Severed Heads were one of the pioneering acts on Australia's alternative music scene, a group whose work embraced elements of industrial, synth pop, electronic, and experimental music, with found sounds, tape loops, samples, and full-on noise playing as large a role in their music as any conventional instruments. Eclectic and stubbornly refusing to confine themselves to any single genre, Severed Heads evolved constantly from their debut in 1979 to their final retirement in 2008, as they used a wide variety of formats to distribute their prolific output (from vinyl and cassettes to VHS, CD-ROMs, CD-Rs, MP3 downloads, and even the short-lived MP2 format before MP3s became common), while 20 musicians drifted in and out of their recording and performing lineups, with Tom Ellard the sole constant (though he's bristled at suggestions that the group is exclusively his brainchild).
Severed Heads' story begins with two Sydney-based musicians, Richard Fielding and Andrew Wright, who had formed an experimental combo called Mr. and Mrs. No Smoking Sign. After Tom Ellard signed on and they became a trio, the combo recorded its first cassette-only release. When they sent a demo tape to Sydney's 2JJ Radio, they used the group name Severed Heads, as one of the disc jockeys was interested in early industrial acts such as Throbbing Gristle; while the name was meant more as a joke than anything else, the demo received enough airplay for the name to stick. By 1980, Wright had left the band and Severed Heads made their vinyl debut on a split LP called Ear Bitten, with one side featuring Severed Heads and another Aussie act, Rythmyx Chymx, on the flip side. Released in 1981, Clean was recorded as Fielding parted ways with Severed Heads; their music became more melodic and accessible as they embraced more conventional song structures, and new member Garry Bradbury encouraged Ellard and his collaborators to move their live performances from experimental venues and art spaces to rock clubs, which were better equipped for concerts and drew audiences who would be challenged by what they heard.
Frustrated with the expense and limitations of releasing music on vinyl, Severed Heads' 1983 album Since the Accident was initially released as a 60-minute cassette; to fill out the lineup, Ellard added the song "Dead Eyes Opened" to the end of the running order. As luck would have it, the tune was catchy enough that Severed Heads scored record deals with Ink Records (distributed by Virgin) in the U.K. and Virgin Records' new Australian branch at home, and the tune became a minor hit. Severed Heads' live shows were also becoming more ambitious, as Ellard began collaborating with video artist Stephen Jones, who created a new video synthesizer that created stylized backdrops for Severed Heads' performances. And Ellard also began creating information booklets for the band's releases, detailing how they were recorded and what source materials were used; when they weren't included with the albums, Ellard was willing to mail them to fans who sent in requests along with stamped return envelopes.
In 1984, as the City Slab Horror album was awaiting release, Bradbury left the group, and Ellard was the group's principle songwriter from that point on. Severed Heads were invited to tour the U.K., and Ellard chose to tour as a duo -- he performed all the music, and Jones provided video images. During the U.K. tour, Severed Heads signed a North American deal with Nettwerk Records, and as Ellard's relationship with Virgin Australia was deteriorating, they entered an agreement with Volition Records. The group became more visible, and Ellard began exploring the possibilities of digital sampling and new recording technologies (their early albums were tracked at home on four-track cassette machines) while his vocals played a larger role as the group took on a larger lineup for live shows, which became more sophisticated as Jones kept pace with advancing video technology. Severed Heads continued to record and tour at a steady pace, and in 1989 they enjoyed a U.S. alternative hit with "Greater Reward" from the album Rotund for Success. However, while the group had a solid commercial profile and still made video a major part of its presentation after Jones left the group in 1992, Ellard became increasingly dissatisfied with the strictures of the mainstream music business, and Severed Heads ended their deal with Nettwerk, leaving the 1994 album Gigapus unreleased in North America until 1996. By this time, "Dead Eyes Opened" had gained new life in Australia thanks to a remix by Robert Racic, and the new release went Top 40 at home as Severed Heads became regular fixtures in the Boiler Room, the dance-oriented stage at the Australian Big Day Out touring festival. But Volition Records began experiencing financial problems in 1996, and Ellard chose to find a new label in his homeland.
Severed Heads began documenting their multimedia work on CD-ROM releases in 1994, and were one of the first Australian bands with a presence on the Internet (the group included an e-mail contact address on the Gigapus artwork so fans could directly communicate with the group). As new media gained acceptance, Ellard embraced it with enthusiasm, as it allowed Severed Heads to operate with greater independence. He created Sevcom Music Servers as the band's new label, and from the 1998 album Haul Ass onward, new releases were issued as CD-Rs (and later MP3s) by SMS. In 1996 Ellard issued Severything, a single-disc collection that featured nearly the complete Severed Heads catalog compressed onto one disc using the new MPEG 1, layer 2 format; it was the first in a long series of archival releases self-replicated from the Severed Heads archives. The Aussie label LTM Records reissued Rotund for Success in 2004 and began partnering with Severed Heads for selected catalog reissues and anthologies, and in 2005 Severed Heads scored the film The Illustrated Family Doctor, which earned an award as Best Film Soundtrack of the year from the Australian Recording Industry Association. Ellard finally brought the Severed Heads story to a close in 2008; according to their official website, "It was euthanised...as it no longer brought happiness." The Sevcom website, however, is still active and provides information on Severed Heads as well as CD-R releases of their back catalog. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi