Chris Matthews at The Gluepot 1987 / Original photo by Jonathan Ganley
Chris Matthews had been the singer, songwriter and guitarist with Children’s Hour until they disbanded in August 1984. They had become sick of the increasingly dark, noisy corner they had painted themselves into. Chris had then involved himself with his flatmates recording activities. Ex-Nocturnal Projections creative mainstays, Peter and Graeme Jefferies, were making remarkable records as This Kind of Punishment. Using methodical but unorthodox recording techniques, they captured the extraordinary music they were collectively creating. Chris was there contributing to these projects and learning at the same time. Soon enough, the This Kind of Punishment experiment came to an end, and the brothers decamped south.
Chris had met Michael Lawry the previous year when Michael lent some recording gear to the band for the making of the 5 by Four EP. 5 by Four was the third This Kind of Punishment record, the one unlike the others in that it was recorded very quickly. Ex-Children’s Hour bass player Johnny Pierce had a role in that recording as an encouraging enabler rather than a player.
Michael Lawry / Photo by Jonathan Ganley
Michael Lawry was from Wellington and had played in various punk bands, including The Normal with Graeme Hood — Doug Hood’s cousin and future member of Australian comedic country punk band The Johnny’s. The Normal were Wellington's first punk band; some say they were the first in New Zealand. Michael had moved to Auckland in 1979 and played in the S.O.B.s (Sons of Bitches) with Hamish Kilgour (The Clean), Peter Mesmer and Gary Hunt
(The Terrorways). Michael wasn’t into songs; he was into sounds and how they were made, how they could be manipulated and how to record them. He liked found sounds and strange sounds and how they could be used in music.
Chris and Johnny Pierce were trying to make more technically challenging music by themselves in early 1985. But the technically experimental nature of their work always had them aspiring beyond their actual abilities, so Michael Lawry joined them in March 1985 to form Headless Chickens. The initial idea of the experiment was to create interesting music with no intention of releasing it in record form. Which is just as well — as it was taking time to get on top of the technology, to get the sounds and to be able to record what they could hear in their heads. What Chris did know was that they were on their way towards making unique and original music in the way that the Alms for Children, Skeptics and The Gordons did. He realised he hadn’t felt that way with Children’s Hour, who had cobbled together various influences to make their sound.
Headless Chickens was a band that used a lot of technology and guitars but not drums. They quickly found there was deep dislike and distrust of music-making technology. When they did play live, they found parts of the audience were incredulous that there was a tape machine placed on the drum riser playing rhythm loops instead of a human drummer. They were ahead of their time.
The Headless Chickens performed only occasionally as they wanted every each event to be special. Their debut was at the memorable Nitpickers Picnic, a multi-media event held at Auckland University Maidment Theatre in July 1985. Nitpickers Picnic was put together with a small Arts Council grant and built on the back of Johnny Pierces Social Welfare Scheme “People in Parks” experience and his arts entrepreneur bent. Johnny’s enthusiasm was matched by Arthole Promotions, which was the three Headless Chickens (Chris, Michael and Johnny) and stage designer Jackie Dwyer.
A lot happened on each of the two nights of the Nitpickers Picnic. Māori dance group Te Kani Kani o Te Rangatahi - who later became Tāmaki Makaurau - performed, as well as David Clarkson, the Von Tran Sisters, Maxine Fleming and Andrea Fleming. This Kind of Punishment performed with the Jefferies brothers, Chris Matthews and Johnny Pierce line up. There were projections of films and slides by Brian Wills and Grant Fell. The Headless Chickens played songs to be released later: ‘Trigger’, ’The Slice’ and ‘Monkey Jar’. Chris Knox presented a couple of vocal performances before joining This Kind of Punishment and Headless Chickens for a cover version of the Velvet Underground’s 'Sister Ray'. This was to be the last This Kind of Punishment gig, and it was Headless Chickens' first.
This Kind Of Punishment at the Nitpickers' Picnic (L-R): Johnny Pierce, Chris Matthews, Peter Jefferies, Graham Jefferies / RIP IT UP, ISSUE 97, 1 AUGUST 1985, PAGE 34
Headless Chickens had ‘Trigger’ included on the 1986 95bFM fundraising compilation album Outnumbered by Sheep. Michael Lawry was now working in the 95bFM studio, making ads, carrying out other studio duties and using his free time manipulating and recording noises and sounds. The Headless Chickens were determined not to revisit the musical style of Children’s Hour or how they had made music. The way forward was based on the exciting new ways of music This Kind of Punishment had opened up and the sound creation and manipulation of Michael Lawry.
Johnny Pierce tragically took his own life in August 1986. Close friends and family were devastated, and everyone in the wider Flying Nun community was saddened by the news. Johnny was an able and well-liked musician who was an integral part of the independent music community in Auckland.
Chris Matthews and Michael Lawry decided to push on with the Headless Chickens project, now energised by the need to remember and honour their now-dead friend. What would become the self-titled Headless Chickens album was mixed and produced by Headless Chickens and Mark Tierney, mainly at the 95bFM studios between September 1985 and June 1996. The album was released later, in 1986. It sounded unlike anything ever before release. Full of distorted and twisted sounds crammed into song form. Primitive drum machines juxtaposed with Chris Matthews treated vocals and electric guitar. Nine songs, all different, all dense with invention and ambitious vitality. And a little dark but not all like the ferocious volume and nihilism of Children’s Hour. This was new and open-ended.
Headless Chickens - Headless Chickens Back Cover
For the impressive array of technology on the record, Chris was still a singer singing songs. Each of the nine songs on the album is about something specific, has its own structure and is distinct from the other songs. The standouts ‘Money Jar’, ‘The Slice’, ‘Totalling Dad’s Car’ and ‘Agitpop’ are all different in pace, structure and sound. A Johnny Pierce song, ‘The Axe’ is included. The technology at their disposal had helped to give each song a different unique flavour
The front cover is a black and white woodcut design by Jackie Dwyer, who set-designed the Nitpickers Picnic. The black-on-black lettering on the front cover is embossed. The expensively lavish packaging was extended to the record labels, which were of a complete colour design by the band. No Flying Nun record packaging had ever been so expensive. Luckily it proved to be more than a vital release of creatively challenging music; it sold very well.
The Headless Chickens - Out Now on Flying Nun poster
In another critical development, Children’s Hour members, guitarist Grant Fell and Bevan Sweeny on bass and guitar joined along with Rupert E. Taylor (Bird Nest Roys) on backing vocals. The band was now becoming a regular live act around Auckland venues, usually as a part of something special involving like-minded bands or get-togethers with groups from the Flying Nun family of bands. Already at this early stage of their live development, they were cranking up the intensity and the volume with a blend of new technologies and rock ‘n’ roll instruments.
After a number of delays caused by inferior cuttings and pressings at the EMI pressing plant, there was a great deal of excitement around the release of the album. At first, that interest was centred on Auckland by those in the know, but it soon radiated beyond their home town and demand built nationally, and it was recognised as something vital and new sounding to New Zealand. However, there were reservations amongst the conservative traditionalists in Dunedin about machine-made music. It was a meaningful mish-mash of new technology and rock ‘n’ roll to create a completely fresh sound. Other bands, like the Skeptics, were inspired to develop their sound further while others were encouraged to start mucking around with both electronic and traditional gear and simply make music. Conscious of what they were rejecting and knowingly embracing new music-making methods and sound, the band had created a watershed moment. The future had arrived.
Thank you to Chris Matthews for additional information and clarifications.