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Pop CultureApril 17, 2018

‘Intense, extreme and mesmerising’: An oral history of the Headless Chickens’ Stunt Clown


Tonight, the Headless Chickens will be presented with the Independent Music Classic NZ Record award for Stunt Clown at a ceremony for the Taite Music Prize. Hussein Moses digs up the inside story of how the band first made their mark on New Zealand music.

There was a lot that stood in the way of the Headless Chickens releasing their 1988 debut album Stunt Clown, from the death of their first bassist Johnny Pierce, to the controversy around their Rheineck Rock Award win, to blowing their budget when they finally made it into the studio. But 30 years later, the record still sounds as electrifying as ever.

The Headless Chickens – Chris Matthews, Michael Lawry, Rupert E. Taylor, Bevan Sweeney and the late Grant Fell, who passed away earlier this year – would go on to achieve commercial success with their next album Body Blow, and even hit number one with ‘George’ in 1996, but it was Stunt Clown that first showed what the group were capable of with their songwriting.

Ahead of receiving this year’s Independent Music Classic NZ Record award at tonight’s Taite Music Prize ceremony, the band – and those involved at the time – reflect on one of Aotearoa’s most ambitious records ever made.

“Make us as loud as The Gordons”

Russell Brown (journalist): I first met all the people who would later be in the Headless Chickens when they were in Children’s Hour in 1983. I thought I’d do an interview with them because the record was coming out, so they said, ‘OK meet at the cocktail bar at DeBretts’. We got on so well that I ended up going back to their place to continue drinking and partying, and by the end of the night, I was their flatmate.

Doug Hood (producer/engineer): I met Chris Matthews at Progressive Music Studio when Chris Knox and I were there working on a Stones record. There was this humongous noise coming from one of the practice rooms. Chris went and had a look and came back and said ‘come and have a listen to these guys’.

Roger Shepherd (founder of Flying Nun Records): Children’s Hour were quite ferocious live. It was Chris’ band after The Prime Movers. He was the drummer in Prime Movers. I saw them play supporting The Clean at The Reverb Room up on Symonds Street, the room above the scariest public bar I’ve ever seen in my life – the Edinburgh Castle. That’s when I first saw Chris performing. He left to form Children’s Hour with Bevan Sweeney and Grant Fell and Johnny Pierce. We made a couple of records with them: the Flesh 12″ EP and ‘Ya! Ya! Ya!’ 7″ single.

Doug Hood: Children’s Hour was a pretty dark band, musically. At the time, you could say they were New Zealand’s Birthday Party. They were pretty intense and full on. I remember the first time I mixed Children’s Hour, Chris Matthews came up to me and said, “make us as loud as The Gordons”.

Chris Matthews (vocals/guitar): Johnny Pierce and I were in Children’s Hour from late 1982 to around August of 1984. I heard a couple of months later that Johnny was composing and playing the music for a live theatre production with a guy called Michael Lawry, and I went along to see it and loved it.

Michael Lawry (keyboards/guitar): I remember the play got closed down one night because of the Queen Street riot. It was on Upper Queen Street and it was a Spanish play called The Butterfly’s Evil Spell. It was me and Johnny and Sara Westwood from Marie and the Atom. She did violin and I think Johnny did bass and guitar, and I had tape recorders so we did this weird music to this play.

Chris Matthews: The three of us got talking and started jamming and recording together in November of ‘84. The first song we ever recorded was called ‘Trigger’ and it ended up on the 1986 bFM compilation album Outnumbered By Sheep along with the last studio track that Children’s Hour recorded in 1984 called ‘Creeping/Flesh’.

We started seriously working on Headless Chickens music at the beginning of 1985 and did our first performance in April at a multimedia show we organised at the Maidment Theatre called The Nitpicker’s Picnic.

Fiona McDonald (Headless Chickens, Strawpeople): The first time I saw Headless Chickens was at the Maidment Theatre and it was a musical experience unlike any other. I think I really couldn’t quite take it all in. Intense, extreme and mesmerising.


“I think about him all the time”

Roger Shepherd: The first that I knew of what [the Headless Chickens] were doing was when I heard the self-titled mini album. I think the cover was black and white, but it was embossed and we let them do their own full-colour label. I remember falling off my chair when I got the bill for that. That was ’86. I love that record. It was full on from there really.

Michael Lawry: There weren’t any samplers around until ‘87, maybe ‘86. In Europe and America, people like The Residents had started using emulators. I didn’t get one until about ‘87, so the first Headless Chickens EP, which is actually really an album, that was all done with tape recorders and tape loops and drum machines.

Russell Brown: Grant Fell had gone to Sydney for a year with Rachael Churchward, didn’t really like it, and came back and found the others all had their own thing going on – and actually felt left out. And then, of course, he got his opportunity in the worst way possible when Johnny died.

Chris Matthews: Johnny was my best friend and we’d already been in three bands together in the space of five years. There were other personal circumstances around his suicide that were extremely traumatic and which have affected me profoundly ever since. Also, I found him after he’d killed himself in our practice room. I still wonder what we might have done together if it hadn’t happened and I think about him all the time.

Russell Brown: Chris had indulged a lot of dark fantasies and seeing it up front with Johnny taking his own life maybe was a bit of a wake-up call.

Graeme Humphreys (Able Tasmans): It had a huge impact on the whole scene. There was a sense of disbelief. I can’t speak for other people, but I got the feeling that nobody quite knew what to do. We were very young and I suppose still emotionally growing up. There was the whole array of emotional reactions as far as I recall of not knowing what to do, what to say, whose fault was it. It was horrible. Just imagine the whole gamut of emotions that are likely to come up amongst a group of young people not knowing quite what to do and being relatively inexperienced in life. Wayne Elsey’s death was the same. His was accidental and sudden and bizarre, but Johnny taking his own life, that was a different kettle of fish.

Russell Brown: The funeral was very emotional because it was so awful. Johnny’s family controlled the whole thing and it was a religious funeral. [The band] were made to feel like it was their fault that Johnny had died. Except for Grant, who Johnny’s mother really liked. She’d kept Johnny’s bass and gave it to Grant.

Grant Fell (bass) [as told to Sunday Magazine, May 2015]: Johnny committed suicide in our practice room and the boys asked me to play bass, even though I’d never played bass before. I just borrowed Johnny’s bass and started playing.

Chris Matthews: Rupert E. Taylor had been in the wonderful Bird Nest Roys who were and still are one of my favourite New Zealand bands of that time. Rupert was a born entertainer and one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, but he also had the tears-of-a-clown thing going on big time. And, of course, he’s a great singer and a songwriter – his ‘Fish Song’ from Stunt Clown is so incredibly beautiful.

Bevan Sweeney (drums): I was playing in NRA (Not Really Anything) at the time and we were doing pretty well. We were a pretty hard-working band. Chris said, “you’ve got to leave them if you’re going to join us”.


“They wanted a pub rock band but they got a punk rock band instead”

Doug Hood: Martin Phillipps (The Chills) was the guy that can take credit for the [Rheineck Rock Award]. He was going out with a girl called Kate Tattersfield at the time and her mother was Christine Fernyhough who was part of the Lion Foundation, which is the charitable part of Lion Breweries that distributes all the pokie money and stuff. He suggested to her that they might want to do a grant for a band to make an album and it sort of grew from there. He suggested she talk to me. First I knew about it was when I got a phone call from a PR company and I went to a meeting with them. It was all so fucking easy. Martin had it all plotted out.

Jude Anaru [former 95bFM station manager]: I replaced Karyn Hay on the judging panel. She had left to travel overseas. She had judged the first awards with Ardijah as the winners. The judges were Doug Hood, Colin Hogg and me.

Doug Hood: I know the band hated Rheineck. Part of the deal was that at every show, they got given all this free Rheineck. The first thing they’d do when they arrived was do a deal with a local pub and swap it for something that they could drink. Rheineck was horrible. It was the same for the judges. We did the judging at this old hotel down in Freeman’s Bay, the Irish pub down there. We used to meet there once a week and they supplied us with this little fridge full of Rheineck. The first thing we did was have it all swapped for Steinlager.

Jude Anaru: I was hearing a lot of local music at the time and going to heaps of gigs. The Gordons, among others, had been standouts way back so I was interested in the Headless Chickens from the beginning. We had so many entries on cassette and as it was an album being funded we had to consider whether there were enough songs and writing strength to support an album. The context was at the time working to get more local music on radio other than the uni stations, so it was also important to listen for songs that could be singles and crossover into mainstream as well as songs strong enough to promote an album.

Doug Hood: There was no one else that applied for it that even came close to the Headless Chickens. It’s the same with Aardijah. It was just obvious we were going to give it to Ardijah from day one. Same with the Chooks. There was nothing else that was even remotely deserving as they were.

Chris Matthews: I knew that Ardijah won the first one in 1986 and when I heard that Colin Hogg, Doug Hood and Jude Anaru were the judges in 1987, I knew we were in with a good chance because they’d all been very supportive of bands I was in and other local indie music. So I entered us and we won. I don’t want to sound arrogant but I always thought we would.

Doug Hood: It went down really badly on the night. I remember that. They wanted a pub rock band but they got a punk rock band instead.

Jude Anaru: I remember being there, being part of the announcement and feeling the slight uneasiness in the room. In terms of entries, criteria and context our decision was solid, but it still felt as if some were all WTF about it. Having been a judge on panels before and feeling tuned into the disappointment of applicants who weren’t given grants this was something different. But me, Doug and Colin were solid on our choice. Anyway, I had a new dress and dyed my hair blonde so I was pretty much ready to take on anyone and anything. But there was no need. Dissent was a background whisper.

Richard Gordon [in Metro magazine, February 1988]: The bestowal of the annual Rheineck Rock Award on the Headless Chickens showed a severe lack of judgement … Unless they change their style of music significantly – and why should they compromise? – the Headless Chickens will never be heard on commercial radio.

The Headless Chickens are an alternative band, that is, they play music which you can’t actually listen to … Now here’s the rub. How on Earth can you be “alternative” if you’ve happily cuddled up to one of the country’s largest and most profitable corporations?

Rheineck is made by New Zealand Breweries, a subsidiary of Lion Corporation. Lion’s managing director, Douglas Myers, is a key figure in the right-wing Business Roundtable. This organisation has been doing its best to encourage the government to do away with the welfare state. That would be the end of those benefits that the Headless Chickens and their associates have lived on for years.

Grant Fell (as told to Sunday Star Times, June 2002): People couldn’t believe such a weird, unknown band had won. I mean, our singer Rupert was a tall gay guy in a dress at a time when it was illegal to be gay in this country! We had no drummer, just a drum machine and some tape decks playing samples. All this after Ardijah had won the year before. One magazine implied we were just dole bludgers and the judging had been rigged. But we won $60,000 which gave us the money to make our first album.

Russell Brown: Metro was a baby boomer’s magazine, by and for them. I remember another time they really upset people when, in Felicity Ferret, there was a snide mention of Wayne Elsey’s mother having a slightly awkward turn of phrase about her son being killed. And they thought that was funny? Shayne Carter wrote in about that. Metro definitely wasn’t for us. I think we hated it.

Michael Lawry: I probably didn’t pay much attention to it. I suppose at that stage of my life, I didn’t really pay much attention to mainstream media anyway, so I didn’t really give a shit what other people thought. That ethos came from the whole punk generation where you didn’t really care what other people thought. You did what you wanted to do. That was probably the strength of the band: that we were doing something we liked to do. We were getting good audiences and good feedback, so if some mainstream people didn’t like it, I wasn’t surprised. It didn’t really raise my eyebrows much.

Bevan Sweeney: It was pathetic because it wasn’t a great deal of money when you’re thinking about going into a studio that costs $400 or something an hour. Then to go on tour in the South Island in the middle of winter and lose money left, right and centre. There was a huge PA that we had to carry everywhere. And then we came back about $14,000 or $15,000 in debt afterwards. For months, years even, people thought we were rich. Even my parents. They still think that.


“The only thing moving would be the clock”

Chris Matthews: Stunt Clown was recorded at Mandrill Studios in Parnell which had that very ‘80s studio practice of having the recording room completely ‘dead’ with no reflective surfaces, and they close-mic’ed all the instruments and then added any room ambience needed via digital effects in the production process. Which was the antithesis of how we’d recorded our earlier songs – we used to put the guitar amp in a glass-walled stairway and put the microphone two metres away if we wanted a more ‘live’ sound.

Bevan Sweeney: Dr Rock (Barry Jenkin) was our next door neighbour. He’s a great guy. A madman. There’s quite a lot of human being in that dude. He was building a helicopter. He’s a mad aviator. He built one in his house but it was too big, so he had to dismantle his house to get it out. This was Parnell, so houses are not cheap.

Michael Lawry: With Stunt Clown, I had got a sampler by that stage which was about $9000. It was an Emax I which was like a slightly scaled down Emulator I. It only had a record time of 12-15 seconds. It didn’t have a hard drive, it just had a single-sided floppy disk. You could do some cool stuff when recording, but live you had to wait a minute for the floppy to load up.

Doug Hood: There was a lot of experimentalism involved because what they were doing was all pretty new – samplers and sequencers and all that stuff.

Chris Matthews: The engineer who worked there wouldn’t talk to our producer, Rex Vizible from NRA, and I effectively became the producer by having to relay everything Rex said to me to the engineer, and then the engineer might deign to make the adjustments to the mixing desk to get it to sound how we wanted it to.

Roger Shepherd: I sort of hated recording studios because back in those days you went along to see what was happening and you would discover that nothing was happening. The only thing moving would be the clock, which I would very quickly start to focus on. I would break into a sweat and I would have to leave. I’ve never had much input in a recording situation. As far as I’m concerned, the band gets on with it and I really don’t want to be there and slow them down.

Chris Matthews: Well, we definitely played a lot of pool in the green room while we typically waited five or six hours for the engineer to get a useable sound from any instrument he was working on at the time.

Bevan Sweeney: It cost a lot. The person behind the desk was basically in charge of your sound, your production, how fast it goes. They could drag things out. He forgot to put a kick-drum on one of the songs. I don’t know if he did it on purpose. I even went back to try and get it done, and it never went on. That really pissed me off. But we had to use their engineer. He was from the slim leather tie brigade.

Roger Shepherd: I remember it went over budget. $30,000 is a nice amount of money but that record cost a lot more than $30,000 to make.

Chris Matthews: It was always the case that Flying Nun was expected to pay for some of the recording costs, but I think they ended up paying more than they first thought because Rheineck had earmarked half of the prize money for a ‘promotional campaign’ for the subsequent album release and national tour. Rheineck’s idea of a promotional campaign was to put full page corporate marketing ads in all the national newspapers with their brand at the top and our brand somewhere further down in smaller type.

I always felt the band and the songs were good, but we weren’t that happy with the studio or the sound of the album. I always wanted to remix Stunt Clown, but I believe that when Mandrill closed down they threw a lot of the multi-track master tapes in the skip. Including ours.


“It’s in some respects a record of that era in Auckland”

Graeme Humphreys: Stunt Clown was a marvellous thing. Sonically, it was bristling and muscular. We wondered how it was done. Never ever underestimate the quality of the songwriting. It’s great. Have a listen to something like ‘Soulcatcher’: it takes you through so many landscapes of music. It’s almost a little bit like a wide open road, and then you go over the top of the hill and then you find yourself, ‘oh dear I’ve gone off a cliff’. It’s that whole gamut in music. There’s something new happening in ‘Soulcatcher’ right to the very end. I also love ‘Soulcatcher’ because half of it’s just a catchy pop song.

Grant Fell (as told to Sunday Star Times, June 2002): A lot of the darkness and anger you hear in our early music came from trying to be creative in this country during the ‘80s. We’d had a National government for some time and they were squeezing the artistic life out of the country. It was a horrible place to be if you were trying to be a musician. It was a desolate cultural landscape in some ways, and our music reflected that.

Russell Brown: I think they had a great songwriter in Chris. With Headless Chickens I think he got out of his own head a bit. A lot of Children’s Hour songs were about his dark thoughts. They were really good songs, but all of a sudden you had songs about characters and places. It’s in some respects a record of that era in Auckland.

The one that really blew me away was getting the ‘Expecting To Fly’ 12″ in the mail and putting it on and going, what! this is a dance record! The opening is two field samples that Michael Lawry did. One is a rusty old swing at the playground and the other one is a psychiatric patient who was under the care of a mutual friend Michael Scott called Willie the Whoop. He was quite a big guy and he would just yell. So that’s him at the beginning of the record. No one was doing that kind of thing at that point.

Michael Lawry: The flower man is also in ‘Do The Headless Chicken’.

Russell Brown: There was a disabled guy who used to sit on Queen Street and sell flowers. Hey lady, do you want to buy a flower? The story behind him was he was also a poet. He was sort of a mess that people would complain about on the street but then he would go up to the Globe and do his poetry sometimes.

Michael Lawry: He could actually be quite nasty to women and quite sexist. I tried to get him to do a bFM ad once but he just wouldn’t do it. He told me to fuck off. I don’t know what happened to him.

It probably came from the whole Musique concrète stuff and experimental music, but like embedding samples or sounds from New Zealand and our culture. At that stage, in the ‘80s, there was still a big thing about being influenced by American and UK bands. Obviously, we couldn’t avoid that, but I was always very conscious of trying to make sure we made music from where we came from.

Fiona McDonald: I was already a massive fan by the time Stunt Clown came out and was living in Sydney at the time managing a small record store at Bondi Junction. Stunt Clown was ‘Record of the Week’ for about six months and got a daily thrashing on the turntable. I’m not quite sure what the rest of the shops in the mall thought, but I was perfectly happy.

Graeme Humphreys: They’re all stunning people. Bevan Sweeney is one of the most articulate drummers you could ever run across. I worked a lot with him. I think it was Chris Matthews’ vision, it has to be said. I don’t want to diminish how much everyone else brought to the band because man, they were pretty bloody flash too. They were so good.


“One of the all-time great human beings”

Doug Hood: Grant was a very dear buddy. I went to his funeral and it was like my whole life flashed in front of me. It was very sad.

Russell Brown: The great thing about Grant, as I said in the eulogy, was that he had these ideas and he saw them through, and he drew everyone else in.

Graeme Humphreys: Grant was tough, he was a fixer, he was a proper grown up.

Michael Lawry: He was a really driven person. He was definitely motivated by doing something cool and creative. He never did anything for the business/money side of things. He wanted to do stuff that he thought was creative and fun and interesting. That made him quite unique, in some respects. Usually people will get into music for awhile but eventually, they’ll go, ‘Well, I’ve done this for 10 years but I really wouldn’t mind having money and having a car and a house’. He carried on.

Bevan Sweeney: There’s a breed of human being that you meet once in your life if you’re lucky. We came from vastly different backgrounds. We formed a bond very quickly. Grant was just a ball of energy. He could get things done really fast. I’ve never met anyone who could drive in a city once and when he came back the next time, know exactly where he was going. He never ever got lost. It was uncanny.

Jude Anaru: My best memory of Grant is him giving me an incredible bunch of flowers when my father died. Other than that, his understated organisational strength and bass player’s sway on stage. Of course, he was many, many other things too. Sad, sad, sad.

Chris Matthews: It’s pretty obvious from the recordings we made what an exceptional musician he was. Plus, he was our mate and he was one of the all-time great human beings. Which is important when you’re in a band with someone.

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