted Top International Performer and Fiona McDonald won the Top Female Vocalist category. In mid-1995 the band were busy recording demos and there were plans for a tour in late 1995 to take in New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Europe and the USA. Headless Chickens' contribution to Flying Nun's Abba tribute album, Abbasalutely, was the track Super Trouper, which was also the single release from the album, and featured vocals from Celia Church of Auckland band Nonoxynol 9. Replacements for McDonald and Lawry were Angus McNaughton (keyboards) of Incubator Studios and Body Blow producer and ex- NRA frontman Rex Visible (vocals, guitar and synthesizer).
The new line-up debuted in October and following some live dates in the North Island had planned to record a new album but the studio booking was cancelled and in the new year Grant Fell and Angus McNaughton announced they were leaving the band. The end of 1997 finally saw the release of new material in the form of the Greedy album, following hot on the heels of the Magnet single. The then four-piece band were to tour Australia in early 1998, but had to cancel due to Chris apparently having a severe ear infection. Since then Gerard Presland has left - and then there were three... The band died a natural death until August 2008 when a series of offers to reunite and perform have ruffled the Chicken's feathers and the bird is expecting to fly again.
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