Their story begins in Auckland in 1983, when Johnny Pierce (bass), Grant Fell (guitar) and Bevan Sweeney (drums) hooked up with a Westie kid called Chris Matthews (vocals, guitar) to form the dark, roaring Children's Hour.
After a single and an EP on Flying Nun and several national tours, Children's Hour broke up in 1985. Fell went to Australia and Pierce and Matthews began to move away from the thunderous sound of Children's Hour (and the pubs where they'd played) to work with the Jefferies brothers Peter and Graeme as This Kind of Punishment.
That TKP line-up recorded the spare, experimental EP 5 By Four before Matthews and Pierce began working with Michael Lawry, whose focus was on found sounds and early sampling techniques. They practised in a disused charm school in the rundown arcade that housed His Majesty's Theatre and debuted as International Headless Chickens at the Maidment Theatre, as part of a multimedia performance event called The Nitpicker's Picnic. They were a long way from the pubs now.
There followed a self-titled mini-album, recorded at 95bFM (where Lawry was fulfilling a Community Service sentence), that still sounds as strange, unexpected and full of dark humour now as it did then.
Then, in August 1986, Pierce took his own life. His death shook the close community of which he was part and left the Headless Chickens without their bass player and marshaling force (he had always been the "Minister of Finance" in his bands). Fell, just back from Australia, picked up both roles and was henceforth effectively the band's manager. Not long after, the willowy Rupert E. Taylor, formerly of Bird Nest Roys, arrived as a second vocalist and Sweeney joined his former Children's Hour bandmates on drums.
1987 brought an event that was both a blessing and a curse. The Headless Chickens won the Rheineck Rock Award, an artist development prize its sponsors had expected to go to someone a little more mainstream.
This was the sound of a band alert to the world of drum machines and samplers.
The band didn't enjoy the subsequent controversy over the judges' choice (they would later have the satisfaction of silencing their critics in the commercial radio business) but the prize money funded the sprawling Stunt Clown album – or partly so. The recording ran $7000 over its $30,000 budget and, frustratingly, the band was unable to tap into the $30,000 part of the prize earmarked for a promotional campaign for a subsequent national tour.
If the award sometimes seemed like more grief than it was worth, the album's opening track 'Expecting to Fly' purposefully signalled the band's direction. Flying Nun's early ethos had been about the purity of guitars and melody: this was the sound of a band alert to the world of drum machines and samplers. With its clattering rhythm and Matthews' anxious riff, it was a dance tune – if a weird one. Appropriately, it was released as a 12-inch single.
In 1990 'Gaskrankinstation' became the band's first chart single, reaching No.28 with the help of a striking video that underlined the group's links to the wider arts community. The song is the epitome of Matthews' ability to draw characters within his songs – in the clip, the band's actor friend Peter Tait doesn't so much sing the song as perform the role of the loser service station attendant. (The year before, Tait had appeared in Alison Maclean's creepy short film Kitchen Sink, whose soundtrack was produced by the Headless Chickens.)
By this point, Taylor had left and another old friend, Anthony Nevison, had returned from his OE to join the band on guitar. They wrote songs for a followup album, including one with a loping bassline and a simple, memorable, keyboard motif.
Matthews performed vocals on the song live, but singer Fiona McDonald was asked to sing the chorus at recording sessions late in 1990. Her keening voice, an entirely new sound in the Chickens' arsenal, proved to be the final element of a New Zealand pop classic 'Cruise Control'.
It became the lead single from 1991's Body Blow album, whose conception was quite different to that Stunt Clown. Mushroom Records, which had taken a stake in Flying Nun, offered to bankroll recording time in a Sydney studio, but the band chose instead to work at Incubator, a new inner-city studio set up by Nevison and de facto band members Rex Visible and Angus McNaughton.
In 1994, the arch single 'George' became the first No.1 hit not only for the band, but for Flying Nun.
The album took the band to a new level – the art-trio of yore could now easily fill The Gluepot and tour Australia (where a remix of 'Cruise Control' reached No.26). Nevison's ribald 'Donde Esta La Pollo' went to No.4 in the local charts, two places better than 'Cruise Control'. 'Juice', McDonald's wistful song about watching weekend morning pop shows was twinned with the raucous 'Choppers' and reached No.7.
The band's identity continued to be formed not only by their own work, but by the work of those around them. They took the young rap duo MC OJ and Rhythm Slave on tours, and the designers, photographers, DJs and filmmakers they worked with were all friends.
In 1994, the arch single 'George' became the first No.1 hit not only for the band, but for Flying Nun. But the financial returns didn't match the effort expended and, after a tour to Britain, the Body Blow line-up drifted apart.
The group's last major incarnation coalesced around the third album Greedy (1997): Matthews, McNaughton, Bevan Larsen, Flex, Rachel Wallace and a chap known to the ages only as Roger. 'Magnet', 'Smoking Big Ted' and 'Secondtime Virgin' – as ever, simultaneously pitch black and catchy – came from this era.
There were slight returns in 2002, when the best album ChickensHits was released, along with a bonus disc of remixes and in 2008, when the Body Blow-era band agreed to reform to play Australia's Homebake Festival and a handful of other shows. But they all had other lives to get back to.
Had they emerged somewhere else, Headless Chickens might have sounded more conventional, or fitted more neatly into a single genre – indeed, the difficulty in pigeonholing them probably made life harder for them and their record labels. But their blend of art, dance and rock, of bleak sentiment and airy pop, made them what they were. Which was not quite like anyone else.
The impact of Headless Chickens lasted long after the band's popular success in the 1990s, as the reaction to the death of bassist Grant Fell in January 2018 emphasised. Three months later, the 1988 album Stunt Clown received the Classic Record Award at the presentation of the year's Taite Music Prize. The album was recorded with the money when the band won the Rheineck Rock Award, 30 years earlier.
Chris Matthews - vocals, guitar, keyboards
Michael Lawry - keyboards, effects
Bevan Sweeney - drums
Fiona McDonald - vocals
Rupert E. Taylor - vocals
Rex Visable - effects
Johnny Pierce - bass
Anthony Nevison - guitar
Angus McNaughton - programming
Cruise Control includes vocal samples from The Crocodiles' Tears and Shona Laing's 1905.
The stilt walkers who loom in the video for Gaskrankinstation are Bevan Sweeney and his colleagues from a stilt ensemble formed as part of a summer arts work scheme.
The sounds sampled at the beginning of Expecting to Fly are the cry of a psychiatric patient called Willie the Whoop and the squeak of an old playground swing.