They were an “alternative, underground band using hi-tech instruments in a low tech way”, controversial winners of the Rheineck Rock Award, the Flying Nun act that came closest to dance music (giving the label its only number one) and, throughout, a vehicle for the singular vision and dark humour of Chris Matthews.
In the beginning – the early 80s - Matthews and Johnny Pierce were half of the uncompromising attack of Children’s Hour (along with Grant Fell and Bevan Sweeny) and occasional contributors to the Jefferies brothers project, This Kind of Punishment.
In 1985 the pair roped in the more electronically inclined Michael Lawry to form the International Headless Chickens for a one-off performance at the ‘Nitpickers Picnic’. Shortening their name, they released a self titled EP in mid-1986. Their use of samplers, synthesisers and drum machines combined with a claustrophobic sound and Chris Matthews’ dark, often bleak, lyrics quickly set them apart from most of their contemporaries.
In August 1986, Johnny Pierce tragically took his own life and the band stalled – but Matthews and Lawry picked up the pieces again, adding Children’s Hour band mate Grant Fell on bass and flamboyant former Bird Nest Roy Rupert E Taylor as a vocalist.
In December 1987 the Headless Chickens won the second Rheineck Rock award and hilarity ensued. The inaugural winners, South Auckland funksters Ardijah, had – to the satisfaction of the “industry” – parlayed their win into radio play and chart hits. Awarding the prize to such an unrepentantly alternative outfit created an outcry best summed up in a Metro article alleging a “severe lack of judgement” and bizarrely suggesting that, as an alternative band, the Chickens played “music which you can’t actually listen to”.
Somehow, the firmament held together and the band recorded their debut album. The Children’s Hour reunion was completed with Bevan Sweeney brought in to add a more human element to the rhythms.
Released in mid-1988, ‘Stunt Clown’ underlined the gaping chasm between established industry and alternative scene – nothing here would follow Ardijah to Top 40 radio rotates; and it amplified unresolved tensions on the other side of the tracks – where such heavy use of emulators and drum programmes sat badly with some.
On its own terms, ‘Stunt Clown’ was a stunning achievement with a huge sweep encompassing everything from the dark driving guitars and rhythms of ‘Expecting To Fly’, the self referential ‘Do The Headless Chicken’ and the snarling ‘Donka’ to the lighter touch of ‘Soul Catcher’ and the tenderness of ‘Fish Song’ – with cello, violin and piano accordion thrown in for good measure. The critics were impressed; the detractors probably still didn’t understood.
HEADLESS CHICKENS - DONKA
The first of innumerable trips to Australia followed in late 1988; and Anthony Nevison joined in early 1989. The new line-up recorded ‘Gaskrankinstation’ – a relentless Matthews number about a gas station attendant with only his job to give meaning to an otherwise bleak and empty life. A Chickens and Flying Nun classic, it was accompanied by a memorable video starring Chris Mathews and directed by Grant Fell.
HEADLESS CHICKENS - GASKRANKINSTATION
A bigger step in their evolution followed. Rupert Taylor had left and, with Matthews needing a female singer for one of his songs, Strawpeople vocalist Fiona McDonald joined the band. The song was ‘Cruise Control’ featuring samples of Shona Laing’s ‘1905’ and the Crocodiles’ ‘Tears’. It was poppy by Headless Chickens standards but the loping beat and McDonald’s sweet vocals were built around a typically dark Matthews lyric about a failed relationship. It became only the second Flying Nun single to dent the Top Ten.
HEADLESS CHICKENS - CRUISE CONTROL
The new album, ‘Body Blow’, was bigger, brighter and more produced than ‘Stunt Clown’ – and a step too far for some early fans (but there were increasing numbers of new ones to replace them). ‘Gaskrankinstation’ was there and Nevison contributed ‘Donde Este La Pollo’ but McDonald’s input was understated with most the album readied before she joined the band. There was no escaping her when 'Juice', a song she brought with her from Strawpeople, became a single shortly after. The band’s dance crossover was also being underlined by the increasing number of remixes accompanying each single.
A substantially reworked version of ‘Body Blow’ was released in Australia in early 1993. It featured a batch of remixes, dumped a couple of the original’s songs and added new ones including ‘Mr Moon’, ‘Juice’ and ‘Choppers’.
HEADLESS CHICKENS - JUICE
A club mix of ‘Juice’ was released in England and Europe in mid-1994 and the band spent six weeks over there supporting Pop Will Eat Itself. They returned to New Zealand to find themselves topping the charts. ‘George’ (named for a supposed ghost in the building they practiced in) had been recorded just before they left and became Flying Nun’s first number one.
HEADLESS CHICKENS - GEORGE
Fiona McDonald and Michael Lawry now announced their departure - playing with the band for the last time at the Big Day Out in January 1995. On the surface, McDonald was the bigger loss. Without her, the two biggest Chickens hits disappeared from their live repertoire - but Lawry had been instrumental in shaping the band’s sound from the beginning.
Thought was given to finding another female vocalist but McDonald wasn’t replaced. Instead, Angus McNaughton and long time sound man Rex Vizible were drafted in. Song writing commenced for a third album - but then Grant Fell departed along with McNaughton and Vizible.
Meanwhile, Fiona McDonald won Best Female Vocalist at 1995 NZ Music Awards and the band won the International prize.
Remaining members Matthews and Sweeney recruited Bevan Larsen to record the third Headless Chickens album, ‘Greedy’ in September 1996. It wouldn’t see the light of day until late 1997, by which time Sweeney had departed.
‘Greedy’ was a harder, more stripped back affair than ‘Body Blow’ - and closer in spirit to ‘Stunt Clown’. Fiona McDonald duetted on ‘Chicken Little’, and ‘George’ was slipped in as a closer; but, otherwise, Matthews was in control and there were more guitars and fewer beats.
HEADLESS CHICKENS - SECOND TIME VIRGIN
With new members Gerard Presland and Flex, the Headless Chickens continued through until 2000 when Matthews disbanded the group.
In 2002 Flying Nun released the punningly titled ‘Chicken Hits’ compilation. It gathered 17 tracks from across the band’s career along with a bonus disc of remixes from the dance world the Chickens had never been afraid of (including contributions from Greg Churchill, Dick Johnson, Roger Perry and David Harrow).
HEADLESS CHICKENS - CRUISE CONTROL (ESKIMOS IN EGYPT REMX)
A reunion of the ‘Body Blow’ era line-up followed in 2008 - with a series of gigs culminating in an appearance at the Big Day Out in 2009.
- MICHAEL HIGGINS, 2011