Headless Chickens – Stunt Clown (Flying Nun)

Headless Chickens debut album, Stunt Clown, was no doubt quite a departure, possibly a risk, for Flying Nun Records when they released it in 1988. Now, 33 years later, it looks like quite the inspired move.

Full disclosure: I moved to New Zealand in 1994 and at that time had never heard of Headless Chickens. Of course it wasn’t long before I experienced the joys of George and Cruise Control and even saw them at The Big Day Out in 1995. But by then they were a very different band than what we have here on Stunt Clown.

And let’s face it, a huge part of buying a reissue is the nostalgia element…remembering where you were and who you were with when you first heard a band or an album.

So, with no real sense of nostalgia to draw on, or fall back on, I must approach this reissue purely on its musical merits.

Fortunately, there are many.

For those, like myself, who were unaware (or unborn) when Stunt Clown first appeared, here’s a bit of background courtesy of Mr. Google and sites such as Audioculture (https://www.audioculture.co.nz/).

The core members of the band (Chris Matthews, Johnny Pierce and Michael Lawry) rose from the ashes of Children’s Hour, by way of This Kind Of Punishement…already the history is complicated!

Headless ChickensBy 1986, the line-up had gelled to look like: Chris Matthews (vocals/guitars), Michael Lawry (synths/guitars), Grant Fell (bass) and Bevan Sweeney (drums). Sadly, original bassist Johnny Pierce had died by suicide and Rupert E. Taylor was in (partially) as second vocalist.

The band won the Rheineck Rock Award in 1987,signed to Flying Nun, and spent their $30,000 prize money (and more) to record Stunt Clown.

So, that’s the backstory.

Dropping the needle onto the record… first track, Expecting To Fly, reveals a sound that is Bowie-inspired (Scary Monsters era), angular and noisy.

“Your happy day is here again”, Matthews sings, unconvincingly and the sound is, not timeless, but otherworldly.

This is followed by Soul Catcher, featuring a strong, ominous bass line from Fell and a touch of that classic Flying Nun jangle…but not enough to bother the charts. Both tracks were released as singles but the only chart appearance was the album charts (#18).

Perhaps the most startling tune is Do The Headless Chicken. From the title, one might expect an up-tempo party number, but it is anything but.

The lyrics are dark: “The Summer Of Love is well and truly over…get a job, buy a car, eat shit”, intones Matthews. And the music, infused with rather adventurous use of samples is equally forbidding. Having said that, this song is the album’s closest to a “hit”, eventually being covered by Shihad.

Fish Song (written by Rupert) closes side one on a slightly lighter note.

Side two starts strong with Donka, an urgent track full of heavy drum and percussion samples and is followed by Run, Sheep, Run, an incessant, cynical rocker.

White Out sounds as advertised…”winter came early this year” as the cold synths make their point. File under “uneasy listening”.

The album starts to lose its way with Untitled and especially Cyclic, which sounds downright bombastic…finally finishing with the disconcerting and discordant Star At Night.

By 1990, Fiona McDonald had joined the band (along with a few other changes, including a brief appearance by Angus McNaughton, who remastered this reissue.

Commercial success came in the form of Cruise Control and George and the band finally came to rest after third album, Greedy (1997).

Since then, there have been reunions, reissues, awards and deaths (Grant Fell passed in 2018).

For those, like me, who wonder where it all started,  and what it sounded like, Stunt Clown is back on the record shelves.

Marty Duda

Click here to purchase Stunt Clown