Severed Heads are an Australian electronic music group founded in 1979 as Mr. and Mrs. No Smoking Sign. The original members were Richard Fielding and Andrew Wright, who were soon joined by Tom Ellard. Fielding and Wright had both left the band by mid-1981. Throughout the next decade several musicians joined Severed Heads' ranks; including Garry Bradbury, Simon Knuckey, Stephen Jones, and Paul Deering. In 1984 they released "Dead Eyes Opened" as a single, which was remixed in 1994 and re-released, the latter version reached No. 16 on the ARIA Singles Chart. Two of their singles, "Greater Reward" (1988) and "All Saints Day" (1989), reached the top 30 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart. Ellard disbanded the group in 2007 and continued with other projects. Subsequent Severed Heads reunions have occurred in 2010 for a 30th anniversary concert, in 2011 they supported Gary Numan's tour of Australia, also that year they appeared at BimFEST in Antwerp, in 2013 they had a gig at the Adelaide Festival of Arts, and in September 2015 they toured the United States for the first time in over 20 years.
In 1979 Richard Fielding and Andrew Wright formed an experimental electronic duo, Mr. & Mrs. No Smoking Sign in Sydney. By the end of that year Tom Ellard joined the group. They issued cassette albums including Mr and Mrs No Smoking Sign Go Cruising fer Burgers!. In December 2006 Ellard explained to Todd E Jones about the name change "[w]e were called Mr. & Mrs. No Smoking Sign, because that was really ugly. Then, we wanted to fool people that we were Industrial and it worked. Severed Heads was a really dumb name, so that’s what stuck. Forever. I hate it by the way".
Their early music was characterised by the use of tape loops, noisy arrangements of synthesisers and other dissonant sound sources in the general category of industrial music. Wright departed late in 1979; leaving the duo of Ellard and Fielding to put together the band's early studio offerings;, including the A-side of a split album, Ear Bitten/No Vowels, No Bowels, with the B-side by Rhythmyx Chymx. Fielding then departed the band during the recording of 1981's Clean, leaving much of the work to be completed solely by Ellard.
After several releases in that vein, Severed Heads began incorporating various popular music tropes, such as a consistent 4/4 rhythm, strong melodic lines, resolving chord arrangements and Ellard's thin but gently eerie vocals and elliptical, poetic lyrics. This move was underscored by the incorporation of mimetic devices, such as drum machines and bass synthesisers. The result was a striking hybrid of the avant-garde industrial and pop. The group moved their live shows from "experimental venues and art spaces to rock clubs", and they issued further albums, Blubberknife and 80's Cheesecake in 1982; following the expansion of the band's lineup to include first synthesiser-player Garry Bradbury and then guitarist Simon Knuckey. Following the release of these albums Severed Heads were also joined by video expert and additional musician Stephen Jones.
1983 saw United Kingdom label Red Flame/Ink issued Since the Accident, which was subsequently released by Nettwerk records in North America, and Volition Records in Australia respectively. AllMusic's John Bush described the album as not "quite a crossover effort" with the lead single, "Dead Eyes Opened", being "surprisingly melodic synth-pop". Their recording deals led to a world tour, which was a multimedia event, due to the video synthesisers performed by Jones. After the tour they returned to Australia in August 1984. However this period saw more personnel change for the band; as Bradbury had departed during the recording of Since the Accident in 1983 (leaving most of the recording to Ellard), and Knuckey departed the band shortly prior to the commencement of the world tour in 1984; leaving the tour to be handled by the new lineup which consisted of Ellard, Jones, and the newly recruited Paul Deering.
In 1985 they issued City Slab Horror, on Ink for the European market. For this album Bradbury returned as guest musician and contributed to the vocals and songwriting on the release; following which personal clashes between Ellard and Deering led to Deering leaving the band in order to continue working with Bradbury. In October that year Jon Casimir of The Canberra Times described the group as "Australia's most innovative electronic band", which had an "obsession with the ugly and horrific" with music "reminiscent of Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle". Local label, Volition, compiled international tracks for the local only album, Stretcher (November 1985). In August the following year they followed with Come Visit The Big Bigot. During that year Ellard and Jones took Severed Heads on a European and North American tour. Bad Mood Guy was issued by Volition in October 1987. The Canberra Times' Kathryn Whitfield felt the group had "gone way beyond experimental" to provide "a commercially viable product" while Ellard reflected "we have just worked carefully and solidly in an area that we think is good".
Severed Heads peaked at No. 19 in the United States on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart in 1988 with a 12-inch single, "The Greater Reward" – later on the album Rotund for Success (October 1989). It included several remixes by Sydney-based producer Robert Racic, who produced tracks for them through the late 1980s and early 1990s, and contributed to their sound. Another single on the same chart was "All Saints Day" in 1989, which reached No. 25.
In 1992, one year after the release of Cuisine (With Piscatorial), Jones left the band; leaving Ellard as the group's sole official member. Subsequent to this Nettwork severed failed to renew its contract with the band, leaving Severed Heads adrift in the marketplace. Ellard sought out another label for his next release, Gigapus, in 1994, which was released on Volition in Australia and Decibel Records in the US. Around this time, the band had a major Australian hit with a remixed version of "Dead Eyes Opened", which sampled Edgar Lustgarten reading from "Death on the Crumbles". Both Volition and Decibel soon folded, and once again, Severed Heads were unaligned with the traditional music industry, and didn't fully own the rights to their music. This changed in 1998, when Sony Music released claims to Volition material.
With his music back in his hands and fully independent, Ellard took this on as a challenge and began developing an independent music system, which is entirely Internet based, at sevcom.com (the link is below). During the early 2000s, Tom Ellard blazed an independent path for his art and developed several innovative products, such as the Sevcom Music Server, a subscription based ambient music distribution system.
Ellard has worked on a side project, Coklacoma, which released a few albums in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By 2004, he was heavily involved with developing video but increasingly felt that the Severed Heads label was a thing of the past, and in 2008 opted to jettison the name. Ellard also worked extensively during the 1990s with other Sydney-based electronic musicians and groups such as Paul Mac (of Itch-E and Scratch-E) and Boxcar, former alumni of the now-defunct Volition label, as well as The Lab.
In early 2008 Ellard announced that Severed Heads was now defunct and that no further creative output would be released under this name. However, in 2010 the band was reformed by Ellard and new member and longtime fan Stewart Lawler for a 30th anniversary show on 14 January 2010 as part of the annual Sydney Festival, and in May 2011 the group supported Gary Numan in a tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of Numan's album The Pleasure Principle. In a May, 2011 interview, Tom Ellard explained: "Some people thought it was a bit rude of me to just shut it down without a proper farewell tour and so we decided we would drag it out just one more time and say our toodly-doodly’s.". On 22 October 2011, Severed Heads played what was intended to be their final performance in Australia at The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre. At BimFEST 2011 in Antwerp, they performed what was billed as their "absolutely final" performance as Severed Heads. Despite the band having called it a day in 2011, they yet again, performed what was intended to be a final gig at the Queen's Theatre, (Adelaide) during Adelaide Festival of Arts in 2013, which was recorded by Australian Broadcasting Corporation. These concerts were performed by Ellard with Stewart Lawler, ex Boxcar. Renewed interest in the band resulted in a 7 date U.S. tour in September 2015, their first performances in the United States in over 20 years.
Since 2014, there have been a few vinyl reissues of Severed Heads album released via Medical Records LLC and Dark Entries, such as Since the Accident and City Slab Horror. 2016 met the release of the "Beautiful Arabic Surface" 10" acetate dub plate, which contained the first newly recorded Severed Heads tracks since their announced hiatus in 2008. The single was released through Bughlt Records as a limited edition of 45.